FRANKLIN and Eleanor Roosevelt, among the best-loved and most
admired people in American politics, were also among the most
Shocked political and social conservatives - and snobs of every
stripe - referred to FDR as "that man in the White House": a rich,
well-favored aristocrat whose liberalism made him seem a traitor to
his class. What was said against Eleanor was usually less printable.
But to her many friends, associates, students, and other
admirers, including the great majority of Americans and people of
all nationalities around the world, Eleanor Roosevelt was a
courageous and compassionate woman, a tireless worker for world
peace, a champion of poor and working people, a friend to refugees,
a foe of racism and bigotry, and a spokesman for the rights of
women and children.
"To this day," declares her latest biographer, Blanche Wiesen
Cook, "there is no agreement as to who Eleanor Roosevelt was, what
she represented, or how she lived her life. Her friends and her
detractors have made extravagant claims of goodness and mercy,
foolishness and naivete. She has acquired sainthood and been
consigned to sinner status."
Cook, an academic historian, syndicated columnist, and radio
commentator, credits the women's movement with providing her with
an approach to biography that would replace the hagiographical
icons of a noble-spirited, high-minded, sexless great lady with a
more down-to-earth portrait of a brave, life-affirming woman -
still noble-spirited, but not without political savvy; still
high-minded, but not without physical and spiritual passion.
Cook's emphasis is on the ways in which Eleanor Roosevelt made a
life for herself - never at the expense of her husband and his
political career, but still a life in which her own interests,
political beliefs, activities, friendships, and loves took on an
importance independent of her role as wife to Franklin and mother
to their children.
In this, the first of a projected two-volume biography, Cook
takes us from Eleanor's birth in 1884 to her husband's inauguration
in 1933 as the nation's 32nd president.
Eleanor was the daughter of a beautiful but vapid mother and a
charming, affectionate, but alcoholic and increasingly absent
father, both of whom died before she was 10. Subsequently, she was
brought up in the household of her maternal grandmother.
This biography devotes a substantial amount of space to
examining Eleanor's family background. Her ancestors on both sides
were socially prominent old New York families with checkered
histories of distinguished accomplishment on the one hand (Theodore
Roosevelt was Eleanor's uncle) and alcoholic excess on the other.
Although Eleanor's mother, Anna Livingston Hall Roosevelt, has
generally been viewed as a cold, superficial beauty who ridiculed
the little girl for being solemn and unattractive, Cook feels she
deserves some credit for not destroying the child's glowing image
of her errant father, Elliott, even while she, as his wife, was
facing the unpleasant consequences of his increasingly
irresponsible behavior. (Blustery, rough-riding Teddy Roosevelt,
exasperated by the decline in his once-loved brother's
self-control, spent a good deal of time and energy trying to have
Cook's account of Eleanor tackles the question of how this shy
child from a troubled family background learned to make herself
into a wise and compassionate woman, capable of fulfilling her own
needs and goals, while working to make life better for others. Cook
stresses the strong influence of female role models, like Eleanor's
impressive paternal aunt, Anna Roosevelt Cowles, and her teacher,
Marie Souvestre, who ran a progressive girls' school in England,
where young Eleanor blossomed and excelled.
Eleanor also learned by counter-example, Cook points out. Where
her mother's disillusionment with marriage turned her cold and
withdrawn, Eleanor transformed her own shock over Franklin's affair
with Lucy Mercer into an impetus for renewing and expanding her
interest in politics and people. …