Covering Eleanor Roosevelt: Associated Press Reporter Bess Furman and Four Years with the First Lady

Article excerpt

Between 1933 and 1936, Eleanor Roosevelt changed Associated Press Washington Bureau reporter Bess Furman's reporting life. She joined the AP in 1929 and was assigned to cover women, but Lou Hoover and other official wives were difficult to cover because of their rule that they were never to be quoted. When Mrs. Roosevelt came to the White House, she changed that by granting access through press conferences, travel, and friendship, and Furman's reporting changed because of Mrs. Roosevelt's interest in social problems and her desire to change the bad conditions in the country. Furman now wrote about her efforts as well as those of other women who worked in the Roosevelt administration. She learned about poverty, subsistence farms, and race relations among other social issues through her contact with the first lady, and this eventually led her to a job at the New York Times.

Meeting the wife of the president-elect of the United States for a January 1 933 luncheon in New York City appeared at first to be a courtesy call for Bess Furman, a member of the Associated Press' Washington bureau. Lorena Hickok, a reporter for the AP's New York bureau who had covered Eleanor Roosevelt before the presidential election when the latter served as the first lady of New York state, arranged the luncheon. She shared "many things of value" about her with Furman, who thought that Hickok was passing the reporting about Mrs. Roosevelt over to her because she was "more geographically right" for the assignment because she was based at the Washington bureau.1

Furman had met Mrs. Roosevelt following her husband's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in the summer of 1932. She had made the unusual request of a press conference with the candidate's wife. At the time, wives of politicians stayed in the background and did not speak or overtly campaign. Mrs. Roosevelt's reply matched the odd request - she granted a conference - and Furman led the contingent of four other reporters who attended.2 At a January 1933 luncheon, the new first lady surprised Furman by asking two questions: could she dispense with Secret Service body guards and move about freely, and, more significantly, would it be a good idea for her ro conduct press conferences? "Most enthusiastically, and with quite an impromptu sales talk, I answered yes to both questions," Furman wrote in her 1 949 autobiography. Access to the first lady would be a godsend. Since taking the women's beat at the nation's Iatgest wire service in April 1929, her coverage of the current first lady, Lou Hoover, had frustrated her because neither she nor the president cooperated with reporters.5

This article examines how an active, interested, and responsive first lady influenced the work and life of a leading woman reporter of the day. Specifically it analyzes Furman, who covered Mrs. Roosevelt for the AP during the first administration from January 1933 through December 1936. Mrs. Roosevelt's plan to grant access to reporters was unique; before she came to the White House, first ladies did not contact reporters. She covered Mrs. Hoover on a campaign trip in 1932 when she hardly spoke, granting Furman one interview in which she provided only biographical information and nothing could be quoted directly. Earlier, Furman had wanted to report on Mrs. Hoover's decoration of the White House. She finally got the Hoovers' housekeeper, Ava Long, to talk to her, but she had second thoughts and asked Furman to not use anything that she had said. Feeling thwarted from fulfilling her desire to provide intimate close-ups of the Hoovers' family life, she abandoned the story and wrote only about Mrs. Hoover at official functions. Eventually, disguised as a Girl Scout, she crashed a White House Christmas party in 1930 to gather the inside details that she thought were so essential.4

Furman took a job at the APs Washington bureau in 1929 after a nine-year hiatus at the Omaha News, where she was a feature reporter writing under the pseudonym of Bobbie O'Dare, a flapper who drove her Model T Ford where for a story. …