Peggy Keener: The indefatigable Eleanor

Published 6:46 pm Friday, April 29, 2022

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Even before Eleanor Roosevelt became First Lady she wore many hats. She was a covert operative editing all the Democratic publications, a board member on several social reform committees and a teacher of civics, history and literature at a girls’ school. Little did people know that she was just getting started.

Born into New York high society, her bon vivant father was Elliott Roosevelt, the brother of Theodore Roosevelt. Despite his addiction to drink and opiates, Eleanor was infatuated with her blemished and always absentee father.

When Eleanor was six, her mother (described as the most beautiful debutante in New York) died. Only four years later, her bibulous father committed suicide. Then a third dramatic event further altered her life forever: she moved to her grandmother’s estate, “Tivoli.” As fortune would have it, it was just down the road from “Springwood” where her distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, lived.

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Eleanor’s childhood at Tivoli was unhappy. She once commented that the only place she ever felt safe was after climbing to the top of a cherry tree where she pined for her dead father. Though strict, her grandmother deeply loved the young girl while inexplicably failing to see any value in educating her. So apparent was Eleanor’s lack of education that she became an embarrassment to the family. Hence, she was enrolled in Allenswood, a school of 33 girls. There she blossomed when her teacher recognized Eleanor’s spunk and intellect. “Allenswood is where I learned I had a brain,” Eleanor once declared.

Franklin and Eleanor first met as children. Years later they were reacquainted on a train ride to Tivoli. A starry-eyed interlude ensued, fueled by a vigorous exchange of amorous missives. Eleanor was smitten, describing Franklin as a virile, handsome and charming “hunk.”

Franklin, an only child, adored his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, who had him tightly spun in an overprotective cocoon of affection. Franklin worshiped her, commenting that he was always happiest when they were together.

Upon hearing of her son’s engagement, his mother begged, “Please! You’re going to put the family to shame!” But FDR was determined for he could see in Eleanor’s sparkling blue eyes something that others did not see. They were married in 1905.

In the next ten years, six children were born, five of whom lived to adulthood. Eleanor was a remarkably devoted mother who raised her children single-handedly due to FDR’s constant absences.

For Franklin, it was a joyous day in 1932, when he became president. Ironically, it was not so for Eleanor. “Now I’ll have no identity,” she mourned in sadness. She simply could not fathom a life for herself in the White House—a place she felt “ate women;” a place that would reduce her to running white gloved hands down the banisters in search of a dust mote. Thereupon, on day one, she vowed to resurrect her own strong voice while at the same time never undercutting her husband’s agenda.

By sheer determination, Mrs. Roosevelt transcended her restrained Victorian upbringing — along with her chronic crippling self-doubt — by challenging every established notion of what a first lady should be. (Years later, a noted columnist called her “the most influential woman of our times.” Harry Truman declared, “She was the first lady of the world.”)

Thirteen years into the marriage, disaster struck. One day while unpacking FDR’s suitcase, Eleanor discovered a bundle of love letters that revealed a love affair between Franklin and her social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Eleanor promptly packed up the children and left, demanding a divorce.

Three realities, however, stood in the way: no president had ever been divorced; Lucy, a catholic, would never have the blessing of the Pope (especially when the man was leaving his wife and five children); and finally, Franklin’s mother who declared, “Son, if you do this, I will cut you off and you will never receive another penny!”

Thus the couple sought harmony by agreeing to reunite. Remarkably, through the power of their coalescing characters, they created a new relationship, one in which they came to love and trust each other all over again while, albeit, living two independent but overlapping lives.

Then polio changed everything.

Franklin believed he contracted it during a Boy Scout retreat at Bear Mountain, New York. From there he proceeded to Maine where, despite being racked with terrible and frightening chills, he and his sons helped extinguish a forest fire. That night in bed Franklin curled into a tight ball of violent shaking. The next morning he woke up and could not feel the lower half of his body.

Immediately Eleanor stepped in. Without hesitating she became her husband’s constant companion assiduously demonstrating her true colors of loyalty and love—her actions truly realigning their marriage. During those darkest of days, FDR realized how much he adored his wife. While his mother was urging him to retire and become a wealthy country gentleman, Eleanor was giving her once macho husband enemas and inserting urinary catheters.

But, in Eleanor’s mind she was thinking, “I do love this man despite what has befallen him. It is now solely up to me to keep his spirits up.” At the same time she was also lamenting, “Oh my god! I have finally gotten a life and now it’s gone. I could be doing this for the rest of my days!”

Ignoring the dread of this possibility, nursemaid Eleanor

was simultaneously evolving into a politician. Her biggest fear was her first hurdle …. public speaking. Additionally, absolutely nothing could happen until she learned to modulate her voice. Yes, that voice!

Helpless in his paralysis, Eleanor turned away from the tradition which dictated what a first lady should be. She untied her apron, threw out the damnable white gloves and took charge. It was the world’s good fortune that she moved past her fears and became her husband’s eyes and ears. In time her very name was so invincible that it alone was enough to trigger an insecurity complex in many a subsequent first lady.

Eventually and without regret, Eleanor left the pampering of her husband to more willing women during her twelve-years as first lady. She had far more more pressing problems to deal with: the elimination of racism, sexism and poverty. Among other accomplishments, she was the first presidential spouse to hold her own press conferences, to serve in an official government post (as co-chair of the Office of Civilian Defense) and to write her own syndicated column. Her list of responsibilities seemed endless.

While Franklin shaped the policies of his Depression-wrought

New Deal, his wife moved throughout the country gathering data on the quality (and inequality) of American life. Among other undertakings, she showed up at a migrant workers’ camp in California, as well as later donning a pair of overalls to descend into the coal mines of Appalachia.

She was so frequently absent that a Washington Post headline once quipped, “Mrs. Roosevelt Spends Night At

White House!” On many occasions, Franklin did not even know where his wife was. One time Eleanor’s secretary informed the president that she was at a Baltimore penitentiary. “I’m surprised,” he responded, “but what for?”

A fierce advocate for racial equality, Eleanor once found herself at a conference in Alabama where the room was strictly divided by race. She arose from her chair, moved it smack dab in the middle of the center aisle, and sat down. This simple gesture, symbolically erased the racial divide.

With her guiding principle being that it was better to light one candle than to curse the darkness, Eleanor was involved in a myriad of causes. Among the most significant was her role as delegate to the United Nations. With boundless energy, the indefatigable first lady seemed to be everywhere doing everything. And it should be mentioned that she was also bombarded with over 300,000 letters a year. In a nutshell, Eleanor simply was not equipped with a stop button.

God bless Eleanor! She changed our world for us. One day, upon hearing an exhaustive report on her involvement in several fact-finding missions, a beleaguered FDR remarked, “Dear God, if possible, could you please make Eleanor a little tired!”