Peter Shelton

First Lady to the World

Posted in Watch columns by pshelton on October 21, 2011

Eleanor Roosevelt was tall and had buckteeth, and was painfully shy.

She found out about her husband’s affair when she discovered letters in the bottom of his suitcase. Franklin was just home from Europe. It was 1918. Eleanor read the letters and realized that Franklin had been in love with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, for four years, even as the last two of the five Roosevelt children were conceived and delivered.

She was devastated and offered him a divorce. But Franklin’s formidable mother, Sara, forbade divorce, lest it ruin FDR’s nascent political fortunes. (He was Assistant Secretary of the Navy at the time.) The couple agreed to stay married, and following Franklin’s paralysis three years later (from polio virus or Guillain-Barré Syndrome), Eleanor came into her own, ironically, as a campaigner in her husband’s stead, and ultimately as the most influential and admired first lady in American history.

We learned most of this story on a visit to Campobello Island a couple of weeks ago. The Roosevelts used to summer there, just off the coast of far northeastern Maine. The island is actually Canadian, across the FDR International Bridge from Lubec, Maine. The Roosevelt Cottage is now part of the Roosevelt Campobello International Park, jointly run by the U.S. and Canadian park services.

Cottage is not the word that first comes to mind. The three-story cedar-shingled house has 18 bedrooms and six baths. And yet it was built (in the 1880s) on a human, not a grand, scale. The rooms are small, the wicker furniture more comfy than luxurious. Three generations of Roosevelts loved their time there, without power or telephones, hiking, picnicking, messing about in boats.

Out of pure serendipity, Ellen and I arrived in time for the Park’s 2 p.m. “Eleanor Roosevelt Tea.” We sat in the Hubbard Cottage, overlooking the water, sipping tea and dipping cookies as a Park Commission employee named Debbie, who proudly admitted to being enamored of her subject, told stories about Eleanor.

She said that Eleanor and Franklin were both Roosevelts, fifth cousins once removed. Teddy Roosevelt was her uncle. Franklin’s mother invited Eleanor to Campobello for the first time in 1903, when she was 19. They married in 1905; she was 20, he was 23. Teddy came to the wedding in New York and, as president, stole the reception. Debbie described Franklin and Eleanor standing in the back of the room together, more bemused than upset, as all attention focused on Uncle Teddy holding court.

Debbie described the night in August 1921 when Eleanor found her husband, then 39, trying to crawl to the bathroom. (We had earlier peered into their Campobello bedroom with its day bed and small fireplace.) He had been running a fever. Then suddenly he was paralyzed, permanently, from the waist down.

Eight years later, he was elected governor of New York. Then, in 1932, he won the first of an unprecedented four terms as president. Eleanor realized, Debbie said, that her happiness would depend on her own initiative, and she set about an agenda promoting women’s rights, civil rights and universal human rights.

She didn’t harangue, Debbie said. She found unique, symbolic, even wordless ways of making her point. Eleanor traveled to a civil rights conference in Jim Crow Mississippi accompanied by a close friend who was African American. When she was told politely that she and her friend would have to sit on opposite sides of the room, Eleanor took her chair and set it in the aisle, between the two sides. “Everyone knew that segregation was wrong; Eleanor made it clear without uttering a word.”

She decided to give regular White House interviews, something that no first lady had done before. And she announced that she would only be speaking with female reporters. Since there were very few female reporters at the top newspapers in those days, editors found themselves scrambling to hire some, lest they be left out of the loop.

Another example: In 1941, Eleanor visited the training base of the Tuskegee Airmen, in Alabama. The War Department had been dragging its feet on funding for the black pilots. Eleanor ignored the entreaties of her white hosts – who was going to stop her? – and climbed aboard the plane of trainee Charles “Chief” Anderson for a two-hour ride. The gesture generated tremendous support for the airmen, who went on to particularly distinguished combat records.

Franklin’s death from a stroke in 1945 brought a final heartache. Eleanor learned afterward that Lucy Mercer had been with FDR the day he died, in Warm Springs, Georgia.

But she soldiered on. President Truman appointed her to the U.N. General Assembly where she chaired the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Truman called her “the first lady of the world.”

Debbie’s favorite picture of Eleanor, on the wall of the tearoom, shows her sitting on a cobble beach on Campobello, knitting. “She was always knitting. [She’s knitting in her official White House portrait.] It centered her. It helped her overcome her shyness.” A pair of Eleanor’s wooden knitting needles rested on a shelf by the door.

She returned to Campobello one last time, to dedicate the FDR International Bridge in 1962. Before then, the Roosevelts, and everyone else, had to take the ferry across from Eastport, Maine. Still regal, and speaking in a voice we don’t hear much these days – a voice of privilege turned to a lifetime of good causes – she praised her husband and the cooperation of neighbor states. Two weeks later she died, at 78.

2 Responses

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  1. Mary Ann Dismant said, on October 21, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    That was so Peter Shelton. I especially liked the ending. “Still regal, and speaking in a voice we don’t hear
    much these days – a voice of privilege turned to a lifetime of good causes – she praised her husband and
    the cooperation of neighbor states.

  2. kellie day said, on December 9, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    Thanks so much for spotlighting this lady full of grace and strength, Peter. I have always been inspired by Eleanor, and more so now. My favorite quote: “Eleanor realized… that her happiness would depend on her own initiative, and she set about an agenda promoting women’s rights, civil rights and universal human rights.” … This I have found in my recent years to be key – a woman must set her own goals and discover her passions to be happy in life. All other blisses and joys come and go. But the solid foundation of self worth cannot be destroyed.

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