I've noticed that a documentary on Eleanor Roosevelt for Public
Television's "The American Experience" is getting some promotion on
Although the "vibrant life of one of the century's most
influential women," as the promotional materials puts it, is bound
to be fascinating -- biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of two
magnificent volumes on Eleanor, is among the talking heads --
viewership of the biography probably won't rise to expectations in
I remember vividly as a boy hearing a barbershop discussion on
Franklin Roosevelt's presidential years. There was widespread
agreement that Franklin was a great president -- after all, he
provided jobs for some of the men in the discussion -- but to a
person, they simply hated Eleanor. Couldn't stand her. Couldn't
understand why Franklin, who seemed so smart, so sane, so
magnificent, would marry someone like Eleanor.
According to Cook and others, Franklin ultimately didn't
understand it either. After Eleanor found out about his affairs with
other women, she and Franklin essentially lived separate lives.
A strong current of hatred for Eleanor persists in parts of our
state. But why? She was a signpost for the future -- and a
I think that's part of the reason. To many in Alabama -- still
too many -- women aren't supposed to be futuristic, fascinating or
Also, in conservative Alabama, some people still question her
sexuality. There is no question that she was a homely person,
decidedly non-attractive physically, but Cook and others write that
after she and Franklin split, Eleanor was in frequent contact with
lesbians -- too frequent for some in our state.
Interestingly, they make the same complaint about Hillary
Clinton, who sees in Eleanor a deep wellspring of inspiration.
But perhaps Eleanor's worst "sin" for some in our state was that
she had the temerity to criticize the South.
Even though it was done with a velvet glove, the criticism in her
Feb. 4, 1950, edition of the newspaper column that she wrote from
1936-52 reflects her feelings:
"There is a charm about the South," wrote Mrs. Roosevelt, who was
born into a wealthy New York family. "The smell of magnolias, the
lavender-and-old-lace feeling, still exists there. People are less
hurried; they have more opportunity, perhaps, for the grace of
living. But underneath it all I am not so sure that there are not
some signs of poverty and unhappiness that will gradually have to
disappear if that part of our nation is going to prosper and keep
pace with the rest of it."
They were wise words but also fightin' words to some white
Southerners. Yet Eleanor knew whereof she spoke.
She had relatives in Georgia, and she made a number of visits to
Southern states (even after her husband's death) to check on
conditions, sometimes daring to go where few self-respecting white
My father was a newspaper reporter for the old Birmingham Age-
Herald when Mrs. Roosevelt made one of her Birmingham tours. Here's
what he wrote:
"Wherever she goes, Eleanor Roosevelt makes news. Not that she
gives out startling announcements or profound views on world events
which might cause reporters to hang on to her every word, or an
eager public to wait breathlessly for her first utterance of the
day. Indeed not -- for all most people know, 'My Day' (the name of
Eleanor's newspaper column) might be just another turning of the