Eleanor Roosevelt was a debutante, an activist, and a reluctant first lady. Her Roosevelt family tree connected her not only to her uncle, the twenty-sixth president of the United States, but also to her fifth cousin once removed - her husband, Franklin - the thirty-second president.
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884, into a wealthy family in New York City. Her father, Elliott Roosevelt, was the younger brother of Theodore Roosevelt. Her mother, Anna Hall, was from a prominent New York family. Their marriage was troubled.
Eleanor's mother called her "Granny," much to her chagrin, because even as a young girl she seemed old-fashioned. Eleanor preferred her middle name to her given name, Anna, and introduced herself accordingly in public.
Eleanor's father was exiled from the family, due to his alcoholism, and he spent time in a mental asylum. He attempted suicide by jumping out of a window in 1894. The attempt failed, but he died a few weeks later.
In 1892 Eleanor's mother died of diphtheria. Eleanor and her younger brothers were sent to live with their grandmother in Manhattan and Tivoli, New York.
She had private tutors until the age of fifteen, at which time she went to Allenswood Academy, a school for girls in England. The headmistress, Marie Souvestre, encouraged young women to be socially responsible and independent. Under the influence of Souvestre, Eleanor learned to overcome her shyness. The happiest day in Eleanor's life, she once said, was when she made her private school's field hockey team.
Eleanor's formal education ended in 1902, when she was eighteen. She made her social debut at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Her uncle, Theodore Roosevelt, had become president of the United States the year prior, following the assassination of President McKinley.
Public Service and Romance
In 1903 Eleanor served as a volunteer teacher at the Manhattan Rivington Street Settlement House. She taught calisthenics and dance to young immigrants. At the same time, she joined the National Consumers' League to improve labor practices for workers in the Garment District. This would be only the beginning of her lifelong commitment to volunteerism and activism.
In the same year she was engaged to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, her fifth cousin once removed. The two had met as children, years prior, but neither remembered that event. As young adults their paths crossed soon after Eleanor returned from England.
In 1905 Eleanor and Franklin exchanged vows. She was escorted down the aisle by her uncle, the president. Teddy Roosevelt had offered to host the wedding at the White House, but the couple preferred a private setting at the home of a relative.
Franklin's mother, Sara, had opposed their engagement. She eventually relented and gave the couple a brownstone on Manhattan's Upper East Side as a wedding gift - but that gift was strategic. Sara had bought the adjoining building and installed connecting doors on every floor. She came and went as she pleased, she hired and fired the couple's staff, and she eventually supervised the lives of the Roosevelt's children. She doled out allowances to both Eleanor and Franklin until her death in 1941.
The Roosevelts had six children, a daughter and five sons, but their third child, Franklin, Jr., lived for only a short time. They named their fifth child Franklin, Jr., in his memory.
Secrets and Political Ambitions
In 1910 Franklin was elected to the New York State Senate, then in 1913 he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy. To keep up with her commitments as well as her husband's schedule, Eleanor hired a social secretary, Lucy Mercer.
Amidst the excitement of a budding political career and the anxieties surrounding the Great War, Eleanor learned that her husband and her social secretary were having an affair. She was so upset by this revelation that she was unable to take Communion for some time, even though she was deeply religious. Eleanor offered Franklin a divorce. He chose to stay in the marriage, however, because at the time divorce had a social stigma and could have damaged his political future. Franklin promised Eleanor that he would not see Lucy Mercer again, but he soon broke that promise.
The Roosevelts maintained separate bedrooms, took separate vacations, ate their meals in different rooms, and visited separate Hyde Park cottages to get away from it all. Franklin continued to see Lucy Mercer and also had a close relationship with his secretary, Missy LeHand. Meanwhile, Eleanor was involved with a bodyguard, Earl Miller, and some say, a female reporter, Lorena Hickock.
Eleanor continued her philanthropic efforts, visiting war veterans and volunteering with the International Congress of Working Women in Washington. She always kept busy: "My experience has been that work is almost the best way to pull oneself out of the depths."
In 1920 Franklin unsuccessfully ran for Vice President, on the ballot with Ohio Governor James Cox. In the following year, he was diagnosed with polio, which left him paralyzed from the waist down. Eleanor stood by him. For the most part the press helped to hide his condition from the public, but occasional references were made to his wheelchair and physical limitations.
Franklin built a cottage for Eleanor in 1925. She promptly founded the Val-Kill furniture factory on the property with her friends, Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook. In the following year the three women purchased Todhunter School, a girls' seminary in New York. For several years Eleanor taught history and government at the school.
Franklin's political career continued on its uphill climb - he was elected governor of New York in 1928, then president of the United States in 1932. Eleanor was appointed Director of Women's Activities for the Democratic National Committee, then she became a reluctant First Lady. She was forced to give up her teaching position at Todhunter, as well as other volunteer positions that she valued. Regarding a first lady's role in her husband's political career, she once said, "Campaign behavior for wives: Always be on time. Do as little talking as humanly possible. Lean back in the parade car so everybody can see the president."
A Politically Active First Lady
Eleanor Roosevelt did not want to serve merely as the social hostess during her time at the White House. Noticing that female reporters were typically shut out of press conferences, she became the first presidential wife to hold all-female press conferences.
In the late 1930s, during the inaugural meeting of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in Alabama, Eleanor took a seat next to an African American, but she was asked to move because segregationist policies then in effect prohibited whites and blacks from sitting together. Eleanor had someone measure the distance between the black and white sections, then she placed her chair at the exact midpoint. Officials were afraid to place her under arrest. This defiant act demonstrates Eleanor's philosophy: "You can't move so fast that you try to change the mores faster than people can accept it. That doesn't mean you do nothing, but it means that you do the things that need to be done according to priority."
After her husband implemented the New Deal for economic recovery in the U.S., Eleanor traveled the country, visiting governmental facilities and acting as Franklin's eyes and ears.
Eleanor commissioned the home economics faculty at Cornell to create nutritious, low-cost menus for the White House, so that the First Family could demonstrate conscientious cookery during the Depression. She said, "The mother of a family should look upon her housekeeping and the planning of meals as a scientific occupation." Unfortunately, the resulting recipes had no seasoning, no regional flair, and essentially no flavor.
Next she commissioned a cookbook author, but she was too concerned about the art of cooking for Eleanor's taste. Finally, Eleanor hired Mrs. Henrietta Nesbitt, an old acquaintance with no particular qualifications to serve as the White House housekeeper and menu planner. Mrs. Nesbitt's culinary choices were not to the president's taste, however. He complained about being served sweetbreads day after day. For his fourth inauguration he asked for chicken a la king, but guests were served chicken salad instead. By that time, most White House guests were savvy enough to know they should eat dinner before coming to a White House dinner. Perhaps Eleanor used Mrs. Nesbitt to intentionally make life a little less comfortable for her philandering husband.
From 1935 until months before her death, Eleanor wrote a syndicated column called "My Day." She discussed topics of the moment, including Prohibition and Pearl Harbor. She only missed her weekly deadline once - when her husband died.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president an incredible four times. With term limits in place since 1951, this feat will never be equaled. He died in 1945, during his fourth term, of a cerebral hemorrhage. His mistress, Lucy Mercer, was by his side. When the press asked newly widowed Eleanor Roosevelt for a quote, she simply said, "The story is over."
Eleanor summed up her time as first lady in her book, "This I Remember": "I think I lived those years very impersonally. It was almost as though I had erected someone outside myself who was the President's wife. I was lost somewhere deep down inside myself. That is the way I felt and worked until I left the White House."
Adventures and Accomplishments
Eleanor Roosevelt met the famous aviator Amelia Earhart early in her tenure at the White House. The two women enjoyed an impromptu flight to Baltimore, still in their evening attire, and Earhart inspired the first lady to take flying lessons. Sadly, Earhart and her plane went missing over the Pacific before the lessons could take place. The president sent out a massive search party, to no avail.
Eleanor wrote 27 books and over 8,000 columns. She gave lectures, plus she hosted radio programs and a television news show. She said, "Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people."
She served on the board of the NAACP and the Advisory Council for the Peace Corps. She also served as a delegate to the United Nations, where she oversaw the drafting and passage of the Universal Human Declaration of Rights.
From 1961 until her death, Eleanor headed the first Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, at the request of President John F. Kennedy.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover thought her liberal views were dangerous, possibly communist, so he ordered agents to monitor her activities.
Eleanor appeared in many commercials, selling everything from mattresses to hot dogs. Some thought such activity was beneath the dignity of her office, but she carried on and donated the proceeds to charity. She lived by the philosophy, "Do what you feel in your heart to be right - for you'll be criticized anyway. You'll be damned if you do, and damned if you don't." In 1959 she earned $35,000 for a margarine ad, then she used that money to purchase 6,000 care packages for needy families.
Eleanor received thirty-five honorary degrees - four more than her presidential spouse.
Eleanor's nicknames included Ellie and Little Nell.
Eleanor Roosevelt died on November 7, 1962, at the age of seventy-eight, in New York City. Her funeral was attended by then-President John F. Kennedy and former presidents Truman and Eisenhower. She was buried next to her husband at the Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park.
Throughout her life, Eleanor Roosevelt tried to keep a positive attitude and make the world a better place. As she once said, "It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness."