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Miss Eleanor Roosevelt
“She is such a funny child, so old-fashioned, that we always call her ‘Granny’ “her mother said. Cousin Franklin felt otherwise
October 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 6
By no strange quirk of fate, no unlikely chance or mysterious destiny, were Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt brought together in casual acquaintanceship. Even had they been wholly without ties of blood and family tradition, unsharing of the same family name and distant ancestry, the strangeness would have been in their not meeting as they pursued their highly mobile physical lives within that small social world, close-knit and rigidly exclusive, which both of them inhabited.
And in actual fact they did meet for the first time when she was only two years old. On a day in 1886 her parents came to Hyde Park as houseguests of James and Sara, Franklin’s parents, bringing her with them— a plain-visaged, remarkably solemn little girl whom her mother called Granny and her father Little Nell and who stood around in doorways with her finger in her mouth, excessively shy, silently withdrawn, until four-year-old Franklin set about entertaining her. And himself. He (her distant cousin, her father’s godson, her future husband) took her into the nursery to play “horsey”; she sat astride his back as he romped joyously around the room on his hands and knees. … She herself had no later recollection of this, of course; she would learn of it from her motherin-law.
But she remembered meeting him again when she was in her early teens and was forced to attend dances at which she was miserable while he, to all outward appearances, was perfectly at ease and thoroughly enjoyed himself. One such occasion was, for her, especially memorable. It was during the Christmas holidays, the only time of the year when she was permitted to see boys her own age. All the other guests knew one another well: she alone was a stranger, an outsider, with nothing about her that could (she felt) attract anyone’s favorable attention, much less actively interest a boy. Already she was taller than most grown women; and since she was, by her grandmother’s decree, inappropriately dressed in a little-girl’s skirt that reached barely to her knees, her height became an exaggeration, a kind of vertical elongation of her natural awkwardness. She was rigid with embarrassment. She knew herself to be a poor dancer —felt herself more graceless on the dance floor than perhaps she was, in actual truth. And so she watched in helpless envy as other girls danced, one after another, and flirted, too, with her handsome Cousin Franklin, an urbane Harvard man who was evidently admired by all. Then he spied her. He came to her. He asked her to dance with him, and asked, moreover, as if he really wanted her to! She was almost tearfully grateful to him.
The next encounter, as far as either of them could later recall, was on a New York Central train. She was then eighteen and had just returned from schooling in Europe. She was on her way from New York City to Tivoli on the Hudson to spend the summer in her grandmother’s house when he, sauntering through the day coach in which she sat, recognized her and took her back to talk to his mother, who, of course, despite the shortness of the ride, occupied a Pullman seat. She would never forget how formidably beautiful his mother had seemed to her that day. James Roosevelt had died only six months before. Sara (Eleanor’s “Cousin Sallie”) was still in mourning, clad all in black, with a heavy veil that fell from hat to feet, and the somberness of her attire somehow accentuated the brilliance of her eyes and the classic purity of her features. She appeared at least a decade younger than her actual years.
A few months later Eleanor Roosevelt was introduced to New York society at an Assembly Ball where she knew only two unmarried men and suffered again agonies of humiliation over her lack of popularity and, as she profoundly believed, the means of ever achieving it. She fled the ballroom as early in the evening as she possibly could. But not long afterward her Aunt Tissie and Uncle Stanley (Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Mortimer) gave a large party for her— theatre, late supper at Sherry’s, followed by dancing—that went very well, and from then on the “season” proceeded for her more smoothly, less unhappily, through a crowded sequence of luncheons, teas, dinners, suppers, dances where, inevitably, she met her fifth cousin Franklin from time to time. She continued to meet him the following autumn after her Grandmother Hall had decided not to open the old Hall family brownstone on West Thirtyseventh Street that year, 1903 (the cost of doing so was too great), but instead to permit Eleanor to live with her Cousin Susie and Susie’s husband, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Parish, in the city. She and Franklin became good friends that fall, then better friends as the holidays came and passed.
All of which, as regards their relationship, was in general outline predictable.
The event emergent from it, however—the intimacy that grew up, that ripened into love—seemed to most observers no fruit of the inevitable. Indeed, there was about it, if not an actual strangeness or mystery, at least an improbability, an unlikelihood that bred surprise. Few could have foreseen it, even with a vision armed by the most intimate knowledge of their very different characters, temperaments, upbringings; and these few emphatically could not have included Sara Delano Roosevelt. Franklin’s mother was more than surprised; she was initially shocked. And when the shock wore off she was deeply hurt, with a hurt that contained a sense of outrage and insult.