The personal, political lives of Eleanor Roosevelt

April 12, 1992|By Francis E. Rourke


VOLUME I, 1884-1933.

Blanche Wiesen Cook.


481 pages. $30.

Eleanor Roosevelt led one of the most extraordinary American lives of this century, and in the first volume of this biography Blanche Wiesen Cook looks closely at its early history. It is a story that begins badly and ends well, much like the novels that Eleanor devoured as a lonely girl, sitting in a tree on her grandmother's estate.

An unhappy childhood left an indelible mark on her. She was one of the three offspring of Anna and Elliott Roosevelt, the brother of Theodore Roosevelt. By any modern standard, hers was a dysfunctional family. Her mother gave her very little of the love for which she longed, while her father, whom she adored, was an alcoholic.

Orphaned at 10, Eleanor was raised by relatives in a very loving environment. But she still thought of herself as an outsider -- a peripheral figure even at her wedding to Franklin Roosevelt. Dominating that affair was her uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt, who gave her away. Of TR, the master politician of his day, it was said that he had to be "the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral."

After the ceremony, he kissed the bride and congratulated FDR on "keeping the name in the family." Others, less charitably disposed, argued that "Roosevelts so often married Roosevelts because they never met anybody else."

If Eleanor expected her marriage to bring her a place in the sun, she was sorely disappointed. Once again, she found herself "an outsider in the homes of others." The newlyweds lived with FDR's mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, who made every decision that a new wife usually would make for her own family.

FDR's election to the New York state Senate in 1910 meant liberation for Eleanor. When the couple moved to Albany, she finally was in charge of her own home. It was there that she discovered her flair for politics, and she soon became a popular figure among the largely Irish ethnic leaders who dominated the state's Democratic politics.

The presidential election of 1912 brought both an upward trend in her husband's political fortunes and a downward turn in their life together. FDR was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Woodrow Wilson, and he was rewarded after the election with an appointment as assistant secretary of the Navy.

In Albany, politics had strengthened the bond between the Roosevelts, as Eleanor bent all her efforts to supporting her husband's new career. In Washington, it brought alienation, as FDR began his celebrated affair with Eleanor's former secretary, Lucy Mercer. Only the fear that divorce would mean political suicide kept the marriage intact.

Not until the 1920s was Eleanor able to shape her own life. Her career as a newspaper columnist took off, she began teaching at Todhunter School, and, discovering her true vocation as a political activist, she took on a leading role in the movement for disarmament abroad and social justice at home. It was at that point that she began her lifelong crusade against racial segregation in American society.

Moreover, she became increasingly involved in the feminist movement. Eleanor had not been an early pioneer: She had never, for example, been an ardent suffragette, as had many other leading women of her day. But in the 1920s she came to believe that "her own struggle for independence was connected to the wider struggle for full economic and political power for all women."

It was during this period also that romance re-entered her life. Her first liaison was with Earl Miller, who became her bodyguard after FDR was elected to the New York state governorship in 1928. Earl and Eleanor quickly became close friends and inseparable companions.

One of her biographers, Joseph Lash, sees the relationship as a matter of motherly affection on Eleanor's part for a much younger man. Ms. Cook takes a very post-Bohemian view: "ER and Earl Miller had a romantic friendship . . . that took them frequently into rustic cabins, high atop the Adirondack Mountains, and occasionally into remote seaside villages along the Eastern Coast." Whatever it was, the affair ended soon after FDR's election as president in 1932, when the family moved to Washington.

Shortly thereafter, Eleanor became deeply attached to an Associated Press reporter, Lorena Hickcock, who was to be one of her most intimate friends throughout the rest of her life. Relying on the letters the two women exchanged, Ms. Cook presents strong evidence that this was a very loving bond that went well beyond Platonic friendship.

With such revelations Ms. Cook's book provides a great deal of fresh insight into her subject's personal life, even though the idea of Eleanor cavorting with a lover in the Adirondacks will be a real stretch for readers who grew up in the 1930s. Could this possibly be the straight-laced first lady we remember presiding over sedate White House teas?

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