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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
Thus Eleanor, in the season of her “coming out” and of an acquaintance with her cousin Franklin Roosevelt that grew toward intimacy, supped often on horrors in her most private life and, at some cost in terms of spontaneity and resilience, was strengthened by them in terms of essential character. She recognized the horrors to be the result of a complete loss of the power of self-control. She was determined, therefore, never to lose her own, but instead to increase it, building upon a habit of self-denial that had been forcibly impressed upon her from her earliest years. She developed what later appeared to her as an “exaggerated idea of the importance of keeping all of one’s desires under complete subjugation.”
In general her experience had made of her by this time a curiously mingled mind and personality. In many respects she was innocent and unworldly to a degree remarkable for one of her age and circumstances. She had, as she later recalled, “painfully high ideals and a tremendous sense of duty entirely unrelieved by any sense of humor.” She knew virtually nothing about how most people earn their living or about the handling of money: not until she was nineteen and living with the Parishes did she learn, from Mr. Parish, how to keep books and avoid expenditures in excess of income. She knew nothing, through personal experience, about sexual and other intimate relationships between man and woman: she was always rigorously chaperoned when with a man, had never been kissed by one, and would have been insulted by the attempt of any man to kiss her or give her an expensive present who had not first proposed marriage and been accepted. But as regards other matters of which most women of her class were wholly ignorant —matters pertaining to what was then generally called the seamy side of life—she knew a great deal, thanks to her long and frequently bitter experiences with Value and Pussie, plus the tragedy of her father.
By the quality of both her innocence and her sophistication, coupled with the sense she continued to have of herself as hopelessly unattractive and socially maladroit, she was unfitted for “success” in that formal society in which she was willynilly involved and which, because of family teaching and example, she continued to deem important. She did her duty as she and the Hall family saw it. She went to the required dinners and dances night after night. But she greatly preferred and actually enjoyed the informal studio parties given by a famous woman painter to whom she was introduced by a bachelor friend much older than she; and she became truly engaged by other activities having nothing to do with society as such. The Junior League was then a new organization through which privileged girls undertook to earn their privileges to some degree by charitable and social work of various kinds. Eleanor became an active member. With Jean Reid, daughter of the Whitelaw Reids, she taught calisthenics and “fancy dancing” to slum children in the Rivington Street Settlement House. She also became active in the Consumers’ League, going with an experienced older woman to investigate (and be shocked by) working conditions of girls in garment factories and department stores.
And so she came to the autumn of 1903, to a memorable weekend spent in Groton, where she visited her young brother Hall and was visited by Franklin Roosevelt, who, then and there, after some weeks of increasingly ardent courtship, asked her to marry him.
She had evidently by then got over the astonishment, the incredulity with which, in view of her expressed assessment of herself, she must have received his first intimations of a serious romantic interest in her. Perhaps she was even able by then to see herself a little through his eyes and realize (though she contradicted this in later recollection) that she was, if no beauty, by no means without physical, sexual attractiveness. For though awkward when tense, and often tense (because timid) in social situations, she had the tall slender grace of a young willow when at ease and could not but feel, when her lover looked deep into her eyes, that this was so. She knew that her eyes were actually beautiful, knew that Franklin had been attracted to her in response to no conscious effort on her part (she had been passive, receptive, and permissive only within the iron bounds of the formal conventions that had so strictly governed her upbringing), knew that he and she shared certain fundamental sympathies and antipathies—and from this knowledge had been born a warm sense of inner security greater than any she had known before.
It was so great, in fact, that his asking her to marry him seemed to her “an entirely natural thing.” He was so absolutely sure of his feelings, so sure of what he wanted! She herself, it would appear, was not so sure. When she returned to the Parishes after that Groton weekend she “asked Cousin Susie whether she thought I cared enough,” a question that would hardly have occurred to her had she been deeply, passionately in love. And she herself later confessed that though she “solemnly answered ‘yes’” when asked by her grandmother if she was “really in love,” it was years afterward “before I understood what being in love was or what loving really meant.”