Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Happy Birthday, Dear Eleanor...

By Cornelia

I always try to tune it to KALW, one of the Bay Area's NPR stations, around nine a.m. on weekdays. If everything's on schedule, I've dropped off one kid at school and am headed back over the Berkeley hills to school two by that point.

First you get the promo for that day's Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and then Garrison Keillor comes on with Writer's Almanac for a few minutes. I like to hear whose birthday it is, with Keillor's little blurb on what they've done. Today is the birthday of Elmore Leonard, which is cool, but I was even more interested to hear about birthday girl Eleanor Roosevelt, whom I've long admired.

I first read about her in a Scholastic paperback biography when I was eight years old or so, and felt an instant kinship. We were both born in New York City (albeit 79 years apart). Her parents were divorced, and she spent time with various relatives around New York state, including her uncle and godfather Teddy Roosevelt, at his place in Oyster Bay--the same town I visited each summer, staying with my mother's parents.

She wrote of herself, "I was a solemn child without beauty. I seemed like a little old woman entirely lacking in the spontaneous joy and mirth of youth."

I remember reading those words in my school's battered beige paperback, and how strongly they struck a chord with me. To discover that serious, self-consciously awkward girls could find the courage to do great things, as she did, was for me a tremendous epiphany.

She went to school in England,

Top row, third from right

where she was inspired by the school's activist headmistress who, according to Garrison Keillor this morning, "was passionately devoted to liberal causes and social justice."

I like to think her school portrait proves the merit of an observation she wrote down at age 14:

that, " matter how plain a woman may be if truth & loyalty are stamped upon her face all will be attracted to her...."

She was brought home to New York from her beloved school, the first place she'd ever truly felt she belonged, in order to "come out" as a deb. Judging from the portrait photo taken to mark her debut, she was not exactly psyched about it:

On a train to Tivoli, New York, to visit her grandmother, Eleanor ran into her fifth-cousin-once-removed Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They began courting secretly, and were married in 1905.

Here she is at the end of her wedding trip, in Venice:

Eleanor and Franklin had six children, one of whom died in infancy.

"I suppose I was fitting pretty well into the pattern of a fairly conventional, quiet, young society matron," she would later write in her autobiography. But she was also a dedicated volunteer for a variety of social causes.

When her husband was named Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I, Eleanor began work for the Red Cross, visiting wounded and shell-shocked troops in the Naval Hospital. Appalled by what she found there, she demanded that the government inspect the poor conditions affecting the sailors.

I have to say here that FDR was not exactly admired by my relatives. One grandfather used to whisper, "of course his name was actually Rosenfeld," while the other blamed him for his fraternal twin brother's death in WWI--claiming Roosevelt had purchased defective planes from the French, one of which my great-uncle was, fatally, chosen as test pilot for.

They were the sort of people who, generally, viewed the New Deal as class treachery. That made me like Eleanor even more.

Especially because she resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution when they refused to allow Marian Anderson to sing in Constitution Hall, a building they owned in Washington DC.

Eleanor made sure that Anderson was given an even better concert venue: the base of the Lincoln Memorial, and on April 9, 1939, Easter Day, that performance was broadcast across the country.

She once wrote:

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.

When her husband died in 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt told reporters: "the story is over."

But within a year she became the American spokesman to the United Nations, where she was elected the chairperson of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights.

She believed that her work on that commission's Universal Declaration of Human Rights was her greatest legacy, but still said, "I’m so glad I never feel important, it does complicate life!"

By her own definition, she is to me one of the very best examples of maturity:

A mature person is one who does not think only in absolutes, who is able to be objective even when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that there is both good and bad in all people and in all things, and who walks humbly and deals charitably with the circumstances of life, knowing that in this world no one is all knowing and therefore all of us need both love and charity.
Happy Birthday, Dear Eleanor.


  1. Happy Birthday, indeed. Thanks for a lovely biography of a lovely lady.

  2. "I have to say here that FDR was not exactly admired by my relatives. One grandfather used to whisper, "of course his name was actually Rosenfeld," while the other blamed him for his fraternal twin brother's death in WWI--claiming Roosevelt had purchased defective planes from the French, one of which my great-uncle was, fatally, chosen as test pilot for."

    Whoa. The plot of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons."


  3. Ah, Louise--thank you, and I am so proud of you for winning the "Shameless" award!

    And Paul, that is extremely bizarre. I didn't know the play, and just Googled it. Whoa indeed...

  4. Hi Cornelia!
    That was wonderful biographical tribute to Eleanor. I could wish that the more recent subsequent public figures and politicians had the same integrity.
    Oh, yes: I loved my Scholastic books in grade school (we call it Primary School) - bought them by the dozen, thanks to my doting mum. I still have some of those favourites. :-D
    PS: Oh, I finally gathered up all of my coupons and ran over to Borders and nabbed the last copy of "A Field of Darkness" off of the shelf. It's on my short list to read in the next few weeks. :-D

  5. Thank you, Marianne! I'm glad you liked my Eleanor homage, and hope you like FIELD!!!

  6. Very moving portrait, C. I found the photo of Eleanor alone in a gondola in romantic Venice on the last day of her honeymoon particularly poignant.

  7. Great post, Cornelia, many thanks....

  8. What a magnificent woman--and a marvelous post.

  9. Eleanor is so cool. And ironically, although the whole world called her plain, I think in that 14 year old picture she looks like Ingrid Bergman, who was of course a giant sex symbol. Check out the similarities.

  10. After reading Julia's comment, I checked the portrait. Eleanor was a hottie at fourteen.

  11. What a great profile. I have always admired Eleanor Roosevelt and that other kickass woman of history, Eleanor of Acquitaine.