Eleanor and Franklin: The Story of Their Relationship Based on Eleanor Roosevelt’s Private Papers
by Joseph P. Lash
Norton, 765 pp., $15.00
Nicholas and Alexandra. Now Eleanor and Franklin. Who’s next for the tandem treatment? Dick and Pat? J. Edgar and Clyde? Obviously there is a large public curious as to what goes on in the bedrooms of Winter Palace and White House, not to mention who passed whom in the corridors of power. All in all, this kind of voyeurism is not a bad thing in a country where, like snakes, the people shed their pasts each year (“Today nobody even remembers there was a Depression!” Eleanor Roosevelt exclaimed to me in 1960, shaking her head at the dullness of an audience we had been jointly trying to inspire). But though Americans dislike history, they do like soap operas about the sexual misbehavior and the illnesses—particularly the illnesses—of real people in high places: “Will handsome, ambitious Franklin ever regain the use of his legs? Tune in tomorrow.”
The man responsible for the latest peek at our masters, off-duty and on, is Joseph Lash. A journalist by trade, a political activist by inclination, an old friend of Eleanor Roosevelt as luck would have it (hers as well as his), Mr. Lash has written a very long book. Were it shorter, it would a smaller sale but more readers. Unfortunately, Mr. Lash has not been able to resist the current fashion in popular biography: he puts in everything. The Wastebasket School leaves to the reader the task of arranging the mess the author has collected. Bank balances, invitations to parties, funerals, vastations in the Gallérie d’Apollon—all are presented in a cool democratic way. Nothing is more important than anything else. At worst the result is “scholarly” narrative; at best, lively soap opera. No more does prophet laurel flower in the abandoned Delphi of Plutarch, Johnson, Carlyle, Strachey: PhD mills have polluted the sacred waters.
Objections duly noted, I confess that I found Eleanor and Franklin completely fascinating. Although Mr. Lash is writing principally about Eleanor Roosevelt, someone I knew and admired, I still think it impossible for anyone to read his narrative without being as moved as I was. After all, Eleanor Roosevelt was a last (the last? the only?) flower of that thorny Puritan American conscience which was, when it was good, very, very good, and now it’s quite gone things are horrid.
A dozen years ago, Mrs. Roosevelt asked me to come see her at Hyde Park. I drove down to Val-Kill cottage from where I lived on the Hudson. With some difficulty, I found the house. The front door was open. I went inside. “Anybody home?” No answer. I opened the nearest door. A bathroom. To my horror, there in front of the toilet bowl stood Eleanor Roosevelt. She gave a startled squeak. “Oh, dear!” Then, resignedly, “Well, now you know everything,” and she stepped aside, revealing a dozen gladiolas she had been arranging in the toilet bowl. “It does keep them fresh.” So began our political and personal acquaintance.
I found her remarkably …