Beloved and reviled, a spokeswoman for progressive causes who fashioned an independent life within a complicated marriage, Eleanor Roosevelt cuts a surprisingly contemporary figure.
For several decades, Blanche Wiesen Cook, a history professor at John Jay College and Graduate Center at the City University of New York, has been her authoritative, sympathetic and sometimes controversial chronicler. The third volume of her biography, focusing on the first lady's activities during World War II, appears at an opportune time, as we consider electing our first female president.
Had Roosevelt (1884-1962) been born a few decades later, she might well have been the one to shatter that formidable glass ceiling. Not only highly intelligent and accomplished, she was, by Cook's account, a woman of great empathy and charm — despite caricatures to the contrary. Given our dynastic inclinations and polarized politics, it's also worth noting that she was the niece of one great (Republican) president, Theodore Roosevelt, and the wife of another, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat who was a distant cousin of the 26th president.
With increasing confidence over the years, ER (as Cook consistently calls her) served as a powerful, if not always successful, prod to the more pragmatic FDR on a range of issues. During World War II, she opposed the internment of Japanese-Americans and racial segregation in the military, and fought to relax bureaucratic impediments to accepting European refugees.
Published in 1992, Volume I of Cook's epic feminist biography broke new ground in hypothesizing that Eleanor pursued serious romantic relationships with others after her marriage was tainted, and irrevocably altered, by FDR's infidelity with his wife's social secretary, Lucy Mercer.
Based on their surviving correspondence, Cook made the case that Eleanor's intimacy with Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok ("Hick") blossomed into a sexual affair — a view disputed by some historians but seconded by a just-published dual biography, Susan Quinn's "Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair that Shaped a First Lady." Cook also suggested that ER pursued a romance with Earl Miller, a bodyguard who became another lifelong friend.
Volume II, on the Great Depression and New Deal years of 1933-38, continued Cook's account of the Hick-ER relationship, with its "arc of love and longing, ardor and disappointment." Volume III contains nothing similarly incendiary; by then, Eleanor's love life seems to have been sublimated into close friendships with younger men, notably Joe Lash and, later, David Gurewitsch.
Much of the ground Cook's biography covers will seem familiar to readers of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Pulitzer Prize-winning "No Ordinary Time" (1994) and other histories of the period. In painstakingly (and sometimes ploddingly) chronological fashion, Cook details Eleanor Roosevelt's political activities, and personal associations, from 1939 on, with an emphasis on the war years. While noting ER's flashes of impatience and bouts of depression — her "Griselda moods" — she remains consistently admiring of her subject.
Cook fleshes out the generally accepted perception of Roosevelt as more progressive than her husband, more eager to preserve the best of the New Deal (even as war loomed) and to foster a more egalitarian and inclusive society. "ER believed that she was the only person in FDR's circle willing to disagree with him, or push him when he needed to be pushed," Cook writes. "She was his conscience; he was her barometer."
Bowing to political necessity and her husband's fine-tuned instincts, ER sometimes — but not always — refrained from publicizing their disagreements in her syndicated newspaper column or speeches. But even private advocacy could entail a cost: While, in general, FDR appreciated her input, Cook suggests that their arguments could strain an already difficult marriage.
By this point, as others have noted, theirs was essentially a political partnership, leavened by affection and mutual regard. It was rare, Cook notes, for the Roosevelts to spend time alone together, let alone to express physical affection. (FDR made an exception when they were both in mourning — she for her alcoholic brother, Hall, and he for his mother.) "They had the most separate relationship I have ever seen between man and wife. And the most equal," one White House usher said.
Another poignant observation comes from the diary of Caroline Astor Drayton Phillips, a longtime friend with whom ER was no longer close. "At the White House Eleanor and Franklin are hardly on speaking terms. She criticizes his policies … and he snubs her whenever he can," Phillips wrote. "It is all tragic."
For emotional intimacy, Eleanor Roosevelt turned to her own carefully cultivated circle. While Hickok had her own assigned room in the White House, their romance, Cook writes, had cooled into friendship. ER poured much of her energy into her relationship with two younger friends, Lash, who would become an important Roosevelt biographer and memoirist, and Trude Pratt, Lash's longtime lover. The two shared Roosevelt's politics, and she supported their initially adulterous romance and eventual marriage.
One of the through lines of the book is the battle over refugees. Eleanor Roosevelt backed the mission of Varian Fry and others to rescue European Jews and political dissidents. And Cook credits Pratt with having played an overlooked role in those efforts.
But, as is now widely acknowledged, immigration to the United States was stymied by the not-so-latent anti-Semitism of the State Department, as well as American public opinion. FDR himself, in the manner of his class, was not above expressing a certain genteel anti-Semitism — as when he suggested that the German antipathy to Jewish dominance of the professions was "understandable." Even his wife, as late as 1939, was guilty of a "contemptuous reference to Jews" in a letter to an avowedly anti-Semitic friend — a slip that Cook labors to explain.
After FDR's death in 1945, Cook describes Eleanor as embarking on "a new chapter of service for peace and worldwide human rights" that included two stints in the U.S. delegation to the United Nations. There she was instrumental in the 1948 passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirmed a set of political, economic and social ideals that remain unrealized but aspirational.
For the most part, Cook skims quickly through Eleanor's later years, almost as though tiring of her subject. But her discussion of the former first lady's encounters with the "crude misogyny" of the men in the U.N.'s U.S. delegation is vivid, as is the description Cook attributes to an official State Department publication: "Her voice is reported to have been shrill; she was called strident and schoolmarmish."
In the end, Eleanor's eloquence on behalf of political refugees impressed even her Republican colleagues. They told her that they had tried to block her appointment, but now found her "good to work with." ER was able to express her private satisfaction to her diary, in words that still echo today: "So — against odds, the women move forward .."
Julia M. Klein is a freelance writer.
Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 3
By Blanche Wiesen Cook, Viking, 670 pages, $40