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Attendees of the virtual Levy Lecture webinar on 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 Roosevelts’ “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 8 years old, Franklin was dominated by his mother, Sara, and never learned to confront her, Eleanor said. 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.
Ms. Goddard she showed how Eleanor reflected on these events with sadness and acceptance. In one sense, knowing about the affair gave Eleanor the confidence to transition her role from wife and lover to one of political partner. She became invaluable to Franklin when he became paralyzed with polio in 1921, helping nurse him to health and then campaigning and giving speeches on his behalf. She thrived with this newfound purpose and loved using her talents, intellect, and public warmth to make a difference.
She set an example in many ways. She held press conferences for female reporters, led White House conferences on female unemployment, gave radio broadcasts, wrote a daily newspaper column called “My Day,” and wrote an autobiography.
Eleanor resigned her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) after the group refused to allow Marian Anderson, a famed African American singer, to sing at Constitution Hall. To clarify her point, Eleanor (with Franklin’s support) arranged for Ms. Anderson to sing on Easter Sunday 1939 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of 75,000 people and millions more listening on the radio.
In her role as first lady, Eleanor traveled more than 43,000 miles, gave more than 100 speeches, wrote hundreds of newspaper columns, visited servicemen and women around the world, and supported countless causes. Her energy was boundless, saying “I have always wanted to be useful.”
During World War II, she made sure her family set an example for the country, rationing food like other families, and serving in the military. All four of the Roosevelt sons served in the Armed Forces in World War II.
After Franklin’s death, she learned about the resumption of his affair with Ms. Mercer. It was doubly painful because her daughter, Anna, had helped arrange a get together for the lovers, at Franklin’s request.
Anna was the one who told Eleanor that Lucy had been with Franklin at the end. The estrangement that followed between mother and daughter took years to repair.
Fortunately, Eleanor was busier than ever after Franklin’s death. President Harry Truman appointed her as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations, and she increased her work promoting human rights and the rights of African Americans.
She continued writing and traveling, and wrote two additional autobiographies. She died in 1962 at 78 years old.
Each webinar presentation is followed by a Q&A session with the speaker. Many of the questions for this session asked about the nature of the close friendship Eleanor had with Lorena Hickok, a writer and journalist who was a known lesbian.
Ms. Goddard quoted Doris Kearns Goodwin, who concluded that the public will never know for sure if the intense friendship was more than platonic. Regardless, the relationship was supportive, loving, and intellectually stimulating for both women.
The webinars are organized by the Levy Senior Center Foundation. Lectures are free but registration is required. Registration is at lscfevanston.org. Famed storyteller Megan Wells offered five presentations, which began on June 2.