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Eleanor Roosevelt Volume One, 1884-1933
By Blanche Wiesen Cook
Penguin Books Copyright © 1993 Blanche Wiesen Cook
All right reserved.
Becoming First Lady
* * *
After the election of November 1932, ER worried that her talents would not be used; that she would become a shut-in, a congenial hostess in the political shadows politically sidelined. In the months before FDR's inauguration on 4 March 1933, newspaper headlines broadcast the victories of fascism and tyranny in Europe and Asia as well as the intensifying agonies of America's worst economic depression. In that bitter climate, ER faced her return to Washington with a burst of activity that defied her sense of dread. Officially limited to social tasks, she felt at first burdened and defiant. Her great friend Lorena Hickok was so impressed by ER's initial distress that she titled her subsequent biography Eleanor Roosevelt: Reluctant First Lady.
ER wanted above all to be a player on the political team that worked to match FDR's campaign promises with significant deeds. To counter her fear that she would instead be forced into a life of political confinement somewhere in the shadows, a prisoner to the presidency, she plunged into the political fray. With the women activists of the Democratic Party, ER spent hours preparing lists of notable candidates for every level of government work. She wrote columns, stunned radio audiences, created endless controversy. The First Lady-elect was in the news almost every dayupsetting the complacent, encouraging people to imagine new liberal efforts to confront the Depression, which since October 1929 had plunged fifteen million unemployed and destitute Americans into despair.
It had been twelve years since ER's last sojourn in Washington, that small ungenerous town that had been for her filled with ragged memories. There as a child when her Uncle Theodore was president she had felt shy, lonely, outcast. There as a young matron when her husband was Woodrow Wilson's assistant secretary of the navy, she had felt humiliated, isolated. Betrayed by her husband's affair with Lucy Mercer, her friend and social secretary, she had suffered the loneliest time of her adult life.
She returned to that place that fed on gossip and power, a changed woman. Surrounded by loyal friends, she was devoted to her work, and felt secure in her life. During the 1920s, the Roosevelts had reconsecrated their partnership and created their own political bases. FDR refortified his polio-ravaged body, and ER repaired her heart; they both moved beyond the affair that had threatened their marriage.
While Eleanor and Franklin rebuilt their private lives, the world they had grown up in, the world they knew, disintegrated. The punitive Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I and redrew the map of Europe, in addition to war debts and dizzying inflation, inflamed German nationalism and spurred popular movements dedicated to the demise of old ruling classes. Fascism and communism took hold as monarchies dissolved, empires collapsed, capitalism wobbled. While uncollected political and economic debts left over from the World War haunted and poisoned international relations, the wounds of Eleanor Roosevelt's earlier time in Washington marked her memories, and influenced her path.
After 1920, ER had carefully crafted a life that suited her needs. Like her Uncle Theodore, she was an activistdelighted to be on the move, among people, dealing directly with causes and crises. Never idle, she enjoyed many careers and was all in a day teacher, editor, columnist, and radio commentator. Her primary circle included her business and living partners Nancy Cook, Marion Dickerman, and Caroline O'Day. With Cook and Dickerman, ER shared a home two miles from the "big house" at Hyde Park along a small river called the Val-Kill. With O'Day, they co-owned the Todhunter School, the Val-Kill crafts factory, and the Women's Democratic News (WDN), a monthly newsletter.
ER had resigned as editor and taken her name off the masthead as one of the four publishers when FDR was elected governor of New York in November 1928, but she had continued to write its unsigned editorials and attend policy meetings.
In February 1933, ER publicly returned to the WDN with a monthly column called "Passing Thoughts of Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt." She was to replace Elisabeth Marbury, who had regularly reported from Washington and had died suddenly of a heart attack on 22 January at the age of seventy-seven. Eager to be back in print for attribution, ER's first column was in part a tribute to Marbury, a Democratic Party stalwart and worldly raconteur.
Also in this first column, ER promised to provide "some pictures of the various activities that I imagine fall to the lot of every President's wife," and announced that she was free to disagreeeven with her husband.
Like the country and his closest advisers, ER did not know actually what FDR intended to do as president. His priorities were unclear, since he had campaigned as both ardent liberal and fiscal conservative: He would balance the budget, and decrease taxes. Now, ER stated her own liberal goals for the administration: She disapproved of lowering taxes in the face of so many urgent social needs and wanted relief policies extended to provide work and new training for the unemployed.
In both her February column and her unsigned editorial, she emphasized the need for more public spending. She lamented recent talk about curtailing "some of these services." More services were needed, and "we will have to pay for [them] through taxes and our people might just as well face this fact...."
Her views did not coincide with FDR's initial strategy, and he demanded space in the March issue to answer his wife and defend his first legislative acts. Between his mother and his wife, FDR was accustomed to outspoken opinionated women. But he did expect public unity on politically volatile issues. In the future ER would try to be more circumspect; this would be his only editorial rejoinder.
ER's views on international matters also departed from FDR's strategy. She deplored America's "isolationist" policies and considered economic nationalism dangerous. She wanted the United States to forgive the entire international debt, in order to end the worldwide depression and the rising tide of bitterness that threatened world peace. Her internationalism had become increasingly unpopular among politicians. ER worked most closely on these issues with her first feminist friends, Esther Lape and Elizabeth Read, who, through the American Foundation, campaigned for the World Court and now also promoted U.S. recognition of the Soviet Union.
ERs intimate circle also included Molly Dewson, who directed the Women's Committee of the Democratic Party; Earl Miller, her personal squire and champion; Louis Howe, the only close friend the Roosevelts shared; and Malvina (Tommy) Thompson, her hardworking secretary and personal assistant.
Born in the Bronx to an Irish mother and English father, Malvina Thompson was ER's mainstay from the time she spotted her in a Red Cross secretarial pool in 1917. She worked on every campaign after 1920, and became ER's personal secretary and administrator. Entirely loyal to ER, she was efficient, protective, and open-hearted. Tommy smoked cigarettes from morning to night, drank Scotch at day's end, and saw something funny in almost every situation. ER relied on her quick-witted support, and her fabulous sense of humor. Tommy's robust and hearty laugh lit up many tense situations, and she had a good time wherever she went.
Then, in 1932, Lorena (Hick) Hickok, a leading political reporter, was assigned by the Associated Press to cover ER during the campaign. Their friendship now eclipsed all others.
With her activist team ER contemplated the traditional fate of a First Lady. She was expected to give up her own life and stand by her man, affirming and silent.
She could not do it. Unlike her predecessors, ER claimed her right to a public role. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas 1932, she boldly broadcast her conviction that the tragic economic conditions which prevailed were due to the "blindness of a few people who perhaps do not really understand that, after all, the prosperity of the few is on a firmer foundation when it spreads to the many." She believed that everybody would soon realize there were only man-made reasons for so much deprivation in a land of overproduction. And now, because of her husband's election, she sensed a new spirit of giving all around her, and she hailed the renewed impulse toward generosity. "We are going through a time when I believe we may have, if we will, a new social and economic order."
Nevertheless, she was required by custom to give up her most public activities. She even resigned from the Todhunter School, although she loved teaching "best of all." She also agreed to end her radio broadcasts, with the hope that she might resume them.
On 3 March 1933, the eve of FDR's inauguration, she gave her last commercially sponsored broadcast in a series that had become increasingly controversial. On one occasion, she ignored prohibition and counseled women on moderate alcohol consumption. The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and church groups attacked her as America's primary "Jezebel".
ER ended her last broadcast with a plea to her radio audience for their continued correspondence:
The one great danger for a man in public life or for the woman who is that man's wife, is that they may be set apart from the stream of life affecting the rest of the country. It is easy in Washington to think that Washington is the country and forget that it is a small place and only becomes important as the people who live there truly represent the other parts of the country.
I hope that my friends will feel as much my friends as they have always felt, and as free to talk to me and to tell me what they think as ever, and I want to know the whole country, not a little part of it.
* * *
FDR's election had imparted a vast sense of hope to a devastated nation, ER shared that sense of hope, and wanted to support him and be available to his needs.
For the inauguration, for example, ER initially announced that she intended to drive her own blue Buick convertible from New York to Washington, with her two dogs. But FDR had invited a party of cabinet members and special friends as his guests on the train, and ER told reporters that he wanted her with him, "'so my place is there as hostess.'"
ER did not mention that she also planned to drive down with Lorena Hickok. According to Raymond Moley, then virtual leader of FDR's Brains Trust, she changed her mind after an emotional family drama. When ER announced that she "would load her roadster with belongings and drive down with a woman friend," FDR was stunned: It was the only time Moley heard him complain about his wife's independence; on this one occasion FDR wanted the entire family together.
ER consented. But then, early inauguration morning, she and Hick made a pilgrimage to the famous statue Henry Adams had erected to the memory of his wife, Clover. There, during ER's earlier years of solitude and sadness, she found strength in that holly grove while Washington gossiped about her gamboling husband and his well-known affair. Now she decided to begin her tenure as First Lady by meditating with her First Friend in the holly grove in Rock Creek Cemetery. As they sat in silence, Hick pondered ER's mood, and the power of Augustus Saint-Gaudens' statue, known as Grief:.
As I looked at it I felt that all the sorrow humanity had ever had to endure was expressed in that face.... Yet in that expression there was something almost triumphant. There was a woman who had experienced every kind of pain, every kind of suffering ... and had come out of it sereneand compassionate....
FDR's train party included his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt; sons Elliott and James, with their wives, Betty Donner and Betsey Cushing; their two younger sons, Franklin and John, students at Groton; cabinet designates, Brains Trusters, Democratic stalwarts, and various intimates including Louis Howe, Marvin McIntyre, Missy LeHand, Grace Tully, Basil O'Connor, Henry and Elinor Morgenthau, and Dorothy and Samuel Rosenman.
While daughter Anna was already in Washington making arrangements, ER's train party included Lorena Hickok, Earl Miller, Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, and ERs longtime ally Agnes Brown Leach and her husband, Forum publisher Henry Goddard Leach.
Also aboard that special train was ERs new wardrobe, which she had collected during a shopping spree with Anna the week before. She replaced the schoolmarm look of the Albany years with a new stylish elegance, appropriate to Washington's social demands. For her inaugural gown she chose a hyacinth shade the press called "Eleanor Blue," and for her wrap a new shade of blue named "Anna Blue" (in compliment to her daughter). Both gown and wrap were of crystelle velvet, made by Arnold Constable. A "symphony in blue," ER's hat, "a Watteau type of crystal straw," in Anna Blue was covered with banded grosgrain ribbon "forming a small wing in the back," tilting down in the front. She carried a "large envelope bag" of Anna Blue antelope kid and wore white glacé kid gloves, "the smart eight-button length."
The press complimented ER's "elegant dignity" and the fact that her outfits were designed and made entirely in the United States, "so far as known." Her evening gowns especially were "of great beauty." For "very formal dinners," she ordered a gown of "misty blue satin, a new Lanvin shade," from Le Mouchoir of Madison Avenue, who described the effect as "regal." "The waist is draped in front. The back décolleté forms a deep V...." Le Mouchoir also created daytime ensembles of various blues and "a rough tweed coat suit of mixed brown, beige and blue." Four hats to accompany the daytime costumes were made by Mme. Lilly Dache, also of Madison Avenue, and nine dresses were ordered from Milgrim's, including a "misty blue and silver brocade" gown with long sleeves and high neck that could be used for formal late-afternoon and evening affairs. In the evening the sleeves could be removed and the back unfastened to render it décolleté; unclipped "it falls in two wide revers, revealing a deep V...."
ER was pleased by most of the initial press coverage: "Tall, slim and girlish, in a dark blue ensemble and hat ... the next First Lady looked more nearly like an elder sister than the mother of Mrs. Curtis Dall, her daughter [Anna]...."
Only Hick, whose campaign articles on ER had emphasized her routine thrift, her plain $5 and $10 street dresses bought off racks and on the run, seemed disturbed. She protested in a letter that ER had spent an unseemly amount of money on lavish and extravagant display, given America's grave fiscal situation. But ER believed that it was good for the economy to buy as much as possible and give work to many people.
While the press reported every detail of each outfit, ER referred to her buying spree in one sentence at the end of a long political letter to FDR: "I got a lot of clothes for myself & Anna in one afternoon last week as I imagine it is better to have plenty & not buy any new ones for quite a while!"
The point of her letter was an urgent appeal to FDR:
Henry Morgenthau came to see me the other day & told me he felt he could serve really well only as Sec of Ag. & all the big farm organizations were for him. He had done well on all of your missions, he had made your ag policy in this State a success & got the men who were helpful on your ag speeches. He did not feel he could be Asst. Sec. because he had been so near you he could not be under a chief & loyally work THROUGH him. He does not think [Henry] Wallace will be easy for you to manage or others to get on with and he is no administrator. He won't say he won't take ... anything else but he does not feel he could serve you as well & he wants you to talk it over with him before you settle on Wallace. Please at least talk to him.I have transmitted my message!
FDR appointed Wallace to Agriculture. ER was disappointed, as was Louis Howe. For decades Howe had been FDR's main adviser, closest friend, political confidant. But the presidency changed everything. Although Louis Howe remained first secretary, his influence was now rivalled by the young Columbia University professors around FDR, the new Brains Trust boys Howe despised.
Ray Moley, Rexford Guy Tugwell, and A. A. Berle were part of a new political landscape marked by intrigue and jealousy, stealth and duplicity. FDR enjoyed the political mix, the harrowing juggling that left everybody uncertain. It caused ER and Howe to forge an even tighter alliance. Regarded as outsiders among FDR's new insiders, they increasingly relied on each other.
ER and Howe ended each day with a drive and a meeting. They collaborated on big projects, and negotiated petty grievances. Howe was ER's greatest ally, and during the first administration, ER and Louis Howe were FDR's most honest and critical friends. With his health failing, no longer FDR's unchallenged lieutenant, Howe increasingly turned to ER for solace, support, and company. Together, they were a formidable team.
FDR's decision on Morgenthau intensified ERs efforts. With Louis Howe and Molly Dewson, she struggled for influence over FDR's appointments, and it was due to their insistence that he became the first president to appoint a woman to the cabinet: Frances Perkins as secretary of labor.
ER was pleased to learn that her old school chums rallied behind her. They were not only delighted by her "lovely" new costumes, but they supported her goals. One of her six bridesmaids, Helen Cutting Wilmerding, a cousin and former Roser classmate, wrote with enthusiasm: "All the old tribe we grew up with in New York have turned towards you like sun flowers." ER was grateful for that information, "for I felt the old crowd might disapprove of many things which I did." And she was determined to challenge the women of her own class and culture. She asked Junior Leaguers, for example, to consider what they themselves might do, might contribute, might actually give up in order to make life better for those rendered homeless or impoverished during the Depression. She even suggested they convert space in their many-roomed apartments or country houses to provide temporary shelter for homeless families in distress. Privileged women and men, she repeatedly emphasized before the inauguration, had special obligations during these hard times: "Sooner or later we are going to realize that what touches one part of the human race touches all parts. Thus we are going to have to learn that the few must sacrifice for the good of the many if we are to preserve our present civilization."
The White House itself would be open to all her extended circle, even when they came to carp. ER's most violent detractors, including her increasingly reactionary cousins Alice Roosevelt Longworth and Corinne Robinson Alsop (mother of columnists Joseph and Stuart Alsop) were invited whenever they chose to attend. Despite nasty imitations of ER, Cousin Alice was not barred from White House functions until she publicly announced in 1940 that she would rather vote for Adolf Hitler than for her crippled cousin one more time.
As ER prepared herself for the Washington fray, she carefully considered and often repeated the dreary details of the lives of Washington wives, and her husband understood her discontent. Indeed, FDR's fiftieth birthday on 30 January 1933 was celebrated by a surprise party at Hyde Park orchestrated by ER and Louis Howe. It was a well-planned and hilarious affair; every guest played a role to evoke an event in Franklin's life. In the end, he responded with rhymes for all present. Regarding his wife, FDR recited:
Did my Eleanor relate
All the sad and awful fate
Of the miserable lives
Lived by politicians' wives?
ER derived little comfort from the examples of the First Ladies who preceded her. In her Uncle TR's Washington, she had met Ida Saxton McKinley, and she knew all her twentieth-century forebears. They all seemed to her hardworking earnest women whose lives were limited by invalidism, neurasthenia, depression. Many of ER's predecessors took to their beds, broken down by their efforts to cope with unending publicity, criticism, their husbands' wrath or neglect, the demanding but ill-appreciated responsibilities of political wifery.
Athletic, wealthy, and brilliant, Ida Saxton McKinley was raised by her father to take over his financial interests and run his bank. When she married attorney William McKinley, she was politically ambitious and extravagantly social. But during her husband's first years in Congress, which coincided with the sudden deaths of her mother and two daughters, Ida McKinley plunged into a mysterious invalidism that resembled epilepsy. She became pale and fragile. Grotesquely overwhelmed by her flamboyantly feathered and bejeweled costumes, she seemed bundled in satin swaddling offset by oversized diamonds. Generally carried to state dinners, she was confined to a wheelchair and propped high by overstuffed pillows. Her fainting spells and seizures were sudden and unpredictable. Whenever one occurred at table her husband simply placed a napkin upon her face until it subsided, whereupon she would remove it and continue the conversation as if nothing had happened.
Argumentative and bad tempered, Ida McKinley was called "the most demanding" invalid wife in political history. To "cure" her headaches and quiet her manner, she was dosed with "barbiturates, bromide sedatives, laudanum, and other powerful narcotics." She embarrassed her husband's friends, and they considered him a marvel of devotion: the "saint" of domesticity.
But when McKinley was assassinated in September 1901, she arranged his funeral and her return to private life without assistance. Upon her arrival home, Ida McKinley's era of total dependence mysteriously ended. Until her own death on 26 May 1907 she never had another seizure.
Although Ida McKinley's style was unique, even the women ER most admired seemed to suffer in the White House.
Helen (Nellie) Herron Taft trained as a teacher and thoroughly enjoyed politics. She was a daughter and granddaughter of congressmen, and many believed she badgered her reluctant husband to run for president and advised him on all appointments and issues. Most visibly her husband's partner, she was outspoken, progressive, creative. She was the skilled diplomat who arranged Japan's gift of three thousand cherry trees to adorn Potomac Drive and the Tidal Basin. But in May 1909, less than three months after Taft assumed office, she suffered a stroke that temporarily paralyzed her and left her speech permanently impaired.
ER was particularly informed and impressed by Ellen Axson Wilson, Woodrow Wilson's first wife. A career artist who continued to paint, she was widely recognized as a "Great and Good Lady." Renowned as an American Impressionist and associated with art communities in Old Lyme, Connecticut, and Cornish, New Hampshire, Ellen Axson Wilson participated in competitive exhibits and sold her paintings.
When her Cornish circle, which included Maxwell Parrish, met at her summer home in 1913 to consider the kind of national support for the arts France enjoyed, they imagined an official government bureau to encourage artists, award prizes, purchase works. Ellen Wilson replied that the congressmen who would endorse that view were "not yet born."
Ellen Wilson's efforts to build decent housing and abolish Washington's "alley slums" particularly captured ER's imagination as First Lady. Like Wilson, ER believed that adequate and healthy housing was the fundamental key to a more democratic future.
As Ellen Wilson prepared for her daughter's White House wedding, she wrote a relative: "Nobody who has not tried can have the least idea of the exactions of life here and of the constant nervous strain of it all."
Diagnosed with kidney tuberculosis, or Bright's disease, Ellen Wilson died on 6 August 1914, having been First Lady for only seventeen months. The New York Times concluded that her condition was aggravated "by a nervous breakdown, attributed to the exactions of social duties and her active interest in philanthropy and betterment work."
If ER had any particular feelings about the gossip concerning Woodrow Wilson's affair with Mary Hulbert Peck, during the time when ER's own marriage was in such disarray, she never referred to them. Evidently, Woodrow Wilson's advisers paid Mary Peck, an attractive divorcée, some still debatable sum of money for the intimate letters he had written to her over the years. The scandal surfaced between Ellen Wilson's death and the election of 1916, when some Wilson advisers hoped the mysterious Mrs. Peck would become the new First Lady.
It was the kind of gossip ER detested, and avoided. She never, for example, referred to Florence Kling Harding's much publicized marital strife, although she spent time with "the Duchess" during the war.
ER particularly admired two gifted and generous public citizens who became, for different reasons, silent as First Ladies. Her immediate predecessor, Lou Henry Hoover, chose silence; Grace Goodhue Coolidge's husband imposed it.
Unlike her husband, Grace Coolidge was witty, charming, and gregarious. She had been a dedicated and innovative teacher of the hearing-impaired. She believed all children could learn to speak, and she taught lip-reading as well as sign language. Calvin Coolidge, on the other hand, believed no woman could or should communicate in public life. He mandated his wife's silence on all political issues and also denied her many ordinary pleasures, including horseback riding. Her friends complained on her behalf: "Calvin felt that woman's place was at the sink." Although Grace never protested, she confided to a friend that lives of political wives were "very confining."
ER's first official act as First Lady-elect was to attend Calvin Coolidge's funeral. On 7 January 1933, she journeyed to Northampton with her son James. ER's decision to attend was appreciated as "a sign of respect" for her Republican predecessors, Grace Coolidge and Lou Henry Hoover.
Geologist, linguist, and scholar, Stanford University graduate and outspoken feminist, Lou Henry Hoover had been for decades her husband's partner. They traveled together in search of mineral deposits and new speculative investment markets throughout Europe and Asia. In London and Washington during the war, she founded canteens, a war hospital, a knitting factory, a home for women war workers. She was an equal-rights feminist, headed the Girl Scouts, and as the only woman on the board of the National Amateur Athletic Association, led a campaign to introduce physical education for women "in every institution" in America.
Nobody believed Lou Henry Hoover when she announced that as First Lady she would be nothing but a pleasant "backdrop for Bertie." But she meant it. Except for occasional radio broadcasts, she ended her public role in American life. She hosted dinners and parties to entertain her husband, not to promote causes. Inexplicably, she refused interviews and banished the press. Controversy engulfed her only when she decided to invite Jessie DePriest to a tea for congressmen's wives.
In 1930, Chicago elected Republican Oscar DePriest, the first black member of Congress since Reconstruction. Despite their Quaker opposition to discrimination, the Hoovers did not decide immediately to open their White House. But it bothered Lou Henry that Jessie DePriest was not invited with other congressional wives her first year in Washington. Many meetings were held on the subject, and the president finally consented. Determined to avoid a rude incident, Lou Henry Hoover queried every congressional wife and found twelve who agreed to be cordial at a tea that would include the first black White House guest since TR invited Booker T. Washington and his wife for lunch.
On 12 June 1931, Jessie DePriest was received by the First Lady. Her visit in the company of twelve congenial women was brief and pleasant. But astonishing howls of protest followed. Virtually every Southern newspaper editorialized against this "arrogant insult to the South and to the nation." While several Northern newspapers celebrated the First Lady's effort to "put into practice the brotherhood of man," Southern editors and politicians predicted disaster, race intermingling, and Republican defeat in 1932. In response, Lou Henry Hoover went on a tour of Southern states, presumably to reassure white clubwomen.
Inevitably, as ER contemplated her new role, her thoughts lingered on her Aunt Edith's White House. With Edith Roosevelt, rules and ceremony dominated. Sumptuous feasts and formality were her legacy. Guests foregathered, and were greeted after a grand processional whereby the president and First Lady descended the White House's central staircase "to trumpets." "Not wanting to shake hands, she clutched a large bouquet."
Edith Roosevelt presided over a circle of scolds who collected information about Washington's "immorals." Those who "transgressed her code of upright conduct" were banished. Working women were not invited; adulterers were shunned. Aunt Edith detested the press and scorned "camera fiends." Her political sensibilities ran counter to everything her niece believed.
Noted for her ability to walk and talk as fast as her husband, some of TR's friends thought she controlled him; others believed she bullied him. Henry Adams always marveled at Edith's ability to silence TR: "He stands in abject terror of Edith.... What is man that he should have tusks and grin!" But for ER, Aunt Edith's assertive, imperious, even terrifying manner was eclipsed by her discontent. A prisoner to her "beloved shackles," she was plagued by headaches and assorted neuralgias.
Although never close, ER did not want to sever relations with her father's family. When Anna Roosevelt Cowles (Aunt Bye) died peacefully at her home in Farmington, Connecticut, during the night of 25 August 1931, ER's warmest link to her father's generation ended. Aunt Bye had been one of ER's great champions, the woman who most urgently insisted she be sent to school at Allenswood in England.
After Aunt Bye's death, ER made a special effort to reach out to her father's surviving sister, Aunt Corinne, a lifelong Republican who voted for Franklin because, she said, Eleanor was her niece, after all. But Corinne Roosevelt Robinson died suddenly of pneumonia on 17 February 1933 at the age of seventy-one. Her funeral, which both FDR and ER attended, was the last family gathering before FDR's inauguration. Now Aunt Edith was the last surviving member of her father's generation. And she never forgave ER for campaigning against her son Ted in that Teapot Dome car when he ran for governor in 1924.
Although Aunt Edith actively campaigned against FDR, ER nevertheless wrote from the White Houseas if there were nothing but family tradition and warmth between them. Interested in her niece's initial tribulations as First Lady, Edith replied: "Your letter was an answer to prayer, full of things which I wanted to know. Much such conditions met me in the White House, and I am quite sure that I did not deal with them as efficiently as you have done."
ER's ability to invite her cousin Alice Roosevelt Longworth to inaugural events was even more extraordinary. Alice had, after all, declared war on Democrats and never missed an opportunity to deride Eleanor publicly. Her opposition to Franklin was shrill, often vulgar and cruel. She not only attacked his policies, she mocked his physical condition: "My poor cousin, he suffered from polio so he was put in a brace; and now he wants to put the entire U.S. into a brace, as if it were a crippled countrythat is all the New Deal is about...."
Alice seemed now to concentrate all her wit and flair into a private crusade to hurt her cousins. She had been the ruling Washington widow, the only important Roosevelt. Miserably married to Nicholas Longworth, the popular Speaker of the House who had rivaled Eleanor's father Elliott in his drinking and romantic escapades, Alice had nevertheless reveled in Washington society, and few knew the truth of her marriage.
After her husband's death in 1931, Alice devoted herself to ER's humiliation. She trotted out the old stories of FDR's wartime infidelities. She mocked and minced: "FDR is nine parts mush and one part Eleanor." She contrasted FDR's dependence with her father's robust self-reliance: TR's vigor; TR's brawn. ER's sons remembered that only Alice could bring their mother to the verge of tears.
Although ER never criticized Alice by name, she wrote an article in which she described her kind of malicious gossip and concluded that it reflected "not only a cruel but a despicable trait of human nature."
To fortify her spirits and armor herself against the animus of her closest kin, ER read and studied her father's lettersand decided to publish them. Indeed, ER wrote or edited three books between FDR's election and inauguration: one for children (When You Grow Up to Vote), one for redemption (her father's letters), and one for the future (It's Up to the Women). They enabled her to face her new position with a sense of personal liberation, and a clearly defined political program.
Moreover, while she abandoned her sponsored radio program and gave up teaching, she refused to give up editing BabiesJust Babies, a magazine she had started to help mothers avoid the kind of mistakes her parents had made and she had perpetuated with her own children. The magazine was filled with droll and informative stories, infant photographs, uplifting and curious advice, prizes, poetry, and whimsy. ER believed it offered young mothers a much-needed service. She personally guaranteed the reliability and quality of the magazine's advertisers; and called upon all her acquaintancesrich and famous, hardworking and unknownto contribute baby lore. Daughter Anna detailed "24 Hours of a Baby's Life," not quite a celebration of her infant daughter's grueling, relentless schedule. Rosamond Pinchot wrote about "The Most Famous Baby in the World," Helen Hayes's daughter Mary MacArthur. "A Soviet Baby Is Born" featured extraordinary photos to illustrate healthful, contented infants and toddlers in factory nurseries.
The First Lady-elect wanted every young mother to have a less tormented and ignorant time than she had endured.
Excerpted from Eleanor Roosevelt by Blanche Wiesen Cook Copyright © 1993 by Blanche Wiesen Cook. Excerpted by permission.
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