Retired Judge's Aunt Took Down Words Of Eleanor Roosevelt

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August 23, 2009|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN

The intimate presidential inner circle of Franklin D. Roosevelt was diminished last month with the death in McLean, Va., of Mollie Dorf Somerville, an author, historian and lecturer who had been an aide to Eleanor Roosevelt.

Somerville, who was 102, was the aunt of retired City Circuit Judge Paul A. Dorf, 83, now a partner in the Baltimore law firm of Adelberg, Rudow Dorf & Hendler LLC.

"She was always my favorite aunt," Dorf recalled the other day. "Six months before her death, we went to see her, and she held a tea cup without her hand shaking. And her mind was perfectly fine."

He recalled a White House visit that had been arranged by his aunt and meeting FDR.

"I was just a kid, and I was enthralled with him," Dorf said. "I was in the Navy during the war and his death for me was very traumatic."

Somerville, who was Dorf's father's sister, was born in New York City and raised in Hunter, N.Y., in the Catskills.

She was studying at Columbia University at night and had taken a crash course in shorthand and typing at the Collegiate Secretarial Institute in order to be able to pay for her college tuition.

She was working in New York City for Charles W. Short, an architect, in the late 1920s, when she meet Anna Roosevelt Dahl, the only daughter of then-Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Somerville first glimpsed her future employer in 1930 when she was helping Dahl, who was estranged from her husband, Curtis B. Dahl, and had moved back to the Roosevelt family brownstone at 49 East 65th St., in Manhattan, where she operated a nursery school.

"One morning a woman hurried through the room. I recognized Mrs. Roosevelt instantly. Tall and slender, with an elegance of carriage that marked her upbringing, she smiled and disappeared out the door," wrote Somerville in "Eleanor Roosevelt As I knew Her," her 1996 memoir of her years working for the first lady.

"She moved with a grace that others of us in that era had tried to achieve by balancing books on our heads as we walked. I was astonished by how quickly she strode," Somerville wrote. "Her height - she was nearly six feet tall - enabled her to walk quickly. In time, I learned that some of Mrs. Roosevelt's friends had to run to keep up with her."

When Short's architectural commissions vanished because of the Great Depression, he let his staff go, including Somerville.

Anna Roosevelt Dahl then offered her friend a job at Democratic National Headquarters working on Roosevelt's 1932 presidential campaign.

After FDR's election, Somerville was invited to go to Washington as a member of Eleanor Roosevelt's staff.

Somerville's boss was the legendary Malvina "Tommy' Thompson Scheider, the first lady's private secretary.

Working from a converted dressing room in the White House, Somerville's duties included taking dictation from the first lady, typing her correspondence, researching her syndicated column, My Day, and purchasing Christmas and birthday gifts for family members from Garfinckel's, the now-gone Washington department store, with the family's private credit card, and other chores.

Somerville reveals in her book that the first lady was a year-round shopper, and kept a Christmas closet in the White House, where wrapped gifts were stored in bins marked with the intended recipient's name.

Somerville worked in the White House until 1941, when she resigned because of the birth of her first child.

A professional writer who published a number of books during the intervening decades, Somerville was nearly 90 when she wrote of her years with the Roosevelts.

She relied upon the detailed diaries and other materials that she had compiled during her days in the White House.

"Perhaps I am the only one still alive who, as an adult, worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt," she wrote in an "author's statement" at the memoir's beginning.

"In New York City and Hyde Park, New York, I served as her secretary when she was editor of several magazines. In the White House, my job expanded to include research to provide background for her varied interests," she wrote. "In the decade I worked for Mrs. Roosevelt, I came to know her well."

In her obituary in The Washington Post, Somerville's son, Richard C. J. Somerville, of Carlsbad, Calif., explained that his mother didn't want to write a "kiss-and-tell" book.

I think she wanted to wait until everyone had passed on," he told The Post. "She wanted to write a pleasant and lofty book about her life at the White House. She didn't want to turn it into something tawdry."

Addressing the question of Mrs. Roosevelt's purported affair with Earl Miller, a New York State trooper, and a lesbian liaison with Lorena Hickok, a former Associated Press reporter, who later was appointed chief investigator by FDR to the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Somerville said such relationships outside of marriage would have been "completely out of character for her."

"Eleanor Roosevelt was the same person in private as she was in public," Somerville explained. "Regardless, only the principals can provide proof of such dalliances, and the principals are dead."

Regarding FDR's long affair with Lucy Mercer Rutherford, Somerville said she learned about it only years later when stories appeared in print.

During her time working for Eleanor Roosevelt, Somerville said it simply wasn't discussed in New York or Washington.

"It was never mentioned among the people I knew in the White House. Mrs. Roosevelt never spoke publicly about deeply personal matters; if she had been asked about the affair, for instance, she would have pretended not to have heard the question," she wrote.

It was in the waning days of the Clinton administration when Hillary Clinton, an admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt, invited Somerville back for a private White House tour and tea.

It was the first time she had been to the presidential mansion since walking out in 1941.

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