First Ladies: Eleanor Roosevelt one of the most loved – and hated
By Betty Etchison West
Eleanor, the wife of the 32d President of the United States, was said to be the “most loved and the most hated woman in the United States.”
She was loved by the millions that she helped and hated by those who thought she was checking into things which she should leave alone. She was actually acting as “eyes and ears” for her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was handicapped. Eleanor once told her husband that the menu for the institution that she was investigating looked good. The President said, “Don’t read the menu, go in the kitchen and look into the pots and pans to see what they are really cooking.”
From that time on Eleanor followed her husband’s direction and investigated in-depth much to the pleasure of many and the disdain of others. None of the public opinion seemed to bother Eleanor—she did what she felt that she needed to do, and it often led her to unusual places. Once a miner at the bottom of a mine shaft, a place where no woman who had ever been, looked up and said “Well, there’s Eleanor.”
There were two distinct branches of the Roosevelt family in the United States. One branch was the Oyster Bay or New York City Roosevelts, who were Republican business people. The other branch was the Hudson River Roosevelts, who were landed gentry Democrats. Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born to Anna Hall Roosevelt and Elliott Roosevelt of the Oyster Bay branch of the family on Oct. 11, 1884. Eleanor was not a beautiful, outgoing child, which disappointed her mother, who often made disparaging remarks to and about her daughter. Eleanor felt unloved, and she had no self-confidence. She dearly loved her father, who loved her in return, but he was an alcoholic, who would disappear for long periods of time. Eleanor did not get the attention she needed. In other words, Eleanor’s early childhood was anything but happy. Her mother died when Eleanor was 8, and her father died a year or two later. By age 10, Eleanor was an orphan, who was sent to live with her very demanding grandmother.
Things did not improve much for Eleanor until she was a teenager. Her grandmother sent her to Allenswood, a boarding school in England. The headmistress at Allenswood realized that Eleanor Roosevelt had great potential. She worked with Eleanor and bought out all of her latent talents. The individual whose mother thought and may have even called an “ugly duckling” turned into “a beautiful swan.” Eleanor gained the self-confidence which she had never had.
Even though she had grown in many ways, Eleanor did not want to go back to New York for a coming-out party. She did not want to be a debutante, but she grandmother thought she must be presented to society. Eleanor followed her grandmother’s wishes and returned to New York and all the “hoopla” associated with making a debut. The one good thing happened during the festivities. Eleanor met or re-met Franklin D. Roosevelt, a handsome, athletic Harvard man, who was a part of the Hudson River Roosevelt branch of the family and who was actually Eleanor’s fifth cousin, once removed. Franklin saw the “new” Eleanor and was much taken with her. In fact, the two fell in love, and, before too long, Franklin proposed. Eleanor said “yes.” Franklin’s mother disapproved of the match, but nothing that she did stopped the wedding. On March 17, 1905, Eleanor and Franklin were married in New York. Eleanor’s uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt, walked her down the aisle. The Hudson River Roosevelts and the Oyster Bay Roosevelts were thus joined.
During the next ten years, Eleanor was a dutiful society wife. During that period of time, she and her husband had six children, one of whom died as an infant. In 1910, Franklin was elected as a New York State Senator, and the family moved to Albany. Franklin’s Mother never thought that Eleanor was a good mother so she assumed “the mother” role, which really did not help Eleanor’s self-confidence. In 1913, Franklin was chosen as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. That involved another move. In 1918, when Eleanor was unpacking her husband’s luggage after he had been on a trip, she discovered a packet of love letters to Franklin from Lucy Mercer, her personal secretary. Eleanor, who was distraught, confronted Franklin and asked for a divorce. Franklin felt that a divorce would mean an end to his future in politics. He convinced Eleanor to remain his wife and said that he would never see Lucy again. Eleanor and Franklin agreed at that point that they would be partners, but not really husband and wife.
In 1920, while the family was vacationing at Campobello, a Canadian island off the coast of Maine, Franklin went for a swim in the nearby cold waters. While swimming, he looked up and saw a brush fire nearby. He helped put out the fire and got very hot. The next morning, he realized that he could not move his legs. He had polio! Eleanor cared for him in spite of their difficulties, but Franklin never re-gained the use of his legs. In spite of his problems, Franklin Roosevelt was elected Governor of New York in 1928 and then President of the United States in 1932.
Eleanor did not fill the role of First Lady in the traditional manner. She entertained when she must, but she spent most of her time on other activities, which included that role of being “eyes and ears” for the President, writing a daily article for a newspaper called “My Day,” and occasionally making speeches on the radio. Not only did she investigate, she also suggested legislation to fix the problems that she discovered. Sometimes the President took the action that she wanted, but not always. Mrs. Roosevelt became a celebrity in her own right. In her role as investigator, she gained praise and criticism, but she did not seem to pay much attention to either. The following is an example of Mrs. Roosevelt doing things her own way—when she entertained the King and Queen of England, she fed them hot dogs with all the trimmings for dinner at a place she built as a get-away for herself called Val-Kill. The country was shocked and amazed that she did not have a big state dinner at the White House, but the royals loved the informal meal.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President four times. He died shortly after his fourth election at his cottage in Warm Springs, Georgia. He had hoped the warm springs would help his crippled legs—it didn’t, but he loved to spend time at his cottage there. With him at Warm Springs in 1945 was Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, the lady he promised never to see again. While there at his cottage, the President died suddenly there as he was having his portrait painted. Mrs. Roosevelt was notified of his death and immediately headed to Warm Springs. Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd made a quick exit. Mrs. Roosevelt had her husband’s body prepared and put on a special train which carried it to the nation’s capital. All the way to the Washington, there were crying people standing by the tracks to honor their fallen leader, who had helped them when they were in such dire straits. Mr. Roosevelt’s body was placed in the East Room at the White House where thousands of people filed by to pay their respects. After a simple ceremony there, Roosevelt’s body was carried Hyde Park for burial.
After leaving the White House, Mrs. Roosevelt continued many of her activities. In 1946, Mr. Truman appointed her as a delegate to the United Nations–work which she continued until her strength waned. While at the United Nations, she wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1962, seventy-eight year old Eleanor Roosevelt died. She was buried beside her husband in the garden at the Roosevelt home at Hyde Park. A simple marble stone marks the graves of the President and his wife, who spent many years working to help the undeserved. In most every survey concerning the First Ladies of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt is named number one. Even though she did not fit any mold, she was/is still considered number one for all she had done for America and the American people.
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