Much more than simply FDR's wife

Monday Book Reviews

July 06, 1992|By John F. Kelly

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: Volume 1, 1884-1933. By Blanche Wiesen Cook. Viking. 587 pages. $27.50.

THIS IS the first volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook's planned two-volume biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, and if Volume 2 is even half as good as Volume 1, it will be worth the price.

When the second volume is published sometime next year, Ms. Cook, a teacher, journalist and author ("Crystal Eastman on Women and Revolution," "The Declassified Eisenhower") quite probably will have written the definitive biography of Eleanor Roosevelt.

What makes this study so good is Ms. Cook's willingness to go beyond stereotypes, to see ER (as she calls her throughout the biography) as someone with "a great and passionate commitment to life and to loving that many associate with spirituality." While ER's detractors -- and they were legion, especially among her own class -- focused on her prominent teeth and high, quavering voice and considered her naive, easily led and self-seeking, Ms. Cook portrays a vastly different woman.

"She was," she writes, "a dutiful wife, and also a submissive daughter-in-law. She was an unprepared and unhappy mother, and a daughter devoted to an illusory father. She was also a woman in struggle, dedicated to modernity. A feminist leader and competitive politician, she was a woman with power who enjoyed power."

Oddly enough, ER herself contributed to her image of "homeliness, helplessness and inadequacy." Her memoirs "created for the future a picture of rectitude and quietly encountered duty, of constant if not thankless service to her husband, children and grandchildren." Nothing was known of her own political ambitions, nothing of the intimate details of her personal life. And most of the books written subsequently follow her lead.

Ms. Cook's access to the letters of long-ignored friends of ER, the biographer's interviews, her perusal of material in recently opened archives and of ER's FBI and State Department files produce another set of facts by which to interpret Eleanor Roosevelt's life. What emerges is a portrait of an able, warm-hearted woman (who, nevertheless, could be cold, passive-aggressive and impatient), who was driven by intelligence, ambition and a late-blooming but well-developed social conscience to establish a life separate from that of her husband.

Ms. Cook describes ER's reaction to her discovery in 1918 that her husband was having an affair with his secretary, Lucy Mercer. She offered a divorce, but he refused -- wisely, as it turned out, because his mother, shocked by the prospect of divorce, offered him a choice: Lucy or his wife and family and the money he needed to continue his fledgling political career. For her part, ER "began a long process of introspection and change," much of it spent at Washington's Rock Creek Cemetery regarding the statue Henry Adams had commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens to sculpt in his wife's memory. Adams' wife, Clover, had committed suicide, evidently after she learned her husband was having an affair.

Ms. Cook writes at some length about several of ER's intimate friends, among them Louis Howe, FDR's chief adviser; Earl Miller, her bodyguard during her husband's terms as governor of New York; Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook, who became her partners in several ventures; and Lorena Hickock, a reporter for Associated Press who covered the 1932 presidential election. It is impossible not to draw sexual conclusions from virtually every one of those friendships.

Were they consummated? Little evidence exists, but Ms. Cook evidently believes where there was smoke, there may well have been fire. Certainly ER's son, James Roosevelt, thought his mother "may have had an affair with Earl Miller." And Ms. Cook quotes a letter from Hickock to ER in which the former recalls "feeling that soft spot just northeast of the corner of your mouth against my lips."

In the end, we have a portrait of a woman who, for whatever reasons, chose to portray herself as a dutiful helpmate to her politically ambitious husband. Yet, supportive as she was of FDR's goals, Eleanor Roosevelt pursued her own. "She became famous not as FDR's wife," Ms. Cook writes, "but as a major political force to be reckoned with." Mr. Cook captures ER's agonizing journey toward independence and self-realization. Her intent is that women find meaning in the telling, and she succeeds brilliantly.

John F. Kelly is a Baltimore writer.

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