Monday, March 23, 2009

March: Womens' History Month

"Eleanor Roosevelt, A Personal and Public Life" by J. William T. Youngs Harper Collins 246 pages Price: none given; the book was a generous gift from a cousin who is a noted historian.

I am shallow enough to admit that I find reading about people's real lives (and peccadilloes) is more interesting than of any great deeds done. Eleanor is certainly a case in point.

Her parents were handsome people; she was plain. Her childhod reads like a Dickens novel -- one disaster after another. Both of her parents and a younger brother died. She was sent to live with her maternal grandmother along with her brother, Hall. She was very shy.

Still, her character, if not looks, attracted Franklin to her and after a suitable courtship, they married. With the marriage came her mother-in-law who famously gave them a house -- smack dab next to hers, in fact, with connecting doors on every floor.

Roosevelt gave her six children within 10 years and while she loved them, she was not in any way maternal; they were raised by a succession of nannies and tutors. She had a personal secretary named Lucy Mercer and the two became close friends.

Roosevelt returned home from a naval inspection so sick that he was confined to bed. Unpacking his things, Eleanor found love letters from Lucy Mercer in his luggage. This was betrayal of the deepest sort and Eleanor never really got over it. He apologized profusely and she extracted his promise never to see her again.

So -- he switched his attentions to his secretary "Missy" Hand. During his long recovery from polio, they even lived together on a house boat in Florida and Eleanor never turned a hair. She had other fish to fry, quite possibly an affair with her bodyguard, Earl Miller. She was 44; he was 32 -- perhaps she was the World's First Cougar! If so, kudos!

She traveled so extensively as FDR's "eyes and ears" that the newspapers nicknamed her "Eleanor Everywhere." A cartoon of the times shows a coal mine, deep in the ground and a miner exclaiming, "Why, it's Mrs. Roosevelt!" in astonishment.

Eleanor was believed to have had a lesbian relationship with the very masculine-looking Lorena Hickok (aka "Hick") but I think it's doubtful. Our sexual preferences don't have an on/off switch. I do think that Eleanor enjoyed a warm closeness with her (after FDR's long coolness toward her.) Eleanor was very Victorian (florid) in her letters and affectations. She wrote to her mother-in-law on her honeymoon (!) how much she looked forward to coming home to cozy chats and "lots of kisses."

Franklin's death wounded her yet again -- Lucy Mercer was with him. She went on until age 78, dying of aplastic anemia and a rare form of bone marrow TB in 1962.) She had a remarkable ability for change -- from shyness to commanding the world's stages. And doing a lot of good from them.

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