Eleanor and Franklin: The Story of Their Relationship Based on Eleanor Roosevelt’s Private Papers
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 candid about herself and others. So much so that I occasionally made notes, proud that I alone knew the truth about this or that. Needless to say, just about every “confidence” she bestowed on me appears in Mr. Lash’s book and I can testify that he is a remarkably accurate recorder of both her substance and style. In fact, reading him is like having her alive again, hearing that odd, fluting yet precise voice with its careful emphases, its nervous glissade of giggles, the great smile which was calculated not only to avert wrath but warn potential enemies that here was a lioness quite capable of making a meal of anyone.
Then there were those shrewd, gray-blue eyes which stared and stared at you when you were not looking at her. When you did catch her at it, she would blush—even in her seventies the delicate gray skin would grow pink—giggle, and look away. When she was not interested in someone, she would ask a polite question; then remove her glasses, which contained a hearing aid, and nod pleasantly—if she did not drop into one of her thirty second catnaps.
The growing up of Eleanor Roosevelt is as interesting to read about as it was, no doubt, sad to have lived through. Born plain. Daughter of an alcoholic father whom she adored. Brought up by a sternly religious maternal grandmother in a house at Tivoli, New York, some thirty miles north of Hyde Park where her cousin Franklin was also growing up, a fatherless little boy spoiled by his mother, the dread Sara Delano, for forty years the constant never-to-be-slain dragon in Eleanor’s life.
Long after the death of Mrs. James (as Sara Delano Roosevelt was known to the Valley), Eleanor would speak of her with a kind of wonder and a slight distention of the knotty veins at her temples. “Only once did I ever openly quarrel with Mrs. James. I had come back to Hyde Park to find that she had allowed the children to run wild. Nothing I’d wanted done for them had been done. ‘Mama,’ I said [accent on the second syllable, incidentally, in the English fashion], ‘you are impossible!’ ” “And what did she say?” I asked. “Why, nothing.” Mrs. Roosevelt looked at me with some surprise. “You see, she was a grande dame. She never noticed anything unpleasant. By the next day she’d quite forgotten it. But of course I couldn’t. I forgive…” One of her favorite lines, which often cropped up in her conversation as well as—now—in the pages of Mr. Lash’s book, “but I never forget.”
But if Mrs. James was to be for Eleanor a life antagonist, her father was to be the good—if unlikely—angel, a continuing spur to greatness, loved all the better after death. Elliott Roosevelt was charming and talented (many of his letters are remarkably vivid and well-written) and adored by everyone, including his older brother Theodore, the President-to-be. Elliott had everything, as they say; unfortunately, he was an alcoholic. When his drinking finally got out of control, the family sent him south; kept him away from Eleanor and her younger brother Hall (himself to be an alcoholic). During these long absences, father and daughter exchanged what were, in effect, love letters, usually full of plans to meet. But when those rare meetings did take place, he was apt to vanish and leave her sitting alone at his club until, hours later, someone remembered she was there and took her home.
Yet in his letters, if not in his life, Elliott was a Puritan moralist—with charm. He wanted his daughter, simply, to be good. It is hard now to imagine what being good is but to that generation there was not much ambiguity about the word. As Eleanor wrote in 1927, in a plainly autobiographical sketch,
She was an ugly little thing, keenly conscious of her deficiencies, and her father, the only person who really cared for her, was away much of the time; but he never criticized her or blamed her, instead he wrote her letters and stories, telling her how he dreamed of her growing up and what they would do together in the future, but she must be truthful, loyal, brave, well-educated, or the woman he dreamed of would not be there when the wonderful day came for them to fare forth together. The child was full of fears and because of them lying was easy: she had no intellectual stimulus at that time and yet she made herself as the years went on into a fairly good copy of the picture he painted.
As it turned out, Eleanor did not fare forth with her father Elliott but with his cousin Franklin, and she was indeed all the things her father had wanted her to be, which made her marriage difficult and her life work great.
In 1894, Elliott died at 313 West 102nd Street, attended by a mistress. The ten-year-old Eleanor continued to live in the somber house at Tivoli, her character forming in a way to suggest that something unusual was at work. The sort of world she was living in could hardly have inspired her to write, as she did at fourteen,
Those who are ambitious & make a place & a name in the great world for themselves are nearly always despised & laughed at by lesser souls who could not do as well & all they do for the good of men is construed into wrong & yet they do the good and they leave their mark upon the ages & if they had had no ambition would they have ever made a mark?
This was written in the era of Ward McAllister when the best circles were still intent on gilding the age with bright excess. Eleanor was already unlike others of her class and time.
The turning point—the turning on—of her life occurred at Allenswood, an English school run by the formidable Mlle Souvestre, a freethinker (doubtless shocking to Eleanor, who remained a believing Christian to the end of her days) and a political liberal. Readers of Olivia know the school through the eyes of its author, Dorothy Bussy—a sister of Lytton Strachey. Allenswood was a perfect atmosphere in which to form a character and “furnish a mind.” The awkward withdrawn American girl bloomed, even became popular. Some of Eleanor’s essays from this period are very good. On literature:
The greatest men often write very badly and all the better for them. It is not in them that we look for perfect style but in the secondary writers (Horace, La Bruyère)—one must know the masters by heart, adore them, try to think as they do and then leave them forever. For technical instruction there is little of profit to draw from the learned and polished men of genius.
So exactly did Flaubert speak of Balzac (but it is unlikely that Eleanor had read the report of dinner Chez Magny). She perfected her French, learned Italian and German, and became civilized, according to the day’s best standards.
Nearly eighteen, Eleanor returned to America. It was 1902: a time of great hope for the Republic. Uncle Theodore was the youngest President in history. A reformer (up to a point), he was a bright example of the “right” kind of ambition. But Tivoli was no more cheerful than before. In fact, life there was downright dangerous because of Uncle Vallie, a splendid alcoholic huntsman who enjoyed placing himself at an upstairs window and then, as the family gathered on the lawn, opening fire with a shotgun, forcing them to duck behind trees (in the Forties there was a young critic who solemnly assured us that America could never have a proper literature because the country lacked a rich and complex class system!). It is no wonder that Eleanor thought the Volstead Act a fine thing and refused to serve drink at home for many years.