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Matters Of Fact
Mrs. Roosevelt Faces Fear
October/november 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 6
She knew the bitter price of giving in.
No childhood terror lasted longer than her fear of water. She had been traumatized at three when the steamship on which she and her parents were traveling to Europe was rammed by another vessel in the fog and seemed sure to sink. “I remember only that there was wild confusion,” she wrote. “My father stood in a boat below me, and I was dangling over the side to be dropped into his arms.” The crewmen to whom she clung had to pry her fingers loose before she was released to fall screaming through the air to safety. This experience so terrified her that when her parents continued their voyage on another ship, they thought it best to leave her behind with relatives for what turned out to be half a year; it may have been during that long separation that she first learned the bitter price exacted by giving in to fear.
Later, during a childhood visit to the Oyster Bay home of her Uncle Theodore and afraid to tell him that she could not swim, she obeyed his order to dive off the dock and sank like a stone; then, when she managed to flail her way back up to the surface, a playful cousin pushed her under again. She was “very much frightened,” she admitted; “Never again would I go out of my depth.”
As a young woman she doggedly mastered her fear of sailing so that she could accompany her young husband on his yacht Half Moon as he explored the twisting coves and inlets of Campobello Island. But she did not dare even try to swim until 1922, when she was herself a mother and wanted to be able to watch over her own children in safety as they swam.
Diving took much longer—until the summer of 1939, in fact, when she was fifty-six years old and took lessons from Dorothy Dow, a junior member of her White House staff whose amiable and unpretentious letters have now been published in Eleanor Roosevelt: An Eager Spirit (W. W. Norton). “Finally she could dive,” Dow wrote, “not only from the side of the pool but from the diving board as well. She was anxious to perform for the President, as he said he didn’t believe she could do it. One day he drove over from the Big House [at Hyde Park, to Val-Kill, his wife’s own nearby cottage] and sat at the edge of the pool. I sat down on the grass beside him, and he said, ‘I understand that you are the one who taught her all this.’ I acknowledged the fact. So, Mrs. R. walked out on the board, got all set in the proper form and went in flat as could be. She could have been heard down at Poughkeepsie! I thought the President would explode laughing, and his hand came down on my shoulder so hard I almost fell over. Mrs. R. came up red in the face, with a really grim expression, said nothing, walked out on the board again, and did a perfect dive. We all gave her a big hand, and she was pretty proud of her accomplishment—which she certainly should have been.”
Out of such small, satisfying victories she manufactured herself. “We do not have to become heroes overnight,” she wrote in her last book. “Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.”