The Better Half? "Eleanor" (2.9.21)
No president is an island. There were friends, family members and associates who carried them forward and helped share the burdens. But in the history books, those people seldom share the credit.
Eleanor Roosevelt might be the exception. She's the only first lady with her own national historic site. She was the most engaged presidential spouse, working as a publicist, activist and sometimes administrator for a grab-bag of causes. And her public career outlived her husband. Into her late 70s, she still had pull in the Democratic Party, worked as a global ambassador for human rights and was banging out syndicated columns reaching millions of readers a week.
A friend gave me David Michaelis' "Eleanor" for my birthday. It's a cradle-to-grave biography, published in 2020, drawing on a mountain of public and private sources. When I got the book in late December, I was finishing up with Jean Edward Smith's "FDR" -- published in 2007 -- so this turned into a fun (for me) experiment. How do two different authors interpret these intertwining stories? Can we know who the real heroes are in these stories? More important, how do we identify the biggest jerks?
Going in, my general impression of Eleanor was "bad mom, bad spouse." At the very least, "Eleanor" lays out in extensive detail that it was far more complicated. ER had a comfortable financial existence -- she never woke up reasonably worried about money -- but her childhood objectively sucked.
Her mother and father were space cadets; her mom seemed barely interested in parenting, while her father (Theodore Roosevelt's brother) was a disintegrating, mentally unstable alcoholic. Baby ER was desperately seeking the approval of people who incapable of giving it -- at first due to their personal deficiencies, and then because (spoiler alert) they died. Handed off to her mother's family, the Halls, ER spent her teens living in a 19th-century version of "Mean Girls" or Cinderella. She wasn't anyone's primary concern; instead she was shuttled between houses and schools like a family obligation. It was a serious, sad life.
Her relationship with FDR was screwy from the start. He was a relatively sheltered momma's boy. She might have been thrilled by his interest -- she was self-conscious about her looks and felt awkward in many social situations, so having a suitor was a thrill. They had a lopsided marriage, where ER was steamrolled by her mother-in-law and Franklin seemed largely indifferent to her concerns. Later in life, Eleanor believed that Franklin was a great man, but also a user. They were married for 40 years, but she never felt that she was privy to his real thoughts. He kept everyone at a distance.
Beyond that, they didn't really have a functional marriage after 1918, when ER finally had to deal with the fact that her husband was banging her former secretary, Lucy Mercer. She grudgingly stayed married to protect FDR's political career, but they were in no sense in a coordinated, loving relationship from that point until his death.
It's all deeply weird. And Eleanor's personal life just kept getting stranger. She became a close personal friend of a lesbian couple, even living with them at Val-Kill, her home on the Roosevelt estate. At the start of FDR's presidency, she found herself in a romantic entanglement with the most famous female reporter in America, Lorena "Hick" Hickock. Michaelis doesn't mince words: It was a sexual relationship, as indicated by the vast correspondence between the women. It eventually flamed out, and Eleanor moved on to some bizarre associations with younger men. She spent the last decades of her life doting on people who were seemingly fine with being ER's arm candy, but did not return her affection. Meanwhile, while FDR was alive, she looked the other way as his personal secretary (Missy LeHand) stepped in as a de facto wife.
After reading "Eleanor," I am definitely more sympathetic to ER. She might have had a difficult personality, but it was shaped by awful circumstances that were often beyond her control. That doesn't quite excuse her failures as a mother -- her five surviving children found her just as opaque as she found FDR -- but it makes the second act of her life understandable.
FDR's polio and infidelity, among other things, gave ER the opportunity to transform herself. A woman who was deeply uncomfortable in most social situations suddenly was required to be the representative of her crippled husband. She fought against her fears and made a point of personally observing the circumstances of millions of Americans. The last four decades of her life were a non-stop listening tour, while she also tried to organize on behalf of the Democratic Party. She professed to be miserable, having to conform to the expectations of a political spouse. But her lack of emotional attachment to FDR also freed her to be an independent operator, in a way no first lady before or after has managed. Can you imagine Michelle Obama writing 800 words a day, six days a week, in a newspaper column, WHILE her husband was president? ER was on the next level.
My big takeaway for ER is the same as that for FDR: she was deeply flawed, but impressive. She was an anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic bigot who eventually came around to tolerance and civil rights. She was a clueless socialite who eventually devoted her energies to the advancement of human rights for all. She was a racist who eventually became maybe the most prominent advocate for African-Americans in the Roosevelt administration. She was an early opponent of suffrage who eventually became the shining example of female participation in public life. She had almost no connection with her children but a personal connection with a big chunk of the populace.
And what about the experiment? It was fascinating. Among the discrepancies:
Lorena Hickock is mentioned exactly three times in "FDR," only as ER's "friend" -- even though the correspondence between ER and Hick was public in 2007, and Hick actually lived in the White House for a time after leaving her reporting job to work for the government.
In 1921, FDR was censured by Congress for his part in the Newport sex scandal. As assistant secretary of the Navy in 1919, he gave the greenlight to a honeypot operation, where active-duty Navy personnel were used to uncover homosexual activity. In "Eleanor," this is described as a serious rebuke that left FDR depressed and wondering about his political future. It was not mentioned at all in "FDR."
FDR's boss in the Wilson administration, Navy secretary Josephus Daniels, is described in "FDR" as a shrewd operator with a paternal interest in nurturing Franklin's career. In "Eleanor," it's emphasized that he was a virulent racist who, as a newspaper publisher in North Carolina, stoked one of the deadliest race riots in U.S. history.
FDR doesn't come across as a great guy in "FDR," but he's waaaaaay more of a cad in "Eleanor." Similarly, in "FDR," Franklin seems to tolerate ER's political work as the price for her cooperation and silence. In "Eleanor," she's painted as an important team player whose contributions kept FDR politically viable, particularly in the early years of polio.
But I gotta say, I enjoyed both books. The problem with history is that they're always making more of it; getting a fuller understanding of the past requires years of study taking in a lot of viewpoints, and most people don't have the time. There's nothing satisfying about saying "it's complicated," but ... hey, it's complicated. If someone says their version of history is the indisputable truth, don't listen to that person.