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The Roosevelts, Part 4: Eleanor

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

For Part 3, click here

Eleanor's parents were Elliott and Anna Hall Roosevelt. Elliott was the younger brother of Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt. Anna Hall was descended from the Livingston family. The Livingstons, an old Hudson River family, played an important role in the formation of the new republic: one Livingston administered the oath of office to George Washington, another signed the Declaration of Independence, still another became a Supreme Court justice.

As a child, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt much preferred her middle name and would usually introduce herself by it as she grew older. Eleanor's mother, Anna, was a beautiful woman but ashamed of her daughter, who she regarded as a failure in the beauty department. She was cold and distant to Eleanor and even nicknamed her "Granny" because of her frumpy appearance and serious nature.

While she was starved for attention as a child, she grew to understand that beauty is only skin deep. She knew she had plenty going for her. At 5'10, she was athletically built, and she always said that the happiest moment of her life was when she found out she made her school's field hockey team. When she was 14, she wrote, "No matter how plain a woman may be, if truth and loyalty are stamped upon her face, all will be attracted to her."

Eleanor was just three years old when she escaped death in a terrifying shipwreck. She was a passenger on the S.S. Britannic, along with her parents and aunt, when it collided with another ship, the S.S. Celtic. As her ship took on water, young Eleanor was lowered into a lifeboat and taken with her parents aboard the Celtic, which then returned to New York.

The experience left her with a lifelong fear of ships,

When Anna Hall Roosevelt passed away in 1892, her husband Elliott, who struggled with alcoholism, was exiled from the family. Following these tragic events, 8-year-old Eleanor was left in the care of her maternal grandmother, Valentine Hall. Elliott attempted suicide by jumping out of a window in 1894. Despite surviving this fall, he suffered a seizure shortly thereafter and died on 14 August 1894.

"I am as fond of Eleanor as if she were my daughter," Teddy Roosevelt once wrote. On 17 March 1905, just a few months into his second term, the president gave Eleanor away on her wedding day. "Well, Franklin,” TR later joked to her new husband, "there’s nothing like keeping the name in the family."

When Franklin took office as president in 1933, Eleanor dramatically changed the role of the first lady. Not content to stay in the background and handle domestic matters, she gave press conferences and spoke out for human rights, children's causes and women's issues, working on behalf of the League of Women Voters.

Politically, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were a great match. They were intellectual, from "good" families (or rather, family), and passionate about helping people. The passion, however, did not appear to extend to their private lives. Almost as soon as they married, Eleanor became aware that FDR had a mistress. Whatever the case, Franklin and Eleanor had six children together, but Eleanor didn't enjoy the physical side of marriage. She once described sex as an "ordeal to be borne" and usually chose to focus her energies on her public life rather than the domestic sphere.

After the discovery of the affair, Eleanor chose to live more independently of her husband and began to live separately as well. Although she remained his political supporter and mentor, she maintained no personal relationship with Franklin. She began several individual projects, such as being part of a women-run furniture enterprise. She began to promote women’s engagement in politics and took leadership positions in organisations such as the Women’s Trade Union League and the League of Women Voters. Eleanor was a famous figure in the suffrage movement. She further led the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee.

Even if they had enjoyed the storybook romance they displayed to the public, FDR's mother, Sarah Delano, made herself a constant wedge between the couple. When Mrs. Delano found out about Franklin's secret proposal to Eleanor, she all but kidnapped him, whisking him off on a Caribbean cruise to separate him from his betrothed. Of course, it didn't work, so Delano had to settle for meddling in the rest of their lives. She lived with the couple and controlled all aspects of the household, doling out a weekly allowance to the newlyweds well after the honeymoon phase.

Amelia and Eleanor

In the 1930s, Eleanor developed a close friendship with famed aviator Amelia Earhart (read my post about her here), and one time, the pair sneaked out of a White House function in 1933 so that Amelia could take the First Lady on a ride in her airplane, flying from Washington D.C. to Baltimore. Eleanor so loved the thrill of flying that she obtained a student permit, but her husband put an end to her aviation dreams. After Earhart vanished on her round-the-world attempt, Eleanor told reporters, "I am sure Amelia's last words were 'I have no regrets.'"

From 1935 to 1962, Eleanor composed six articles a week about her political views and personal life. Simply titled "My Day," the column featured her musings on such hot topics as Prohibition, Pearl Harbor, and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist hearings. In all that time, Eleanor missed only a single week’s worth of deadlines, following Franklin's death in 1945.

Following FDR's passing, Eleanor told interviewers that she did not have plans for continuing her public service. However, the opposite would actually prove to be true. President Harry Truman appointed Eleanor as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly, a position in which she served from 1945 to 1953. She became chair of the U.N.'s Human Rights Commission and helped to write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — an effort that she considered to be her greatest achievement. President John F. Kennedy reappointed her to the United States delegation to the U.N. in 1961, and later named her to the National Advisory Committee of the Peace Corps and as chair of the President's Commission on the Status of Women.

Many Americans think of the famous 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate as the advent of televised debates. But the first time a presidential debate, despite featuring surrogates for the candidates, was broadcast on television came four years earlier. It was broadcast by CBS on Face the Nation on the Sunday evening before election day. The 4 November 1956 debate featured Eleanor and Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith, who acted as surrogates for former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson and President Dwight Eisenhower respectively.

The most painful sting came with Smith’s final words: "Democratic Presidents, together with leaders of our Allies, chose Dwight D. Eisenhower to lead our nation to victory in World War II …It is strange to see and hear Democratic leaders now accusing him of not being a leader. Why the difference? It is clearly the difference between principles and policies." At the conclusion of the debate, Eleanor turned away from Smith’s offer of a handshake and reportedly said to her companions, "Did you hear what she said?" Eleanor went back to producing her "My Day" column, which did not mention the debate. The next day, Eisenhower won re-election by 15 points.

In a rare move by a former First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt used her celebrity to promote a wide range of products on television. She appeared in commercials for everything from mattresses to hot dogs. When the makers of a new non-dairy, butter-like spread had trouble moving their product, they paid Eleanor $35,000 to appear in a commercial endorsing it. It did the trick. Her appearance in a 1959 TV spot boosted sales considerably and helped establish margarine as one of America’s favorite spreads. She then used her fee to buy 6,000 care packages for families in need.

Eleanor was diagnosed with tuberculosis in the bone marrow, and eventually died of heart failure on 7 November 1962 at 78 years of age. Eleanor Roosevelt accomplished so many things in her life and her legacy is one for the ages.

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