Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt; drawing by David Levine

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.

Eleanor came out, as was expected, and suffered from what she considered her ungainly appearance. Yet she was much liked, particularly by her cousin Franklin (known to their cousin Alice as “The Feather Duster”: “You know, the sort of person you wouldn’t ask to dinner, but for afterward”). During this period, Eleanor’s social conscience was stirring. She worked at a settlement house where she not only saw how the poor lived but met a generation of women reformers, many of them also active in the suffragette movement. Eleanor was a slow convert to women’s rights. But a convert she became. Just as she was able to change her prejudices against Jews and blacks (she was once attacked by the NAACP for referring to the colored, as they were then known, as “darkies”).

Franklin began to court her. The letters he wrote her she destroyed—no doubt, a symbolic act when she found him out in adultery. But her letters remain. They are serious (she had been nicknamed “Granny”); they are also ambitious. For a young man who had made up his mind that he would rise to the top of the world she was a perfect mate. It is a sign of Franklin’s genius—if that is the word—that even in his spoiled and callow youth he had sense enough to realize what Eleanor was all about.

The marriage ceremony was fine comedy. The bride and groom were entirely overshadowed by Uncle Ted. Eleanor was amused, Franklin not. Mr. Lash misses—or omits—one important factor in the marriage. For all of Eleanor’s virtues—not immediately apparent to the great world which Franklin always rather liked—she was a catch for one excellent reason: she was the President’s niece, and not just your average run-of-the-mill President, but a unique political phenomenon who had roused the country in a way no other President had since Jackson. I suspect this weighed heavily with Franklin. Certainly when it came time for him to run for office as a Democrat, many Republicans voted for him simply because his name was Roosevelt and he was married to the paladin’s niece.

As the world knows, Franklin and Eleanor were a powerful political partnership. But at the personal level, the marriage must never have been happy. For one thing, Eleanor did not like sex, as she confided in later years to her daughter. Franklin obviously did. Then there was his mother. The lives of the young couple were largely managed by Mrs. James, who remained mistress of the house at Hyde Park until she died. It is poignant to read a note from Eleanor to Franklin after the old lady’s death in 1941, asking permission to move furniture around—permission generally not granted for the place was to remain, as long as Franklin lived (and as it is now), the way his mother wanted it—and the most God-awful Victorian taste it is. But surroundings never meant much to any of the family, although Mrs. Roosevelt once told me how “Mr. Truman showed me around the White House, which he’d just redone, and he was so proud of the upstairs which looked to me exactly like a Sheraton Hotel!”

Franklin went to the State Senate. Eleanor learned to make speeches—not an easy matter because her voice was high with a tendency to get out of control. Finally, she went to a voice coach. “You must tell President Kennedy. The exercises did wonders for my voice.” A giggle. “Yes, I know, I don’t sound very good but I was certainly a lot worse before and Mr. Kennedy does need help because he talks much too fast and too high for the average person to understand him.” I remarked that in the television age it was enough to see the speaker. She was not convinced. One spoke to the people in order to educate them. That was what politics was all about—or so she was among the last to believe.

It is startling how much is known at the time about the private lives of the great. My grandfather Senator Gore’s political career ended in 1936 after a collision with President Roosevelt (“This is the last relief check you’ll get if Gore is re-elected” was the nice tactic in Oklahoma), but in earlier times they were both in the liberal wing of the Democratic party, and when Franklin came to Washington as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Wilson, he was on friendly terms with the senator. Washington was a small town then and everyone knew all about everyone else’s private life. Not long ago Alice Longworth managed to startle even me by announcing, at a dinner party: “Daisy Harriman told me that every time she was alone with Senator Gore he would pounce on her. I could never understand why he liked her. After all, he was blind. But then Daisy always smelled nice.”

Meanwhile, the Gores were keeping track of the Roosevelts. Franklin fell in love with Eleanor’s young secretary, Lucy Mercer, and they conducted an intense affair (known to everyone in Washington except Eleanor who discovered the truth in the tried-and-true soap opera way: innocently going through her husband’s mail when he was ill). Senator Gore used to say, “What a trial Eleanor must be! She waits up all night in the vestibule until he comes home.” I never knew exactly what this meant. Now Mr. Lash tells us “the vestibule story.” Angry at her husband’s attentions to Lucy, Eleanor went home without her keys and spent much of the night sitting on the stoop.

Later, confronted with proof of Franklin’s adultery, Eleanor acted decisively. She would give him a divorce but, she pointed out, she had five children and Lucy would have to bring them up. Lucy, a Catholic, and Franklin, a politician-on-the-make, agreed to cool it. But of course they went on seeing each other until his death—with Lucy in the room at Warm Springs and Eleanor far away. Eleanor knew none of this until the day of her husband’s death. From what she later wrote about that day, a certain amount of normal grief seems not to have been present.

When Franklin got polio in 1921, Eleanor came into her own. On his behalf, she joined committees, kept an eye on the political situation, pursued her own good works. When the determined couple finally arrived at the White House, Eleanor was already a national figure. She had her own radio program. She wrote a syndicated column for the newspapers. As First Lady she gave regular press conferences. At last she was loved, and on the grandest scale. She was also hated. But at fourteen she had anticipated everything (“It is better to be ambitious & do something than to be unambitious & do nothing”).

Much of what Mr. Lash writes is new to me (or known and forgotten), particularly Eleanor’s sponsorship of Arthurdale, an attempt to create a community in West Virginia where out-of-work miners could each own a house, a bit of land to grow things on, and work for decent wages at a nearby factory. This was a fine dream and a bureaucratic catastrophe. The houses were haphazardly designed while the factory was not forthcoming (for years any industrialist who wanted to be invited to the White House had only to suggest to Eleanor that he might bring industry to Arthurdale). Invariably, the right wing howled about socialism.

The right wing in America has always believed that those who have money are good people while those who lack it are bad people. At a deeper level, our conservatives are true Darwinians and think that the weak and the poor ought to die off, leaving the spoils to the fit. Certainly a do-gooder is the worst thing anyone can be, a societal pervert who would alter with government subsidy nature’s harsh but necessary way with the weak. Eleanor always understood the nature of the enemy: she was a Puritan, too. But since she was Christian and not Manichaean, she felt obliged to work on behalf of those dealt a bad hand at birth. Needless to say, Franklin was quite happy to let her go about her business, increasing his majorities.

“Eleanor has this state trooper she lives with in a cottage near Hyde Park.” I never believed that one but, by God, here the trooper is in the pages of Mr. Lash. Sergeant Earl R. Miller was first assigned to the Roosevelts in Albany days. Then he became Eleanor’s friend. For many years she mothered him, was nice to his girl friends and wives, all perfectly innocent—to anyone but a Republican. It is a curious fact of American political life that the right wing is enamored of the sexual smear. Eleanor to me: “There are actually people in Hyde Park who knew Franklin all his life and said that he did not have polio but the sort of disease you get from not living the right sort of life.”

The left wing plays dirty pool, too, but I have no recollection of their having organized whispering campaigns of a sexual nature against Nixon, say, the way the right so often does against liberal figures. Knowing Eleanor’s active dislike of sex as a subject and, on the evidence of her daughter, as a fact, I think it most unlikely she ever had an affair with anyone. But she did crave affection; and jealously held on to her friends, helped them, protected them—often unwisely. Mr. Lash describes most poignantly Eleanor’s grief when she realized that her friend Harry Hopkins had cold-bloodedly shifted his allegiance to Franklin.

She was also faced with the President’s secretary and de facto wife Missy Le Hand (“Everybody knows the old man’s been living with her for years,” said one of the Roosevelt sons to my father, who had just joined the sub-cabinet, and my father, an innocent West Pointer, from that moment on regarded the Roosevelt family arrangements as not unlike those of Ibn Saud). Yet when Missy was dying, it was Eleanor who would ring her up. Franklin simply dropped her. But then Missy was probably not surprised. She once told Fulton Oursler that the President “was really incapable of a personal friendship with anyone.”

Mr. Lash writes a good deal about Eleanor’s long friendship with two tweedy ladies, Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook. For years Eleanor shared Val-Kill cottage with them; jointly they ran a furniture factory and the Todhunter School where Eleanor taught until she went to the White House. The relationship of the three women seems unusually tangled, and Mr. Lash cannot do much with it. Things ended badly with an exchange of letters, filled with uncharacteristic bitterness on Eleanor’s side. If only the author of Olivia could have had a go at that subject.

In a sense Eleanor had no personal life after the White House years began. She was forever on the go (and did not cease motion during the long widowhood). She suffered many disappointments from friends and family. I remember her amused description of Caroline Kennedy and what a good thing it was that the two Kennedy children would still be very young when they left the White House because, she frowned and shook her head, “It is a terrible place for young people to grow up in, continually flattered and—used.” I was with her the day the news broke that a son had married yet again. While we were talking, he rang her and she smiled and murmured, over and over, “Yes, dear…yes, I’m very happy.” Then when she hung up, her face set like stone. “You would think that he might have told his mother first, before the press.” But that was a rare weakness. Her usual line was “People are what they are, you can’t change them.” Since she had obviously begun life as the sort of Puritan who thought people not only could but must be changed, this later tolerance was doubtless achieved at some cost.

When I was selected as Democratic-Liberal candidate for Congress, Eleanor (I called her Mrs. R) was at first cool to the idea though I had known her slightly all my life (she had liked my father, detested my grandfather). But as the campaign got going and I began to move up in the polls and it suddenly looked as if, wonder of wonders, Dutchess County might go Democratic in a Congressional election for the first time in fifty years (since Franklin’s senatorial race, in fact), she became more and more excited. She joined me at a number of meetings. She gave a tea at Val-Kill for the women workers in the campaign. Just as the women were leaving, the telephone rang. She spoke a few minutes in a low voice, hung up, said good-bye to the last of the ladies, took me aside for some political counsel, was exactly as always except that the tears were streaming down her face. Driving home, I heard on the radio that her favorite granddaughter had just been killed.

In later years, though Eleanor would talk—if asked—about the past, she was not given to strolls down memory lane. In fact, she was contemptuous of old people who lived in the past, particularly those politicians prone to the Ciceronian vice of exaggerating their contribution to history, a category in which she firmly placed that quaint Don Quixote of the cold war, Dean Acheson. She was also indifferent to her own death. “I remember Queen Wilhelmina when she came to visit during the war [good democrat that she was, nothing royal was alien to Eleanor] and she would sit under a tree on the lawn and commune with the dead. She would even try to get me interested in spiritualism but I always said: since we’re going to be dead such a long time anyway it’s rather a waste of time chatting with all of them before we get there.”

Although a marvelous friend and conscience to the world, she was, I suspect, a somewhat unsatisfactory parent. Descendants and their connections often look rather hard and hurt at the mention of her. For those well-placed by birth to do humanity’s work, she had no patience if they were—ultimate sin—unhappy. A woman I know went to discuss with her a disastrous marriage; she came away chilled to the bone. These things were to be borne.

What did Eleanor feel about Franklin? That is an enigma, and perhaps she herself never sorted it out. He was complex and cold and cruel (so many of her stories of life with him would end, “And then I fled from the table in tears!”). He liked telling her the latest “Eleanor stories”; his sense of fun was heavy. A romantic, Mr. Lash thinks she kept right on loving him to the end (a favorite poem of the two was E. B. Browning’s “Unless you can swear, ‘For life, for death,’ / Oh, fear to call it loving!”). But I wonder. Certainly he hurt her mortally in their private relationship; worse, he often let her down in their public partnership. Yet she respected his cunning even when she deplored his tactics.

I wonder, too, how well she understood him. One day she told me about something in his will that had surprised her. He wanted one side of his coffin to be left open. “Well, we hadn’t seen the will when he was buried and of course it was too late when we did read it. But what could he have meant?” I knew and told her: “He wanted, physically, to get back into circulation as quickly as possible, in the rose garden.” She looked at me as if this were the maddest thing she had ever heard.

I suspect the best years of Eleanor’s life were the widowhood. She was on her own, no longer an adjunct to his career…. In this regard, I offer Mr. Lash an anecdote. We were four at table: Mrs. Tracy Dows, Mrs. Roosevelt, her uncle David Gray (our wartime Ambassador to Ireland), and myself. Eleanor began: “When Mr. Joe Kennedy came back from London, during the war….” David Gray interrupted her. “Damned coward, Joe Kennedy! Terrified they were going to drop a bomb on him.” Eleanor merely grinned and continued. “Anyway he came back to Boston and gave that unfortunate interview in which he was…well, somewhat critical of us.”

She gave me her teacher’s smile, and an aside. “You see, it’s a very funny thing but whatever people say about us we almost always hear. I don’t know how this happens but it does.” David Gray scowled. “Unpleasant fellow, that Joe. Thought he knew everything. Damned coward.” I said nothing since I was trying to persuade Eleanor to support the wicked Joe’s son at the Democratic convention: something she could not, finally, bring herself to do.

“Well, my Franklin said, ‘We better have him down here’—we were at Hyde Park—’and see what he has to say.’ So Mr. Kennedy arrived at Rhinecliff on the train and I met him and took him straight to Franklin. Well, ten minutes later one of the aides came and said, ‘The President wants to see you right away.’ This was unheard of. So I rushed into the office and there was Franklin, white as a sheet. He asked Mr. Kennedy to step outside and then he said, and his voice was shaking, ‘I never want to see that man again as long as I live.’ ” David Gray nodded. “Wanted us to make a deal with Hitler.” But Eleanor was not going to get into that. “Whatever it was, it was very bad. Then Franklin said, ‘Get him out of here,’ and I said, ‘But, dear, you’ve invited him for the week-end, and we’ve got guests for lunch and the train doesn’t leave until two,’ and Franklin said, ‘Then you drive him around Hyde Park and put him on that train,’ and I did and it was the most dreadful four hours of my life!” She laughed. Then, seriously: “I wonder if the true story of Joe Kennedy will ever be known.”

To read Mr. Lash’s book is to relive not only the hopeful period in American life (1933-41) but the brief time of world triumph (1941-45). The book stops, mercifully, with the President’s death and the end of Eleanor and Franklin (Mr. Lash is correct to put her name first; of the two she was greater). Also, the end of…what? American innocence? Optimism? From 1950 on our story has been progressively more and more squalid. Nor can one say it is a lack of the good and the great in high places: they are always there when needed. Rather the corruption of empire has etiolated the words themselves. Now we live in a society which none of us much likes, all would like to change, but no one knows how. Most ominous of all, there is now a sense that what has gone wrong for us may be irreversible. The empire will not liquidate itself. The lakes and rivers and seas will not become fresh again. The arms race will not stop. Land ruined by insecticides and fertilizers will not be restored. The smash-up will come.

To read of Eleanor and Franklin is to weep at what we have lost. Gone is the ancient American sense that whatever is wrong with human society can be put right by human action. Eleanor never stopped believing this. A simple faith, no doubt simplistic—but it gave her a stoic serenity. On the funeral train from Georgia to Washington, “I lay in my berth all night with the window shade up, looking out at the countryside he had loved and watching the faces of the people at stations, and even at the crossroads, who came to pay their last tribute all through the night. The only recollection I clearly have is thinking about “The Lonesome Train,” the musical poem about Lincoln’s death (‘A lonesome train on a lonesome track / Seven coaches painted black / A slow train, a quiet train / Carrying Lincoln home again….’). I had always liked it so well—and now this was so much like it.”

I had other thoughts in 1962 at Hyde Park as I stood alongside the thirty-third, the thirty-fourth, the thirty-fifth, and the thirty-sixth Presidents of the United States, not to mention all the remaining figures of the Roosevelt era who had assembled for her funeral (unlike Proust’s golden figures in his last chapter, they all looked if not smaller than life, smaller than legend—so many shrunken march of time dolls soon to be put away). Whether or not one thought of Eleanor Roosevelt as a world ombudsman or as a chronic explainer or as a scourge of the selfish, she was like no one else in her usefulness. As the box containing her went past me, I thought, well, that’s that. We’re really on our own now.

This Issue

November 18, 1971