Eleanor Roosevelt: Vol. 1, 1884–1933
Sometime early in his marriage, Franklin Roosevelt set out to write a novel. Its hero was to be George Richards, a young Chicago millionaire who had made his money manufacturing soap. FDR never got beyond the second page, but he did keep at it long enough to include an admiring portrait of his hero’s wife:
Mrs. Richards… seemed just as capable of managing economically and without friction an establishment that boasted of 3 servants as she had been when she did all the cooking and the housework in 3 rooms. Browning Clubs and other uplifting agencies among the fashionable ladies of the Chicago of that day meant nothing to her. Her husband, her children and her house were to her the beginning and the end.
Eleanor Roosevelt had brisk efficiency in common with her husband’s fictional domestic paragon, but precious little else, and the story of the Roosevelt marriage is very largely the story of the gap between the roles each had in mind for the other to play. Franklin would have preferred a wife like Mrs. Richards (or his own mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt), someone whose admiration for him was unconditional. Eleanor, on the other hand, orphaned as a child and perennially insecure, demanded an attentive intimacy of which Mrs. Richards’ elusive creator was incapable, and when she did not get it, and her husband then betrayed her with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, she famously struck out on her own. FDR’s loss was the country’s gain, of course, and in recent years, as women’s history has begun to take its place in our common history, her story has sometimes threatened to eclipse his.
“I honor the human race,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote at seventy-seven. “When it faces life head-on, it can almost remake itself.” She was writing from experience, for to an astonishing degree she was her own invention.
Franklin Roosevelt’s exuberant self-confidence was the gift of fond parents, a legacy of the love and approval with which he was surrounded as a boy. Eleanor Roosevelt had no such foundation. Her father was an alcoholic; her mother remote and troubled. Both were dead by the time their daughter was ten, and she was raised by relatives whose interest in her was for the most part merely dutiful. She was timid, withdrawn, frightened of “practically everything,” she remembered—mice, the dark, other children, “displeasing the people I lived with.” Her Aunt Edith, Theodore Roosevelt’s second wife, had thought her likely doomed: “I do not feel she has much of a chance,” she wrote when her niece was eight, “poor little soul.”
That poor little soul grew up to become the best-known, most widely admiredwoman in America, but nearly every inch of her climb required her to surmount immense psychological obstacles. The thing always to remember she said—and the italics are hers—is that “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Early experiences with her erratic father and with two alcoholic uncles—one of whom enjoyed firing…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.