Remembering Mrs. Roosevelt

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My husband, David Gurewitsch, was the personal physician of Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt from the White House years until her death in 1962. On a 1947 flight to Switzerland, when Mrs. Roosevelt was en route to Geneva as chairman of the United States Commission on Human Rights and Dr. Gurewitsch was going as a patient to a tuberculosis sanitarium in Davos, the professional relationship between doctor and patient changed into a unique friendship. Fog and engine trouble caused days of delay in Newfoundland and Shannon. This gave them secluded time in which to learn about each other and was the start of exchanges of confidence, advice, and mutual trust upon which each grew to depend. Mrs. Roosevelt later referred to her friendship with David as “more meaningful than I have ever had” Her almost daily letters to him during his year in Switzerland began an exceptional correspondence. They had much in common. No matter how well they traversed the prescribed routes of life, each, for different reasons, felt outside the mainstream. Both were essentially lonely, highly intuitive, brilliant, and motivated by public service, and both had wide interests .

David used his vacation time to travel abroad with Mrs. Roosevelt. Accompanied by Mrs. Roosevelt’s secretary, Maureen Corr, they studied social, medical, and political conditions in distant lands. They occasionally were joined by Mrs. Roosevelt’s grandchildren and by David’s daughter, Crania. After our marriage, we three often traveled together .

I met Mrs. Roosevelt for the first time on October 11, 1956. David, to whom I recently had been introduced, brought her to an evening art preview that I had helped to arrange. They had come from the theater. It was Mrs. Roosevelt’s birthday. They looked very distinguished, Mrs. Roosevelt in a long evening dress topped by an embroidered Japanese coat, and David, tall, graceful, very handsome, a small yellow rose in his lapel .

A year after David and I were married, the three of us bought and shared a small house on East Seventy-fourth Street in New York, keeping separate apartments. This worked out extraordinarily well. Mrs. Roosevelt’s children felt comfortable that her doctor was close by if needed. Privacy was respected. Mrs. Roosevelt took great care that I was not given the feeling that I was a newcomer in an established relationship. David and I had our regular guest room in her Hyde Park cottage .

The whole picture of this extraordinary woman can emerge only if there is an accurate knowledge of the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and David Gurewitsch, the period which began when she was sixty-three and he forty-five—the last fifteen years of her life .

It is not unusual for a vigorous older woman to be attracted to a younger, handsome man. It made her feel alive, womanly. She could love this man because he could be trusted to keep within the bounds of an idealized love. It was idealistic on both sides, though David’s did not include romantic fantasy. (Mrs. Roosevelt inscribed a photograph of herself as a young woman “To David, From a Girl He Never Knew.”) She could express her feelings freely because she knew the setting was safe. She said in a letter that although she never forgot the difference in their ages, she would like David to call her by her first name. He could not, and always spoke and referred to her as “Mrs. Roosevelt.”

The late Miss Esther Everett Lape, one of Mrs. Roosevelt’s dearest and most respected friends, wrote David in 1971: ”… You were dearer to her, as she not infrequently said, than anyone eke in the world. Yes, she not only loved you, she was in love with you. You loved her and were not in love with her. But this is the story of a truly great love that confers nothing but honor upon you and upon her. Yes, she was a lonely ‘unfulfilled’ woman. But not unfulfilled in the derogatory sense that use of the word usually carries. I am impressed by how frequently her belief in your work appears, forming a basic substructure in her love for you. The truth of this is, to me, very important. …”

Mrs. Roosevelt accepted David totally, and her acceptance, once given, was never withdrawn. What he called her “rocklike strength” meant a good deal to one whose early years were rootless. Her advice on his private and professional concerns was invaluable to him. On her part, she needed his devotion. She trusted him. She had implicit faith in his medical care of herself and members of her family. In this platonic, guilt-free love, each answered the other’s needs on different levels .

Only after my husband died in 1974 did I take the time to read the hundreds of letters Mrs. Roosevelt wrote to him. My own loss helped me to understand in retrospect the fullness of Mrs. Roosevelt’s capacity to love, and the kind of love she had for David. As my husband wrote in 1962, ”… stories about her can possibly give … insight into a most complicated and strong personality whose stature, I feel, has still not adequately been measured. I believe that history will judge her greatness higher than do her contemporaries. The more which is known of her, the more accurate will be an appraisal.”

I hope that the everyday stories that follow contribute somewhat to the whole picture of Mrs. Roosevelt. They have little to do with the famous public-functioning figure .