American Experience interviewed Eleanor Roosevelt biographer, Blanche Wiesen Cook, in 1999. Below, read excerpts from her interview.
Can you talk about Eleanor's relationship with her mother Anna Hall?
Eleanor Roosevelt started off almost every early article she wrote, starting with, "My mother was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen." And I think her life was a constant and continual and lifelong contrast with her mother. And she never thought that she was attractive. She never thought that she was really sufficiently appealing. And I think her whole life was a response to her effort to get her mother to pay attention to her, to love her, and to love her as much as she loved her brothers. She writes that one of the moments that she felt most useful was when her mother had a headache, and she would stroke her head and rub her forehead. And I think Eleanor Roosevelt’s entire life was dedicated to two things: (one) making it better for all people, people in trouble and in need, like her family. I mean, her father was an alcoholic, and her mother was the suffering wife of a man who she could never predict what he would do, where he would be, who he would be. And it’s sort of interesting because Eleanor Roosevelt never writes about her mother’s agony. She only writes about her father’s agony. But her whole life is dedicated to making it better for people in the kind of need and pain and anguish that her mother was in.
Her mother died at the age of 29, essentially turning her face to the wall and deciding to die. And so we can only imagine the agony she felt. And Eleanor Roosevelt really wanted to make her mother happier, and—and to make her live, you know, make her want to live. And there’s something about, you know, when your mother dies, this sense of abandonment. I think Eleanor Roosevelt had a lifelong fear of abandonment and sense of abandonment after her parents’ death.
It’s striking in her writings, the lack of response to her mother’s death.
I think that, very often there’s a pain that’s just too painful to touch. You’ll break apart. And I think her mother’s death and disappearance and abandonment was something she just never could deal with. Eleanor Roosevelt, when she’s really very unwell in 1936, she takes to her bed. She has a mysterious flu. And during the campaign of 1936, she writes that she and her brother would always rather be out doing things when they’re sick, rather than take to their beds. And I think Eleanor Roosevelt always responded to pain by doing more, by doing something, by being active. And I think she just couldn’t bear to look at her childhood grief. And she didn’t.
Eleanor's Father, Elliot Roosevelt
Talk about her relationship with her father, up to the time of the death.
Her father was the love of her life. Her father always made her feel wanted, made her feel loved, where her mother made her feel, you know, unloved, judged harshly, never up to par. And she was her father's favorite, and her mother's unfavorite. So her father was the man that she went to for comfort in her imaginings. And in her letters, she writes the most, you know, fanciful letters: when we are together, and when we are reunited, and you know, I will be your surrogate wife. Of course she doesn't use that word, but I will be the mother to my brothers, and I will be your primary love.
And I think Eleanor Roosevelt always had a most incredible comfort writing letters. I mean, she was in the habit of writing letters. And that's where she allowed her fantasies to flourish. That's where she allowed her emotions to really evolve. And that's where she allowed herself to express herself really fully, and sometimes whimsically, very often romantically. And it really starts with her letters to her father, who is lifelong her primary love.
And the reality of her father was?
Well, the reality of her father was that he was a very diseased alcoholic, who died at the age of 34. And one always has to pause to wonder how much you have to drink to die at 34. And he was a really tragic father. I mean, he was absolutely unreliable. He was absolutely involved with various people. He had outside families, outside children, outside wives. He made his wife's life miserable. And she ignored all of his faults and retained this sense of him as the perfect father. It's interesting to me that really one of the first things she did as First Lady was to collect her father's letters and publish a book called The Letters of My Father, essentially, hunting big game, The Letters of Elliott Roosevelt. And it really was an act of redemption, really one of her first acts of redemption as she entered the White House. She was going to redeem her father's honor. And publishing his letters, reconnecting with her childhood really fortified her to go on into the difficult White House years.
He was the most exciting figure in her life. I mean, he rode to the hounds. He took her on very fast rides through Central Park. And he loved her. He loved her unconditionally. So when she accompanied him to his club and he disappeared for a drink, and that drink lasted all afternoon in the dark, she's still waiting for him, standing alone outside the club. You know. A doorman walks her home. But she never criticizes him. She refers to his great generosity of heart. She refers to how he, as an adolescent, gave his coat to a child who was cold. And she finds all of his really positive qualities, to encourage her, to model herself on: great generosity of spirit. And she completely ignores his other qualities. And it's that sense that she had of unconditional love from her father that gave her spirit, courage, a sense of lifelong encouragement, and also entitlement to love.
Life at Grandmother Hall's House
Describe the scene at Grandmother Hall's house.
Well, when Eleanor Roosevelt's mother dies, she goes to live with her Grandmother Hall. And her Grandmother Hall is in mourning. She's in widow's weeds. She's in her 50s, but appears very old. And she's exhausted from raising rather out-of-control children. Her favorite daughter, Anna, has died (Eleanor's mother), and she has living at home two other sons, Vallie and Eddie. And they are incredible sportsmen, incredible drinkers, out-of-control alcoholics. And then there are two aunts, Pussie and Maude. I think Pussie is also an out-of-control alcoholic. And everybody's taking various drugs (laudanum, mood boosters, mood elevators, mood depressants). And it's not clear what is really going on here, except that the uncles are clearly out of control. And Grandmother Hall really imagines that she can raise Eleanor and her two brothers differently than these children were raised. And if she is very strict and everything is very regimented and ordered and disciplined, that they will become the perfect children who her own children did not become.
In one way, it is this sense of order and also love that, I think, really saved Eleanor Roosevelt's life. And in her own writing, she's very warm about her grandmother, even though, if you look at contemporary accounts, they're accounts of horror at the Dickensian scene that Tivoli represents: bleak and drear and dark and unhappy. But Eleanor Roosevelt in her own writings is not very unhappy about Tivoli.
And then, by the time she is 14-15, things really do get worse, and her uncles are more and more out of control. At some point, locks appear on her door, three sets of locks, presumably to keep her uncle Vallie, who is an out-of-control alcoholic, out of her room, and to protect her from certain abuse. And at that point, there are several family conversations. And her Roosevelt relatives, especially her aunt Bye, who is her favorite aunt, suggests that she go to Allenswood and study with the fabulous Marie Souvestre, who she had studied with at [Les Rouches], a school in France for, you know, Europe's aristocracy and for North America's aristocracy. And that really becomes Eleanor Roosevelt's salvation: her years away at school.
She does not look back on the years with her grandmother as unhappy. Why?
I think her Grandmother Hall gave her a great sense of family love, and reassurance. Her grandmother did love her, like her father, unconditionally. And despite the order and the discipline -- and home at certain hours and out at certain hours and reading at certain hours -- there was a surprising amount of freedom. Eleanor Roosevelt talks about how the happiest moments of her days were when she would take a book out of the library, which wasn't censored. And she actually in later years writes articles about how books should never be censored for children, because she would take adult books and climb a cherry tree and stay in that cherry tree until dusk, and read these books. And if there was something she didn't understand, well, she didn't understand it. But it would enable her to live, again, a fantasy life in books, and how books were a great escape for her. And her Grandmother Hall provided her really with a quite wonderful education, and a freedom that, within the framework of Tivoli (which is a framework of discipline and order) is also a very encouraging and loving one.
Why was she so popular at Allenswood?
I think Eleanor Roosevelt's so popular at Allenswood because it's the first time she is, number one, free. But it's the first time somebody really recognizes her own leadership abilities and her own scholarly abilities. Eleanor Roosevelt loved to write. She was a wonderful child writer. I mean, she wrote beautiful essays and stories as a child. And Marie Souvestre really appreciated Eleanor Roosevelt's talents and encouraged her talents. Also, she spoke perfect French. She grew up speaking French. She's now at a french-speaking school where, you know, girls are coming from all over the world. Not everybody speaks French. And Eleanor Roosevelt's very helpful to a lot of children who cannot speak French, who do not write well. And Marie Souvestre is fierce. She tears up students' papers that are not, you know, perfect. And Eleanor Roosevelt goes around, again, being incredibly helpful to children in need, children in trouble. And her best friends are the naughtiest girls who are in trouble. And she is a leader. And she is encouraged to be a leader. And everybody falls in love with her. She's a star. And she loves being a star. And she loves being a teacher and a leader and a mentor and a big friend. Also, she's tall. She's one of the tallest girls in the school. And she's an athlete. And she writes many years later, at the end of her life, she writes that the happiest day, the happiest single day of her life was the day that she made the first team at field hockey. And I have to say, as a biographer, that's the most important fact. I mean, if you pause over what it means at the age of 76 that Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, the happiest single day of her life was the day she made the first team at field hockey. Field hockey is a team sport. Field hockey is a knockabout– I mean, picture Allenswood, the swamps of north London. It's a messy sport. So she really enjoyed playing this rough-and-tumble sport in the mud of Allenswood, a team sport. And she was very competitive. And she loved being competitive, and she loved to win. And that, I think, was all of the things that Allenswood enabled.
Why did she fall in love with FDR?
Oh, I think FDR was very dashing and charming and debonair, and probably reminded her of her father. A great bon-vivant. He loved to party. He loved to sing. He loved to have fun. And he wrote beautiful letters, just as her father did, which -- alas and alack -- Eleanor Roosevelt destroyed. But she refers to his beautiful letters. And she was charmed by him. And of course, FDR was very charming. At 6'2", he was tall enough to be her beau, and they made a beautiful couple. And she could encourage him. His mother also encouraged him. So this notion of a woman with ideas of her own and a spirit of her own and a style of her own was very congenial to Franklin. And he loved her. And their romance was a very dear and true and deep romance.
Franklin's Affair with Lucy Mercer
Well, in Washington, this is a very hard time for Eleanor and Franklin. This is when Lucy Mercer first appears. And Lucy Mercer is Eleanor Roosevelt's own secretary. Very beautiful young woman, not unlike Eleanor Roosevelt: tall, blonde, thick haired. And FDR is having an affair with her, which Eleanor Roosevelt finds out when FDR returns from Europe in 1918 with the famous flu of 1918. She unpacks his luggage, and there is a stack of the proverbial, in red ribbon, letters. And she reads them, and her world disintegrates. Before she knows, with evidence of the affair, she suspects it, as one does. I mean, the unconscious knows everything. And it's a very hard time for them. She spends a lot of those years in Washington, alone. She realizes there's a tremendous amount of gossip about them and her bon-vivant husband. And she is really quite miserable. She offers him a divorce. He promises never to see Lucy Mercer again. His mother threatens to cut him off without a penny if he doesn't go back to his wife. And if you look at pictures of Eleanor between 1918 and 1921, she becomes anorexic. She really loses a tremendous amount of weight. That's when her teeth really go bad. It's a terrible, terrible time for her. And she has five children, ranging in age from three to 10. It's an emotionally terrible ordeal.
But it's also the beginning of another level of liberation for her, because when she returns to New York, she gets very involved in a new level of politics. She meets Esther Lape and Elizabeth Read, and becomes very involved in the women's movement, and then in the peace movement. And ironically, the years of her greatest despair become also the years of her great liberation.
It's right around this time that her Grandmother Hall dies. And Eleanor Roosevelt is responsible for making all the funeral arrangements. And there are a couple of things that she really understands, as she contemplates her grandmother's life and makes the funeral arrangements. One, she's really talented, an organizational woman. She knows how to do things. She begins to compare her life to her grandmother's life. And it's very clear to her that being a devoted wife and a devoted mother is not enough. She wants a life of her own. Her grandmother could have been a painter. Her grandmother could have done so much more than she did with her life. And Eleanor Roosevelt decides she is going to do everything possible with her life. She's going to live a full life.
And out of her many moments of grief -- it's not just her husband's affair, but it's this great sense of grief over her grandmother's death, the death of her parents, all of the deaths, of her little brother. I mean, what is life about? And it's really just at that time that she meets these politically involved and very interesting women who recall the community that she left in Allenswood. And Eleanor Roosevelt had wanted to teach, and had come back and become a social worker. And so once again, she gets very involved in politics, the politics of her own life.
Eleanor as a Mother
Talk about her as a mother.
The younger children really benefit from her new freedom because they're part of it. She takes them on trips. They do things that are much more fun and much more free with her friends, Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook. She's never done these free things before.
A lot of people say that Eleanor Roosevelt wasn't a good mother. And there are two pieces to that story. One is, when they were very young, she was not a good mother. She was an unhappy mother. She was an unhappy wife. She had never known what it was to be a good mother. She didn't have a good mother of her own. And so there's a kind of parenting that doesn't happen. Like traditional upper class families, there are nannies and servants, and the children, you know, come in to say good-night before they go to bed. There's very little private time with the children in the early years. Actually, there's much more private time with the children in the 20s.
And in the same way, FDR's not much of a father. Although the children in all their memoirs really talk about what a fun-loving guy Dad was, and how brooding and unhappy Mom was. The children sort of blame it all on the mother. Well, this is kind of standard and typical, and aggrieved Eleanor Roosevelt that she was not a happier mother. She wanted to be a happier mother. And I must say, she was a happier grandmother. But she was an unhappy young matron, and a very flawed mother. They were very flawed parents.
One should also say, she was a very devoted mother. One of the reasons she worked to the very end of her life was, she's constantly bailing her children out.
Eleanor's New World
Describe the beginnings of Eleanor's coming out into the world.
Well, as soon as Eleanor Roosevelt gets back to New York, she meets Esther Lape and Elizabeth Read and Narcissa Vanderlip, who was then president of the League of Women Voters. And she gets very involved with this new circle of friends and with the League of Women Voters. And she becomes political. They remind her of the circle that she left at Allenswood: independent women. They live in Greenwich Village, and they read poetry aloud, they have champagne candle-lit dinners, and they're carefree, in their private lives, and totally committed to political action. They run a magazine called City, State, and Nation, and Eleanor Roosevelt very quickly becomes editor of that magazine. And she becomes very involved, on a new level, with her own independent political world, which is now a world of women activists.
She finds some strengths here. What does she discover about herself?
Well, they really appreciate her strengths. They see that she's good at organizing, at fundraising, at writing. The woman we later know as a journalist becomes a journalist in 1920. She edits this magazine, City, State, and Nation. She becomes treasurer of the League of Women Voters of New York. She is a terrific fundraiser and organizer. She holds big meetings. And she is very popular, once again a leader, and admired as a leader. So she's really in her element with Esther Lape, Elizabeth Read, Narcissa Vanderlip, and very quickly she meets other women in New York: Nancy Cook, Marion Dickerman, Caroline O'Day. And she begins to have a very wide world of former suffragists and activists. She herself was not a suffragist. She herself did not support the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923, but she is now in that world. And it's a world that she relishes and enjoys.
During the campaign of 1924, she's put in charge of women's activities. And she wants to get office space and delegate space to equal the men's space. And this becomes, you know, I mean, in the campaign of ‘24 and in ‘28 and ‘32, you know, Eleanor Roosevelt insists that women have equal floor space. And this is a great victory over time. Then she wants women represented in equal numbers as men. And she wants the women to name the delegates. And the men want to name the delegates. Well, Eleanor is absolutely furious. And because they don't want her to walk away in 1924, she wins. And this is a great political victory. She has floor space equal to the men, and she has the right to name the women.
But she is also put in charge of the platform committee. And the platform of 1924 becomes the platform of the New Deal. You know. She wants an eight-hour day. She wants an end to vigilante violence and the Ku Klux Klan. She wants health care for everybody. She wants jobs for everybody. And it's an incredibly visionary platform. She's worked very hard on it. She's enlisted all the great social work pioneers and leaders: Jane Adams, Lillian Wald, Mary White Ovington of the NAACP. And this is the first time the Democratic Party has ever asked the NAACP to participate, 1924. And she's all prepared with this wonderful platform. And she sits outside with her team. The platform committee is meeting. The door is locked, and they don't let her in. And Eleanor Roosevelt vows that will never happen again. And she is very angry.
So in 1924, Eleanor Roosevelt really gets a sense of what the limits of the battle and the contours of the battle are going to be. The men are contemptuous of the women, and the women really need to organize. She writes an article which becomes an article she writes in different ways over and over and over again: Women need to organize. They need to create their own bosses. They need to have support networks and gangs so that they are a force. You know. Politics is not an isolated, individualist adventure. Women really need to emerge as a power to be the countervailing power to the men. And Eleanor Roosevelt's really the dynamo and the spearhead of that effort.
Her Relationship with Lorena Hickok
Talk about her relationship with Lorena Hickok.
During the campaign she met a new friend, Lorena Hickok, who was the AP's number one woman political reporter, the highest paid female political journalist. And at one point Hick writes that she was very attracted Eleanor Roosevelt but Eleanor Roosevelt kept her at arm's length, and her arms were very long. By the time Eleanor Roosevelt got to the White House, she and Hick are very close, intimate friends. And the first year in the White House, from 1932, the period of the campaign through the first year in the White House, that is the period of their most intense relationship. And surely her friendship with Hick and her daily letters to Hick are one of the aspects, one of the things that really gives Eleanor Roosevelt strength, courage, vigor. She really is empowered and emboldened by her friends, and in particular in this time, by Hick.
Hick was in love with her. Was Eleanor in love with Hick?
I think that Hick was in love with Eleanor, and Eleanor was in love with Hick. I think it's very important to look at the letters that are in my book, because unlike some of the recent published letters, I have both the personal and the political. And their relationship is about ardor. It's about fun. And it's also about politics. So these 10-15-page letters, which have been reduced in some versions to two paragraphs of ardor, don't tell the whole story. They're political letters. They're ardent letters. They're love letters, but they're politically driven. And their relationship is a very full relationship. I think this is one of the most important friendships and relationships of Eleanor Roosevelt's life, certainly at this time.
Well, the fact is, we can never know what people do in the privacy of their own rooms. The door is closed. The blinds are drawn. We don't know. I leave it up to the reader. But there's no doubt in my mind that they loved each other, and this was an ardent, loving relationship between two adult women.
And it's also a very stormy and troubled relationship. And so we can trace the arc of their love, which is a very specific one. Their arc is from longing, "I miss you, I need you, I can't live without you," to "I really need some private time. I need a lot of private time. I cannot make a commitment to one person. I'm a profoundly political woman. You need me. Earl needs me. The nation needs me." And the letters enable us to follow that arc of love and longing, and all of the ways in which two adult people juggle a very hard relationship, made much more difficult by the fact that Hick gives up her career for the woman she loves. And as we all know, one should never give up one's career for the man or woman one loves. It makes you an unhappy, dependent person, and it changes the ground you walk on.
Eleanor as First Lady
She really is a completely different First Lady. Eleanor Roosevelt was not going to suffer and withdraw in the White House. And I think he's a very different President. He does not want his wife to suffer and withdraw in the White House. And they really are partners. They're partners in a big house where there are two separate courts, and they both know they have two separate courts. But these are courts that are allied in purpose, united in vision. And they worked together. And Eleanor Roosevelt doesn't ever do anything that is going to hurt her husband. She tries things out on him. She gets permission to do things. The amazing thing, I think, historically, is that he says, "Go do it. If you can make this happen, I'll follow you."
And then there are issues that they really don't agree on. They really don't agree about the priority of racial justice, for example. He is hobbled and limited by a southern Congress. Before the 1960's, there's no great political bonus for encouraging racial justice, because black folks don't vote. And so her insistence on racial justice is very interesting, because he has to cater to this southern-dominated Congress. And you can really see in all of these issues that are priorities for Eleanor Roosevelt, where the compromises are painful, the compromises are hard, and the difficulties between them really begin to loom very large by 1936, by 1938.
For instance, on lynching. She fights for an anti-lynch law with the NAACP, with Walter White and Mary McLeod Bethune. And she begs FDR to say one word, say one word to prevent a filibuster or to end a filibuster. From ‘34 to ‘35 to ‘36 to ‘37 to ‘38, it comes up again and again, and FDR doesn't say one word. And the correspondence between them that we have, I mean, she says, "I cannot believe you're not going to say one word." And she writes to Walter White, "I've asked FDR to say one word. Perhaps he will." But he doesn't. And these become very bitter disagreements.
On international relations, Eleanor Roosevelt really takes a great shocking leadership position on the World Court. In fact, it amuses me. The very first entry in her FBI file begins in 1924, when Eleanor Roosevelt supports American's entrance into the World Court. And the World Court comes up again and again -- '33, '35. In 1935, Eleanor Roosevelt goes on the air; she writes columns; she broadcast three, four times to say the US must join the World Court. With terrible things happening in the world, with Naziism on the rise, with fascism triumphing, we must be a player. She asks FDR to speak out. He doesn't do it, and the World Court loses in 1935 by six votes. It never comes up again, until after World War II.
By 1938, Eleanor Roosevelt was so angry at FDR's policies, she writes a book called This Troubled World. And it is actually a point-by-point rebuttal of her husband's foreign policy. We need collective security. We need a World Court. We need something like the League of Nations. We need to work together to fight fascism. We need embargoes against aggressor nations, and we need to name aggressor nations. All of which is a direct contradiction of FDR's policies.
So she is an amazing First Lady. What other First Lady in U.S. history has ever written a book to criticize her husband's policies?
What does she learn from Arthurdale?
One of the things for me, as a biographer, that is so significant is for Eleanor Roosevelt -- the child who never had a home of her own, who lives in her grandmother's home and then goes to school and then gets married and lives in her mother-in-law's homes, and then in public housing (like the White House and the State House) -- housing becomes for Eleanor Roosevelt the most important issue. And she really does lead a kind of lifelong crusade for affordable, decent housing. And the chief experiment for her is a place called Arthurdale in West Virginia. And this is a very poor community where Eleanor Roosevelt envisions a really beautiful community, a self-sustaining community. And we talk a lot today about self-sustaining communities. And it's really nice houses on two to five acres, each one with indoor plumbing. This is at a time when 80 percent of U.S. housing, rural housing, does not have indoor plumbing. And Harold Ickes says, "Well, if Eleanor Roosevelt has her way, how will one be able to tell the rich from the poor?" And Eleanor Roosevelt says, "Well, in matters of such simple dignity and decency, we should not have to tell the rich from the poor." And it really is an incredible community that she nurtures. She gets all of her friends to support -- Bernard Baruch -- all of her friends with money and influence.
But it's a flawed community. It's lily white. ... There's a place in Logan County called Jew Hill. There's another place called Protestant Hill. And then there are all of these recent immigrants from East Europe. She really had expected that it would be integrated housing. Instead, it's limited to Protestants of native stock (by which they meant folks born here). And Eleanor Roosevelt asked them to vote on it. She didn't give up on this question of a racially mixed community. And they do vote on it, and they reject her idea that it's going to be racially mixed.
And nevertheless, she doesn't walk away from Arthurdale. What she insists on [is] that there will be model housing like Arthurdale for black Americans, and there will be affordable housing like Arthurdale in every state, for all ethnic groups. She really understands from her experiences at Arthurdale the depth of the racial problem in the United States.
Well, Arthurdale is viciously attacked on the right and on the left. Folks on the Left call it hole-house in the mountains. Folks on the Right want no part of it. And if you look at my book, in all due modesty, I have letters that make it very clear what it would take to make this kind of affordable housing. It was intended to become privately owned, but the land is bought by the government. It's not supposed to succeed. And there's a tremendous effort to destroy the public component of Arthurdale. And ultimately, it is destroyed as a publicly supported environment. And it's a great tragedy, because the commitment to have affordable housing ends, and the United States no longer has that commitment, no longer makes that commitment.
In a nutshell, what does she learn from Arthurdale?
Well, I think that Eleanor Roosevelt really learned about the limits of power and influence from Arthurdale. She could not make some things happen. And she particularly learned that she could not, just because she was nominally in charge, she could not change people's hearts and minds; that a very long process of education would result before race was on the national agenda. And it really did move her into the racial justice arena with both feet. She came out fighting.