The Real Eleanor Roosevelt: Smart, Disciplined, Strong

Eleanor Roosevelt was not just an idealistic First Lady. As a new collection of papers reveals, she was also a smart, disciplined and unabashed strategist.

Eleanor Roosevelt, a woman known for her upright back and moral certitude, secretly enjoyed having her palms read. One particular analysis, in October 1939, tickled her so much that she kept it in the drawer of her desk, along with poems that inspired her. The palmist wrote that the finger which showed leadership “is much bolder in your left hand, which shows inherent potentialities, than it is in your right hand which shows what actually happens. This leads me to believe that many times you’ve had to cramp your style.”

The fact that Eleanor kept this document for years is more revealing than the words themselves—did she believe she had qualities of leadership that were repressed, or thwarted by her position as First Lady? Despite all she achieved, and the esteemed place she holds in American history and affection, there’s a central lingering question about her legacy: what would she have been capable of achieving on her own, without the constraints placed on her sex at the time, and without her marriage to Franklin Delano Roosevelt?

The recently published first volume of her papers, “The Human Rights Years, 1945–48,” with a foreword by Hillary Clinton, provides important clues. It begins when Franklin Roosevelt died, and ends with the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which Eleanor played a crucial part. In allowing us to study her own words, in letters, speeches, columns and diary entries, a different portrait of the much-lionized woman emerges—one of a pragmatic, savvy politician. While she is remembered as a saintly, long-suffering figure, we can forget she was an indefatigable, disciplined activist—as historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote, a “tough and salty old lady”—who resisted stereotyping when she was alive, and constantly protested she was not interested in power while vigorously pursuing it.

The comparisons to Hillary Clinton are obvious—both had unfaithful husbands, and both were smart, unconventional First Ladies. To consider Eleanor simply prologue to Hillary, however, is to accept one of the too-easy images of ER. Mrs. Roosevelt eludes straightforward categorization; contrary to conventional interpretation, she shared some of her husband’s emotional and political complexity. FDR could be charming (to meet him was like “opening a bottle of champagne,” as Churchill said) or coolly difficult (“the coldest man I ever met,” as Truman said). Like him, Eleanor had her own layers in life, and now there are layers in death. We think we know her, but we do not, and the myths we choose to believe may tell us more about ourselves than they do about her.

The dominant myth, according to the editor of the papers, Allida Black, is that Eleanor was “a meek, mushy-headed liberal.” “We did the book because everybody thinks of Eleanor as this great, bleeding liberal conscience who had no experience in crafting hard-nosed realistic policy,” she says. “That’s not true. She hid behind her traditional image to shape policy.”

These papers—the first of five volumes intended to document her years alone—deepen our understanding of Eleanor, a prodigious woman with a needle-sharp intellect who has been quoted widely by those who wish to ape her—or own her. She has had her portrait painted by many authors since she died in 1962, and has often been stereotyped in a manner she would surely have resisted when alive. First were those who knew and loved her, like biographer and friend Joseph Lash, who depicted her as godly and selfless—a woman who triumphed over buck teeth, a dysfunctional family and her husband’s love for a younger, prettier woman—like a kind of sexless, successful saint. At one point he compares her to Teresa of Avila. Second were the feminists who declared her one of the greatest heroines of the 20th century and carefully documented her relentless activism for refugees, African-Americans and women. Historical error inevitably follows apotheosis. Some modern, politically correct activists were so eager for her image to be blemish-free that they insisted her statue at the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., not include her trademark silver-fox fur.

In recent years, Eleanor’s personal life has drawn far more attention than her activism—particularly her relationship with the amply proportioned, cigar-smoking reporter Lorena Hickok, who lived in the White House for years. Historian Blanche Wiesen Cook disclosed that photos of family dinners were cropped to exclude Hickok, writing that “the fact of ER’s closest woman friend during the White House years was erased, distorted, and demeaned.” Thousands of the intense letters between Hickok and Eleanor survive: “I wish I could lie down beside you tonight,” wrote Eleanor, “& take you into my arms.” Hickok told Eleanor that when she was away, she missed “the feeling of that soft spot just north-east of the corner of your mouth against my lips.” While many interpret this language as fervidly Victorian, their passion certainly suggests a physical intimacy.

You can imagine how startled Eleanor might have been to discover she would be heralded as a lesbian icon in years to come. But Cook also claims she had an affair with her handsome 32-year-old bodyguard Earl Miller, whose public displays of affection irritated Eleanor’s friends. If this were true—her son James thinks it is, but their letters have been destroyed—Eleanor, at 44, may also be the nation’s first high-profile cougar.

It would be a shame, though, if prurience overshadowed the true legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt, in human rights and the politics of compassion. When Franklin Roosevelt was elected president, Eleanor insisted there was not going to be any First Lady—”there is just going to be plain, ordinary Mrs. Roosevelt. And that’s all.” But she wrote her own nationally syndicated newspaper column, testified before congressional committees and held weekly press conferences with female reporters. She deliberately made controversial statements about such matters as the responsibility to the poor to “get topics talked about and so get people to thinking about them.” Her husband often shrugged, and said people knew he couldn’t control her. She relentlessly lobbied him on policy matters, particularly those affecting the poor, dispossessed or discriminated against. At one stage, Franklin asked her to write no more than three memos a night. He often followed her advice on subjects as diverse as tax and youth movements, but she argued that she did not have any influence on his administration.
Her claims are not convincing. Black says the irony is “that Eleanor Roosevelt, who the world thinks of as a great conscience, lied. She always denied she had power. She always said she never changed her husband’s mind on any policy. Eleanor got slammed for concealing. Hillary got slammed for being honest.” Some say Eleanor was driven only by a desire to help others. But to do that, she needed power over those with whom she disagreed. She was criticized when she took an official role in the Office of Civilian Defense; the attacks led her to take largely covert action—using letters, conversations and orchestrated seating plans at White House dinners to advance her policy interests. She was fond of a poem by Stephen Vincent Benet, which described the lady of the plantation:

“She was often mistaken, not often blind/And she knew the whole duty of womankind/To take the burden and have the power/And seem like the well-protected flower.”

This flower was often referred to as the most powerful woman in Washington, and as a cabinet minister without a portfolio. Historian Susan Ware, editor of the dictionary Notable American Women, says, “Clearly Eleanor was a total political animal, but she wouldn’t usually admit that. [She would say], ‘Oh, I was just my husband’s helpmate’—the historical records show otherwise.”

As her papers reveal, as Eleanor rode down in the “old cage-like White House elevator” for the last time in 1945, she pondered what she could accomplish in her own right: “Franklin’s death ended a period in history and [many who lived in his shadow] have to start again under our own momentum and wonder what we can achieve.” When she arrived at her New York apartment, she told reporters, “The story was over.”

Clearly it was not. She was repeatedly asked if she would like to stand for office. She continued to make her views known in letters to the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Robert Hannegan, and columns on New York politics. In December 1945, President Truman appointed Mrs. Roosevelt as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. And so she strode across the globe, into a punishing schedule of speeches and meetings, while continuing to peel off columns and letters, declaring happily “for the first time in my life I can say just what I want.”

As the chair of the United Nations commission drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor played a crucial role in its passage, uniting countries and brokering compromise. When she debated Soviet delegate Andrei Vyshinsky—without notes—on refugee policy, her victory was front-page news around the world. She penned furious letters about her own government’s tepid commitment, writing to the assistant secretary of State: “I know full well the lack of importance you give human rights in the State Department.” In 1947, she also wrote a strong letter to President Truman about the State Department’s loyalty oaths, which she considered a Soviet-style capitulation to fear of communism.

This work earned Eleanor international respect. Historian Geoffrey Ward says: “She showed how representatives of great power could work with representatives of no power and not be resented. We can learn from her inner sense of the dignity of other people.” With time, Ward says, she has “become everybody’s grandmother. [But] she was very tough, very gutsy, politically savvy, uncompromising.”

Eleanor was asked in 1934 if a woman would become president of the United States. She answered carefully: “I hope it will only become a reality when she is elected as an individual because of her capacity and the trust which the majority of the people have in her integrity and ability as a person.” Seventy-four years later, another formidable former First Lady is seeking that trust. Hillary Clinton has long professed an admiration for Eleanor Roosevelt, even admitting to having imaginary conversations with her. Clinton tends to highlight Eleanor’s toughness—frequently quoting her advice that women in politics need to develop a rhinoceros hide, as well as her belief that a woman is like a teabag: “You never know how strong she is until she’s in hot water.” This is one quality few seem to doubt in Clinton today—her mettle.
There were many dimensions to Eleanor Roosevelt. She was certainly a lot more fun than her stern photographs suggest. She loved pranks and ball gowns—and dictated a statement on refugee repatriation in 1946 while getting her hair and nails done. What we can be certain of is that she would have risen to speak often in recent years, particularly on war and the politics of fear. We are living in a world indelibly shaped by her. If we fail to recognize how much more than a “well-protected flower” she was, then she is simply continuing to outfox us all.