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Eleanor Roosevelt

No Ordinary Woman

By Maggie Riechers | HUMANITIES, January/February 2000 | Volume 21, Number 1

The Ku Klux Klan once put a $25,000 bounty on Eleanor Roosevelt's head. She was in her seventies then and as outspoken about civil rights as she had been as First Lady. The year was 1958.

The Klan had learned that she was to speak in June at a workshop on methods of protest at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. The FBI warned her that it could not protect her and suggested that she not go. Eleanor thanked her caller for the warning, but decided she was going anyway, and flew to Nashville.

"This elderly white woman picks up a seventy-four-year-old Eleanor Roosevelt," relates historian Allida Black. "And here they are. They're going to go through the Klan. They're going to stand down the Klan. They get in their car, they put a loaded pistol on the front seat between them, and they drive up at night through the mountains to this tiny labor school to conduct a workshop on how to break the law. And she drove through the Klan to do it." Black is one of the people interviewed in Eleanor Roosevelt,a new NEH-funded documentary in The American Experience series. It airs in January on public television.

Eleanor Roosevelt's willingness to take stands, to be unpopular, is treated in the film, which was produced by Kathryn Dietz and Sue Williams of Ambrica Productions. It covers events ranging from her decision as a young woman to work with the poor in New York City to her years in the White House when she pushed for the rights of African Americans, to her time at the United Nations when she parried with the world's most powerful statesmen.

"We think we know Eleanor Roosevelt because she's so familiar, but usually her story is woven into the stories of her uncle, Theodore Roosevelt, or of her husband," says Dietz. "But she was active in politics earlier than Franklin and lived beyond him, with the last years of her life her most productive. People will be surprised at how tough and how political she was and what a rich personal life she had. Nobody had done a comprehensive film about her life," says Dietz. "The last film was done in 1966 before women's studies became a field of study and spawned a new level of scholarship."

With new scholarly research available and interviews with historians and family and friends of the First Lady, the filmmakers were able to focus on Eleanor as a historical figure independent of her family and husband. The film, which is narrated by actress Alfre Woodard, at times uses Eleanor Roosevelt's own voice to describe events and her feelings about them. The producers were able to use the clips from the 1940 Democratic Convention, where she played a pivotal role, and early 1960s interviews where she spoke about her late husband. They also culled hundreds of tapes of her voice at the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library. "Nobody had looked at them just for Eleanor," says Williams. "You can tell the story of her life without focusing on FDR."

The filmmakers also relied on recent biographies of Eleanor and Franklin by such historians as Blanche Wiesen Cook, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Geoffrey Ward, and Allida Black. Cook, Ward, and Black all appear in interviews throughout the biography. Also appearing in the film are friends of Eleanor Roosevelt, including Trude Lash, the wife of Joseph Lash, a close friend and biographer of Eleanor; civil rights activist James Farmer; and Henry Morganthau III, son of Franklin Roosevelt's treasury secretary.

Several grandchildren of Eleanor Roosevelt appear in interviews, including Franklin Roosevelt III, Curtis Roosevelt, Nina Gibson, and Eleanor Seagraves. A niece, Eleanor Roosevelt Watkins, also appears.

The film begins with the young Eleanor, whose childhood experiences left an unmistakable mark. "Personal unhappiness is a thread running throughout her life," says Williams. "It could easily have become twisted and turned her into a narrow-minded, pathetic person. Instead she turned her pain into empathy for others. It is an inspiring story."

Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884, into one of the oldest and wealthiest families in New York. Her mother, Anna, by most accounts was an unloving mother, uncomfortable with her shy and awkward daughter. Eleanor's father, Elliott, whom she adored, was warm, loving, and irresponsible: He would disappear for days on drinking binges. Her mother died when she was eight, her father when she was ten, and the young Eleanor lived with her maternal grandmother. Her grandmother's house, however, did not offer family stability. It was instead under the control of two alcoholic uncles. Her grandmother decided to send Eleanor at age fifteen to a boarding school just outside London called Allenswood, run by a charismatic Frenchwoman, Marie Souvestre. This move changed Eleanor's life.

Souvestre was committed to social and political causes and under her influence the girls received a progressive education and were taught to be independent and politically aware. "My grandmother was absolutely taken by Mademoiselle Souvestre," says Nina Gibson, "because here she saw this elegant, brilliant woman who was interested in her and what she had to say. And she blossomed at Allenswood. She became the beginnings of the woman that she would become later in life."

When Eleanor returned to New York in 1902, after three years at Allenswood, her uncle, Theodore Roosevelt, was president of the United States. She began working in the slums of the Lower East Side at the University Settlement House helping young immigrants adjust to life in America. She taught dance and calisthenics and considered her volunteer work there the highlight of her week. She joined the New York Consumers League, established to expose harsh working conditions for women and children. She saw things she would never forget--the overcrowded tenements and factories exploiting women and children laborers.

But, at eighteen and as the niece of the president, Eleanor was expected to make her formal debut into society and to find a husband. She did both. She was soon courted by and fell in love with Franklin Roosevelt, a distant cousin.

It was Eleanor who introduced Franklin to the harsh conditions of parts of New York he had never dreamed existed. Franklin sometimes met Eleanor after her classes at the settlement house. Once, when they helped a sick girl back to her crowded tenement, Franklin was horrified by what he saw. Afterwards, he kept repeating that he "could not believe human beings lived that way."

On March 17, 1905, Eleanor and Franklin were married, with the president of the United States giving away the bride. So began the next phase of Eleanor's life.

Difficult years lay ahead for Eleanor, whose marriage was controlled by a domineering mother-in-law whom she could never please. Eleanor bore six children in ten years, including one who died in infancy, but she was never comfortable with her role as a mother.

The family moved to Washington, D.C., when Franklin was appointed assistant secretary of the Navy in 1913. It was there that he became romantically involved with Eleanor's social secretary, Lucy Mercer. When Eleanor discovered the affair and offered to end the marriage, her mother-in-law intervened to prevent divorce. Eleanor remained in the marriage, but the love she felt evaporated.

In 1921, Franklin was stricken with polio, and soon after Eleanor's public life in politics began. To keep Franklin's name alive in New York politics as he tried to recover from his illness, Eleanor went to work for the Democratic Party. In just two years, she rose to become director of the women's division of the state Democratic Party and led a fight for women's parity with men, taking on the New York party boss, Charles Murphy.

"He insisted that he be allowed to choose the women delegates to the coming convention," says historian Geoffrey Ward in the film. "And Mrs. Roosevelt insisted that women would choose them. And she, in the most genteel and polite and ladylike way, suggested that if he didn't give in to her, she would go to the press." Murphy did not relent and Eleanor carried out her threat and took her story to the New York Times.

"The boss caved in," says Ward, "and she had enormous pleasure in reporting this to Franklin, that she'd beaten this man. It was really her first taste of political blood. She had beaten a formidable foe, right out of the box. And she was delighted."

By 1928 when Franklin became governor of New York, Eleanor had established herself as a political figure in the state in her own right. She had begun teaching and had a wide circle of friends and, says Ward, "she is surprised and . . . delighted to be having a wonderful time." By the time Franklin Roosevelt entered the White House in 1933 Eleanor was forty-nine years old and an experienced political player, but at a loss at what to do as First Lady. She went into a period of depression.

With the help of her close friend, Lorena Hickock, a reporter for the Associated Press, she turned her depression into activity and carved out a life more meaningful to her than that of White House hostess. She began to hold press conferences for women reporters only, she went on a fact-finding trip to the Caribbean, and she pushed for New Deal programs for young people, women, and African Americans. In one three-month period, the film notes, she logged forty-thousand miles, giving lectures, visiting schools and factories. Six days a week she wrote a newspaper column. She met with administrators to see firsthand the new government programs at work and to report back to the president.

During Franklin Delano Roosevelt's run for an unprecedented third term in 1940, Eleanor's considerable political clout became apparent. At the Democratic Convention in Chicago the delegates threatened to revolt when the president chose the leftist Henry Wallace to succeed John Nance Garner as the vice presidential nominee. Roosevelt was equally adamant. If they voted against the choice, Roosevelt countered, he would not run.

As the convention was spinning out of control, party leaders and an anxious Roosevelt turned to his strongest political ally, Eleanor. Later, she would describe what happened. "I got a call from the convention begging me to come out. I called Franklin, and my husband said, 'Well would you like to go?' and I said, 'No I wouldn't like to go........But do you really want me to go?' and he said, 'Eleanor, perhaps it would be a good idea.' So that meant, I suppose, that I had to go."When she arrived at the convention, she recalled that "Pandemonium had broken loose in the hall. You couldn't hear yourself speak. The noise was something terrible. I went forward and stood and, to my surprise and to everyone else I met, there was silence in a very short time."

Roosevelt gave a brief speech, without notes. She began, "Delegates to the convention. This is no ordinary time. You cannot treat it as you would an ordinary nomination in an ordinary time. You have to rise above considerations which are narrow and partisan."

When she finished, delegates on the convention floor again went wild. "There was so much pandemonium, so much applause," says Trude Lash, who was a friend of Eleanor's. "She pulled it together. They agreed to the president's choice for vice president. And it was a miracle. The president called her and said this was a job wonderfully done. It was just marvelous. And Mrs. Roosevelt sat there and beamed."

Eleanor remained active and supportive throughout her tenure as First Lady. During World War II, she became her husband's eyes and ears overseas. She visited American troops in the Pacific and in Europe. She supported liberal causes, including the civil rights and labor movements, bringing these issues to the president's attention. Lou Harris says, "I asked Mrs. Roosevelt one day, 'Why do you do so many things that make you so controversial?' She said. 'I have access to the president. And if you don't use that access to do things that need to be done in this country, need to be done for people, I would be sorely remiss and irresponsible.'"

Her marriage to Franklin had turned into a political partnership. "She kept at him on issues which he might have, in the rush of business, wanted to overlook," says Ward. "She kept him to a high standard."

When Franklin Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945, Lucy Mercer was present. Eleanor moved out of the White House, struggling with her feelings for Franklin. "My husband and I had come through years with an acceptance of each other's faults and foibles, warm affection and agreement on essential values. We depended on each other," she said.

Eleanor lived another seventeen years after Franklin and in that time established herself as an international diplomatic figure. President Truman appointed her a delegate to the first meeting of the United Nations in London in December 1945. Here, she again displayed her political acumen, staring down the delegate from the Soviet Union on the important issue of human rights.

"The condescension of the other male delegates was fairly obvious," says grandson Curtis Roosevelt. "They didn't know of the Eleanor Roosevelt who was a political pro." She soon turned them around and was elected to chair the committee drafting a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Working eighteen-hour days she negotiated and moderated until a document was drafted that would define human rights. It passed unanimously on December 10, 1948, and Eleanor Roosevelt received a standing ovation.

"The U.N. was a huge triumph for her," says Williams. "It was a concrete achievement she had nurtured from concept to reality, and she did it on her own."

Until her death in 1962 at seventy-eight, Eleanor Roosevelt continued her active life in politics, enjoying her role as grand dame of the Democratic Party.

"Eleanor Roosevelt is a role model for women around the world," says Williams, "but she is more interesting than just that. She was so human, struggling almost her entire life to find a role for herself, constantly fighting to overcome her scarred childhood. By the end of her life she finally knew who she was."

About the Author

Maggie Riechers is a writer in Potomac, Maryland.

Funding Information

The National Endowment for the Humanities provided $648,200 in scripting and production grants for the making of Eleanor Roosevelt, which airs on PBS on January 10.