Eleanor Roosevelt was the wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But Eleanor was much more than just a president’s wife, an echo of her husband’s career. Sad and lonely as a child, Eleanor was called “Granny” by her mother because of her seriousness. People teased her about her looks and called her the “ugly duckling.”…
Yet despite all of the disappointments, the bitterness, the misery she experienced, Elea-nor Roosevelt refused to give up. Instead, she turned her unhappiness and pain to strength. She devoted her life to helping others. Today she is remembered as one of America’s greatest women. Eleanor was born in a fine townhouse in Manhattan. Her family also owned an elegant mansion along the Hud-son River, where they spent weekends and summers. As a child Eleanor went to fashionable parties. A servant took care of her and taught her to speak French.
Her mother, the beautiful Anna Hall Roosevelt, wore magnificent jewels and fine clothing. Her father, Elliott Roosevelt, had his own hunting lodge and liked to sail and to play tennis and polo. Elliott, who loved Eleanor dearly, was the younger brother of Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1901 became president of the United States. The Roosevelt family, one of America’s oldest, wealthiest families, was respected and admired.
To the outside world it might have seemed that Eleanor had everything that any child could want everything that could make her happy. But she was not happy. Instead her childhood was very sad. Almost from the day of her birth, October 11, 1884, people noticed that she was an unattractive child. As she grew older, she could not help but notice her mother’s extraordinary beauty, as well as the beauty of her aunts and cousins. Eleanor was plain-looking, ordinary, even, as some called her, homely. For a time she had to wear a bulky brace on her back to straighten her crooked spine.
When Eleanor was born, her parents had wanted a boy. They were scarcely able to hide their disappointment. Later, with the arrival of two boys, Elliott and Hall, Eleanor watched her mother hold the boys on her lap and lovingly stroke their hair, while for Eleanor there seemed only coolness, distance.
Feeling unwanted, Eleanor became shy and withdrawn. She also developed many fears. She was afraid of the dark, afraid of animals, afraid of other children, afraid of being scolded, afraid of strangers, afraid that people would not like her. She was a frightened, lonely little girl. The one joy in the early years of her life was her father, who always seemed to care for her, love her. He used to dance with her, to pick her up and throw her into the air while she laughed and laughed. He called her “little golden hair” or “darling little Nell.”
Then, when she was six, her father left. An alcoholic, he went to live in a sanitarium in Virginia in an attempt to deal with his drinking problem. Eleanor missed him greatly.
Next, her mother became ill with painful headaches. Sometimes for hours at a time Eleanor would sit holding her mother’s head in her lap and stroking her forehead. Nothing else seemed to relieve the pain. At those times Eleanor often remembered how her mother had teased her about her looks and called her “Granny.” But even at the age of seven Eleanor was glad to be helping someone, glad to be needed—and noticed.
The next year, when Eleanor was eight, her mother, the beautiful Anna, died. Afterward her brother Elliott suddenly caught diphtheria and he, too, died. Eleanor and her baby brother, Hall, were taken to live with their grandmother in Manhattan.
A few months later another tragedy struck. Elliott Roosevelt, Eleanor’s father, also died. Within eighteen months Eleanor had lost her mother, a brother, and her dear father.
For the rest of her life Eleanor carried with her the letters that her father had written to her from the sanitarium. In them, he had told her to be brave, to become well educated, and to grow up into a woman he could be proud of, a woman who helped people who were suffering.
Only ten years old when her father died, Eleanor decided even then to live the kind of life he had described—a life that would have made him proud of her.
Few things in life came easily for Eleanor, but the first few years after her father’s death proved exceptionally hard. Grandmother Hall’s dark and gloomy townhouse had no place for children to play. The family ate meals in silence. Every morning Eleanor and Hall were expected to take cold baths for their health. Eleanor had to work at better posture by walking with her arms behind her back, clamped over a walking stick. Instead of making new friends, Eleanor often sat alone in her room and read. For many months after her father’s death she pretended that he was still alive. She made him the hero of stories she wrote for school.
Sometimes, alone and unhappy, she just cried. Some of her few moments of happiness came from visiting her uncle, Theodore Roosevelt, in Oyster Bay, Long Island. A visit with Uncle Ted meant playing games and romping outdoors with the many Roosevelt children. Once Uncle Ted threw her into the water to teach her how to swim, but when she started to sink, he had to rescue her. Often he would read to the children old Norse tales and poetry. It was at Sagamore Hill, Uncle Ted’s home, that Eleanor first learned how much fun it could be to read books aloud.
For most of the time Eleanor’s life was grim. Although her parents had left plenty of money for her upbringing, she had only two dresses to wear to school. Once she spilled ink on one of them, and since the other was in the wash, she had to wear the dress with large ink stains on it to school the next day. It was not that Grandmother Hall was stingy. Rather, she was old and often confused. Nor did she show much warmth or love for Eleanor and her brother. Usually, she just neglected them.
Just before Eleanor turned fifteen, Grandmother Hall decided to send her to boarding school in England. The school she chose was Allenswood, a private academy for girls located on the outskirts of London. It was at Allenswood that Eleanor, still thinking of herself as an “ugly duckling,” first dared to believe that one day she might be able to become a swan.
At Allenswood she worked to toughen herself physically. Every day she did exercises in the morning and took a cold shower. Although she did not like competitive team sports, as a matter of self-discipline she tried out for field hockey. Not only did she make the team but, because she played so hard, also won the respect of her teammates. They called her by her family nickname, “Tatty,” and showed their affection for her by putting books and flowers in her room, as was the custom at Allenswood. Never before had she experienced the pleasure of having schoolmates actually admire her rather than tease her.
At Allenswood, too, she began to look after her health. She finally broke the habit of chewing her fingernails. She learned to eat nutritious foods, to get plenty of sleep, and to take a brisk walk every morning, no matter how miserable the weather. Under the guidance of the school’s headmistress, Mademoiselle Souvestre (or “Sou”), she learned to ask searching questions and think for herself instead of just giving back on tests what teachers had said.
She also learned to speak French fluently, a skill she polished by traveling in France, living for a time with a French family. Mademoiselle Souvestre arranged for her to have a new red dress. Wearing it, after all of the old, worn dresses Grandmother Hall had given her, made her feel very proud.
Eleanor was growing up, and the joy of young womanhood had begun to transform her personality. In 1902, nearly eighteen years old, she left Allenswood, not returning for her fourth year there.
Grandmother Hall insisted that, instead, she must be introduced to society as a debutante—to go to dances and parties and begin to take her place in the social world with other wealthy young women. Away from Allenswood, Eleanor’s old uncertainty about her looks came back again. She saw herself as too tall, too thin, too plain. She worried about her buckteeth, which she thought made her look horselike. The old teasing began again, especially on the part of Uncle Ted’s daughter, “Princess” Alice Roosevelt, who seemed to take pleasure in making Eleanor feel uncomfortable.
Eleanor, as always, did as she was told. She went to all of the parties and dances. But she also began working with poor children at the Rivington Street Settlement House on New York’s Lower East Side. She taught the girls gymnastic exercises. She took children to museums and to musical performances. She tried to get the parents interested in politics in order to get better schools and cleaner, safer streets.
Meanwhile, Eleanor’s life reached a turning point. She fell in love! The young man was her fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Eleanor and Franklin had known each other since childhood. Franklin recalled how once he had carried her piggyback in the nursery. When she was fourteen, he had danced with her at a party. Then, shortly after her return from Allenswood, they had met by chance on a train. They talked and almost at once realized how much they liked each other. For a time they met secretly. Then they attended parties together.
Franklin—tall, strong, handsome—saw, her as a person he could trust. He knew that she would not try to dominate him.
But did he really love her? Would he always? She wrote to him, quoting a poem she knew: “Unless you can swear, ‘For life, for death!’ … Oh, never call it loving!”
Franklin promised that his love was indeed “for life,” and Eleanor agreed to marry him. It was the autumn of 1903. He was twenty-one. She was nineteen.
On March 17, 1905, Eleanor and Franklin were married. “Uncle Ted,” by then-president of the United States, was there to “give the bride away.” It was sometimes said that the dynamic, energetic Theodore Roosevelt had to be “the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.”
And it was certainly true that day. Wherever the president went, the guests followed at his heels. Before long Eleanor and Franklin found themselves standing all alone, deserted. Franklin seemed annoyed, but Eleanor didn’t mind. She had found the ceremony deeply moving. And she stood next to her husband in a glow of idealism—very serious, very grave, very much in love.
In May 1906 the couple’s first child was born. During the next nine years Eleanor gave birth to five more babies, one of whom died in infancy. Still timid, shy, afraid of making mistakes, she found herself so busy that there was little time to think of her own drawbacks.
Still, looking back later on the early years of her marriage, Eleanor knew that she should have been a stronger person, especially in the handling of Franklin’s mother, or, as they both called her, “Mamma.” Too often Mamma made the decisions about such things as where they would live, how their home would be furnished, how the children would be disciplined.
Eleanor and Franklin let her pay for things they could not afford—extra servants, vacations, doctor bills, clothing. She offered, and they accepted. Before long, trouble developed in the relationship between Eleanor and Franklin. Serious, shy, easily embarrassed, Eleanor could not share Franklin’s interests in golf and tennis. He enjoyed the light talk and flirting with women. She could not be lighthearted. So she stayed on the sidelines. Instead of losing her temper, she bottled up her anger and did not talk to him at all. As he used to say, she “clammed up.” Her silence only made things worse, because it puzzled him. Faced with her coldness, her brooding silence, he only grew angrier and more distant.
Meanwhile, Franklin’s career in politics advanced rapidly. In 1910 he was elected to the New York State Senate. In 1913 President Wilson appointed him Assistant Secretary of the Navy—a powerful position in the national government, which required the Roosevelts to move to Washington, D.C.
In 1917 the United States entered World War I as an active combatant. Like many socially prominent women, Eleanor threw herself into the war effort. Sometimes she worked fifteen and sixteen hours a day. She made sandwiches for soldiers passing through the nation’s capital. She knitted sweaters. She used Franklin’s influence to get the Red Cross to build a recreation room for soldiers who had been shell-shocked in combat…
In 1920 the Democratic Party chose Franklin as its candidate for vice-president of the United States. Even though the Republicans won the election, Roosevelt became a well-known figure in national politics.
All the time, Eleanor stood by his side, smiling, doing what was expected of her as a candidate’s wife. She did what was expected—and much more—in the summer of 1921 when disaster struck the Roosevelt family. While on vacation Franklin suddenly fell ill with infantile paralysis called polio, a horrible disease that each year used to kill or cripple thousands of children and many adults as well.
When Franklin became a victim of polio, nobody knew what caused the disease or how to cure it. Franklin lived, but the lower part of his body remained paralyzed. For the rest of his life, he never again had the use of his legs. He had to be lifted and carried from place to place. He had to wear heavy steel braces from his waist to the heels of his shoes.
His mother, as well as many of his advisers, urged him to give up politics, to live the life of a country gentleman on the Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park, New York. This time, Eleanor, calm and strong, stood up for her ideas. She argued that he should not be treated like a sick person, tucked away in the country, inactive, just waiting for death to come.
Franklin agreed. Slowly he recovered his health. His energy returned.
In 1928 he was elected governor of New York. Then, just four years later, he was elected president of the United States. Meanwhile, Eleanor had changed. To keep Franklin in the public eye while he was recovering, she had gotten involved in politics herself. It was, she thought, her “duty.” From childhood, she had been taught “to do the thing that has to be done, the way it has to be done when it has to be done.”
With the help of Franklin’s adviser Louis Howe, she made fundraising speeches for the Democratic Party all around New York State. She helped in the work of the League of Women Voters, the Consumer’s League, and the Foreign Policy Association. After becoming interested in the problems of working women, she gave time to the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). It was through the WTUL that she met a group of remarkable women—women doing exciting work that made a difference in the world. They taught Eleanor about life in the slums. They awakened her hopes that something could be done to improve the condition of the poor. She dropped out of the “fashionable” society of her wealthy friends and joined the world of reform—social change.
For hours at a time Eleanor and her reformer friends talked with Franklin. They showed him the need for new laws: laws to get children out of the factories and into schools; laws to cut down the long hours that women worked; laws to get fair wages for all workers.
By the time that Franklin was sworn in as president, the nation was facing its deepest depression. One out of every four Americans was out of work, out of hope. At mealtimes, people stood in lines in front of soup kitchens for something to eat. Mrs. Roosevelt herself knew of once-prosperous families who found themselves reduced to eating stale bread from thrift shops or traveling to parts of town where they were not known to beg for money from house to house.
Eleanor worked in the charity kitchens, ladling out soup. She visited slums. She crisscrossed the country learning about the suffering of coal miners, shipyard workers, migrant farmworkers, students, house-wives— Americans caught up in the paralysis of the Great Depression. Since Franklin himself remained crippled, she became his eyes and ears, informing him of what the American people were really thinking and feeling.
Eleanor also was the president’s conscience, personally urging on him some of the most compassionate, forward-looking laws of his presidency, including, for example, the National Youth Administration (NYA), which provided money to allow impoverished young people to stay in school.
She lectured widely, wrote a regularly syndicated newspaper column, “My Day,” and spoke frequently on the radio. She fought for equal pay for women in the industry. Like no other First Lady up to that time, she became a link between the president and the American public. Above all, she fought against racial and religious prejudice. When Eleanor learned that the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) would not allow the great black singer Marian Anderson to perform in their auditorium in Washington, D.C., she resigned from the organization. Then she arranged to have Miss Anderson sing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Similarly, when she entered a hall where, as often happened in those days, blacks and whites were seated in separate sections, she made it a point to sit with the blacks. Her example marked an important step in making the rights of blacks a matter of national priority.
On December 7, 1941, Japanese forces launched a surprise attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, as well as on other American installations in the Pacific. The United States entered World War II, fighting not only against Japan but against the brutal dictators who then controlled Germany and Italy.
Eleanor helped the Red Cross raise money. She gave blood, sold war bonds. But she also did the unexpected. In 1943, for example, she visited barracks and hospitals on islands throughout the South Pacific. When she visited a hospital, she stopped at every bed. To each soldier she said something special, something that a mother might say. Often, after she left, even battle-hardened men had tears in their eyes. Admiral Nimitz, who originally thought such visits would be a nuisance, became one of her strongest admirers. Nobody else, he said, had done so much to help raise the spirits of the men.
By spring 1945 the end of the war in Europe seemed near. Then, on April 12, a phone call brought Eleanor the news that Franklin Roosevelt, who had gone to Warm Springs, Georgia, for a rest, was dead. As Eleanor later declared, “I think that sometimes I acted as his conscience. I urged him to take the harder path when he would have preferred the easier way. In that sense, I acted on occasion as a spur, even though the spurring was not always wanted or welcome.”
“Of course,” said Eleanor, “I loved him, and I miss him.” After Franklin’s funeral, every day that Eleanor was home at Hyde Park, without fail, she placed flowers on his grave. Then she would stand very still beside him there.
With Franklin dead, Eleanor Roosevelt might have dropped out of the public eye, might have been remembered in the history books only as a footnote to the president’s program of social reforms. Instead, she found new strengths within herself, new ways to live a useful, interesting life—and to help others. Now, moreover, her successes were her own, not the result of being the president’s wife.
In December 1945 President Harry S. Truman invited her to be one of the American delegates going to London to begin the work of the United Nations. Eleanor hesitated, but the president insisted. He said that the nation needed her; it was her duty. After that, Eleanor agreed. In the beginning some of her fellow delegates from the United States considered her unqualified for the position, but after seeing her in action, they changed their minds.
It was Eleanor Roosevelt who, almost single-handedly, pushed through the United Nations General Assembly a resolution giving refugees from World War II the right not to return to their native lands if they did not wish to. The Russians angrily objected, but Eleanor’s reasoning convinced wavering delegates. In a passionate speech defending the rights of the refugees she declared, “We [must] consider first the rights of man and what makes men more free—not governments, but man!”
Next Mrs. Roosevelt helped draft the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. The Soviets wanted the declaration to list the duties people owed to their countries, Again Eleanor insisted that the United Nations should stand for individual freedom—the rights of people to free speech, freedom of religion, and such human needs as health care and education. In December 1948, with the Soviet Union and its allies refusing to vote, the Declaration of Human Rights won approval of the UN General Assembly by a vote of forty-eight to zero.
Even after retiring from her post at the UN, Mrs. Roosevelt continued to travel. In places around the world, she dined with presidents and kings. But she also visited tenement slums in Bombay, India; factories in Yugoslavia; farms in Lebanon and Israel. Everywhere she met people who were eager to greet her. Although as a child she had been brought up to be formal and distant, she had grown to feel at ease with people. They wanted to touch her, to hug her, to kiss her.
Eleanor’s doctor had been telling her to slow down, but that was hard for her. She continued to write her newspaper column, “My Day,” and to appear on television. She still began working at seven-thirty in the morning and often continued until well past midnight. Not only did she write and speak, she taught retarded children and raised money for health care of the poor.
As author Clare BootheLuce put it, “Mrs. Roosevelt has done more good deeds on a bigger scale for a longer time than any woman who ever appeared on our public scene. No woman has ever so comforted the distressed or so distressed the comfortable.”
Gradually, however, she was forced to withdraw from some of her activities, to spend more time at home. On November 7, 1962, at the age of seventy-eight, Eleanor died in her sleep. She was buried in the rose garden at Hyde Park, alongside her husband.