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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
Her mother, alas, had good reason to suffer nervous headaches: her marriage to Elliott Roosevelt, so joyously begun, grew tragic, and she was being subjected to intolerable strains. Elliott had been a remarkably attractive young man, much more so than his older brother Theodore. He was good-looking, spontaneous, sensitive, gay, and highly intelligent. But he had also rather more than his share of the character defects that so often accompany great charm. He and Anna had not long been married when there came a recurrence of the mysterious illness, a failure of will and nerve, that had forced Elliott’s withdrawal from prep school when he was in his teens. It began shortly after the birth of his first son. It was triggered evidently by a riding accident in which his leg was broken. The break was a very bad one and so poorly set that later, after months of acute pain, the leg had to be rebroken and reset an event that Eleanor, though a very little girl at the time, never forgot. “… I sensed that this was a terrible ordeal,” she wrote a half century later, “and when he went hobbling out on crutches to the waiting doctors, I was dissolved in tears and sobbed my heart out for hours.” Amid this prolonged physical anguish he began to drink heavily.
There began then, for him, a long, hard, and ultimately futile “fight for … health [he never completely recovered physically from the effects of his accident] and power of self-control,” a first step of which was his entrance into the sanitarium in France while his wife awaited the birth of Hall in Neuilly. He made no verysatisfactory response to the medical treatment given him there, evidently, for his daughter remembered that when he came to the Neuilly house on temporary release from the sanitarium, he caused his wife and his sister “a great deal of anxiety,” that he remained in the sanitarium when his family sailed for home many weeks after Hall’s birth, and that finally “his brother, Theodore, had to go and get him …” He continued to drink. No “cure” brought more than temporary relief. And in a time and place when the label for such as he was not the neutral one of “alcoholic” but the opprobrious one of “drunkard,” he was a disgrace to his wife and family—so great a one that his highly religious wife could not bear it. He was sent away, or went away, to a little town in Virginia, while his wife and children lived more and more with Eleanor’s Grandmother Hall; they stayed in Elliott’s New York house during the winter months but spent most of the warm seasons at Oak Terrace in Tivoli.
The effect of all this upon the little girl, Eleanor, was devastating. Her father’s love for her, joined to hers for him (“he … was the love of my life”), constituted the one bright warm flame in the otherwise chilly gloom of her childhood. When he called her Little Nell it was not as her mother called her Granny but, instead, as one speaks a term of endearment, of delight in one’s beloved; and she knew this long before he explained that Little Nell was a character in Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop , a book he made her read when she was old enough. He never made fun of her, save in a teasing way that further indicated his love for her, his pride in her. With him she was always “perfectly happy.” And when, in France, she was caught lying about swallowing the penny, her father, who was himself in disgrace (she sensed this from the tears and words and gloomy looks of her mother and her Auntie Bye), “was the only person who did not treat me as a criminal!” When he first went away, to Abingdon, Virginia, she was desolate. She couldn’t understand why he had left her. She desperately needed the reassurance he gave her in a letter he wrote from his exile, saying: “My darling little Nell … Because father is not with you is not because he doesn’t love you. For I love you tenderly and dearly—and maybe soon I’ll come back well and strong and we will have good times together, like we used to have.”
Alas, he never did come back “well and strong” to live with his family. Perhaps he was making definite progress toward that happy end when suddenly death struck down his beautiful young wife.
In early December, 1892, Anna Hall Roosevelt fell ill of diphtheria. Her little daughter was taken to stay with Mrs. Parish, her Cousin Susie. And it was there that Eleanor was told, on the seventh of that month, that her mother was dead. She knew something horrible had happened, but she could not feel that she personally had suffered a great loss; and such sorrow as she did feel was more than overcome by the joy she felt when told that her father would soon come to Mrs. Parish’s to see her. He did come, after a while. He took her driving, up Madison Avenue and over to Central Park. He was as charming, as kind and loving to her as ever. But she soon realized that this was, for him, a time of absolute tragedy. He was deemed incompetent—no doubt he deemed himself incompetent—to make a home for his children. They were taken instead to live with their Grandmother Hall, in the brownstone on West Thirty-seventh Street. And Eleanor never forgot his sadness as, in the gloomy library of that house, he (dressed all in black) took her in his arms and spoke of his bereavement and of how he had now only his children, of whom the two boys were too young for him to really talk to, so that it must be she and he together. Always they must remain close, even though physically separated, until someday they would live together, travel together, do all manner of interesting things together.