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September 1999 - Volume 31 Issue 8


First Lady of the New Deal
How Eleanor Roosevelt discovered herself through politics
by Suzannah Lessard

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT
Vol. 2

By Blanche Wiesen Cook
Viking Press, $34.95

In the first volume of what will be at least a three-volume biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, Blanche Wiesen Cook laid out the childhood of this remarkable woman, a painful one of abandonment by death and alcoholism in the midst of a famously complicated and un-nurturing clan. The political woman, the woman determined to be useful to others in the world, emerged in that story. But it was primarily a tale of struggle for emotional survival, first from the wounds of childhood and later from her husband's infidelity with Lucy Mercer. With that discovery, her life crashed, and, in a period of anorexia -- she just couldn't keep food down -- and depression, she sought ways to restore her never-sturdy sense of her own worth.

In this period of devastation, Eleanor made many visits to the statue that Henry Adams had commissioned Augustus St. Gaudens to erect in memory of his wife Clover, whose suicide may have been related to her own husband's involvement with another woman. The statue is of a hooded anonymous figure familiarly known as Grief. Somehow this ambiguous memorial gave her the strength to commit herself to a life of emotional and even political independence from Franklin while remaining loyal to him, although her loyalty was often that of the opposition.

Ms. Cook's work is that of a disciplined scholar with a lucid style that carries her thoroughness lightly. She gives us what we need to form our own pictures and draw our own conclusions. Most people would conclude from the evidence in the first volume that Eleanor became engaged in a passionate and almost certainly physical relationship with Lorena Hickock, a newspaperwoman, right in the White House. This was independent indeed. After the Lucy Mercer discovery Eleanor was also in the company of feminists, some of whom lived together in life partnerships. This raises a thought I have not seen addressed -- Ms. Cooke does not venture into such speculation: If Eleanor was by nature a lesbian, if that was where her happiness and her fulfillment lay, then is it not probably true that there would have been something missing in her marriage to Franklin? If this was the case, Franklin's affair with Lucy Mercer is not quite the betrayal that it might seem to be in another light. Complexities of this kind should warn us off making judgments about any marriage: it is almost impossible to see into longstanding life partnerships from the outside. But as there has been so much speculation about Eleanor and Franklin, and as the story has seemed to be simply one of faithful wife and straying husband, it seems worth raising this possibility.

If Eleanor was by nature a lesbian, then her devastation upon discovering Franklin's affair is also cast in a slightly different light. Given her history of early abandonment, there is no mystery about why a betrayal of trust such as this would flatten her. One does not need complicated theories of sexuality to explain it. However, the picture changes in a way that to me rings true to life if one considers the possibility that Eleanor had subordinated her nature to her marital obligations: that she had given up true happiness for herself in order to commit herself to her marriage, only to discover way down the road that Franklin had not made an equivalent commitment, or more to the point, that her venture had not been a success despite this sacrifice. That is a different kind of grief from what one would feel upon discovering betrayal, plain and simple. What's useful about this speculation is not the sensational aspect of it -- that Eleanor Roosevelt was homosexual -- but the way in which it accords both Franklin and Eleanor a fuller humanity than is possible when he is seen as a villain and she as the wronged good woman.

None of this is to suggest that Ms. Cook's biography harps upon ER's sexual orientation. In fact, this volume, which covers the years 1933 to 1938, is primarily an account of the extraordinary political activities in which Eleanor became more and more exclusively involved as her confidence in her convictions grew and as she learned that her position gave her the opportunity to improve the lives of millions of people. There were many fronts on which she battled, but among the most startling is racism. With Franklin dependent on Southern senators for re-election, and therefore unwilling to back even an anti-lynching bill, Eleanor fought the deep racist element in the New Deal as originally conceived, and fought it in every other form that she encountered it. Her pain and bewilderment at her husband's inaction, especially where the anti-lynching bill was concerned -- she would have to come back empty-handed to leaders of the black movement with whom she had become close friends -- is wrenching. It's an indication of what she was up against that she was mercilessly castigated for even the smallest gestures, such as inviting little girls who happened to be black to the White House for an ice cream party.

We also see her failing to confront the treatment of Jews in Germany, a particularly painful aspect of her career to contemplate, as the evidence shows that she was not free of the unself-conscious anti-Semitism of the old American upper class. However, what paralyzed her with respect to Germany was not a lack of feeling for the Jews, nor forceful instructions from her husband to remain silent on the matter, nor even the belief that it was not appropriate for us to interfere in the internal affairs of another country, though she did state that as her reason. The true underlying reason was her understanding of the grotesque criminality of the treatment of black people in this country. It was this that silenced her, undercutting all moral authority where Germany was concerned. Still, a lingering uneasiness remains in the reader's mind, because of the standard she herself has set. She seems somehow not to have grasped the reality of what was happening in Germany.

ER's political activism was ceaseless and encompassed many issues. In this volume we see her grow beyond many of her friends, even the community of independent women who had given her so much strength in the years after her emotional separation from Franklin. There was a kind of easy, automatic snobbery that became impossible for her to tolerate, and her outspoken opinions, especially on race, also became more than some of her friends could stand. In this volume we see Eleanor breaking out of the cage of class and coming to know firsthand how ordinary Americans lived, always recognizing her common humanity with them.

Lorena Hickock, known as Hick, clearly the most important person in Eleanor's life for an extended period, played a role in this transformation in that she came from an ordinary background and, as a newspaperwoman, was well acquainted with life at the grassroots. Ms. Cook traces the evolution of their relationship, a leitmotif threaded throughout this tale of heroic political engagement.

But Eleanor grew beyond Hick too. A landmark moment in ER's gradual withdrawal was when Hick expressed the opinion, held by so many in New Deal circles, that scarce resources should not be squandered on black people because they knew how to get along on nothing anyway; that the help should go to whites. There was less and less time for Hick, and those rare dates they made were spent with other people along, or canceled at the last moment because of family obligations. A weekend in which Eleanor spent most of the time on the phone or working was a sad coda.

As for Eleanor, the process that dissolves her relationship with Hick does not seem to be only a matter of growing beyond her lover and friend. It's likely that the relationship with Hick was doomed in the long run, but there was no replacement, and what one also sees is Eleanor finally turning herself over almost completely to her political work, as if giving up on other dimensions of life. The situation seemed to require it: she had the power to effect change for good, and she was well suited to the endeavor. In fact she was a dynamo where political work was concerned. But the tapestry that Ms. Cook creates here is of such a richness and density that one can also see a woman letting go of the pursuit of personal happiness, to which she had brought as great a valiance as she brought to political action but at which she had been far less successful. One sees the deficits of her childhood catching up with her here: Then too, she did not live in a world that tolerated the kind of open relationship in which, it seems likely, she would have found peace and comfort. It appears that as she let go of that hope, an increasing energy surged into her political endeavors.

Every life is hemmed in by limitations: The challenge is how to cope with them, how to draw energy from them, as well as how to overcome them. In that struggle Eleanor Roosevelt achieved a kind of greatness that is detailed here in all its human paradox. It's a life that rewards the kind of total commitment of attention that Ms. Cook brings to it. This is not hagiography: we have a full human being here, capable of huge rage, of tremendous coldness and insensitivity, fallible and painfully vulnerable. It's the fullness of the portrait that makes it so dazzling in the end.

Suzannah Lessard is a contributing editor for The Washington Monthly.


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