Eleanor Roosevelt was a global icon by the 1950s, a world-renowned former First Lady of the United States who had the bearing, manner, and natural dignity that radiated an essence of near-royalty. She had been the wife and unofficial advisor of the most beloved U.S. president, a man who had brought the country out of an historically difficult depression that had drowned thousands in the mire of poverty, who had lifted our spirits from the depths of financial hell, and who had led us to the proudest military moment since the Revolution, the twin defeats of the Japanese war machine and the German horror machine.
By those ’50s, Eleanor seemed the picture of grace, confidence, competence, maternal warmth, and an over-arching wisdom that embraced the entire world. But that person whom we thought we knew so well was, in fact, the living culmination of a life’s worth of struggle, despair, social conflict, self-doubt, crippling shyness — and the power and pride that led to her ultimate triumph over each of those daunting obstacles.
Author Jan Jarboe Russell’s riveting and enlightening account of Eleanor Roosevelt’s fascinating life, “Eleanor in the Village,” offers us glimpses of the Roosevelt life few of us could have imagined. She was born into the epitome of New York high society, the Hyde Park Roosevelts. But she was an unusual and unusually awkward child — unsmiling, unattractively serious, physically clumsy, and absolutely never “cute.” Her mother, Anna Hall Roosevelt, was ashamed of her, intensely disliked her, called her ugly to her face, and consistently complained about her homely child to friends and relatives. Her father, Elliot Roosevelt, on the other hand, adored her. She was the light of his life. But unfortunately, her light did not shine brightly enough to prevent his falling into helpless bouts of entirely destructive alcoholism, depression, occasional violence, insanity, and early death. Anna died shortly after her husband, and Eleanor was an orphan at a young age.
As a teenager, she was sent to a boarding school outside of London, which was founded and managed by an impressively educated and outspoken French feminist named Marie Souvestre. That teacher saw in her all the fine qualities that her caretakers in America had totally missed — or simply ignored. With Souvestre’s encouragement, Eleanor’s rebirth was almost shockingly sudden and immediately apparent to all those around her. She became a leader and an example of positive characteristics and habits to all her classmates. The experience was, indeed, the beginning of a new kind of life for the young woman.
Upon her return to New York, she was herded back into the society which she had come to despise — debutante balls and unwanted opportunities to meet single young men of her class. Eventually, however, she became acquainted with her very handsome, bright, and ambitious fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the two felt an immediate mutual attraction. After a year-long engagement, watched over carefully and incessantly by Franklin’s domineering mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, Franklin and Eleanor married in 1905. Franklin dove enthusiastically into his political career and Eleanor, not quite so enthusiastically but definitely willingly, adopted her wifely and motherly duties, all the while encouraging her husband to pursue his political dreams.Their relationship was happy and loving, and their home life was a rather traditional, busy affair. As Franklin made his inexorable way up the political ladder, Eleanor, though feeling quite constrained by her rather typical homemaker’s role, was a consistent and supportive wife and helpmate. Until 1918.
In 1914, she had hired a social secretary to assist in her many projects. Lucy Mercer was perfect for the position: bright, attractive, personable. But she and Franklin fell desperately in love; he could not resist her, and he didn’t want to try. Then, in 1918, Eleanor found Lucy’s love letters to Franklin. She immediately confronted her husband, and he confessed his love for Lucy and admitted the affair. All intimacy between Eleanor and Franklin ended, and their marriage became a purely political affair. Eleanor said she would grant him the divorce he so desperately desired, but his mother quickly quashed the possibility of any such scandal. She threatened to personally destroy his career. For her part, Eleanor consented to stay in the marriage but insisted that from that time forward, she would be completely free to pursue her own dreams and to make her own choices in every aspect of her life — her missions, her causes, her own unique moral and social standards, and the right to live wherever she desired and to love whomever she desired.
In 1920, she made a radical move that would define and characterize the rest of her life: She became a denizen of Greenwich Village, the home of artists, writers, musicians, rogues, free lovers, and political extremists — the “bohemians” — those who proclaimed and chose freedom from all traditional American political and social norms. She fought for the poor and downtrodden; she marched for equal rights for women; she illuminated the plights of people of color and immigrants; she toured the slum-ridden areas of New York so that she could see and experience first-hand the struggles, the unspeakable conditions which the poor were forced to endure. She spent hours and hours of many days communing with the outcasts, the struggling artists. the socialists and communists, and the proponents of free love and the right to love anyone of any gender. In fact, she had a long intimate affair with a respected journalist named Lorena Hickock. For the last forty-two years of her life, she was, in short, someone quite different from the person we thought we knew.
Once FDR became president, she used her influence with him and the power of the position he held to work tirelessly to advance all the progressive causes in which she profoundly believed. The president gladly — and wisely — considered and often followed her advice when it was politically feasible. The New Deal was certainly at least partly a product of the political partnership of Eleanor and Franklin. Perhaps the most telling result of her efforts, apart from all the accomplishments we attribute to the Roosevelt presidency, was the pure hatred she inspired from the right wing, particularly J. Edgar Hoover. He passionately despised her and everything she stood for. He considered her a threat to America, a communist traitor, and he kept a secret file on her and her activities which eventually added up to an astonishing 3900 pages. But Eleanor Roosevelt never became disillusioned or frightened, never wavered, never gave up the fight.
A terrible irony jumps off the pages of Russell’s work here: we are still waging the same wars for equality and justice that Eleanor Roosevelt waged starting a century ago. We still cannot pass an equal rights amendment that would simply guarantee that women have the same rights and protections as men, the rights that men still so jealously guard and celebrate. We still lack the will to close the wealth gap, consistently enacting laws that benefit the wealthiest among us and crush the poorest. We still flunk the test for the rights of minorities, including the right to vote and to be protected rather than attacked by alleged law enforcers all over the country. We still refuse to universally recognize the rights of the very people whom Eleanor supported and lived with and loved. Newspaper headlines and social media posts scream daily of our failures. Eleanor Roosevelt was inarguably ahead of her time. Sadly, she was miles and years ahead of our time, too.
Review by Jack Kramer. Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.