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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
By no strange quirk of fate, no unlikely chance or mysterious destiny, were Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt brought together in casual acquaintanceship. Even had they been wholly without ties of blood and family tradition, unsharing of the same family name and distant ancestry, the strangeness would have been in their not meeting as they pursued their highly mobile physical lives within that small social world, close-knit and rigidly exclusive, which both of them inhabited.
And in actual fact they did meet for the first time when she was only two years old. On a day in 1886 her parents came to Hyde Park as houseguests of James and Sara, Franklin’s parents, bringing her with them— a plain-visaged, remarkably solemn little girl whom her mother called Granny and her father Little Nell and who stood around in doorways with her finger in her mouth, excessively shy, silently withdrawn, until four-year-old Franklin set about entertaining her. And himself. He (her distant cousin, her father’s godson, her future husband) took her into the nursery to play “horsey”; she sat astride his back as he romped joyously around the room on his hands and knees. … She herself had no later recollection of this, of course; she would learn of it from her motherin-law.
But she remembered meeting him again when she was in her early teens and was forced to attend dances at which she was miserable while he, to all outward appearances, was perfectly at ease and thoroughly enjoyed himself. One such occasion was, for her, especially memorable. It was during the Christmas holidays, the only time of the year when she was permitted to see boys her own age. All the other guests knew one another well: she alone was a stranger, an outsider, with nothing about her that could (she felt) attract anyone’s favorable attention, much less actively interest a boy. Already she was taller than most grown women; and since she was, by her grandmother’s decree, inappropriately dressed in a little-girl’s skirt that reached barely to her knees, her height became an exaggeration, a kind of vertical elongation of her natural awkwardness. She was rigid with embarrassment. She knew herself to be a poor dancer —felt herself more graceless on the dance floor than perhaps she was, in actual truth. And so she watched in helpless envy as other girls danced, one after another, and flirted, too, with her handsome Cousin Franklin, an urbane Harvard man who was evidently admired by all. Then he spied her. He came to her. He asked her to dance with him, and asked, moreover, as if he really wanted her to! She was almost tearfully grateful to him.
The next encounter, as far as either of them could later recall, was on a New York Central train. She was then eighteen and had just returned from schooling in Europe. She was on her way from New York City to Tivoli on the Hudson to spend the summer in her grandmother’s house when he, sauntering through the day coach in which she sat, recognized her and took her back to talk to his mother, who, of course, despite the shortness of the ride, occupied a Pullman seat. She would never forget how formidably beautiful his mother had seemed to her that day. James Roosevelt had died only six months before. Sara (Eleanor’s “Cousin Sallie”) was still in mourning, clad all in black, with a heavy veil that fell from hat to feet, and the somberness of her attire somehow accentuated the brilliance of her eyes and the classic purity of her features. She appeared at least a decade younger than her actual years.
A few months later Eleanor Roosevelt was introduced to New York society at an Assembly Ball where she knew only two unmarried men and suffered again agonies of humiliation over her lack of popularity and, as she profoundly believed, the means of ever achieving it. She fled the ballroom as early in the evening as she possibly could. But not long afterward her Aunt Tissie and Uncle Stanley (Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Mortimer) gave a large party for her— theatre, late supper at Sherry’s, followed by dancing—that went very well, and from then on the “season” proceeded for her more smoothly, less unhappily, through a crowded sequence of luncheons, teas, dinners, suppers, dances where, inevitably, she met her fifth cousin Franklin from time to time. She continued to meet him the following autumn after her Grandmother Hall had decided not to open the old Hall family brownstone on West Thirtyseventh Street that year, 1903 (the cost of doing so was too great), but instead to permit Eleanor to live with her Cousin Susie and Susie’s husband, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Parish, in the city. She and Franklin became good friends that fall, then better friends as the holidays came and passed.
All of which, as regards their relationship, was in general outline predictable.
The event emergent from it, however—the intimacy that grew up, that ripened into love—seemed to most observers no fruit of the inevitable. Indeed, there was about it, if not an actual strangeness or mystery, at least an improbability, an unlikelihood that bred surprise. Few could have foreseen it, even with a vision armed by the most intimate knowledge of their very different characters, temperaments, upbringings; and these few emphatically could not have included Sara Delano Roosevelt. Franklin’s mother was more than surprised; she was initially shocked. And when the shock wore off she was deeply hurt, with a hurt that contained a sense of outrage and insult.
First the shock.
It came to her in the great white house her Grandfather Warren DeIano had built in Fairhaven, the house now legally owned by all the Delano brothers and sisters but actually managed, along with the trust fund that accompanied it, by Sara’s elder brother, Warren IH. The Delano clan had gathered there for Thanksgiving, 1903. And perhaps it was on Thanksgiving Day itself in a room redolent of the turkeys that roasted in the kitchen —possibly a room containing mementos of the old China trade and, upon one wall, the coat of arms of Jehan de Lannoy, Knight of the Golden Fleece—perhaps it was then and there that he told her, as tactfully as possible, after a considerable verbal preparation, that he had fallen in love with Eleanor Roosevelt, had proposed marriage to her, had been accepted.
His mother was visibly staggered. She could not at first believe her ears. Her handsome son “had never been in any sense a ladies man,” according to her recorded belief. “I don’t believe I remember ever hearing him talk about girls…” she later wrote. Certainly he had shown no slightest romantic interest in any girl. Yet here he was, a college student who had cast his first ballot less than three weeks before, who had yet to earn a dollar of his own or decide definitely upon a career—here he was, not seeking her advice, much less her permission, but simply flatly informing her, as of an accomplished and irrevocable fact, that he was going to be married! And to Eleanor Roosevelt! Of the girl’s suitability in terms of family and social standing there could be no question, though her immediate family situation might well raise certain doubts: she was a Roosevelt, after all, and a niece of the President of the United States. Moreover, she was a sweet thing, rather pathetically so, eager to please and gratifyingly grateful for every kindness shown her. But she seemed not at all the kind of girl who would seriously attract Franklin, being quite easily classifiable, in the metaphorical botany of the day, as both wallflower and (potentially at least) clinging vine. She was certainly not beautiful. Her large lustrous eyes were truly lovely, and she had a good figure and complexion; but all this was offset by her protruding teeth and slightly receding chin and by the self-conscious awkwardness she often displayed. She shared few if any of Franklin’s active interests. She was not good at winter sports, she was a poor sailor, she couldn’t swim, she played neither tennis nor golf, and she had no special interest in nature nor any at all in collecting. She seemed old for her age (she was only nineteen), and in unattractive ways, being excessively tense and earnest, as well as timid and retiring, with little evident force of mind or charm of personality. What, then, did Franklin see in her?
And how could he have arrived at his decision, through a process that must have extended through months of increasingly frequent meetings and growing intimacy, without his mother’s having had the slightest inkling of what was going on?
To her there seemed but one explanation of her surprise. Her son had been deliberately secretive, had taken pains to exclude her from knowledge of the most important development in his life thus far; and she could not but feel this as a derogatory and even a contemptuous commentary upon herself and her relationship (she had believed it to be an almost perfect rapport) with her son. It was as if she were being cast aside —her love spurned, her authority flouted, her wisdom denied, her loneliness assured. And her first response, after the shock wore off, seems to have been a more or less calculated play for sympathy, an expression of hurt that was like a sword aimed at the tender heart and filial conscience of her son, at the faint heart and puritanical self-denial of Eleanor.
From Fairhaven Sara went with Franklin to New York City. He brought Eleanor there from 8 East Seventy-sixth Street, the home of the Henry Parishes, to his mother’s apartment, where, on Tuesday, December 1, “I had a long talk with the dear child,” as Sara wrote in her diary. On the following day Eleanor wrote to her “Dearest Cousin Sallie” (one suspects she pondered the salutation) at Hyde Park: “I must … thank you for being so good to me yesterday. I know just how you feel & how hard it must be, but I do so want you to learn to love me a little. You must know that I will always try to do what you wish for I have grown to love you very dearly during the last summer. [She had spent much time visiting at Hyde Park and Campobello that summer.] It is impossible for me to tell you how I feel toward Franklin. I can only say that my one great wish is always to prove worthy of him.” Thus she indicated the price she was willing (or believed she was willing) to pay for her acceptance, sounding a note of abjectness that boded ill for her development of an independent individuality vis-à-vis either the imperious Sara or Sara’s son. There was nothing abject about the letter Franklin wrote from Cambridge two days later: “Dearest Mama—I know what pain I must have caused you and you know I wouldn’t do it if I really could have helped it— mais tu sais, me voila! That’s all that could be said—I know my mind, have known it for a long time, and know that I could never think otherwise: Result: I am the happiest man just now in the world; likewise the luckiest—” To which he added blandishment: “And for you, dear Mummy, you know that nothing can ever change what we have always been and will always be to each other—only now you have two children to love & to love you—and Eleanor as you know will always be a daughter to you in every way—”
So she, the mother, changed tactics. Already it had been agreed that this engagement should be kept secret for the time being. Now she set about prolonging the “time being” into an indefinite but distant future, her grounds being that both Franklin and Eleanor were too young to know what they really wanted, much less to assume the grave responsibilities of marriage and children. She pointed out that her own father had not married until he was thirty-three, by which time he was “a man who had made a name and a place for himself, who had something to offer a woman.” What did Franklin have to offer that was truly his own? His inheritance from his father had been a relatively modest one: he must depend upon his mother’s largess or his own earned income if he were to maintain the standard of living to which he and Eleanor were accustomed. And how was he to earn an income? He planned, tentatively and with no enthusiasm, to enter law school the following autumn. He could not complete his course work there and pass his bar examinations for nearly two years after that. Surely it was the part of wisdom to delay marriage until he was actually a bona fide member of some well-established law firm.
Nor was this all.
To the tactics of delay she added those of diversion. The real purpose of a proffered Caribbean cruise in early 1904 was to enforce Franklin’s separation from Eleanor for many crucial weeks during which he, with his friend Lathrop Brown, would be totally immersed in strange new scenes, new excitements, and would emerge with new perspectives whereby (she hoped) his mind would be changed. Both her son and Eleanor were fully aware of this purpose. Eleanor resented it. She resented not only Cousin Sallie’s offer of the cruise, with all that it implied, but also (perhaps more so) Franklin’s acceptance of it. And she may well have communicated some sense of her resentment to him as he bade her goodbye in New York. At any rate he began the cruise in a grumpy mood (…F. is tired and blue,” wrote his mother in her diary on the day they sailed) and did not recover his spirits until they were well out to sea.
As for Eleanor, if she watched him go with bitterness in her heart, if she was condemned now to a period of anxiety colored with despair, the experience was certainly not new to her. The tall gawky adolescent girl who had been so miserable at Christmas holiday parties in New York had grown up out of a miserably unhappy childhood.
She had no later remembrance of her mother’s calling her Granny during her first visit to Hyde Park when she was only two, but she did remember all her life other occasions when her mother did so, and wounded her by doing it. She was the oldest child of Elliott and Anna Hall Roosevelt. She had two brothers: Elliott (“Ellie”), a couple of years younger than she, and Hall (“Josh”), nearly six years younger. And she never forgot how, when the three children were with their mother for a children’s hour in the late afternoons, she suffered always a sense of alienation from the others. Josh, the baby, cuddled and caressed, sat happily on his mother’s lap. Ellie, adoring his mother and obviously adored by her in turn, responded with laughter and gay chatter to his mother’s advances. But the little girl felt herself excluded from this circle of love by “a curious barrier,” as she later recorded. They were together; she was alone. She knew that her mother not only did not love her as she did the others but actually found her unattractive in appearance and personality—knew, or sensed, that the emotion she aroused in her mother was a mingling of pity with disappointment, irritation, embarrassment, even shame—and knew, too, that it was partly out of a sense of guilt for feeling this way that her mother “made a great effort” on her behalf. And all this came to a focus of pain on days when her mother, entertaining visitors, saw her hesitating in the doorway, a forbidden finger in her mouth, and called to her in a voice that had an edge of exasperation: “Come in, Granny!” Often then the mother would turn to her visitors and say: “She is such a funny child, so old-fashioned, that we always call her ‘Granny.’” Eleanor on such occasions “wanted to sink through the floor in shame.”
The hurt was all the greater because she so admired her mother for the beauty and charm that were recognized (the little girl early learned) throughout New York society, a society her mother deemed Important. She longed for her mother’s affection, or at least approval. She never received it. On the contrary, “I was always disgracing my mother.”
Often she did so through a “habit of lying” rooted in her fears, her insecurities, her craving for acceptance. When she was five she was taken with brother Ellie to Europe by her parents, toured Italy with them, and was then placed in a French convent for several months while her father entered a sanitarium and her mother took a house in Neuilly, just outside Paris. She was put in the convent because her mother, expecting a baby (Josh was born early that summer), sought to protect her innocence against all knowledge of how children come into the world. She was terribly lonely there. She knew herself to be plain-faced and ill-mannered, and she would have been isolated in any case from the other little girls by differences of language and religion. One day a girl there swallowed a penny and thereby made herself the focus of excited attention, arousing Eleanor’s envy; and so, sometime later, she, Eleanor, went to the sisters saying that she, too, had swallowed a penny. She hadn’t, of course. The sisters knew she hadn’t. But she persisted in saying she had until her mother was sent for and took her home in disgrace. She acquired thus a label, an identity, by which her mother and (consequently) she herself were horrified: she was a liar! And she was confirmed in this identity by being found out in other lies as the years of childhood passed —about eating sugar and candy, for instance, when these were forbidden her by the family doctor.
The long angry scoldings she received for these offenses were far more dreadful to her than “swift punishment of any kind,” so dreadful that her fear of them sometimes encouraged the evil they were meant to correct. “I could cheerfully lie any time to escape a scolding, whereas if I had known that I would simply be put to bed or be spanked I probably would have told the truth,” she later remembered.
Almost the only loving contact she ever had with her mother was when Anna took to bed with a sick headache. These headaches were frequent and severe; and when they came the little girl would sit at the head of the bed stroking her mother’s throbbing temples and forehead and neck for hours on end. She was grateful for being allowed to sit there, but at the core of her gratitude was the happy knowledge that her mother’s willingness was not merely permissive. She could feel her love flowing out through her caressing hands into her mother’s beautiful head, alleviating pain, bringing peace; she knew that her presence was, for a change, truly welcome. She was being useful. And in her childhood the rare “feeling that I was useful was perhaps the greatest joy I experienced.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
But if she was more certain of his feeling for her than of hers for him, she had (as her memoirs testify) no serene confidence that his desire for her was strong enough, tenacious enough to survive the covert, subtle, yet determined onslaught of her prospective mother-in-law. Hence, in proportion to her wish for marriage, a wish which may in large part have been a yearning for the unprecedented security she felt she would have in the bosom of the Delano clan, she suffered anxiety during the weeks of Franklin’s Caribbean cruise. He seemed so malleable in his mother’s hands!
Fortunately, she was enabled to spend the weeks of waiting, not amidst the (to her) boring banalities of New York society, but in the very different, the much more interesting and less trivial society of Washington, D. C. She was in New York on February 16, 1904, when Pussie was married to W. Forbes Morgan, Jr.— an occasion that made few of the bride’s family and close friends “very happy,” as Eleanor later wrote, because the groom “was a number of years younger than Pussie,” and none who knew the latter well believed her capable of adjusting “to the complicated business of married life.” But Eleanor’s Auntie Bye asked her down to Washington for the winter months of 1904; and Auntie Bye —sister of the President, wife of an admiral—was not only very much in the mainstream of the capital’s social affairs but was also a confidante and, on some matters of state, a respected adviser of Uncle Ted. He, the President, came now and then to his sister’s house, where he talked freely, volubly. Eleanor was an overnight guest once or twice at the White House. Thus she gained some inkling of the private life and self of a public man who had come to occupy an office of supreme power. She gained other knowledge as well. She accompanied her aunt on the latter’s round of afternoon calls (“I was aghast at this obligation”) and was a guest at almost daily luncheons, teas, and dinners where she met diplomats, high government officials, politicians, visiting celebrities—people who were actually doing important things in the great world and who had “charm and wit and savoir faire . ” She found herself unwontedly at ease in this company. She realized further what she had begun to realize during her European schooling, namely, that she had a mind that was quick, capacious, and retentive, and that she was an interesting conversationalist, able to use the smattering of information she had gained in various fields in such a way as to give her listener, frequently an authority in one of those fields, the impression that she was far more knowledgeable than actually she was.
She blossomed in this environment. She gained swiftly in self-confidence and poise, so that she no doubt would have been able to bear, not breaking under it, the disappointment of her hopes for marriage to Franklin Roosevelt, had this been required of her.
It was not required. Franklin left the cruise at Nassau and came up to the capital from Florida by train. Thereafter he spent most of his several days in Washington with Eleanor; he was as ardent and determined a lover as ever.
The engagement of Franklin DeIano Roosevelt to marry Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was formally announced in late November, 1904.
By that time Franklin had been enrolled for more than two months as a student in the Columbia University Law School and was living with his mother in a house she had rented at 200 Madison Avenue in New York City. Some three weeks before, he had journeyed to Hyde Park to cast his first ballot in a Presidential election. Despite his father’s and his own lifelong Democracy, he had “voted for the Republican candidate, Theodore Roosevelt, because I thought he was a better Democrat than the Democratic candidate,” as he said thirty-odd years later.
By that time, too, Franklin had informed Endicott Peabody by letter that his engagement to “my distant cousin … is about to come out” and had expressed the “hope,” Eleanor’s as well as his own, “that you will be able to help us in the ceremony—it wouldn’t be the same without you.” Of his own immediate occupation he wrote with something less than enthusiasm. He said he was in law school “trying to understand a little of the work,” adding that “of course I am going to keep right on”—as if in spite of doubts, boredom, and a sense of personal inadequacy.
And he did “keep right on,” though with a bare minimum of that prolonged, concentrated study required of law students. Indeed, he evidently did less than the required minimum in two of his courses, one of them the highly important “Contracts,” which he failed at the end of his first year, to his great surprise, for he had believed himself to be doing as well in the failed subjects as in the others, in each of which he received the very respectable grade of B. It became necessary for him to take make-up examinations in the two subjects the following fall if he was to stay with his class.
His vital interests, during that first law-school year, centered in the house on East Seventy-sixth Street— the Parish house—where Eleanor lived. He spent as much time with her as he possibly could, going often with her to social events. On March 4, 1905, he and she were present by special invitation at the inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt as President. They were very much at the center of the ceremonies and festivities of this historic event. They had come down to Washington in the private railway car of a cousin, George Emlen Roosevelt; they sat on the Capitol steps behind the Theodore Roosevelt family as the President took the oath of office and delivered his inaugural address; they lunched afterward at the White House before going out to the official reviewing stand to watch the inaugural parade; and of course they danced together at the inaugural ball that night.
Thirteen days later, on Saint Patrick’s Day, which was also the birthday of Eleanor’s mother, they were married.
The wedding took place, as Pussie’s had, in the home of Mrs. E. Livingston Ludlow, who was Pussie’s aunt and Mrs. Henry Parish’s mother. The Ludlow house adjoined the Parishes’ on East Seventy-sixth Street, between Madison and Fifth avenues, and the drawing rooms of the two were separated only by sliding doors that could be opened for special occasions to make the two large rooms into one .enormous one. This had been done for Pussie’s wedding; it was to be done for Eleanor’s wedding reception after the ceremony itself, at which attendance was restricted to the two families and a few of the most intimate friends.
The bride wore a long-sleeved dress of stiff white satin, with shirred tulle at the neck—a dress covered by her Grandmother Hall’s rose-point Brussels lace, of which the long bridal veil was also made. Around her throat was a dog collar of pearls given her by Franklin’s mother; in her arms was a huge bouquet of lilies of the valley. She was radiant, almost beautiful, and certainly graceful in her tall slenderness as she emerged from the upstairs bedroom where she had dressed, came down the stairway on the arm of her escort, and walked slowly along the aisle between the groom’s assembled family and her own to the chancel of pink roses and palms that had been set up before the fireplace. The groom awaited her there, with his best man, Lathrop Brown, as did the Reverend Dr. Peabody, who performed the ceremony.
But the center of attention at this wedding and reception was not the bride. Not for her sake, nor that of the man she was to marry, did great crowds gather at both the Fifth and Madison Avenue entrances to that block, entrances cordoned off by more than seventy-five policemen who permitted none but invited guests to enter and, indeed, so zealously checked their credentials that several did not get into the LudlowParish houses until after the reception had almost ended. When the bride came down the stairs she was less stared at even by that family assemblage than was the man who was the object of all this police guardianship —a bespectacled, mustached man almost a head shorter than she, upon whose arm she leaned—and the most memorable moment of the ceremony came, not when the Reverend Dr. Peabody pronounced Franklin and Eleanor man and wife, but when he asked, “Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?” and was answered by the stocky bespectacled man, in a loud voice, “I do!” For this man who gave the bride away— this man for whose convenience the wedding date had been set (in his official capacity he had reviewed the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade up Fifth Avenue before coming to the ParishLudlow houses)—was none other than Eleanor’s Uncle Ted, the President of the United States.
The sliding doors were opened. The throng on the Parish side of them, awaiting the reception, pressed through toward the chancel where the bridal couple stood. There the President of the United States was heard to congratulate his niece and distant cousin, saying he was delighted that they were keeping the Roosevelt name in the family. Then he strode into the Parish library where refreshments were being served and where he, no doubt (for he was one of the great trenchermen of that overstuffed age), partook heartily of them. The guests followed him. Soon the young married couple were left all alone before the altar, gazing perhaps a bit ruefully at each other, though Eleanor would later remember that neither she nor Franklin was particularly surprised or dismayed by this desertion. They simply followed the others into the library where Uncle Ted held forth with jokes and stories, and where they listened and laughed with the rest.
After the President’s departure and the reception’s end, Franklin and Eleanor slipped away, donned travelling clothes, and entrained for Hyde Park, where they had a short week of honeymooning before moving into an apartment they had rented in the Hotel Webster, on West Fortyfifth Street. Here they lived until Franklin completed his first year of law school.