Miss Eleanor Roosevelt

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Indeed, Grandmother Hall discouraged all contacts between her grandchildren and the Roosevelts. Perhaps she resented as well as disapproved of the family whose son, in his weakness, had brought such great sorrow upon her daughter. Perhaps she feared that her grandchildren, if they were too much exposed to their lively and dynamic Roosevelt relatives, would escape or rebel against the rigid control she was determined to maintain over them. Whatever the reason, Eleanor was permitted no more than a couple of visits to the home of her Aunt Edith and Uncle Ted at Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay, Long Island—visits that stood out so sharply, vividly from the dreary monotony of her average childhood days that she always afterward remembered them in detail. She remembered her terror as she jumped off a dock into the ocean, upon her Uncle Ted’s orders, despite her inability to swim (he insisted that this was the way to learn, but it didn’t work). She remembered her almost equivalent terror when Uncle Ted lined her up with the other children atop a high, steep, sandy bluff and had them all run pell-mell down it to a beach, most of them falling on the way and then rolling to the bottom—an exercise she rather enjoyed after she had learned that a fall wouldn’t hurt her. Terrified or not, she always felt, when she was with Uncle Ted, that she was alive. Truly alive. And she remembered with unalloyed pleasure being chased by Uncle Ted through haystacks, being read to by him in the house (poetry, for the most part), and going with him and the others on a camping trip during which he “taught us many a valuable lesson”—especially “that camping was a good way to find out people’s characters”; the selfish would reveal their selfishness by shirking their share of the work of the camp and by seeking for themselves the best food, the best bed.

On West Thirty-seventh Street and at Tivoli she had almost no companionship with children her own age. She was much alone, and in her solitude she became an omnivorous reader, going often into wood or field with a book, in the summertime, to read for hours, and reading in bed (though this was forbidden) in the mornings before she arose. She had occasional good times with her uncles and aunts, especially with Uncle Vallie, who was gay and charming with her, and Aunt Pussie, who was an accomplished pianist, much interested in the theatre (she took Eleanor to see Duse), and permitted her niece to wait upon her, run errands for her, to the little girl’s great delight.

But these good times were more than balanced by tempestuous times with her uncles and aunts, especially Pussie. For Pussie had what was called an “artistic temperament,” meaning that she was highly emotional and had a meager sense of responsibility. Once she took Eleanor and Eleanor’s governess to Nantucket, where, after a few days, she casually abandoned them, going off without telling them where she was heading or leaving them any money to pay for lodging or transportation home. The frantic governess had finally to obtain the needed money from Grandmother Hall. Such treatment, coupled with her grandmother’s inveterate habit of saying No (“I built up the defense of saying I did not want things in order to forestall her refusals and keep down my disappointments”), did nothing to build up the little girl’s self-confidence or sense of security. Small wonder that she entered adolescence as a shy, gawky creature who, at parties, was made painfully aware that she was “different from all the other girls,” and in ways that were unattractive.

Not until she was fifteen and was enrolled in a school in England conducted by a remarkable Frenchwoman, Mile. Souvestre, did she again receive any such affectionate concern for her essential self, any such sympathetic understanding, as she had received from her father. The school was run on lines little if any less austere than those at Groton, where Franklin Roosevelt was enrolled; yet Eleanor thrived in this environment. She felt that she was set free of the past, with all its sins and terrors and repressions, and could begin anew. The result was that “for … the first time in all my life … all my fears left me,” including those born of that “physical cowardice” of which she had formerly been ashamed. Required to play some game or other, she chose field hockey, the roughest of all, and managed to make the first team (“I think that day was one of the proudest … of my life”), suffering proportionately as many hard knocks and bruises as Franklin had suffered in Groton football. She was accepted by the other girls, was even popular with them, and made friendships that would last a lifetime.