Miss Eleanor Roosevelt


Thereafter she lived on the hope, the promise thus given her. She needed a bright future to look forward to, for her actual present life in her grandmother’s house was, if anything, more gloomy and unsettling, more prolific of psychological insecurities, than life with her mother had been. Two uncles, Value and Eddie, two aunts, Russie and Maude, still lived in their (and her mother’s) childhood home. They were out of control, having grown up without guidelines after their father’s early death, without imposed standards of conduct. Their various storms and clashes of willful temperament, especially Value’s and Pussie’s, made the atmosphere of the house on Thirty-seventh Street and Oak Terrace in Tivoli anything but peaceful. And Grandmother Hall’s reaction to this, as far as her grandchildren were concerned, was a determination that they “should have the discipline her own children had lacked,” so that ”… we were brought up on the principle that ‘no’ was easier to say than’yes,’ ” as Eleanor later recalled. Moreover, she was in the care of a French maid, Madelaine, who scolded her and pulled her hair and of whom she was, for reasons she never quite understood, desperately afraid.

Hence her yearning, her vital need for her father.

He came to the New York house for a second sorrowful visit in that same winter of his wife’s death. Ellie and Josh had come down with scarlet fever, the latter recovering with no permanent ill-effects; but Ellie, in his weakened condition, had caught diphtheria and quickly died. Eleanor, who was never seriously ill—she was practically never ill at all—was taken again to the Parishes, where she was quarantined.

During the next two years her father came but seldom to the Hall home, for brief visits only, generally without prior notice. Yet his daughter, who seems always to have subconsciously waited for him, never failed to sense his presence from the instant he opened the front door, and she flew into his arms, sliding down the banisters if she was upstairs. Despite his prolonged absence he “dominated all this period” of his daughter’s life. He took a great interest in her education, which her mother had been inclined to neglect, and she learned many things just to please him—most of Hiawatha by heart, for instance. She was by her own account a great physical coward but was frequently able to overcome her timidity when she was with him, because he so disapproved of it. He gave her puppies, and a pony, and loaded her down with presents at Christmastime and on her birthday. He wrote her often; and as she read his letters, she shared joyously in what she believed to be his life, which was apparently full of little children, and fox terriers, and horses. She lived with him in a dream world.

Then he died.

On August 14, 1894, shortly before her tenth birthday, her Aunt Maude and Aunt Pussie came to her and told her that her father was dead. She wept for him: she was swept by a storm of tears and wept for a long time in her bed that night, before an exhausted sleep overcame her; but in her deepest self she would not, could not accept the fact that he was forever gone from her, that she would never see him again, and when she awoke next morning she “began … living in my dream world as usual.” She was helped to do so by her grandmother’s decision that neither she nor Josh should go to the funeral, for this meant that she had “no tangible thing to make death real to me.” She knew in her mind that her father was dead, yet could not or would not feel that he was, so that for a long time “I lived with him more closely, probably, than I had when he was alive.”

A thicker gloom than she had known before, less often interrupted by beams of light, closed down around her.

For instance, while her father lived, a bright spot of almost every week in the city for her had been a Saturday visit with her father’s aunt, Mrs. James King Gracie (Auntie Gracie), sister of her Grandmother Roosevelt. Auntie Gracie was a warm, vibrant person, “much beloved by her greatnephews and nieces,” of whom Alice Roosevelt and Teddy Robinson were generally with her at the same time as Eleanor was. The three Roosevelt cousins had much fun together and had learned things, too, for Auntie Gracie talked to them by the hour, often about plantation life in the South, where she and her sister had been raised; took them sightseeing in the afternoons and to such educative entertainments as Mrs. Jorley’s waxworks; and sometimes took them to visit the Orthopaedic Hospital that Grandfather Roosevelt had helped to found and where the sight of “innumerable little children in casts and splints” aroused in Eleanor a great pity and desire to help alleviate the pain and suffering in the world. Always, the little girl had looked forward to these rich Saturdays. Then—abruptly, with no reason given—they were forbidden her by her grandmother.