Book on Eleanor Roosevelt reveals the warmth of the first class first lady


March 04, 1994|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Sun Staff Writer

For many of us born after 1950, Hilary Rodham Clinton is the first thoroughly modern first lady. That speaks volumes about the importance of Russell Freedman's latest book, "Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery," (Clarion, $17.95, 198 pages, ages 9 and up).

On the occasion of Women's History Month, I strained my brain to recall what I had learned of Mrs. Roosevelt during the course of my schooling. There were vague memories -- something about her being a rich, distant cousin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and about how she was his helpmate after he was stricken with polio.

Later came the Eleanor Roosevelt of television mini-series fame, a stoic survivor of her husband's extra-marital affair with Lucy Mercer.

Mr. Freedman's book, named a Newbery Honor Book last month, portrays a fascinating, intelligent woman who helped shape the social reforms of the New Deal, lobbied Congress, and held a post in her husband's administration as co-director of the Office of Civilian Defense.

The parallels between Mrs. Roosevelt and Mrs. Clinton are many. Their political activism sparked similar responses, from the "We Don't Want Eleanor, Either" buttons during Wendell Willkie's unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1940 to the "Impeach Hilary" bumper stickers of today.

Both also faced reports -- confirmed, in Mrs. Roosevelt's case -- ,, of their husbands' infidelity. Mrs. Roosevelt even might have been modern enough to use her maiden name as her middle name, except that would have made her Eleanor Roosevelt Roosevelt.

Mr. Freedman shows Eleanor as an introverted young girl, a self-described "Ugly Duckling" who was 8 when her mother died. Eleanor's father was an alcoholic, so she was raised by her mother's family, always feeling inadequate among fashionable, socialite relatives.

Although her insecurities surfaced at times throughout her life, Eleanor began to find herself as a teen-ager at a London boarding school. She came back to the States confident and mature, with a compassion for social justice and civil rights that would carry her through private and public life.

She never wanted to be a president's wife, she said, and she was sorry when she had to give up teaching to move to the White House. There she kept an incredible schedule, flying all over the country to inspect government relief projects and to lecture on the social programs of the New Deal. She wrote a TTC daily newspaper column and hundreds of magazine articles. In 1943, at the age of 59, she visited 400,000 U.S. servicemen during a five-week tour of the South Pacific war zone.

She comes across as a person with whom you'd want to share a heart-to-heart talk. Mr. Freedman describes her close friendships with a few men and women, and he is straightforward in showing how she never forgave her husband for his infidelity.

Even after FDR's death, Eleanor didn't slow down. Harry Truman appointed her one of the five U.S. delegates to the first meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, much to the chagrin of male colleagues in the delegation. She played an integral role in granting political asylum to refugees of World War II, and received a standing ovation at the United Nations after she pushed through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The book's 140 photographs further capture the class and warmth of an amazing woman. Mr. Freedman won the 1988 Newbery Medal for "Lincoln: A Photobiography" and a 1992 Newbery Honor for "The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane." But he has outdone himself in introducing Eleanor Roosevelt to two generations -- today's kids and their parents -- that never had the honor of knowing her.

* The seventh annual "Celebration of Children's Literature" will come to Loyola College March 26. The program will run from 8:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and is designed for teachers, librarians and students and fans of children's books.

It will include talks by two well-known author/illustrators: Diane Stanley ("Good Queen Bess," "Shaka: King of the Zulus," "The Bard of Avon: William Shakespeare") and Ann Grifalconi ("The Village of Round and Square Houses," "Csa's Pride," "Kinda Blue").

There will be two afternoon sessions, one on historical fiction and biography, and the other on folk tales. The cost is $75, which includes lunch. To make reservations, call the Loyola College education department at (410) 617-5095.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.