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Attendees of the virtual Levy Lecture webinar on Tuesday, May 26 found Leslie Goddard presenting a historical portrayal of former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt as if she were chatting with some friends from her summer cottage in Hyde Park, New York circa 1945. This cottage was her home, not the Roosevelt’s “big house” located in Springhill, N.Y., about 16 miles to the east. She greeted her people in the living room adorned with many framed photos and comfortable places to sit. The room was warm and without pretense, just like its owner.
Mrs. Roosevelt was in good spirits and happy to share her reflections about her life as the wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the mother of their six children, and her work as a political activist and champion of human rights. She spoke openly about her painful childhood: orphaned by age 10, she and her younger brother Hall were raised by her maternal grandmother. Eleanor was shy, insecure, and starved for affection. She was convinced she was not attractive. Her grandmother made sure she received an excellent education, but she showed Eleanor little warmth. Years later, a friendship with Franklin, her fifth cousin once removed, led to a courtship and marriage. Her uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt, stood in for her late father at her wedding to Franklin. She married Franklin in 1905; she was 21 and he was 23. Their first child, Anna, was born the following year.
Eleanor admitted she had no idea what it meant to be a wife and mother or how to manage a household. She shared that “mothering” did not come naturally to her, especially when her children were babies. Whereas Eleanor had lost her mother when she was only eight years old, Franklin was dominated by his mother, Sara, and never learned to confront her, according to Eleanor. Their six children were all born within 10 years, and five of them lived to adulthood; one son died in infancy. It was a busy life filled with nannies to help raise her children, a domineering mother-in-law, and a husband focused on his rising political career.
Franklin was appointed Assistant Navy Secretary under President Woodrow Wilson in 1913 and the family moved to Washington, D.C. During World War I, Eleanor kept busy fulfilling social obligations common for political spouses and raising money for various causes like the Red Cross and Navy Relief Society. She had been active in social causes like the Junior League and Settlement House in New York prior to her marriage, and welcomed a return to social issues.
In 1918 Eleanor was unpacking one of Franklin’s suitcases when she found a packet of love letters written to him by her former social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Eleanor was crushed by his infidelity and offered Franklin his freedom if he wished to separate and divorce. Franklin refused. He knew a divorce would end his political prospects. His mother was furious with the idea of her son getting divorced and threatened to disinherit him. Eleanor agreed to stay with Franklin if he broke off the relationship with Ms. Mercer and never saw her again. He agreed to her terms and broke off the relationship, but did not honor his promise, as she found out after his death years later. He continued to correspond with and see Ms. Mercer periodically throughout his life. It was Lucy Mercer who was with him when he died at Warm Springs, Georgia in 1945.