For more than 30 years, she was the most powerful woman in America. Niece of one president and wife of another, Eleanor Roosevelt was at the center of much of this century's history -- a charismatic woman of charm and of contradictions. Aristocratic in voice and manner, she was also "tough as nails," says historian Geoffrey Ward. "In fact, she was one of the best politicians of the 20th century."
Few people were neutral about her. To admirers, she was a woman with immense moral and physical courage; through her newspaper columns, radio broadcasts, and public appearances, she seemed to be a familiar friend. Her detractors saw her as a dangerous meddler, a dilettante, a traitor to her class, while political cartoonists had a field day with her weak-chinned profile. She was criticized for her socialist leanings, her "overreaching" role as first lady, and was seen by many during her husband's administrations as a political naïf. Determined to live life on her own terms, Eleanor Roosevelt traveled far from her sheltered beginnings to become one of America's most admired figures.
Rare home movies and the voice recordings of Eleanor Roosevelt herself, retrieved from numerous archival sources, are interwoven with recollections from Eleanor's closest surviving friends and relatives, including grandchildren Nina Roosevelt Gibson, Eleanor Seagraves, Franklin Roosevelt III, Curtis Roosevelt, and niece Eleanor Roosevelt. Civil rights leader James Farmer, in one of the last interviews given before his death, describes Eleanor's role in Marian Anderson's landmark 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, while historians Blanche Wiesen Cook, Allida Black, and Geoffrey Ward examine her legacy.
The outlines of Eleanor Roosevelt's story are familiar: her birth into one of the most prominent families in the country, her marriage to her distant cousin Franklin, and her heartbreaking discovery of his affair with her secretary, the rise of Franklin and Eleanor as a strong political partnership, her dedication to social justice and equality. But Eleanor Roosevelt reveals facets of the first lady that have never before been examined in a television program.
All her life, Eleanor was subject to what she called "Griselda moods," dark depressions that immobilized her. They could be brought on by clashes with her mother-in-law, by her husband's infidelity and illness, by living in the goldfish bowl of the White House. She wrote, "If anyone looks at me, I want to weep. My mind goes round and round like a squirrel in a cage. I want to run and I can't and I despise myself."
Although she considered herself to be awkward and homely, Eleanor had a presence that lit up a room and helped her form intimate friendships with both women and men. Eleanor Roosevelt explores her relationship with Lorena Hickok, a former reporter for The Associated Press who would live in the White House, vacation with Eleanor, and become one of her closest confidantes. Whether the two women were friends or lovers is the subject of intense speculation. Eleanor's granddaughter, Nina Gibson, speaks out in the program: "I have no idea whether Lorena Hickok had a homosexual relationship with my grandmother -- and my feeling about that is, who cares?"
Her friendships with men could be equally controversial. There were rumors about Earl Miller, a dashing New York state trooper assigned by Franklin to be Eleanor's bodyguard. Earl coaxed Eleanor out of her shyness by teaching her to drive better, swim better, even to shoot. Eleanor Roosevelt also looks at the first lady's relationship with Joe Lash, student leader of the American Youth Congress. Their friendship triggered an investigation by the FBI; over time, her FBI file grew to 3,000 pages -- one of the largest ever compiled. In later years, Eleanor fell deeply in love with her physician, David Gurewitsch, 20 years her junior. "What I have in the few years I have left is yours before it is anyone else's," she would write to him. "My whole heart is yours."
Although her youth was marked by an almost pathological shyness, she grew into a strong political figure in her own right, capable of taking public positions that generated controversy. "Every woman in public life needs to develop skin as tough as rhinoceros hide," she wrote. She was the first president's wife to testify before a Congressional committee, the first to hold press conferences, to speak before a national party convention, to write a syndicated column, to be a radio commentator, to earn money as a lecturer.
After Franklin's death, Eleanor remained a powerful figure in national politics and as United States representative to the United Nations. At the UN, she worked 18 to 20 hours a day, drawing on her political skills to win passage, in December 1948, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet still she found time to write articles, host her own television program and appear in other specials -- even in a commercial for Good Luck Margarine.
Recognized 11 consecutive times in Gallup polls as the most admired woman in the world, Eleanor experienced tremendous disappointment within the family. All the Roosevelt children had troubled lives; they struggled with feelings of jealousy, failed marriages, and financial difficulties. Eleanor Roosevelt's niece and namesake notes, "Among the five children, there were 19s marriages. And partly that might be due to the puzzlement of being children of famous people, and not knowing who was your friend really, or who wanted to get close to your parents."
At some level the Roosevelt children greatly resented the public Eleanor, who cared so deeply for the needs of her friends and for complete strangers. Her grandson, Curtis Roosevelt, says, "My mother and uncles felt that my grandmother had not given to them that which she was capable of giving to people outside."
In the last years of her life, Eleanor enjoyed, more than ever, the time she could spend at her house in Val-Kill. It was always swarming with people -- grandchildren, close friends, former New Dealers, visiting dignitaries and neighbors. She seemed a better mother to her grandchildren than she'd been to her own children. When she died in 1962, government buildings around the world flew the American flag at half-staff. Eleanor Roosevelt would be remembered as one of the notable figures of the twentieth century. "She was always in the process of discovering things about herself," says Vernon Jarrett, "and she kept growing."
"Eleanor Roosevelt" is directed and written by Sue Williams and produced by Kathryn Dietz and Sue Williams. The two-and-a-half-hour special is an Ambrica Productions film for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. Alfre Woodard narrates.
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