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First Lady Biography: Eleanor Roosevelt
Anna Elanor Roosevelt
11 October 1884
New York City, New York
Elliott Roosevelt, born 28 February 1860, New York City, New York; heir (although he held no salaried work position, he was called a “sportsman” by his daughter Eleanor Roosevelt, indicating his occupation of big game hunting, his letters about which were later edited and published by her); in his early adulthood he was listed by title as junior partner in a real estate firm, and in 1892, a brief stint at mine development in Abingdon, Virginia; died 14 August 1894, New York City, New York
Anna Rebecca Hall, born 17 March 1863, New York City, New York; married 1 December 1883, Calvary Church, New York; died 7 December 1892, New York City, New York.
A popular debutante and prominent figure among the New York City social elite, Anna Hall Roosevelt often stood out in a crowd with her strikingly upright posture, a stance many attribute to her skill as a horsewoman. She was also unusually athletic and robust, excelling at tennis.
By her era’s conventional standards, she was also considered to be physically beautiful and sometimes described as shallow and vain. Famously, she demeaned her only daughter’s sense of physical esteem by nicknaming the child “Granny,” because little Eleanor did not meet the mother’s expectation of physical beauty.
A Broken Childhood:
Elliott Roosevelt suffered from acute alcoholism and narcotic addiction, perhaps as a result of a vaguely described “nervous sickness” first manifested when he was a young adult. Some speculate that it may have been epilepsy. At 30, he made a trip around the world, and his fellow shipmates were his fourth cousin James Roosevelt and his wife Sara Delano Roosevelt; he soon after served as godfather to their son Franklin who (after Elliott’s death) would become his son-in-law.
Between 1890 and 1891, during what was his third overseas trip, this time with his wife and two children at the time, his family committed Elliott Roosevelt to an asylum in France. A year later, his brother Theodore Roosevelt committed him to the Keeley Center in Dwight, Illinois in an effort to treat his alcohol addiction.
Given her seemingly excellent health, Anna Hall Roosevelt’s sudden death of diphtheria at only 29 years old was a shock to her family and wide circle of New York society friends.
Within a period of just two years, Eleanor Roosevelt’s entire sense of family was decimated. Her mother died when she was eight years old. Her four-year old brother died the following year. Her father died the year after that. A family of five was reduced to two. The emotional toll it would surely have taken on her can only be surmised. She was left orphaned by 9 years and 10 months old. She and her remaining sibling, a second brother Gracie Hall, known as “Hall” (his mother’s maiden name) became the ward of her maternal grandmother, a formidable woman who lived in the Hudson River Valley.
Birth Order and Siblings:
Eldest of four, two brothers, one illegitimate half-brother: Elliott Roosevelt (1889 - 1893), Gracie Hall Roosevelt (28 July 1891- 25 September 1941).
Half-brother: Sometime between 1889 and 1891, Elliott Roosevelt fathered a son by Catherine "Katy" Mann, a German-American servant an Irish-American servant (born 26 September, 1862 Grunstadt Rhineland, Germany, died 13 April 1941, Brooklyn, New York) in the Roosevelt household; little to nothing is known of him, except that Elliott Roosevelt’s brother Theodore Roosevelt recognized the boy as his nephew and arranged a financial settlement with Katy Mann for her son’s care. His mother’s lawyers, however, apparently robbed the trust established for him. As First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt had some correspondence with her half-brother before his death, just five months before her sole remaining full sibling, Hall.
Before his death, Eleanor Roosevelt’s father had impressed on her the need to look after her brother Hall. She cared for him for the rest of his life. When he was at boarding school, she wrote him daily. When he wished to dissolve his first marriage, he first obtained her permission. Despite his Harvard degree in engineering and superior intelligence, he too fell way to alcoholism. At the end of his life, he lived in a small, discreet home on the property of the President and First Lady and the White House, where his 1941 funeral was held. Eleanor Roosevelt remained close to his four daughters and two sons.
Dutch, English, Irish; Eleanor Roosevelt’s paternal line was descended from a number of the early settlers of New York who emigrated from Holland (see “Marriage and Husband” below for information on the Roosevelt family origins).
Eleanor Roosevelt’s paternal grandfather, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. (1831-1878) was a prominent New York philanthropist who helped found the New York Orthopedic Hospital and the American Museum of Natural History. A condition he made in helping found the museum was that it be opened seven days a week to make it available to working-class people, who often worked six days a week. He also served on the fundraising committee that paid for the stone pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s paternal grandmother Martha Bullock (1835-1884) belonged to a Georgia family that had held many prominent civic and military positions in the colonial, Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary eras and, with her husband, was a slave owner. She died eight months before Eleanor Roosevelt was born.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s maternal grandmother, Mary Livingston Ludlow (1843-1919) was the great-granddaughter of Robert R. Livingston, chancellor of New York, who administered the presidential oath of office to George Washington in 1789 and served on the Second Continental Congress committee which helped draft the Declaration of Independence. However, he did not sign the document due to the potential compromise of his business interests.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s maternal great-grandfather Valentine Hall, Sr. was an immigrant from Ireland to Brooklyn, New York, although his faith and place of origin in Ireland are unknown. The national origins of his wife, also identified as an immigrant, are unclear.
Her Uncle, the President:
Eleanor Roosevelt’s father, Elliott Roosevelt was the brother of President Theodore Roosevelt (27 October 1858 – 6 January 1919; presidency, 1901-1909), making her the niece of the 26th President. Although the genealogy of some other First Ladies can be traced to have distant family connections to Presidents other than their husbands, Eleanor Roosevelt thus has one of the closest blood connections to a President beside her husband. The closest such family relations were of Abigail Adams and Barbara Bush as the mothers of Presidents John Quincy Adams and George W. Bush, respectively, and Anna Harrison as grandmother of Benjamin Harrison. The relation of Louisa Adams to John Adams and Laura Bush to George H.W. Bush were as daughters-in-law, thus by marriage only. Mamie Eisenhower was the grandmother-in-law of Richard Nixon, her grandson David Eisenhower marrying his daughter Julie Nixon.
Five feet, eleven inches in height; dark blonde hair, blue eyes
Among those First Ladies whose physical height is known, Eleanor Roosevelt and Michelle Obama are believed to be the tallest, both chronicled as being five feet, eleven inches in height.
Episcopalian. Although Eleanor Roosevelt would come to learn and respect the tenets of many different Christian sects and other faiths, she remained steadfast in her belief in the teachings of the faith into which she was born, baptized and married. Towards the end of her life, she wrote about her belief that there must be “some going on” after physical death, although she stated that neither she nor any other person could know what form it took.
Private tutoring by Frederic Roser, (approximately 1889-1890). Roser provided lessons to children of wealthy New York families; Eleanor Roosevelt’s mother hired Roser and his assistant, a Miss Tomes, to instruct Eleanor Roosevelt and several of her peers in a room on the upper floor of the Roosevelt home in New York, and the home of her mother’s family in Tivoli, New York, in the Hudson River Valley. Her maternal aunts who were alarmed to discover that Eleanor Roosevelt was unable to read had prompted the training. She was taught grammar, arithmetic, poetry and English literature. Within a few years, she was conversant and able to write well not only French, but Italian, German and Spanish.
Convent School, Italy, (approximately 1890-1891). During the period that she and her family lived in Italy, Eleanor Roosevelt’s father suffered another intense bout of alcoholism and was placed in a French asylum for recovery treatment. Her mother became depressed and, unable to cope with the crisis, placed Eleanor Roosevelt in a convent school. Beyond this fact, little about the experience is known including what, if any, educational training she received there.
Allenswood Girl’s Academy, Wimbledon Common, London, England, (1898-1902). Run by Marie Souvestre, who Eleanor Roosevelt later identified as the first greatest influence on her educational and emotional development, she was taught French, German, Italian, English literature, composition, music, drawing, painting and dance. Although the school did not offer classes in history, geography, and philosophy, Marie Souvestre privately directed Eleanor Roosevelt’s pursuit of these studies.
Souvestre further took her as a travelling companion through France and Italy during school holiday breaks and opened up new worlds to her young student, including impoverished areas of the working-class, away from the typical tourist sights.
Marie Souvestre also openly espoused political views that challenged the status quo, defending the rights of the working-class, an attitude that would greatly shape the later activism of Eleanor Roosevelt. She later called her three years at Allenswood Academy the “happiest years of my life.” In later years, however, Eleanor Roosevelt reflected that the greatest regret of her life was her lack of a college education.
Occupation Before Marriage:
Despite conceding to her grandmother’s direction that she her return to the US to make her social debut, Eleanor Roosevelt became active in the social reform movement of the Progressive Era. She was greatly influenced by the idealized example of the reform-oriented incumbent President, her uncle Theodore Roosevelt. Besides exposing her to the people of an entirely separate socio-economic class from her own and their problems, it taught her the power of organized political reform and the process necessary to legally effect fair labor practices.
Secretary and Teacher, Junior League for the Promotion of Settlement Movements, Rivington Street College Settlement, New York City, New York (1902 – 1903). Although Eleanor Roosevelt was not interested in leading the social life of a debutante as her grandmother and other relatives expected, it was from the circle of other elite class women that she met others like herself who were interested in reform efforts to improve the lives of the impoverished masses that existed within deplorable living and working conditions. These debutantes had coalesced into a formal organization known as the “Junior League,” one of its founders being Mary Harriman Rumsey, a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt’s. A Settlement House was a community center of sorts, a place to help improve lives for these workers, who were largely of the immigrant population by teaching useful skills and lessons to safeguard their own well-being. Different settlement houses were established in densely populated poor areas of cities. Helen Cutting, the mother of one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s friends, volunteered at a Settlement House on Rivington Street on the lower East Side of New York, and this is how the future First Lady was led there. She began her work as a teacher of dance and calisthenics, a way to use physical exercise and movement to improve health after long hours of work in a confined space.
Investigator, The Consumer’s League, New York City, New York (1903-1905). Eleanor Roosevelt followed the lead of her fellow Rivington Street Settlement volunteer Helen Cutting, who also belonged to the National Consumer’s League, by becoming a volunteer investigator for the reform organization. Her work consisted of visiting the tenement apartments where workers both lived and worked under dangerous and unhealthy conditions in these so-called “sweatshops,” her first such visits being to those who were expected to turn out thousands of little artificial flowers that would be used on hats and other clothes for manufacturer’s, but for which they were paid so little money they remained in abject poverty.
The National Consumer’s League had been created in 1898 by socially prominent women who joined in support of milliners who worked in sweatshops and decided to strike against their employer for better wages and working conditions. Eleanor Roosevelt visited workers in their overcrowded and unsanitary tenement apartments, making note of the workload, the physical toll on the workers, and the sanitary and safety conditions of the rooms where they lived and worked. She also helped to create and disseminate publicity in the form of open letters to newspapers, press releases and other forms of media exposure information about the Consumer League’s “White Label” campaign. The “Consumer’s White Label” was an endorsement given to manufacturers of products that were made under certain labor conditions, such as the elimination of unpaid overtime work, and hiring of workers under the age of sixteen.
During a train trip from New York City up the Hudson River to her maternal grandmother’s home, she engaged in a substantive conversation with a fellow traveler, her distant cousin and a Harvard University student, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
A secret courtship ensued, resulting in their engagement, but FDR’s mother intervened, believing them too young to marry. Despite her enforcing a separation, Sara Roosevelt eventually conceded to permit the marriage.
Marriage and Husband:
20 years old on 17 March 1905, adjoining homes of her maternal aunts, New York City, New York, to Franklin Delano Roosevelt [“FDR”], 22 years old, Harvard University undergraduate student (born 30 January 1882, Hyde Park, New York; died 12 April, 1945, Warm Springs, Georgia)
*President Theodore Roosevelt attended his orphaned niece down the aisle during her wedding ceremony, having previously been scheduled to be in New York City to participate in the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
The genealogical relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR is fifth cousin, once removed. They share a mutual ancestor in Claes Martenszen van Rosenvelt (the translation of which means son of Marten of the rose field), who immigrated to America from Holland to the then-named New Amsterdam colony [New York] in approximately 1649. His son Nicholas Roosevelt (1658-1742) is the last common ancestor of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt. FDR’s great-great-great grandfather (Jacobus Roosevelt, son of Nicholas) and Eleanor Roosevelt’s great-great-great-great grandfather (Johannes Roosevelt, son of Nicholas) were brothers.
One daughter, five sons: Anna Eleanor Roosevelt [Dall Boettiger Halstead] (3 May 1906 - 1 December 1975), James Roosevelt (23 December 1907- 13 August 1991), Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. (1909-1909), Elliott Roosevelt (23 September 1910 - 27 November 1990), Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. [second so-named son] (17 August 1914 – 17 August 1988); John Aspinwall Roosevelt (13 March 1916 - 27 April 1981)
*Following the death of her third child, Franklin Roosevelt, Jr. when he was less than a year old, the parents gave their fifth child, and third-born son, the same name upon his birth.
*Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. (the second so-named) was born in Canada, on Campobello Island)
*Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. (the second so-named) married more times than any other presidential child; he had a total of five wives.
Occupation After Marriage
Sara Roosevelt dominated the early years of Eleanor Roosevelt’s marriage to FDR, choosing their first home, its interiors and staff and then, a second home adjacent to her own, at 47 and 49 East 65th Street. Although their home was large enough to raise their five children to adulthood and to later accommodate a growing number of grandchildren, in the early years the arrangement proved especially oppressive for Eleanor Roosevelt. Her mother-in-law had arranged to have doors installed from her home into that of her son and his family. Sara Roosevelt had full access into the life of Eleanor Roosevelt and sought to dominate every one of her household decisions. It would eventually resolve as circumstances and Eleanor Roosevelt’s own initiative conspired to move her into a larger world.
This New York City home, however, remained the primary residence of Eleanor Roosevelt through the first eight of her twelve years as First Lady and became a base for her activities and place where the press often gathered to cover news stories in which she figured.
Following the 1941 death of Sara Roosevelt, the couple sold the home to nearby Hunter College and it became an inter-faith and inter-racial student center. Eleanor Roosevelt would continue to visit the house, delivering speeches and participating in activities of the women’s college. In 1941, the Roosevelts began leasing a townhouse on Washington Square Park, although it largely served as Eleanor Roosevelt’s primary residence away from the White House and would continue until nearly the end of her life.
The Roosevelts would retain ownership of the summer home they inherited from Sara Roosevelt, at Campobello Bay, in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Following FDR’s graduation from Harvard University in 1906, two years study at Columbia Law School, and employment as an attorney on Wall Street in New York City, FDR was elected twice to the New York State Senate as a representative of Dutchess County, where he and his mother maintained residency in the town of Hyde Park (1910, 1912).
After relocating to the state capital city of Albany, Eleanor Roosevelt began to attend legislative sessions and to build an interest in politics, particularly shocked at the omnipotence of “Tammany Hall,” the so-named entrenched Democratic Party leaders who controlled the legislative agenda and votes of state and city officials. FDR later stated that their tenure in Albany commenced her “political sagacity."
"Little Cabinet" Wife:
Under the Woodrow Wilson Administration, FDR was appointed Assistant Navy Secretary (1913-1920). Eleanor Roosevelt fulfilled the social obligations then incumbent upon officials’ spouses, including the making and hosting of social calls among each other on specified days at specified times. She also joined some spouses in accepting the invitation of First Lady Ellen Wilson to tour the so-called alley dwellings of deplorable housing conditions of the capital city’s largely African-American underclass, the intention of which, to demolish the dangerous and unsanitary living spaces, was achieved by a congressional bill. Efforts to relocate the displaced individuals into permanent housing were usurped by US entry into World War I.
World War I:
As a Cabinet spouse, Eleanor Roosevelt assumed several volunteer jobs in Washington, D.C. working for two private aid organizations which assumed a quasi-government role in providing supplemental care for seamen, specifically, and all servicemen, generally - the Navy Relief Society, which focused on special needs of sailors, and the American Red Cross. Besides traditional fundraising work, Eleanor Roosevelt joined other spouses of prominent officials in booths located at Union Station in Washington. Here, they prepared sandwiches and coffee and distributed them to the thousands of servicemen departing by train for seaport locations, from where they shipped out to the European front.
Subsequently, she was asked by a Navy Chaplain to provide emotional support and then investigate and bear witness to the deplorable conditions of sailors who returned from the war with mental health problems, and were being housed at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. This was the medical care facility where those with mental illnesses were treated by the federal government. She found the conditions and care there to be lacking in professionalism and without adequate supplies. Besides successfully prompting the Navy Red Cross to create and fully furnish a much-needed recreation center there, Eleanor Roosevelt successfully implored the Wilson Administration’s Interior Secretary to create a commission that conducted an investigation with the intention of improving the facility’s services. The commission report prompted Congress to increase the hospital’s budget and provide the necessary care.
At the conclusion of World War I, Eleanor Roosevelt worked briefly as a volunteer translator of French for the 1919 International Congress of Working Women when it convened in Washington, D.C. She also accompanied her husband in his tour immediately after the war’s end, touring battlefields, and returning as part of Wilson’s presidential party that went to Europe to negotiate the terms of the war’s end.
Lucy Mercer Affair:
Turning down Eleanor Roosevelt’s offer of divorce, FDR further promised that he would end his relationship with Mercer. Some three decades later, without Eleanor Roosevelt’s knowledge, FDR resumed his friendship with Lucy Mercer, who was by then the widow of Winthrop Rutherford; however, it is not evident that the resumed relationship was again physically intimate.
1920 Vice Presidential Candidate’s Spouse:
When Franklin D. Roosevelt was nominated as the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket in 1920, Eleanor Roosevelt was befriended by his advisor and press secretary, journalist Louis Howe.
It was Howe who drew Eleanor Roosevelt far deeper into the machinations of a presidential campaign, and sharing with her his process of reviewing the candidate’s speeches and released statements. Although she accompanied FDR on his whistlestop campaign in 1920, she did not address crowds, nor respond directly to public inquiries, still considering it to be a social boundary not to be broken. That year, the Republican ticket won the presidency and FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt returned to their homes in Hyde Park and New York City, where FDR resumed his legal career.
When FDR contracted infantile paralysis in 1921, Eleanor Roosevelt took charge of his initial medical care and encouraged his effort to seek various treatments though she was honest in disagreeing with his belief that he would eventually regain mobility. For several days, before a doctor could come to Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt served as his nurse, never leaving his side. She did, however, support his intentions to someday return to national politics. In fact, she alone was the first to recognize that his returning to the public arena would serve as a solution to the loss of his mobility, in terms of his happiness. For a time, she acted as both father and mother to their young children. She would also take her two of her sons on a trip to Europe, a commitment that their father had initially made to them.
As he sought a more specified treatment in Warm Springs, Georgia, FDR was accompanied by the friendly companionship of one of his secretaries from the 1920 campaign, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand. She assumed many of the traditional responsibilities of an official’s wife – writing checks, entertaining guests, household management.
In doing so, LeHand unwittingly freed Eleanor Roosevelt from such duties and permitted her the time to pursue an increasingly independent career in reform politics, writing, teaching, new friendships and other pursuits both professional and personal.
The Women's City Club of New York, board of directors, vice president, City Planning Department chair, Finance Committee chair, 1924-1928: An organization which kept women informed of political issues of the day and offered members a network of fellow professional women. Within three years of joining this organization, Eleanor Roosevelt would be elected to the board and then first vice president. She became the club’s literal voice, initiating her own career in radio with broadcasts intended to make women listeners informed on current political issues affecting them. Some of the public questions that she encountered included government low-income housing, access to birth control information for married women, child labor regulation, worker’s compensation, and protective measures for working women. Her work with the Club helped develop her own organizational, writing and speaking skills.
The Women's Trade Union League, member, 1922-1955. Led by both women of the elite class who had worked in the settlement movement and working-class women labor leaders, this organization sought to enlist more women members into trade unions, notably in the garment industry and to lobby state legislatures and Congress on fair wages and work hours. Eleanor Roosevelt also made enormous monetary contributions to the organization. During the worst year of the Great Depression, in her capacity as chair of the finance committee, she solely supported the organization for several months. She would also teach classes, host parties and provide literary readings as part of the educational broadening of working-class members. She would picket with the organization and be charged with disorderly conduct for doing so. In 1925, Eleanor Roosevelt testified before the New York State legislature advocating shorter hours for each workday for women and children.
Women's Division of the New York State Democratic Committee, member, Vice President, Finance Chair, and Women’s Democratic News newsletter editor and columnist, 1922-1935. With the goal of garnering Democratic candidates the votes and support of more women, the organization became a powerful venue in state politics. Eleanor Roosevelt became associated with it when she was invited by Nancy Cook to address the group. Soon her circle expanded to include the division’s other leaders – Cook’s lifetime partner Marion Dickerman, Caroline O’Day and Elinor Morgenthau. Eleanor Roosevelt helped create and sustain an outreach of the organization to rural counties. In 1924, through the division, she campaigned through all of New York State for Democrat Alfred Smith against her first cousin, Republican Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. in his gubernatorial election. Smith won, becoming an ally of Eleanor Roosevelt’s. She worked as treasurer and as editor of the division’s Women’s Democratic News monthly newsletter, eventually writing a monthly column in the publication called “Passing Thoughts of Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt.” The newsletter was eventually folded into a pre-existing national version in 1935.
The League of Women Voters, New York State branch and national organization, Board member, Legislative Committee Chair (state league), Constitutional Revision Chair (state league), County Delegate, State Delegate, Vice-Chair of the New York State League, 1920-1928. With the goal of educating women on candidates and political issues, and engaging them into the political process, at both the state and national levels, the League was an important stepping-stone for Eleanor Roosevelt’s own political seasoning. Chairing a Legislation Committee, she conducted in-depth research on pending congressional bills and wrote a summary report of it with attorney and fellow member Elizabeth Read who would become a lifelong friend along with Read’s life partner, consumer advocate and educator Esther Lape. As a county and state delegate she attended the New York State and national conventions of the league, widening her circle of fellow women reformists and activists, and delivering lectures on policy related to infant mortality, and health, employment and housing issues facing women. She actively helped the state league achieve its goal of creating a division in every state county. As vice chair of the state league, she advocated for women’s support of international peace, gender equity in jury service and in prosecution of solicitation. Resigning her offices from the bi-partisan league in 1924, she remained an active member who promoted the ideals and platform of the Democratic Party, with which she became more overtly involved. She also began writing on a regular basis for the League of Women Voters of New York State’s newsletter, News Bulletin.
World Peace Movement and Bok Peace Prize Committee, 1923-1924. As a vigorous supporter of Eleanor Roosevelt helped to organize and chair with her friend Esther Lape a committee which sought to award the best plan that would ensure eventual world peace and get the U.S. to participate in a global justice system. The former Ladies Home Journal editor Edward W. Bok had proposed it. Her role was to establish a bipartisan Jury selection board of prominent Americans who would review the over 22,000 entries the committee received and to then promote the winning plan. The winner of the prize was to be awarded $100,000, half of which was to implement the winning plan if it was approved by the US Senate or a majority of the American people. The prize was awarded to former Adelphi College president Charles Levermore, who proposed immediate US cooperation with the “World Court,” the informal name of the Permanent Court of International Justice, a provision created under the League of Nations. The contest created controversy; the prevailing post-war mood and foreign policy sentiment being isolationist in nature, and critics charged that the Bok Prize was an effort to improperly influence Congress.
Eleanor Roosevelt accompanied Esther Lape when she was called upon to testify before the Senate Special Committee on Propaganda. Although the House voted in favor of the measure, it failed to received the necessary 2/3rds of the Senate. Eleanor Roosevelt was exposed to the efforts of world peace by suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt. She would also publicly support the Coolidge Administration’s Kellogg-Briand Treaty.
Val-Kill Industries, furniture factory, co-owner, 1927- 1936. Encouraged by FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt and her friends Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook had built a colonial Dutch revival cottage in stone in 1925, on Roosevelt family property just two miles from the large estate “Springwood,” owned by FDR and his mother.
They founded and ran a small company that made furniture for the cottage, soon expanding the enterprise to make commercial pieces sold in New York. Production of the quality colonial era reproductions took place in what would end up becoming a four-story factory in Hyde Park, intended to employ jobless local workers.
Todhunter School for Girls, New York City, New York, co-owner, history and government teacher, 1926-1933. Also with Dickerman and Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt purchased and helped to run this school on the East Side of New York City. When FDR was elected governor and then began in term in 1929, Eleanor Roosevelt continued to teach, though she began commuting to Albany several days a week, using her time on the train to grade her students’ exams and papers. She ended her formal role as a teacher once FDR became US President, but still took an active interest in the school and its students, inviting a group of them to the White House for annual events.
Writer, Lecturer, Radio Show Commentator, 1921-1962. Eleanor Roosevelt had a lifelong career as a writer of books, introductions or other contributions to books, newspaper and magazine articles and columns. Her professional writing began with the publication of her first article, “Common Sense Versus Party Regularity,” published in the League of Women Voters News Bulletin on September 12, 1921. She would continue to write for the newsletters as well as the publications of the other political and civic organizations to which she belonged in the 1920’s. Her first piece in a commercial publication appeared in the October 1923 of Ladies Home Journal.
Over the years her byline would appear in a wide variety of publications including: The New York Times, The North American Review, Success Magazine, Current History, Redbook, Modern Priscilla, Forum, Good Housekeeping, Parents’ Magazine, Babylon, Wings, Pictorial Review, Independent Education, Liberty, School Life, Baltimore & Ohio, Reader’s Digest, Women’s Home Companion, Modern Screen, Literary Digest, McCall’s, Every Woman, Recreation, Scribner’s, House & Garden, American Magazine of Art, The Journal of Negro Education, Progressive Education, School Life, Virgina Teacher, DAR Magazine, Consumer’s Guide, Cosmopolitan, This Week, Periscope, Journal of Social Hygiene, School Press Review, Opportunity, School Life, School Press Review, American Child, American Library Association Bulletin, Woman’s Day, Look, Time, New York Times Magazine, This Week, Collier’s, Rotarian, Nation, Opportunity, Student Life, Opinion, Echo, Trade Union Courier, Threshold, Common Sense, Town Meeting, Baby Talk, Common Ground, Country Gentleman, American Unity, New Republic, Jewish Mirror, Land Policy Review, American Magazine, Negro Digest, Saturday Review of Literature, Minute Man, Arcadian Life Magazine, Kelly Magazine, Home Safety Review, Intercollegian, American Lawn Tennis, Life Story, Congressional Weekly, Workman’s Circle Call, Teacher’s Digest, Survey Graphic, National Parent-Teacher, Southern Patriot, Congressional Digest, Canadian Home Journal, Argosy, Click, Future, Bayonet, Education for Victory, Council Women, Journal of Educational Sociology, Your Music, German-American, Modern Mystic and Monthly Science Review, American Girl, Talks, Summary, Holiday, Methodist Women, Women’s Journal, United Nations Bulletin, General Federation Clubwomen, Christian Register, Foreign Affairs, ADA, Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin, Phi Delta Kappan, Flair, Harper's, Ominbook, Foreign Policy Bulletin, See, Say. Ebony Lifetime Living, American Association United Nations News, Midstream, Every week, Equity, Today's Japan, Art in America, Saturday Evening Post, TV Guide, Harper's, American Federationist, Educational Forum, Current, Coronet, Redbook, True Story, Atlantic, Bookshelf, Ford Times, Jewish Heritage, Railway Clerk Magazine, Wisdom, Liberation, US News and World Report, Instructor, International Home Quarterly, Department of State Bulletin, Jewish Parents Magazine, Delhi Mirror Instructor, The Nation's Schools, Southwest Louisiana Boys' Village News, School Life, United Nations World, United Nations Reporter, and Prologue.
Al Smith for President campaign, 1924, 1928. In 1924 Eleanor Roosevelt served as the chair of the women’s delegation of the Platform Committee for that year’s Democratic National Convention. Eleanor Roosevelt was advocating the nomination of Al Smith of New York. She also successfully urged FDR to make his first public appearance after contracting polio by addressing the 1924 Democratic National Convention in favor of Smith.
Although she was unsuccessful in helping Smith win the party’s nomination that year, she remained a staunch advocate for his national candidacy through her state and national party work and her public speeches.
Four years later, during the 1928 Democratic National Convention, she headed all women’s activities for Smith’s efforts leading up to and following his nomination as the presidential candidate. She earned the trust of Smith and was able to help him gain access to and convince FDR to run as his successor as Governor of New York.
First Lady of New York State, 1929-1933.
As First Lady of a state, Eleanor Roosevelt sought to avoid as many potential conflicts of interest as possible. She continued her own private enterprises of the Todhunter School and Val-Kill Industries, splitting her time between the capital city of Albany and her private home in New York City.
During this time she also hired an aide who would prove indispensible to her as First Lady and beyond, Malvina “Tommy” Thompson. Nicknamed “Tommy” Malvina Thompson would take on Eleanor Roosevelt’s formidable correspondence and travel arrangements. Being governor’s wife also gave her a broader platform beyond those within politics and reform movements and she utilized it advocate that more women try to develop lives, interests and talents that might take them beyond traditional women’s roles. As she wrote in Good Housekeeping magazine during these years, "It is essential to develop her own interests, to carry on a stimulating life of her own..."
Although she quit most of her political affiliations, Eleanor Roosevelt remained highly politically active, if not always in public. She continued to broadcast her “Women in Politics” series on NBC radio for the Women’s City Club, and edited without credit the Women's Democratic News. In addition, she became the Women’s Trade Union League’s legislative advocate in the statehouse in support of a five-day work week. She voiced her support for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and its president David Dubinsky in their famous 1930 Dressmaker’s Strike. She also was able to make the case to the national Democratic Party chairman John Raskob to increase funding for the New York State Democratic Committee, and on her own did considerable fundraising for the National Democratic Committee’s Women’s Activities Committee.
With her own formidable and independent political experience and skill, Eleanor Roosevelt could not help bring her background to her role as a supportive wife of the governor. In this context, her considerable political influence was simply an outgrowth of her natural interests, passions and beliefs, but adapting it all to a manner which aided her husband.
She was instrumental in FDR’s reforming the Public Employment Service, as well as his promoting labor leader Frances Perkins from a committee member to head of the State Industrial Relations Commission. She further made the case for Perkins as New York’s Secretary of Labor and for her replacement at the Industrial Relations Commission, Nell Schwartz.
She began to substitute for the Governor when either his immobility or his schedule precluded his presence at political meetings and conferences. Furthering this role, she began to inspect schools, orphanages, hospitals, homes for aged, and other state-supported institutions as what she called his “eyes and ears.” In this role, she learned to poke into kitchens and garages, and check out plumbing, food service and electricity, rather than just taking the word of the director of the institution in question.
She put to use her growing but already considerable tactical skill in managing political personalities. When the Governor was organizing a conference of the state’s mayors, she was successful in helping convince him to open the invitation to both Republicans and Democrats. She often helped avoid intra-Democratic squabbles between FDR’s advisor Louis Howe and Jim Farley, manager of both Smith and FDR’s gubernatorial and FDR’s presidential campaigns. It was on Eleanor Roosevelt’s urging that the Governor decided not to keep two of Smith’s closest advisors, Secretary of State Robert Moses and Personal Secretary Belle Moskowitz.
The 1932 Presidential Election:
Having known personally the constrictions placed on her aunt Edith Roosevelt, when she became First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt had a tremendous ambivalence throughout the course of FDR’s first presidential campaign. She believed he was the ideal leader to guide the nation through the Great Depression, but feared the loss of her own independent life. Nevertheless, in 1931, in anticipation of the campaign, she organized the women’s division of “Friends For Roosevelt,” the exploratory committee that would launch his candidacy, and also wrote and edited much of the literature about him.
As far as public campaigning, however, Eleanor Roosevelt was more visible on behalf of Herbert Lehman, the Democrat hoping to succeed her husband as New York Governor. She continued her role as intermediary between Farley and Howe, and reviewed the publicity of the National Democratic Committee’s Women’s Division, which were printed on colored-paper "rainbow fliers" – which were intended to appeal to women’s femininity. Mrs. Roosevelt backed her husband’s inclinations to break with tradition and attend the convention to accept his party’s nomination, flying with him to make the historic trip.
While she joined him for part of his national campaign, she steadfastly refused to make any speeches. Despite her reputation as an overtly political person, she drew a line when it came to speaking on behalf of her husband and would not go beyond making personal appearances with him for his 1936, 1940 and 1944 presidential campaigns.
She attended the 1932 convention that nominated FDR, and also become the fourth woman in history to successfully vote for her husband’s election as president.
From November 1932 until March of 1933, however, Eleanor Roosevelt found herself increasingly depressed at the prospect of what being First Lady would mean. During this period, she befriended several women reporters who covered her activities, notably Lorena Hickok, Ruby Black and Bess Furman and shared her fears. Although she resigned her job as teacher at the Todhunter School, she did continue her lucrative career as a lecturer, freelance journalist, and radio broadcaster.
Although not yet First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt soon found herself publicly derided when she expressed her view that young girls should be permitted to drink beer if Prohibition was repealed, and the fact that one of her radio commercial sponsors was a mattress company. She was ridiculed in the Harvard Lampoon after she edited a magazine on post-natal care with the seemingly ridiculous title of “Babies, Just Babies.”
There were also false allegations that it had been Eleanor Roosevelt who had spurred on FDR to the presidency as some form of thwarted form of fulfilling her own political ambitions. In fact, at one point during the transition, she had the impulsive idea of filing for divorce as a way of escaping the inevitable and imminent limitations.
At the 4 March 1933 Inauguration, Eleanor Roosevelt joined the extensive number of Roosevelt family members, including Republicans of the Oyster Bay branch that had opposed FDR’s candidacy but nevertheless remained personally supportive. For them and for other close personal friends and political associates, she hosted an informal reception following the swearing-in ceremony.
Following a tradition since the 1913 Inauguration, there was no official Presidential Inaugural Ball. However, Eleanor Roosevelt did appear in a white fur and gown at a charity fundraiser ball held that night, accompanied by several relatives. She would continue to do so, appearing at the 1937 and 1941 Inaugural balls. Due to World War II, there was no such event during the last Roosevelt inaugural, in 1944.
48 years old
4 March 1933 - 12 April 1945
No presidential wife served as First Lady for a period longer than did Eleanor Roosevelt – twelve years, one month, one week and one day. No First Lady served through two nationally traumatic events such as did Eleanor Roosevelt, presiding at the White House during the Great Depression and World War II. Unique to her tenure was the fact that the President was physically limited by his then-hidden condition of polio. Thus apart from finding a way to integrate her own professional interests and experiences into the public role of First Lady and assume the traditional management of the mansion’s functioning as a political-social arena, Eleanor Roosevelt worked closely with the President and his staff as an unofficial Administration representative and on policy-related issues.
Despite this being an outgrowth of her own progressive reform work, it was now conducted within a public realm, making both her, personally, and the Administration, generally, vulnerable to political attack and criticism, the charge being that she was neither elected nor appointed to carry out such tasks as it related to the American people. Generally, Eleanor Roosevelt ignored the frequent criticism to help achieve her goals or those Administration objectives with which she concurred.
Unlike her three immediate predecessors (Florence Harding, Grace Coolidge, Lou Hoover), Eleanor Roosevelt did not enter into the role of First Lady with specific plans to continue previous support for a constituency (Harding and animal rights and veterans, Coolidge and the hearing-impaired, Hoover and the Girl Scouts). All she knew for certain was that she would be active in word and deeds, especially in light of the devastation the Great Depression was continuing to have on the lives of millions of Americans. Her extraordinary history of experience and work in progressive advocacy policy, the media, education, and women’s issues, however, greatly informed her as she found her direction, established her agenda and relied on professional contacts. In terms of her life experiences and her evolving vision as First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt was unprecedented in comparison to others who had or would assume the role.
Visiting with Veterans:
In her first days and weeks as First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt had great anxiety about just how she could have a real impact on those citizens then suffering the worst affects of the Great Depression, or even how to begin determining this. It was on the advice of Louis Howe that she made one simple gesture that began to lead the way for her. Lingering still in the nation’s capital city from the last months of the Hoover Administration were those World War I veterans who had come to protest they be given their promised financial bonus from the Hoover Administration and Congress, the dire economic conditions necessitating their demand for remittance earlier than scheduled.
Knowing she could not deliver something that the new Administration had not promised, she was unsure of what she would say. The fact that the new First Lady arrived by driving herself into their encampment immediately impressed the veterans. They shared their struggles and frustrations with her, they discussed the war, and the brief visit ended with her standing on a chair and offering her heartfelt empathy and a promise that she would see if there was anything to be done to help them, but without promising anything further. She was startled to receive their warm and rousing cheers, and joined them in singing some of the popular songs of the war.
This initial visit showed Eleanor Roosevelt that she could genuinely relate to people who were suffering, without regarding to gender, age or socioeconomic class; it gave her confidence. While the gesture was purely symbolic, it also had a positive affect on the veterans, giving them a sense of hope about the new Administration and willingness to at least initially support the new President and his policies. “Hoover sent the army,” the saying among the veterans in the tent went, referencing the fact that the previous president had instructed that troops tear down their temporary shelters, “Roosevelt sent his wife.”
Mass Media and Communications:
Perhaps there was no more important decision among her initial deeds as First Lady than her decision to continue her work as a writer, public speaker and media figure. It helped in her mission to inform the public, provoke discussion and debate on conversation, rally public support for efforts she believed in or promoted as part of the Administration. It helped to forge a permanent image in the public mind at the time of not just Eleanor Roosevelt as a distinct personality but to shift the perception of what “First Lady” could mean.
On 6 March 1933, two days after becoming First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt held what was to become the first of 348 press conferences, with nearly 35 women in attendance.
The idea emerged from her burgeoning friendship with Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok as a direct measure to help women reporters keep their jobs during the depression. She conducted them to help keep the American people informed of her White House life and the political activities of the Administration, but to provoke national consciousness about larger issues and crises of the day, and to do so in newspaper print. The press conferences afforded her the chance to focus on breaking news whether it was the threat that Hitler presented to Europe or the endemic problems of Washington, D.C.’s social welfare institutions. They were, however, coordinated with the President’s Press Office and there is evidence that sometimes they felt it wiser to have the First Lady break news related to the President or the Administration, rather than through the West Wing. Some forty news organizations were credentialed to have one representative attend the First Lady press conferences, a certification that was controlled by the President’s Press Secretary (the position of First Lady’s Press Secretary did not yet exist).
What made Eleanor Roosevelt’s White House press conferences even more unique was the open ban on any male reporters. Large publications wanted to carry the news that Mrs. Roosevelt generated, but could do so only by continuing to employ the women reporters given exclusive access to the press conferences. On one occasion, following her return from the South Pacific during the war, men reporters were permitted entrance. This practice proved crucial in establishing women reporters as part of the permanent and modern White House Press Corps, their presence and professionalism soon becoming part of the familiar fabric of the working White House. Previous to this, women reporters in Washington were confined to coverage of “style” issues, such as entertaining and clothes. While expected to continue to cover these topics, their “beat” expanded, with the First Lady’s focus on substantive and serious problems. Her sustaining the press conferences through the Depression and WWII, they covered economics, commerce, defense and foreign affairs issues. The press conferences ultimately raised women into the ranks of professional journalism. Her solidarity with them remained strong. For example, when the women reporters were excluded from the professional male journalist gathering of the annual Gridiron Dinner, she created the “Gridiron Widows” and hosted the event in the White House.
After some initial press conferences taking place in the Green Room, Mrs. Roosevelt moved them to the private floor of the mansion, in the designated “Monroe Room” where she had replaced reproduction antiques of the Monroe Era, with sturdy furniture produced by Val-Kill Industries, the factory she helped to created. Initially, no direct quotation of the First Lady was permitted without her permission. She had an aide who attended and transcribed the exchanges. The conferences lasted about an hour. On occasion, she invited special women guests who might be visiting the White House to attend, giving the reporters access to them. In time print reporters for the radio broadcast were permitted to attend, but at no time were either still or moving cameras allowed in. Eventually, the weekly attendance swelled to 115 but was reduced drastically by the first year of World War II. Government information agency representatives were also permitted to attend, but not to ask questions. By 1942, the group formally organized as Mrs. Roosevelt’s Press Conference Association, with a five-member board that met monthly to review policy and membership. The last press conference was held 12 April 1945, several hours before the President’s sudden death.
Monthly Magazine Columnist:
In August of 1933, five months after becoming First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt contracted with the monthly Women’s Home Companion magazine to pen a column called “I Want You to Write to Me.” It was an open invitation for the public to submit questions asking her questions that provoked her advice, personal opinions and providing of information on issues both personal and political. It also encouraged the public to offer their own opinions and observations during the Great Depression and War-Preparedness years. Earning $1000 a month for the endeavor, she donated the fee outright to various charities. The response was overwhelming. Within just five months, about 300,000 individuals had written to her. She continued the column until the July 1935 edition. In her initial columns, she avidly espoused the agenda of the Roosevelt Administration, but over time was forced to curtail political topics. The magazine editors ended the contract to avoid the suggestion that they supported FDR – or any political candidate – as efforts began for his 1936 re-election campaign.
In May of 1941, she began a new monthly column, “If You Ask Me,” for Ladies Home Journal, receiving $2500 a month. Journal editors reviewed the mail sent to Mrs. Roosevelt at the magazine and chose the questions for her to answer, about ten each month. The topics were again a mix of the personal and the political. Her column in this magazine continued through the rest of her White House years, until 1949, when she signed a five-year contract for a monthly column with McCall’s magazine.
On 30 December 1935, two years and nine months into her tenure as First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote the first of what would become her famous syndicated newspaper column, “My Day.” As First Lady, she wrote it six days a week; the only break during her White House tenure occurring on the four days following her husband’s death.
Within three years, “My Day” was syndicated in 62 daily newspapers with a readership of over 4 million. It was distributed by the United Features Syndicate and earned her about $1000 monthly, a rate that shifted depending on the number of newspaper subscriptions. It replaced an earlier, failed weekly column that focused strictly on White House entertaining. Although “My Day”” was usually placed in the women’s section of a newspaper alongside advertisements targeted to the women’s market, they were widely read by men, especially those following politics.
The subject of each day was usually a reflection of an issue, individual, incident or event she had encountered or engaged in, giving the worlds a genuine first-person account of life near the presidency. Written in simple, almost bland language, the column helped to craft her image as an accessible average American wife and mother – despite the reality that she was hardly that.
Initially, many of the columns were light in nature, giving the public a glimpse at the amusing and poignant anecdotes entailed in her daily life as the wife of the president and mother of his children. In short time, however, she used the column to touch on larger public issues, controversies in which she was involved – and even to provoke public debate. It was in “My Day,” for example, that she announced and explained her resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution over the organization’s refusal to lease their auditorium to permit African-American contralto singer Marian Anderson to perform there. Although she claimed in 1939 that the President never interfered in the content of her columns, she did later write that he often shared Administration ideas or reports, or other information with the intention of her presenting it casually in the column to gauge public reaction. The column was a useful public relations tool for the Administration as well, for she could provide a seemingly spontaneous glimpse into his work or reactions to legislation in a way that shaped a long-range plan.
The First Lady usually dictated the day’s column to her secretary or, when she travelled solo, pecked it out on a typewriter herself. She found it relatively easy to do, usually occupying about a half an hour each day. After the White House, she continued the column but the contents became more partisan as she voiced stronger opinions on global issues and Democratic Party politics.
Magazine Article Writer:
On many occasions, Eleanor Roosevelt found that a subject she felt required closer consideration was best served by her writing about it in a lengthy magazine article. She had no one exclusive contract with a publication, giving her the freedom to choose specialized venues to reach target audiences. She addressed the moral necessity of civil rights, for example, in magazines ranging from The Saturday Evening Post to The American Magazine to The New Republic.
The First Lady’s Radio Shows:
Eleanor Roosevelt had nearly a decade of experience as a radio commentator by the time she became First Lady. During the transition, following the 1932 election, she contracted to deliver twelve radio news commentaries for the Pond’s cold cream company. In 1935, she contracted with a roofing company at $500 a minute, and subsequently for a mattress company, typewriter and shoe company, doing various series of multiple broadcasts on different subjects like higher education or events in the news. Despite editorial criticism that it was undignified for the president’s wife to undertake such overtly commercial ventures, she would continue to do them as First Lady, claiming she was motivated to do so because it permitted her to continue raising large sums she donated to charities.
In 1937 she signed with NBC Radio to carry her radio shows with various commercial sponsors. That year, she earned $3000 for each of her thirteen broadcasts. In 1940 the number and length of the broadcasts were increased to twenty-six fifteen-minute broadcasts. The lengthiest and most famous of her series, however, took place on Sunday nights spanning seven months from 1941 to 1942.
The Pan-American Coffee Bureau that represented a consortium of eight Latin American coffee-producing nations sponsored these. From these foreign countries, the First Lady earned $28,000 for the Sunday night series. While the primary audiences for her broadcasts were women, the shows she did during the immediate pre-war and wartime called on all citizens to support the President’s policies of support to England and volunteer their services as the U.S. entered the war.
Lecturer and Public Speaker:
During her tenure as First Lady, it is estimated that she gave about 1,400 speeches, whether it was to an organization involved in social issues important to her agenda as a presidential spouse or a paid lecture. She wrote all of them herself, although it was usually a mere outline rather than a prepared text from which she spoke. On occasion, she relied on experts in or out of the federal government to provide specifics or statistics to bolster the case she might be making in the speech. Initially, her presentations seemed to lack impact not only due to the rambling nature of her remarks, but the sound of her voice. Somewhat strident and high-pitched, with a distinctly elite-class accent, she eventually learned to become a relaxed public speaker and to then hone her message and modulate her voice, taking lessons with vocal coach Elizabeth von Hesse.
In 1935, she contracted with the W. Colston Leigh Bureau of Lectures and Entertainments to do two annual lecture circuit tours a year. Her audiences were usually large organizations, sometimes as numerous as 15,000 people in attendance. They were charged $1000 per speech. Lasting about one hour each with a subsequent question-and-answer period, the groups were able to chose from one of six topics: “Typical Day at the White House,” “Problems of Youth,” “Mail of a President’s Wife,” “The Outlook for America,” “Relationship of the Individual to the Community,” and “Peace.” By the time she ended her annual lecture circuit work with the Leigh Bureau in 1941, she had made approximately 700 paid speeches.
Although Rose Cleveland was the first First Lady to publish a book during her incumbency, none have published more books while serving in that role than did Eleanor Roosevelt. Her first published literary effort was as editor of her father’s letters to her, published during FDR’s presidential campaign. Using the same unique tone of personal reflection and gently-given advice, combined with her highly ideal approach to the realities of modern life, she turned out her first fully-written work in her first year as First Lady: It’s Up to the Women (1933), a call upon women to find confidence and strength in facing the hardships of the Depression. This Troubled World (1938) and The Moral Basis of Democracy (1940) took the same technique but applied it to war-preparedness. In 1935, her first work as an author of fiction was published, A Trip to Washington with Bobby and Betty - although the children’s story ended with a visit to the real-life President Roosevelt. Her second work of fiction took on a poignant currency.
Christmas: A Story (1940)
was set in contemporary Nazi-occupied Holland, with a spirited young girl as the protagonist.
The book with which she was most widely associated during her tenure as First Lady was This Is My Story (1937), the first of what would be her three-volume autobiography, providing a somewhat abstracted version of her lonely childhood and difficult early married years, taking her story up to 1924, as FDR struggled to overcome his polio. Ladies Home Journal serialized the book for $75,000. The magazine issue carrying the first installment sold out quickly, about a quarter of a million consumers buying the magazine and instantly making it the highest circulated women’s magazine at the time.
The subsequent volumes to her autobiography were This I Remember (1949), which covered the period up to FDR’s death, and On My Own (1958). An abridged version of all three was issued in 1961 as The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt and was updated to include the three subsequent years, concluding with JFK’s election, just two years before her death. In addition, her post-White House years saw her authoring another dozen works: If You Ask Me (1946), Partners: The United Nations and Youth (co-authored) (1950), India and the Awakening East (1953), UN: Today and Tomorrow (co-authored) (1953), Ladies of Courage (1954), It Seems to Me (1954), The United Nations (1955), You Learn By Living (1960), Your Teens and Mine (co-authored) 1961, The Wisdom of Eleanor Roosevelt (1962), Eleanor Roosevelt’s Book of Common Etiquette (1962), and Tomorrow is Now (published posthumously in 1963).
Newsreels and Movies:
With an active interest in the film industry, stemming from her son James Roosevelt’s employment by legendary producer Sam Goldwyn, Eleanor Roosevelt recognized the power of the moving image to convey or symbolize in a simple, direct manner what were often complicated matters. She permitted all of her public appearances and events to be filmed by newsreel companies, whether or not it was at the White House. Often, they captured historical moments such as a 1933 Paramount News report, “A First Lady Flies!” showing her as the first incumbent First Lady to travel by airplane.
Apart from those of her public speeches that were filmed for newsreels, Mrs. Roosevelt did not merely appear in the brief films shown in movie theaters but often spoke, delivering some type of public service message. In this one, she is seen and heard promoting the National Relief Administration outside of the Val-Kill factory, encouraging all businesses to follow the employment standards created by the new economic recovery program outlined by the President’s most famous and largest New Deal program of the Great Depression:
In her role as host of an annual national fundraising drive on behalf of the March of Dimes held on the President’s birthday and intended to eradicate infantile paralysis, the First Lady frequently appeared with famous movie stars of the era. These meetings of celebrities from the world of entertainment and politics not only drew guests to the January events, but were also filmed for newsreels that were shown in theaters across the country, after which theater attendants would pass collection jars for donations from movie patrons.
She continued to appear with movie stars in later years on behalf of war-related causes and became comfortable with humorously trading in what had become established as her popular persona. In one motion picture short shown throughout the country, for example, she promoted a charity by attempting to purchase a 25 cent raffle ticket with a dollar bill from comedienne Jack Benny, famous for his parsimony. He joked, “Well I haven’t the change right now, but I’ll be glad to send it to you…if you’ll stay in one place.”
As First Lady, Mrs. Roosevelt also narrated 1940’s Pastor Hall (produced by her son) about a German pacifist, and Training Women For War Production, produced by the National Youth Administration, a 1942 color promotional film.
Eleanor Roosevelt considered her correspondence with the American public to not only be vital to her role as First Lady and her husband’s as President, but also the federal government’s response to its citizens. With her Ladies Home Companion column, beginning in August of 1933, she actually encouraged the citizenry to write her directly. Shortly into her tenure as First Lady, she found her office had become something of a clearinghouse for the most desperate individuals and families left homeless, jobless or hungry as a result of the Great Depression. As many of the New Deal emergency relief agencies were still being established, she took it upon herself to have the individual letters referred to existing federal agencies that might be of direct assistance, charitable organizations or even wealthy private individuals whom she knew might be able to help. She was not able to respond by handwritten letter or even signed typed letter to all of these requests for aid, but she did do so in a surprising large number of cases.
Having discovered that form letters used by her predecessors dated back to Frances Cleveland and offered little support or hope, she established a new system for herself in which every individual received an effective response. In many instances this meant that Eleanor Roosevelt engaged in direct and ongoing written contact with various federal department agency heads to continue efforts to eradicate or respond to problems in their domain. In the first year of the first FDR term, she received 300,000 letters, in the first year of the second term, it dipped to 90,000 and in the first election year of the third term, it again rose, to 150,000. As the US entered World War II, a greater percentage of her public correspondence came from US servicemen and their families, often reporting sub-standard conditions or illegal practices which official War and Navy Department reports might otherwise neglect to address. Her emphasis on public correspondence was not merely a matter of common courtesy; she found it could often helped determine which public issues were important to tackle, saying “my interest…is not aroused by an abstract cause but by the plight of a single person.”
Omnipresent in American life for a full one-dozen years at a time conjunctive with strides in communication technologies, Eleanor Roosevelt became the first First Lady to widely enter the general popular culture, a caricatured image affixed as much to the political as well as entertainment landscape of her eras. Usually with affection, but sometimes with scorn, her physical presence, with an emphasis on the protrusion of her upper teeth and flying fur-piece at her neck, made her a frequent target of highly political cartoons in daily newspapers. She was easily skewered for her own policy views or statements, but criticism aimed at her was often a displaced attack on the President.
Perhaps the most famous cartoon depicting her peripatetic persona was a 3 June 1933 New Yorker cartoon which showed coal miners emerging, smug-faced but gleefully shocked, one of them piping up, “For gosh sakes, here comes Mrs. Roosevelt!” As the First Lady who’s highly distinct speech patterns were the first to be widely and frequently heard and soon instantly recognized, her voice lent itself to parody on the radio and in film.
Most prominent among such examples was a Judy Garland depiction in the 1939 film Babes In Arms, in which she sits to knit beside FDR as parodied by Mickey Rooney. “Eleanor” talk-sings: “My day, my day! I breakfasted in Idaho and lunched in Indiana! I opened up a Turkish bath in Helena, Montana! I launched a lovely ferris wheel, then dined in Louisiana!” Here is the sequence:
The New Deal
As President, Franklin Roosevelt initiated an extensive network of social and economic reform programs, intended to provide an immediate federal government response to the devastation the Great Depression had wreaked on the lives of a majority of Americans. Several general constituencies found themselves the focus of these reforms, including the business and manufacturing, housing, farming, labor unions.
While Eleanor Roosevelt took an active interest and was well versed in the nuances of all these elements, her focus was based on her experiences in the reform movement. Her efforts can be largely seen as focusing on providing immediate aid and relief to citizens who were homeless, hungry and unemployed. Besides specific programs she fostered, promoted or became involved in behind the scenes, Eleanor Roosevelt maintained her general interest in all of the New Deal by serving as a liaison between the citizens who needed help and the best programs to answer their needs. Those whom she most often sought to ensure equal and fair treatment on behalf of were women, African-Americans, youth, and coal miners.
Finally, Eleanor Roosevelt did not believe that government intervention was the sole means to alleviate the affects of the Depression and she supported numerous private charities, though she worked primarily with and donated her own private funds to the American Friends Service Committee. In fact, in many respects she acted in concert with her predecessor Lou Hoover’s efforts to mobilize voluntary action on behalf of those citizens suffering the most from the economic crisis.
In this November1933 newsreel, among the first filmed of her speaking as First Lady, Mrs. Roosevelt addressed a confederation of women’s clubs in Chicago, and called on “the women” to combat the Great Depression:
Domestic Inspection Trips:
As part of this general role, she undertook frequent trips around the United States, to even the most remote regions, where she came to inspect various New Deal programs – usually without announcement so program directors could not suddenly disguise problems. Sometimes the issues she felt needed addressing, change or improvement hinged on small matters; other times, she detected a consensus among the recipients of the programs.
Upon returning to Washington, she made either written or verbal reports to the President, his staff and department heads for the problems to be addressed. She drove her car, took the trains and flew by airplane to do this. The First Lady often travelled alone, refusing to be trailed by Secret Service agents. The agency acquiesced only after she had demonstrated ability for self-protection with a gun they insisted she carry. She agreed to this, but never felt the need to use it.
Eleanor Roosevelt had taken her first airplane flight while serving as First Lady of New York, following her christening of the Governor’s new plane. While she made many of her day trips to New York City from Washington and cities in between by either automobile or train, she just as frequently hopped on a plane to make the short flight. Almost exclusively, however, she used air flight to make her far-flung trips across the entire nation, making many coast-to-coast trips by plane. Nearly always posing for still pictures and newsreels upon her departure and arrival, her frequent appearance entering and exiting airplanes initially led to her becoming the burgeoning airline industry’s single greatest symbol, helping to allay lingering public fears about flying as a form of travel.
Later, in 1939, the First Lady provided a statement of endorsement of air travel, and posed for a photograph that appeared in national magazines; paid for appearing in the print advertisement, she donated her earnings to charity. Flying also led her to create a strong friendship with the legendary female aviator Amelia Earhart. After a famous dinner at the White House, Earhart took the First Lady for a flight to Baltimore and coaxed her into briefly taking over control of the vehicle. When Mrs. Roosevelt later flew to address the 1940 National Democratic Convention, she wrote of her excitement at being able to take longer control of plane.
Among a network of women who had mostly been professional educators, journalists, attorneys, and union leaders in the reform movement during her previous years in New York or who had worked in the Democratic Party at the national or New York state level, Eleanor Roosevelt was the central figure. She worked closely with her friend Molly Dewson, who ran the National Democratic Committee’s Women’s Division, to integrate as many qualified women into the Roosevelt Administration and the federal government in high- and mid-level administrative posts.
The First Lady was successful in changing both the Civil Works Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to expand to include divisions that dealt specifically with the problems faced by unemployed women. Further, she suggested the individuals who would be appointed to lead the bureaus. Similarly, when she learned that the Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided forestry work to young people, was available only to men, she successfully pressed for the same program for young women.
As the first First Lady to sponsor White House conferences, she hosted several that focused specifically on meeting the needs of women: a November 2, 1933 White House Conference on the Emergency Needs of Unemployed Women, an April 30, 1934 White House Conference on Camps for Unemployed Women, an April 4, 1938 White House Conference on Participation of Negro Women and Children in Federal Welfare Programs, and a June 14, 1944 White House Conference on How Women May Share in Post-War Policy Making. It was not just as recipients of federal government programs or as employees of the federal government that Eleanor Roosevelt carried her advocacy. She consistently addressed gender inequity in American life wherever she saw it. She believed women should be given universal military training and even that housewives should be allowed to work only regular hours and be salaried for it.
African-Americans & Civil Rights:
By 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt’s views had evolved to the point where equality of all races had become one of her core values as a person. Far more than her husband, she believed the U.S. government had a moral duty to initiate and enforce changes that furthered or ensured racial equality. The larger white population at that time as nothing short of radical viewed this, yet it never persuaded her to restrain her words and deeds. Often it was a singular, unambiguous action intended as a symbol that prompted a public facing of the issue. She showed her opposition to segregation laws when she came to the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in November of 1938, in Birmingham, Alabama and moved her chair into the aisle, between the “whites-only” and “colored-only” sections. Invited to the African-American Howard University, for example, she wanted herself photographed as two uniformed male honor guards escorted her in. The picture was widely printed, often used to prompt angry racist attacks on her.
No one single act as First Lady, however, more dramatically illustrated her belief than her much publicized February 26, 1939 resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution when that organization adhered to local racial restrictions and refused to rent its Constitution Hall for a concert by opera singer Marian Anderson. While she was not responsible for, nor attended the ensuing public concert by Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial two months later, she strongly supported it. Two months after that, she had Anderson sing in the White House for the King and Queen of England.
On more substantive matters, she was responsible for the 1935 appointment of African-American educator Mary McLeod Bethune to the National Advisory Committee of the National Youth Organization. A year later, she helped to create a Negro Affairs of the NYA and have Bethune named as its director. Privately, the First Lady reflected that when she had come to the point of no longer thinking about greeting her friend Mrs. Bethune with a peck on the cheek, as she did with her white friends, she had come to outgrow her own early prejudices. As a result of their alliance, Mary McLeod Bethune became a valuable advisor to the President as part of what was then termed his “colored Cabinet.”
Beginning in 1934, she worked closely with Walter White, the director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the First Lady vigorously and unapologetically pressed the President to support a proposed anti-lynching law – but failed to do so, due to FDR’s practical realization that southern Democrats might abandon his ongoing and future legislative agenda. She also sought support for the bill elsewhere, such as the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching.
The First Lady also became the first white resident of Washington, D.C. to join the local chapters of both the NAACP and National Urban League, becoming the first white D.C. resident to respond to the group’s membership drives. In 1936, she attended and addressed the annual conventions of both organizations. She worked in tandem with these organizations and also on individual efforts. She worked actively as a chair of the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax.
Within the New Deal programs of the federal government, she made efforts to forge more racial equity. She pushed for those administering the Agricultural Adjustment Act to acknowledge how white landowners regularly discriminated against African-Americans and similarly pressured the Resettlement Administration to do so on behalf of black sharecroppers. She sought to make certain that African-Americans were paid the same wage within the ranks of administrative workers in the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. The First Lady sought to aid private African-American institutions as well, including Howard University’s Freedman’s Hospital, for which she lobbied Congress to increase previous federal aid.
By seeking to ensure that African-Americans were beneficiaries of New Deal programs, and cultivating prominent political figures within the community, Eleanor Roosevelt – and through her, FDR, were key factors in the historic shift of African-American support from the Republican Party and their legacy from Lincoln to the Democratic Party.
National Youth Administration:
Emerging from discussions she had with Harry Hopkins, the Works Progress Administration Administrator, Eleanor Roosevelt helped to foster the creation of a National Youth Administration in 1935. The NYA gave out grants to college students who agreed to work part-time, thus giving them some income without having to drop out of school; it also provided job training to those not in school.
In her book This I Remember, Eleanor Roosevelt acknowledged her role in helping to create the National Youth Administration, which FDR established on June 26, 1935: "One of the ideas I agreed to present to Franklin was that of setting up a national youth administration... It was one of the occasions on which I was very proud that the right thing was done regardless of political consequences."
The division provided unemployed young people with apprenticeships, vocational training and work projects. She became perhaps the program’s greatest publicist, writing and speaking frequently of its progress. She toured several dozen of the sites around the nation, and behind the scenes frequently evaluated the success and failures of the program with its officials, attended its regional conferences with state directors and served as a direct liaison to the President.
American Student Union:
Eleanor Roosevelt was inspired by the call to social justice and world peace advocated by the American Student Union, which was composed of college student activists. When the ASU came to Washington as one of many other such groups for an American Youth Congress convention, the First Lady invited the group leaders to the White House. When they sought her support for the American Youth Act, to mandate federal aid to all American young people who lived in need, she refused, feeling it was expensive and unrealistic. When communists, who urged US neutrality in Europe, dominated the group’s leadership she began to distance herself from the group. Nonetheless, she took a front-row seat during 1939 House Un-American Activities Committee hearings when they grilled ASU leader Joseph Lash she had befriended, and later defended their initial good intentions.
During the war, two-thirds of the group’s membership quit because of the communist leaders and joined the International Student Service organization which provided aid to war refugees and Eleanor Roosevelt followed, leading fundraising and publicity efforts.
Under the direction of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, a tape-recording was made of the First Lady and the student leader Lash visiting in a hotel room, unknown to them; some suggested it indicated a physical relationship but there is no evidence of this. Once FDR discovered this, he was enraged and ordered all transcripts and tapes destroyed. While Hoover seemingly followed the order, he continued to use espionage to track the activities of the First Lady through her White House tenure and beyond, believing that she was aligned, unwittingly or not, with subversive organizations that threatened the stability of the U.S. government.
Works Progress Administration:
Eleanor Roosevelt was a vigorous supporter and then defender of the Works Progress Administration’s Writers’, Arts and Theater Projects, which gave work to the unemployed in those professions. She had been an avid supporter of the initial effort to bring these professions under eligibility of the Works Progress Administration and successfully lobbied the President to this end; he signed the legislation on June 25, 1935. With its emphasis on the “common man,” and efforts to preserve regional and folk art and culture that had been largely ignored as a vita part of the nation’s heritage, she genuinely enjoyed reading the written works, and attending many of the exhibits and performances produced by the programs. She publicly opposed a 1939 Congressional funding decrease to the programs, and the closing of the theater program.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a proponent of the 1933 Federal Subsistence Homestead Division, a $25 million program that was part of the overall National Industrial Recovery Act. Administered by the Department of Interior, it helped resettle communities where a workforce in a predominant occupation had been devastated by the economic turndown.
After an August 1933 inspection tour of Scott’s Run, West Virginia, which was predominated by the coal mining industry, she witnessed the extreme poverty caused by unemployment and under-employment, and its many resulting affects. The urge to provide a viable life and relief to the coal-mining families there led to her unofficially directing what would become the first of the New Deal resettlement projects, located some thirty miles away, in Arthurdale. Witnessing the efforts of the private charity group, the American Friends Service Committee to provide self-help programs there, she discussed the effort with the President and he had it established as a federal project. Feeling a sense of personal responsibility to help the impoverished coal-mining families as soon as possible, the First Lady used her clout to have Arthurdale functioning as quickly as possible.
Within months some fifty prefabricated houses were bought and delivered to the site – only to find they did not fit the foundations. At great expense, an architect was hired to adapt the houses. The First Lady’s insistence that the houses be equipped with modern plumbing, electricity and refrigeration was then seen as a luxury in that era. Co-operative farming, crafts production, and other small industry were established, though proved less lucrative than hoped. While able to lure General Electric to establish a vacuum cleaner assembly plant there, it did not succeed. More successfully she sought private donations from wealthy Americans to establish a hospital and clinic, including the young tobacco heiress Doris Duke after she made a visit with the First Lady to Arthurdale, as seen in this newsreel:
Critics in Congress managed to defeat a Public Works Administration allocation for a post office equipment factory. Eleanor Roosevelt’s so-called “baby,” Arthurdale was a mixed success. She was unable to convince administrators to include African-Americans in the new community. Although it provided quality housing, it was not until defense industry was established there, during the war-preparedness era that the unemployment problems become alleviated. She nevertheless remained committed to the community, particularly the school system that she helped establish through private donations. She further visited other federal homesteads, illustrating her belief in their essential soundness as a method of helping people helping themselves.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a strong supporter of labor unions, though she refused to be seen as a foe of industry. Instead, she sought to encourage mediation over striking. As a working newspaper columnist, Eleanor Roosevelt joined the American Newspaper Guild, the first known First Lady to join a labor union. She would be elected, on a write-in vote, as a delegate to the local Industrial Union Council but with the charge that communist interests dominated the organization, she declined and privately urged the guild to disassociate with the council.
Eleanor Roosevelt revered and continued most of the traditional aspects of the First Lady’s role. Initially, she felt that the task of shaking hands and hosting tea parties as her Social Secretary Edith Helm had urged her to do. In short order, however, she came to respect the value which the public placed on her as a living symbol, along with the often lifetime impression of being received in the White House.
Despite her omnipresence in national life as an overtly political figure, she also hosted the annual Easter Egg Roll, dressed formally to welcome guests at state dinners and receptions, toured visitors through the historic rooms of the old mansion, posed for charitable fundraising campaigns, christened ships and planes, opened bazaars and attended luncheons.
Continuing a custom practiced within her own elite family, Eleanor Roosevelt also enjoyed pouring tea for private callers in the presidential living quarters –most of whom came not to make a social visit but rather to discuss pending policy or lobby for reform, legislation or raise issues they wished to get the President’s attention. She also often greeted guests herself at the White House north portico entrance door, whether they were there for a social call or business meeting.
As First Lady, she also chose forms of entertainment at receptions, dinners and other social events which reflected more fully the spectrum of the diverse American popular culture - such as her famously serving hot dogs to the King and Queen of England, and inviting modern dance choreographer Martha Graham to have her troupe perform in the White House. Eleanor Roosevelt’s interest in the arts was not that of a connoisseur but of one who believed in the value of music, dancing, film, poetry, painting, theater and architecture to a general society and to the emotional health and well-being of the individual and this was more firmly expressed in her support of the various arts programs of the WPA than in any innovations she undertook in the mansion itself.
As a housekeeper, she once recalled having dusty draperies pointed out to her, but felt that there were more pressing matters competing for her time than refurbishing the house. She did take particular pride in her renovation of one room in the mansion, a third floor sitting room which she outfitted with furniture made by the Val-Kill factory which she had founded and managed.
Her interest in the quality of food served in the house was also limited, her husband famously complaining about the blandness of meals served to even him. While she may be among the few First Ladies who regularly cooked - she ritualistically liked to make a large chafing dish of scrambled eggs on Sundays, it was as a sociable venue for her meetings and conferences on serious matters.
As for her personal appearance, she was as comfortable appearing in public wearing a hairnet and riding pants as she was in new and expensive gowns on state occasions.
While she sometimes ordered a dress she liked to be made for her in several different colors to spare her what she considered a waste of valuable time trying on clothing, she was also voted among the best-dressed women at different points during her White House tenure and took pride in this. She also accepted clothes at reduced rates in trade for permitting the stores to advertise her patronage by printing pictures of her in their items.
While she might be said to have exemplified her own unique style with signature items such as her veiled and flowered hats and fur-collar neckpieces, she was following popular looks of her era, rather than seeking to popularize her own fashions for others.
Influence on the President:
Although Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt maintained increasingly separate orbits of activities and friendships as the Roosevelt Administration would proceed, they remained mutually committed to each other as partners with a loving past, and continued to share the same general values in terms of how to best get the nation through the Great Depression and then World War II. They continually maintained a dialogue on immediate and long-term domestic and international crises. After nearly all of her fact-finding missions across the country, she reported all the important details she knew would either interest him or provide insight into the mood of an individual or demographic she had met with, often providing her own analysis of their remarks or reactions. This was a continuation of her “eyes and ears” role begun when he was Governor of New York.
Despite their largely separate travels, Eleanor Roosevelt did travel both domestically and outside of the nation, with the President, a fact often overlooked. This included tour of national parks in 1934 and 1937 and a state visit to Mexico, in 1939. She especially relished the western national parks trips where she had the chance to engage with Native Americans still living in some regions without being under the observation of large crowds.
Mrs. Roosevelt would always diminish what she claimed was her influence on the President. It may have been true that she had no greater power to change his mind or sway his intentions than any others in his circle of advisers. As his wife, however, Eleanor Roosevelt could always gain access to, and make her case to him about matters she believed were of great importance.
When, on many occasions, she seemed to visibly irritate him by raising serious issues and others sought to prevent her from upsetting him, she would still compose a memo or note to him that he would give attention and ultimately address. In fact, even when she was reporting to him on an unpleasant reaction to one of his programs or statements or disclosing the disappointing truth of reality, he never took her findings or assessments for granted.
While her focus remained largely on policy-related matters, others found that the First Lady had an excellent instinct for political matters. Although she rigidly refused to assume an overt partisan role in public during her husband’s1936 re-election campaign and maintained her rule not to deliver campaign speeches
She did, however, assume a central role as FDR’s liaison with the National Democratic Committee chairman James Farley. She famously composed a detailed memo reviewing every potential issue that could arise as a threat to his successful winning a second term and his response to each matter she pointed out required twenty pages.
Their family life was also of obvious mutual interests. Despite the numerous marriages and divorces of her four adult sons and one daughter, the First Lady never permitted her disappointments in their personal lives change her strong commitment to their well-being, making arrangements to see them all, even if it meant extensive travel to do so.
When the Roosevelts moved into the White House in 1933, Anna Dall was going through a divorce and came to live there with her two young children. Eleanor Roosevelt spent much of her leisure time in her first year as First Lady with her two grandchildren, popularly known as “Sistie and her daughter Buzzie.” Throughout the Administration, other grandchildren would also come to live briefly in the White House.
The First Lady had especially strong friendships, most notably with the former reporter Lorena ok, and a former New York State trooper Earl Miller. Both of them would later be romantically linked to the First Lady. In the case of Lorena Hickock, there is an extensive archive of personal letters between the two women that does indicate an intense emotional relationship at the least. For periods during the first two Roosevelt terms, Hickok lived at the White House.
1940 Democratic National Convention:
Initially, Eleanor Roosevelt opposed FDR running for an unprecedented third presidential term in 1940, but recognized the need for his leadership, as the nation appeared to likely join its allies in the growing global war with Germany and its allies. Roosevelt’s preference for his vice-presidential candidate Henry Wallace nevertheless created discord at the convention that nominated him that year, being held in Chicago - even from the president’s own campaign manager. To calm the growing discontent and call for party unity, the President called on his wife – who was then relaxing at their Hyde Park estate.
Within hours, she managed to get a plane to fly her to Chicago, where she was driven directly to the convention hall. She then addressed the delegates, becoming the first First Lady to do so. She declared that they were living in “no ordinary time” – a reference less to the third presidential term and more to the vigilance necessary as the nation prepared to become involved in the world war.
Anger about FDR breaking with history by seeking a third term also led to renewed attacks on the First Lady for her activism. It manifested most prominently with a popular campaign button declaring, “We Don’t Want Eleanor Either.”
Continued Interest in New Deal programs and Washington, D.C.:
Although President Roosevelt began to shift his focus from the economic New Deal measures to getting the United States prepared for probably entry into the growing European war as an ally with the British, Eleanor Roosevelt did not lose sight of efforts she began in the early years of the Administration. She remained committed to the principals of the New Deal.
Notably, this included her interest in living conditions of Washington, D.C. She had first been introduced to the alley-dwellings of the capital city where many impoverished families had made their homes when she had first come to Washington in 1913, and trailed First Lady Ellen Wilson in her efforts to clear the city of the sub-standard housing. Eleanor Roosevelt as First Lady managed to see the effort resumed to some degree, but its completion was abruptly ended with the onset of World War II.
Her interest extended to social institutions, which then came under the jurisdiction of the federal government since the U.S. Congress oversaw the capital city’s management. Among the places she visited, Mrs. Roosevelt made inspection tours of a home for indigent elderly residents and a school and child care center. She determined to have the deplorable and embarrassing conditions made public, to prompt necessary federal aid, leading her to become the first First Lady to testify before Congress on February 9, 1940. Here is some of her historical testimony:
War-Preparedness and European Refugees:
By 1940, America’s strongest European ally, England was at war with Nazi Germany, and the Roosevelts believed that U.S. involvement was inevitable. One of the First Lady’s greatest concerns during this period was the welfare of refugees – whether they were seeking escape from Spain’s civil war or the Nazi invasion of Holland. Increasingly, the First Lady received letters from around the world seeking her help in finding relatives dislocated by the war. She also participated in publicity for Bundles for Britain and the British War Relief Society, charity organizations that provided clothing in the war-torn nation. She conducted her work both within the federal government, as well as with private organizations like the Emergency Rescue Committee and the U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children.
During the war, her advocacy on behalf of refugees continued and she openly disagreed with the State Department’s chief of visa operations Breckinridge Long who vigorously opposed any change in immigration restrictions. Forced to help refugees immigrate to the U.S. on a case-by-case basis substantially slowed to a trickle the number of appeals she was able to facilitate into entrance visa. Despite lobbying Congress, she also failed to help push through the Child Refugee Bill that intended to permit 10,000 more children a year over an existing quota from Germany.
Office of Civilian Defense:
Although the job was unsalaried, Eleanor Roosevelt became the first First Lady to assume an official working position during her incumbency, when she went to work as the assistant director of the Office of Civilian Defense on September 22, 1941.
While the director, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia directed efforts to obtain and stockpile fire department and other emergency supplies, in anticipation of potential attacks on the U.S., his other assistant director took charge of physical fitness and training. It was Eleanor Roosevelt’s job to foment a national volunteer force to work on the home front, rallied by the call of patriotism and to further ensure that the types of work they would be trained for would be viable for civilian defense.
Usually walking to the office, located about ten blocks away on Washington’s Dupont Circle, the First Lady hired her friend, the dancer Mayris Chaney, to develop a calisthenics program for children if they were constricted to bomb shelters – but she also taught recreational dancing to the Washington staff of the OCD. In addition, the First Lady’s friends Joseph Lash and Melvyn Douglas were both appointed to committee positions and drew federal stipends.
In short order the “fan dancer” and the First Lady’s “boondoggle” hit headlines and enraged members of Congress. The unrelenting criticism of her maintaining the job, coming from both in Congress and the media, began to damage the OCD’s viability at a time when it was being reorganized in the first weeks following American entry into the war. After a period of just five months, she felt she had no choice but to resign, believing future presidential spouses who might also do so would inevitably suffer the same criticisms.
World War II:
Pearl Harbor Attack:
Perhaps the most historical of Eleanor Roosevelt’s radio broadcasts was the one she did on the evening of December 7, 1941. Earlier that day, Japanese air forces bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. During the day, within hours of the attack, the entire nation heard the news that all knew would inevitably mean U.S. involvement in the world war. It would not be another full day before the President addressed the American people in his declaration of war before Congress against Japan and its allies. Thus, it was Eleanor Roosevelt who became the first national figure who spoke with the people about what this would mean, in terms of the changes of normal life and particularly for women and young men of enlistment age. Here is her original recording:
Eleanor Roosevelt would become an important symbol during World War II.
Whether as the mother of four sons who were active servicemen, putting the entire White House system on the same food and gas rationing system as the rest of the country, participating in air raids and learning how to use a gas mask, she made certain that her life in the White House mirrored that of the general population.
She had a victory garden planted on the South Lawn – as many citizens did on their lawns. She made frequent radio appeals for donations of money and blood to the Red Cross. Her multitude of volunteer wartime efforts also reflected the war work of American women, particularly in factories and other jobs that had been held by men who were now serving overseas. Throughout the war, in her remarks and writings, she continually underlined the purposes of democracy as the driving force for the sacrifices being made. In both the pre-war and war periods, she especially spoke out in strong language against the tyranny of fascism. She opposed the U.S. neutrality during the Spanish civil war, supporting the Loyalist government against the fascist uprising led by General Francisco Franco.
The American First Lady was an unrelenting and harsh critic in writing and in her press conferences of Germany’s Nazi Party leader and Third Reich leader Adolph Hitler and Italy’s fascist president Benito Mussolini. In turn, both dictators would attack her in their broadcasts and prompted their state-controlled media to eviscerate her in cartoons and editorials.
She also kept a long-view on decisions that would affect post-war life as well, opposing FDR, for example, who supported the construction of temporary housing structures that would be destroyed after their use. The First Lady believed that structures made to last would aid in later public housing needs.
Japanese-American Internment and The Holocaust:
Eleanor Roosevelt was emotionally troubled by the Roosevelt Administration’s February 1942 policy of interning Japanese-Americans in ten relocation camps in western states. The decision was based on claims that members of the minority group were spying on behalf of Japanese interests and intended to sabotage American defense efforts. The First Lady initially voiced her vigorous protest to the plan in public, and soon enlisted the Attorney General to fight the policy with the President. With public sentiment vigorously anti-Japanese, however, she lost her case, focusing then on their processing, making as certain as she could that they were evacuated from their homes with a semblance of dignity, and that families were kept together. Rapidly, she intervened with the War Relocation Authority to begin helping individuals to secure early releases from the camps. Further, she helped to facilitate access to the frozen bank accounts of and by Japanese citizens who’d been denied citizenship. In April 1943, she visited one camp in Arizona on the urging of FDR when demonstrations were held there. By November of that year, her disgust and shame at the camps seemed to have had some influence on FDR for he approved plans to begin letting individuals be given exit permits, though he maintained the general policy until after he had won his fourth presidential election, in 1944.
As early as 1935, Eleanor Roosevelt was receiving word directly from friends in Europe about the increasing mistreatment, harassment and threats to Jews by the rise to power of Adolf Hitler. While she continued to try and facilitate refugee status for individuals, she found resistance within the State Department to support of the Wagner-Rogers Bill that would have permitted Jewish children to emigrate to the United States. As she learned directly of the systematic murder of Jews began, the First Lady was unsuccessful in convincing her husband to make their rescue a priority of war. Still, she did not refrain from seeking to raise American public attention to the crisis, joining with Jewish-American leaders in their speaking tours and attending a benefit performance intended to raise sympathy for the victims who remained in concentration camps.
Women’s War Work:
In large part, at least initially, Eleanor Roosevelt’s public activities during the war preparedness and wartime periods were intended to set an example for American women’s involvement in the effort. As men left jobs to join the service, women found themselves assuming mechanical and other professions traditionally held by men, the First Lady introduced a government information film that was shown widely in across the nation’s movie theaters:
She was largely successful in making the case to private industry who were government contractors that the so-called “Rosie the Riveters,” in factories should provide day care centers for those working women who also had the responsibilities of motherhood to young children, as well as in-house eating facilities and a grocery vendor who could bring food and other household needs to sell at the factories - sparing women the extra time to shop.
Despite her lobbying in favor of women workers receiving the same pay for the same work done by their male co-workers, however, she was unable to prompt any federal law ensuring this. She continued to serve as a point of help to those women who found themselves discriminated against in either industry or the service, such as her investigating discrimination against individual African-Americans at a Women's Auxiliary Army Corps base in Des Moines, Iowa. Believing strongly in the ability of women to also perform active duty in supportive roles, if not in direct combat, she was an early proponent of the Women’s Air Service Pilot program, forging an alliance with its initiator, the aviator Jackie Cochran, and its military sponsor, General Harold Arnold.
Fair Employment Practices Commission and African-American Servicemen:
Perhaps the one piece of legislation that she influenced which had the greatest and most lasting impact was the Fair Employment Practices Commission. It had come about when NAACP President Walter White and the President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters A. Philip Randolph demanded through her that the President that racially discriminatory policies in the defense industry and the armed forces desegregated. Otherwise, they threatened to call a massive protest march in Washington.
Through the First Lady’s persistent imploring, the President issued Executive Order 8802 to create a Committee on Fair Employment Practices, on 25 June 1941. It banned employment discrimination by both the federal government and defense contractors based on “race, creed, color or national origin.” It also established the commission, which oversaw that industries complied with the law. In turn, the protest plans were canceled.
Eleanor Roosevelt had felt strongly that the Armed Forces should be desegregated, but short of that, she did all she could on behalf of individual servicemen who alerted her to cases of discrimination. She also sought ways to illustrate the equal bravery and competence of African-Americans in the service. Perhaps her single greatest contribution in this area was her simple appearance in a photograph as black pilots flew her in a plane. The image not only gave immediate credibility to the Tuskegee Airmen’s participation in the war, but also prompted the President to shortly thereafter issue by executive order the creation of the Tuskegee Airman Program.
In no uncertain terms, however, did Eleanor Roosevelt accept the legitimacy of segregated armed services: she directly equated American racism with Nazi Aryanism.
Red Cross Representative:
Having served as honorary vice chair of the Red Cross since her first year as First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt became increasingly involved in recommending internal improvements to the organization and publicly leading blood donation and fundraising drives during the war. When she made overseas trips, she visited Red Cross units to ensure that servicemen were receiving all they needed, and she wore the organization’s uniform on her South Pacific trip in1943 as its unsalaried representative.
Invited by the Queen of England to review the wartime work of English women, Eleanor Roosevelt went to England from October 21 to November 17, 1942, making her the first incumbent First Lady to a make lengthy trip outside of the U.S. without the President (Ida McKinley had briefly visited Mexico in May of 1901 for a breakfast gathering and Edith Wilson had joined President Wilson for his post-World War I trip to Europe). She visited U.S. serviceman, including segregated African-American troops, reporting to the President on needed improvements in recreational facilities and other needs that were not being met. She also became the first First Lady to broadcast a message to foreign people, delivering a radio address on the BBC. The American First Lady’s trip to England created a sensation in the war-torn ally nation, as seen in this British newsreel:
She made her second international trip from August 17 to September 24, 1943 as a representative of the Red Cross, to the South Pacific islands, New Zealand and Australia. She went not only to also assess the unique tropical conditions the servicemen endured but also improve relations with the Australian government. She would see about 400,000 American servicemen at bases and hospitals, including a stop at Guadalcanal.
The second trip engendered public criticism that she had no right to travel so widely in wartime when others were limited, and that she had no right to wear the Red Cross uniform since she’d never received their requisite training. When she made her third wartime overseas trip from March 4-28, 1944, to bases in the Caribbean basin, Central and South America, she did not wear the uniform. During this third wartime trip, the American First Lady also visited the nation of Brazil for three days.
This newsreel compilation provides an overview of Eleanor Roosevelt’s role as a friend to the American “G.I. Joe” during her overseas trips. She makes a point about American democracy in action at the end:
Friend of the G.I.:
In large part as a result of her international trips to visit U.S. servicemen, where she spent hours at hospital bedsides and joined in all meals in the mess halls, Eleanor Roosevelt forged many personal friendships with individual members of the various services. She carried on personal correspondence with them but also following up on their reports of problems or irregularities in the system. She also reviewed the routine letters sent by the President to families of the military who were killed in action and had them redrafted with a more humane tone. As an editorial in the Army’s newspaper Stars and Stripes observed, this woman whose own four sons were all on active duty, resembled their own mothers back home and that many came to think of and respond to her as such.
Anna Roosevelt, Surrogate First Lady:
Like presidential daughters dating back to Martha Jefferson Randolph, Anna Roosevelt Dall Boettiger [Halstead], served for a period of several months as an unofficial surrogate First Lady. Unlike other First Daughters who assumed entirely the public role of hostess at White House events like state dinners and receptions, the duties assumed by Anna Roosevelt were both wider and narrower in scope. Since she served as a surrogate First Lady towards the end of her father’s presidency, as well as his life, and as World War II was accelerating towards its end, Anna Roosevelt’s importance to the Administration was less as a public hostess and more as a manager of the President’s private social life, which inevitably blended with his perpetual state of work.
With her overseas travels and accelerated activities during World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt was increasingly apart from her husband by the spring of 1944, whether at the White House, their Hyde Park estate, or what was called the President’s “Little Cottage” at Warm Springs, Georgia. At the same time, FDR had grown even more dependent upon the companionship of a personal aide and assistant, following the death of his devoted secretary and friend Missy Lehand. While the President’s cousin Daisy Suckley had become a larger presence in his circle, Anna Roosevelt moved into the White House to fulfill her role on a full-time basis. Thirty-eight years old at the time she moved from her home in Seattle, Washington, it was the second time she made the White House her home, and under similar circumstances.
At the time of her father’s election, Anna Roosevelt was estranged from her husband Curtis Dall, who she had married in 1926 and with whom she had two children (Anna Eleanor, born in 1927 and known as “Sistie” and later “Ellie,” and Curtis, born in 1930).
She and her children moved into the White House with her parents, and for two years she worked as a magazine editor and freelance writer of magazine articles and two children’s books about a fictional rabbit, “Scamper.” Although she often accompanied her mother at White House events, Anna Roosevelt did not assume any public role as a substitute for the First Lady during this first period of residency there.
In 1934, her divorce from Dall was finalized. A year later she married Clarence J. Boettiger, a divorced journalist and publisher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and by him had one son (John, born in 1939). While residing in Seattle, Anna Roosevelt continued working as a writer, assuming a women’s column in her husband’s newspaper. Eleanor Roosevelt visited her daughter and her family on the West Coast on several occasions.
With the onset of World War II, Anna Roosevelt was able to secure her husband an officer’s commission by lobbying General Dwight Eisenhower. A year later, at her father’s request, she relocated with her youngest son to the White House. Other than several private parties for young people, and the small-scale, private entertaining of several members of European royal families who had sought refuge from the Third Reich invasion of their nations, there were no large state dinners or ceremonies at the White House. Instead, the President would have a few friends and close advisers join him for dinners. Anna Roosevelt’s focus was thus less on planning special events than seeing to the comfort of her increasingly infirm father and seeking out special guests he asked to join them.
The arrangement seemed, at least initially, to suit Eleanor Roosevelt who was unburdened of this responsibility and able to continue her focus on war work. When the First Lady returned from her 1944 trip to the Caribbean Basin, South and Central America and sought to lobby her weary husband on problems affecting members the armed services, Anna Roosevelt found herself in the position of having to keep her mother away from her father to protect him from becoming upset. This created a natural friction between the mother and daughter.
It reached a head a month after FDR’s fourth inauguration when the First Lady expressed her interest in joining him for the famous Yalta Conference with Allied leaders, the Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin and England’s Winston Churchill. Instead, ignoring the wishes of his wife, the President decided he wanted Anna Roosevelt to serve as his companion on the trip, on the weak premise that Churchill’s daughter Sarah would be accompanying her father.
While both Eleanor Roosevelt and Anna Roosevelt were aware of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s dramatically deteriorating health, neither sought to intercede with his doctors to assume a different course of his health care; it was an atmosphere dictated by the President, who acted with denial about his condition and refused to openly discuss the matter with any of his family or aides.
Neither Anna Roosevelt nor Eleanor Roosevelt was with him when he died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945. However, among those women present were Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, who had been the mistress of FDR during World War I. Her presence at FDR’s small White House gatherings through 1944 and early 1945 had been facilitated by at request by Anna Roosevelt. After his death, Anna Roosevelt confessed this to her mother. Eleanor Roosevelt was wounded by the betrayal and created a definitive breach between them.
Anna Roosevelt did help her mother with the rapid emptying of the family’s twelve years of accumulated possessions in the White House. The widowed First Lady moved out on April 23, 1945, just eleven days after her husband’s death.
Following her father’s burial, Anna Roosevelt and her husband relocated to Arizona where they bought a weekly newspaper the following year and turned it into the daily Arizona Times by 1947. Although she assumed the positions of columnist, executive editor, and publisher, by 1948 the endeavor failed and Anna Roosevelt returned to New York.
There she and her mother healed their breach and co-hosted a radio show for a year, until September of 1949. She then returned to her work as a magazine editor and freelance writer. That same year she divorced her husband, who committed suicide in 1950.
In 1953, Anna Roosevelt married for a third time, to doctor James A. Halstead and pursued a degree in social work at UCLA. In her third marriage, Anna Roosevelt merged her professional experiences with the work of her husband, assuming public relations leadership at medical institutions where her husband worked, from Syracuse to Iran to Kentucky to Michigan.
At her mother’s side through her final illness, Anna Roosevelt would go on to assume many of her late mother’s positions with organizations focused on women’s equality, human rights, liberal politics. Relocating to New York state, she died of throat cancer in 1975 and was buried in a Roosevelt family cemetery not far from her parents.
Life After the White House:
Shortly after she left the White House, the widowed Eleanor Roosevelt told reporters, “The story is over,” as far as any future role in public affairs. As events proved, she was entirely incorrect. She continued to be a familiar public figure in national life, writing books, her newspaper and magazine columns, moving her commentaries from radio to television, and delivering speeches. Her activities were largely in the areas of international peace and civil rights. She would assume political positions in jobs and commissions focused on issues of domestic and international consequence, all in an appointive rather than elective position.
Initially, the president’s widow returned to her home “Val-Kill,” located near the famous Hyde Park “Springwood” estate of her late husband. She completed the process of removing those items and furnishings that she did not believe had historical significance and were of personal value to her and her children. Although her husband had established the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidential library and museum in his lifetime, she maintained an interest in its oversight and attended ceremonies and events marking the institution’s evolution through the rest of her life.
While honors would soon come to her as a result of her own endeavors and achievements after her White House years, Mrs. Roosevelt always granted those requests by individuals and organizations to show tribute to her late husband’s memory.
In her immediate years of widowhood, Eleanor Roosevelt was on hand to welcome world leaders who came to pay their respects at the burial place of the late president. She also continued to keep his Scottie Fala as her own personal companion, the dog remaining an object of global interest and affection.
Although she always considered Val-Kill her true home and where she especially enjoyed entertaining friends during the summer, conducting meetings with political and other famous figures, and hosting family holiday gatherings, the former First Lady largely kept her base of operations in a series of New York City residences. Her Val-Kill home would be declared a National Historic Site in 1984, the centennial of her birth and be opened to the public as a museum.
With her proven dedication to global peace, Eleanor Roosevelt accepted the appointment by President Harry Truman to serve as the only woman among the five American delegates to the newly-created United Nations in December of 1945. She was in attendance at the historic first meeting of the institution in London, in January of 1946.
The State Department’s Office of Special Political Affairs declared that Eleanor Roosevelt was exceedingly successful in her new role, helping forge international support in the General Assembly for nearly all American proposals.
Eleanor Roosevelt became an unrelenting advocate for millions of oppressed and tyrannized peoples, calling on European colonial powers to grant independence to countries they conquered, advocating the creation of Israel as a Jewish homeland (which was a view that had evolved from her earlier lack of support for Zionism), and reminding the free world of the oppressions suffered by those who lived under repressive communist and socialist rule.
She stood firmly against the Soviets by pressing for the resettlement of refugees whom that nation claimed were political enemies of the state and must be repatriated. Her leadership denied the Soviet intentions denied in the General Assembly.
Certainly, the most enduring legacy of her life was her drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a result of her being initially assigned to the Social, Humanitarian and Culture Committee at the U.N. She wrote and edited portions of the document, managing to strike enough of a general balance that had relevance to the widely divergent cultures of the many nations, and won her own country’s support of the document.
In her later capacity as the Human Rights Commission chair, she presented the declaration to the U.N. General Assembly on 10 December 1948, which then passed it. The document remains as the principal guide to assessing a country’s treatment of its people. In this recording, she reads a portion of it:
Despite losing her job when the Republicans regained the White House in 1952, she proved her commitment to her belief in the U.N.’s vital role in the postwar world by working without salary as a spokesperson of the American Association of the United Nations. In this role, she espoused the values of the U.N. throughout the United States.
Although she resisted various suggestions that she run for public office herself, Eleanor Roosevelt remained deeply enmeshed in national Democratic Party activities, becoming one of the most powerful figures within it – though without title or salary. Always loyal to the party and friendly with her husband’s successor, Eleanor Roosevelt did not refrain from disagreeing with Truman. She was disappointed that he had not continued to fight for health care coverage once it was defeated and for his support of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Bill, which she opposed. On the other hand, she stood proudly with him on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in July of 1947, when he became the first President to address the NAACP.
Her support for and attendance at the first convention of the liberal anti-communist organization Americans For Democratic Action, founded in January 1947, gave it the necessary prestige to establish itself as a powerful organization. When it was later under attack by Senator Joseph McCarthy, she associated herself more widely with the ADA. Throughout the 1950’s, she would urge the ADA to adopt more moderate stances on issues like civil rights, not because her commitment had flagged but because she wished to avoid a deep schism within the Democratic Party between northern liberals and southern conservatives.
Eleanor Roosevelt attended and addressed the National Democratic Conventions in 1952 and 1956 in support of Adlai Stevenson, and in 1960 in support of John F. Kennedy.
Civil and Equal Rights:
Eleanor Roosevelt’s commitment to civil rights only increased after she left the White House. She successfully backed an effort to create the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and worked as a board member of the NAACP, among other civil rights organizations. She defied the threats of the Ku Klux Klan to deliver a speech to activists at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, and visited civil rights worker incarcerated for participating in protests.
She criticized the Eisenhower Administration as being too passive in the civil rights struggle and helped fundraise for those civil rights activists who employed nonviolent civil disobedience, most notably doing so with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks to sustain the boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama bus system because it remained rigidly segregated. She also proved instrumental in helping to make permanent the wartime Fair Employment Practices Committee that outlawed racial discrimination in federal employment or that with federal contractors.
It was not just the rights of African-Americans that continued to concern her. Increasingly pro-labor, the former First Lady served as the co-chair of a fundraiser for striking union members, organized by the National Citizens Political Action Committee.
Eleanor Roosevelt testified a last time before Congress in April 1962 in support of legislation that would guarantee gender pay equity. She also came to eventually support the Equal Rights Amendment, dropping her previous reservations about it. Her last official role was as chair of President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women, which she chaired, delivering its report in December 1961.
Having no illusions about the human cost of the communist system, Eleanor Roosevelt viewed Soviet and Eastern European leaders and their intentions with a jaundiced eye, but believed strongly that continuing dialogue with them was vital.
Opponents of this view often cast her throughout the 1950’s as a secret communist, or at least sympathetic to the socialism, charges she had encountered as First Lady. She was a leading and, at times, lone voice of concern about civil liberties as Senator Joseph McCarthy conducted his hearings seeking out those who might have communist sympathies within the government.
Global Issues and Travel:
Both in her capacity as a UN representative and with her status as a former First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt spent much of the twenty-two years between leaving the White House and her death in global travel.
In the immediate postwar years, she toured refugee camps of displaced Jews in the former Nazi Germany and of Palestinians in Jordan who had been displaced by the creation of Israel. Besides revisiting many of the European nations she had been to in earlier years, she also made her first forays to all of the Scandinavian countries, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Pakistan, India, Chile, the Philippines, Nepal, Greece, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Morocco, The Soviet Union, and Iran.
In 1955, Eleanor Roosevelt went to Cambodia, in what was then known (along with Vietnam and Laos) as French Indochina. Some later discerned that she would have vigorously opposed the increased American military presence in Vietnam under Democratic presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, because she did not believe that France should seek to reclaim its colonial hold on the three Indochinese nations.
In all of these nations, she met not only with leaders, even if it proved to be contentious, but also with the everyday people. She found was particularly beloved in India and Pakistan because of her strong stand in favor of racial equality in the United States.
In 1953, she visited the site of Hiroshima, where the Americans had dropped the atomic bomb. As the widow of the Allied wartime leader, she felt it particularly important to make trips to the former Axis nations of Japan and Germany and to personally visit young schoolchildren in both an effort of healing of the recent past and encourage the democracy of their future.
The Kennedy Administration:
Eleanor Roosevelt assumed an active role in the first Democratic Administration since Harry Truman’s. Despite her reluctance to support him as the Democratic nominee for the presidency in 1960, she took an avid interest in several initiatives of his Administration. She returned to interview him on two occasions for her regular radio broadcast. Here is a recording of her conversation with President Kennedy on the role and status of women in American society:
Besides her role as chair of the president’s commission on the Status of Women, she would serve on the Peace Corps Advisory Board, chair a public hearing on violence against civil rights workers, and co-chair the Tractors for Freedom Committee to expedite the release of Americans held prisoner in Cuba after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. In 1961 Eleanor and seven other former and future First Ladies, attended Kennedy’s inauguration.
Relationship with Other First Ladies:
From what is known about the varying degrees of contact that First Ladies have had with one another, it appears that Eleanor Roosevelt. Shortly before Mrs. Roosevelt’s death in 1962, there was a trend in the press to compare or link her legacy with that of the popular, incumbent at the time, Jacqueline Kennedy. Eleanor Roosevelt was an admirer of her as well, writing a column early in her successor’s tenure predicting great success for her. They had met on several occasions at Democratic Party events in the late 1950s, when Senator Kennedy was gearing up for his presidential run. At the time, however, Mrs. Kennedy felt resentment towards political attacks Mrs. Roosevelt had made on her husband.
Of all her predecessors, Eleanor Roosevelt had been closest to, and knew personally her aunt Edith Roosevelt. While the elderly woman did not visit her niece in the White House, they did maintain a strong correspondence with each other.
Among her earliest predecessors, Eleanor Roosevelt met Frances Cleveland on several occasions during the FDR presidency, and the latter, a loyal Democratic, was an outspoken supporter of both him and his wife
Before becoming First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt met Nellie Taft in Canada where both of their families maintained summer residences; Mrs. Taft, although a Democrat, suggested her support of the former’s overt political role and on several occasions joined each other at events in Washington.
When Eleanor Roosevelt first came to Washington in 1913 upon her husband’s appointment as Assistant Navy Secretary, she joined Ellen Wilson in her effort to eradicate Washington, D.C. of its alley dwellings.
It was during her time in Europe, following the end of World War I and the subsequent trans-Atlantic voyage back to the U.S. that Eleanor Roosevelt first came to know Edith Wilson. During the 1920s, while Mrs. Roosevelt was especially active in the Women’s National Democratic Club, she tried but failed to enlist Mrs. Wilson’s public involvement on political issues. Through all twelve years of the Roosevelt presidency, however, Eleanor Roosevelt frequently invited Edith Wilson as a guest to formal and informal events and the latter nearly always accepted, despite evidence showing she did not always approve of her successor’s activism. In later years, the two often saw one another and would inevitably pose together, at Democratic Party events in Washington.
Eleanor Roosevelt had brief encounters with two of her three Republican predecessors. In 1917 and 1918, she worked with Florence Harding, then the spouse of a U.S. Senator, at the soldier canteen established in Union Station. Following her husband’s election but before his inauguration, Eleanor Roosevelt attended the funeral of former President Calvin Coolidge when she had a chance to meet Grace Coolidge. They would have
Lou Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt had formed a friendly relationship as neighbors while both of their husbands were serving in the Wilson Administration, and even picnicked together on one occasions. With the 1932 presidential race between their husbands, however, came resentments that never entirely healed. During the FDR presidency, however, the women were on at least friendly terms at a Girl Scouts leadership event in Boston where they both spoke.
Although they only worked together as First Lady and Second Lady for less than three months, from January to April of 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt formed a collegial relationship with Bess Truman that lasted until the former’s 1962 death. Almost always their contact was during Democratic Party events or those involving former Presidents and former First Ladies.
Eleanor Roosevelt and Mamie Eisenhower met on several occasions during and after World War II. While working at a wartime canteen in Washington, Mrs. Eisenhower served a plate of lunch to the visiting First Lady (who did not know the identity of her waitress). They had the opportunity to speak at events during the time that General Eisenhower was serving as president of Columbia University and head of NATO.
Although they did not become First Ladies until after her death, several of her successors met or saw Mrs. Roosevelt. Lady Bird Johnson was a congressional spouse during the FDR presidency and was not only a White House dinner guest but made home movies of Eleanor Roosevelt and they also met at congressional spouse gatherings that the First Lady attended. Before her marriage, while working in a hospital, Pat Nixon attended a social welfare conference in New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel where she heard the First Lady speak. Betty Ford was in the presence of Eleanor Roosevelt when they both attended the 1961 Kennedy Inauguration and later spoke of how, along with her mother, Mrs. Roosevelt served as a role model for her as a young woman. Nancy Reagan witnessed Eleanor Roosevelt deliver her 1940 speech to the Democratic Convention, held in Chicago where she then lived, seated with her mother and the mayor. As a young mother in the 1950s, Barbara Bush became a friend to the granddaughter of Eleanor Roosevelt and when the former First Lady came to visit the latter in Texas, she met the former.
Although she remained a widow, Eleanor Roosevelt did develop close emotional relationships that sustained and provided a depth of happiness in her personal life. The two men to whom she drew especially close were both married – Joseph P. Lash and her doctor, David Gurewitsch, and she also grew close to their wives, Trude and Edna, respectively. She often travelled with the couples. Her closeness to her doctor proved especially helpful after she was diagnosed and lived with aplastic anemia and tuberculosis for the last two years of her life.
Wiltwyck School for Boys:
Despite all of her power within the Democratic Party, labor and civil rights movement, and her high visibility in the national media, one of the most important aspects of Eleanor Roosevelt’s later life was her support for the small Wiltwyck School for Boys that had been established during her first term as First Lady.
Located across the Hudson River from the Roosevelt estate, its students were between the ages of 8 and 12 years old, and were mostly African-American youths who had been abandoned by their families, and neglected by society. The student body was composed largely of children from impoverished sections of New York City who had developed severe behavioral and emotional problems, and most ended up in the legal system to be classified as “juvenile delinquents.” During World War II, however, the school was in danger of closing due to lack of funds. Drawing on her own professional experiences in establishing the Todhunter School, Eleanor Roosevelt helped to save the institution, joining the board of directors and reorganizing it as a private institution, instead of being a project of the Episcopal City Mission Society. In the late 1940s through the early 1960s, the former First Lady regularly invited the entire student body to visit with her, hosting picnics and explorations of nature in the woods and by the streams adjoining the Roosevelt property. The First Lady devoted herself to raising as much money as she could to keep the school flourishing, and it continued to be a primary focus of her private life until her death, when she succeeded in helping it move to new headquarters in Westchester County.
As part of her fundraising efforts, Mrs. Roosevelt willingly faced criticism from even friends and family to film a television commercial for Good Luck margarine in 1957. Many of her admirers strenuously argued against what they believed would be viewed as compromising her dignity as a former First Lady. The fact that she earned $35,000 for just a few seconds of work appearing in the TV ad, allowed her to make an enormous financial donation to the Wiltwyck School as well as the Citizens Committee for Children of New York, which provided food, housing and education for other disadvantaged children of New York City who did not fit into the narrow age and gender parameters of the school. Here is the commercial:
Death and Burial:
November 7, 1962
Age: 78 years, 27 days
Burial: Hyde Park, N.Y.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s funeral was the first of a former First Lady to be attended by multiple First Ladies: Bess Truman, Jacqueline Kennedy and (future First Lady) Lady Bird Johnson, establishing a precedent for those who died chronologically after her. It was the first one of a former First Lady to be attended by the incumbent President (John F. Kennedy) since Theodore Roosevelt had attended that of Julia Grant in 1902 and, the only other example, that of Dolley Madison in 1849, when President Zachary Taylor delivered the eulogy.