Miss Eleanor Roosevelt

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But it was Mlle. Souvestre herself who gave the greatest boost to her morale. Mile. Souvestre, in late middle age, had an executive temperament, a strong character, a hard, prosaic mind—and her pedagogical techniques, her overall influence upon the girls in her school, were in several respects similar to those of Endicott Peabody upon the boys at Groton. Every night, for example, the girls were assembled in the library to bid good-night, one by one, to the headmistress, whose “eagle eye,” on such occasions, “penetrated right through to your backbone and … took in everything about you.” Therefore it meant an immense amount to Eleanor that she should soon become, and know that she had become, one of Mile. Souvestre’s favorites. She was abruptly cured of her “habit of lying,” knowing that she had nothing to fear from truth telling so long as she conformed to clearly defined rules and regulations. She was improved in her dress and manners by Mile. Souvestre’s expressed tastes in these things. And she was “shocked … into thinking” by Mlle. Souvestre’s unorthodox views on politics and religion. In politics the headmistress was a liberal; in religion she was an atheist and frankly said so: she was convinced that religion in general was designed for, and needed by, the weak only. The effect of this last was especially salutary upon Eleanor, who had been so strictly raised in so gloomily religious a home. She was under the beneficent influence of this remarkable teacher for three school terms, plus many weeks of vacation during which she and Mlle. Souvestre toured the Continent together.

 

But even during the years when this influence was being actively exerted, it was interrupted and counteracted by the influence upon her of her mother’s family.

She went home for the summer following her second term in the school. Her Aunt Pussie had come to Europe, and with Pussie she shared a cabin back across the Atlantic. The boat was a slow one; the voyage seemed interminable. For Pussie, who had a penchant for violently unhappy love affairs, had just reached the end of one and spent most of each night sobbing and threatening suicide, adding an almost intolerable anxiety to the seasickness from which Eleanor always suffered. Nor did she escape Pussie’s “artistic temperament”—wherein selfishness and selfindulgence were now streaked with a mean cruelty—during the weeks that followed. She went to stay for much of the summer with Mrs. Parish at Northeast Harbor on Mount Desert Island, Maine. Pussie stayed with a Ludlow aunt of hers nearby. And one day when she was furious with her adolescent niece for some reason, the ineffable Pussie plunged and twisted into the girl’s sensitive soul the cruellest knife of words that could possibly have been devised at that time, in those circumstances. First she did her best to destroy the personal confidence, the mild self-esteem which the girl had begun to develop in Europe: she said flatly that Eleanor must never expect to have beaux, as the Hall women had always had, because she, Eleanor, was the ugly duckling of the family. Then she proceeded to tell the girl about Elliott Roosevelt’s last years, giving his daughter ugly facts that had theretofore been carefully kept from her. Eleanor was cut almost to death; Mrs. Parish could do little to assuage the pain, much less to heal wounds that remained open and bleeding when the girl returned to her Grandmother Hall’s house. As for Grandmother Hall, she was too much preoccupied with her oldest son Value to give any sympathetic attention to Eleanor, for Vallie, after a brief period of exemplary young manhood, “was now beginning to sow his wild oats” with a vengeance. He was well on his way toward chronic alcoholism, if he was not already there.

It was thus with relief that Eleanor, with Aunt Pussie, moved not long afterward into the West Thirtyseventh Street house, leaving her Uncle Vallie with her grandmother at Tivoli—a move that somewhat decreased her misery. But life was far from peaceful and happy with Pussie, whose “love affairs were becoming more serious” and who sometimes “shut herself into her room” for days at a time, “refusing to eat and spending hours weeping.” Eleanor finally made attempts to discover the precise nature of her sorrowful aunt’s troubles but was unable to do so; she was confronted instead, arid in consequence, “with many situations that I was totally unprepared to handle.” Nor did she wholly escape her Uncle Vallie. Every now and then, despite her grandmother’s desperate efforts to keep him in the country, he came roaring down the Hudson to the city house “for one purpose and one alone … to go on a real spree” (as if his average drunkenness were not “real” enough), requiring of Eleanor (because Pussie was too preoccupied with herself to cope with the difficulties he imposed) a full exercise of strengths and braveries and managerial skills she had not theretofore known she possessed. And Uncle Vallie was not the only sad, insoluble family problem she had to face at this time. Her Uncle Eddie was now married but proved himself wholly incapable of handling this responsibility or any other; he, too, had become an alcoholic.