Eleanor Roosevelt, No Ordinary Woman

By Riechers, Maggie | Humanities, January/February 2000 | Go to article overview
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Eleanor Roosevelt, No Ordinary Woman

Riechers, Maggie, Humanities


THE KU KLUX KLAN ONCE PUT A $25,000 BOUNTY on Eleanor Roosevelt's head. She was in her seventies then and as outspoken about civil rights as she had been as First Lady. The year was 1958.

The Man had learned that she was to speak in June at a workshop on methods of protest at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. The FBI warned her that it could not protect her and suggested that she not go. Eleanor thanked her caller for the warning, but decided she was going anyway, and flew to Nashville.

"This elderly white woman picks up a seventy-fouryear-old Eleanor Roosevelt," relates historian Allida Black. 'And here they are. They're going to go through the Man. They're going to stand down the Man. They get in their car, they put a loaded pistol on the front seat between them, and they drive up at night through the mountains to this tiny labor school to conduct a workshop on how to break the law. And she drove through the Man to do it." Black is one of the people interviewed in Eleanor Roosevelt, a new NEH-funded documentary in The American Experience series. It airs in January on public television.

Eleanor Roosevelt's willingness to take stands, to be unpopular, is treated in the film, which was produced by Kathryn Dietz and Sue Williams of Ambrica Productions. It covers events ranging from her decision as a young woman to work with the poor in New York City to her years in the White House when she pushed for the rights of African Americans, to her time at the United Nations when she parried with the world's most powerful statesmen.

"We think we know Eleanor Roosevelt because she's so familiar, but usually her story is woven into the stories of her uncle, Theodore Roosevelt, or of her husband," says Dietz. "But she was active in politics earlier than Franklin and lived beyond him, with the last years of her life her most productive. People will be surprised at how tough and how political she was and what a rich personal life she had. Nobody had done a comprehensive film about her life;' says Dietz. "The last film was done in 1966 before women's studies became a field of study and spawned a new level of scholarship."

With new scholarly research available and interviews with historians and family and friends of the First Lady, the filmmakers were able to focus on Eleanor as a historical figure independent of her family and husband. The film, which is narrated by actress Alfre Woodard, at times uses Eleanor Roosevelt's own voice to describe events and her feelings about them. The producers were able to use the clips from the 1940 Democratic Convention, where she played a pivotal role, and early 1960s interviews where she spoke about her late husband. They also culled hundreds of tapes of her voice at the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library. "Nobody had looked at them just for Eleanor," says Williams. "You can tell the story of her life without focusing on FDR."

The filmmakers also relied on recent biographies of Eleanor and Franklin by such historians as Blanche Wiesen Cook, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Geoffrey Ward, and Allida Black. Cook, Ward, and Black all appear in interviews throughout the biography. Also appearing in the film are friends of Eleanor Roosevelt, including Trude Lash, the wife of Joseph Lash, a close friend and biographer of Eleanor; civil rights activist James Farmer; and Henry Morganthau III, son of Franklin Roosevelt's treasury secretary.

Several grandchildren of Eleanor Roosevelt appear in interviews, including Franklin Roosevelt III, Curtis Roosevelt, Nina Gibson, and Eleanor Seagraves. A niece, Eleanor Roosevelt Watkins, also appears.

The film begins with the young Eleanor, whose childhood experiences left an unmistakable mark. "Personal unhappiness is a thread running throughout her life," says Williams.

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