- Historic Sites
Remembering Mrs. Roosevelt
An Intimate Memoir
December 1981 | Volume 33, Issue 1
During our stay she read Arthur Schlesinger’s third book on the New Deal; she’d never had time to read it before. She was reading it and chuckling and chuckling. Every once in a while she would jump up from her seat and stamp on the grass because I was scared stiff of all the lizards. We would be reading, but her eyes were always watching that no lizards came near me. And she would say, “Go away, you naughty lizard. Don’t you know this lady doesn’t like you?” And she kept reading the book. Then she said to me, “I find this very interesting because I remember that when I would be concerned about Coughlinites and Huey Long and others threatening the country, Franklin would laugh it off. He’d say, ‘Don’t put too much importance on it.’ If I had read this book then, I wouldn’t have let him laugh me out of my concerns.”
Another time we were watching David trying to cross a stream, balancing himself on a rail. She said to me, “Look at David. Remember, Edna, the nicest men in the world are those who always keep something of the boy in them. Franklin was like that.”
Did she speak often of FDR?
No. Not to me. Almost never. Occasionally his name would come up in oblique ways. John Kennedy visited Mrs. Roosevelt in Hyde Park in August of 1960. Afterward I drove with him in Mrs. Roosevelt’s car to the FDR gravesite, where he was to give a speech. As we rode along, he took a comb from his pocket and rapidly combed his hair. Mrs. Roosevelt was not with us and later I described this to her, thinking his concern with his hair rather odd. Mrs. Roosevelt explained that as a presidential candidate, Mr. Kennedy did not want to have a tousled, boyish look. She then gently added, “I always carried Franklin’s comb for him.” But she had told David a good deal about FDR.
That’s interesting. The standard version has always been it was only after her husband got polio and she learned how to be his eyes and ears that she had a real career.
Her husband’s illness was undoubtedly an incentive for her to learn to be of more help. But she had started out early in life to have interests of her own, and she came from a family with a tradition of service. Her pride in her husband’s achievements and her contributions are well known. She learned a good deal from him, including how to put power to good use. But her real career developed out of her deep need to be needed.
Why did she do so much then?
Mrs. Roosevelt was utterly committed to the improvement of the human condition. Also, conscious of the fact that she was born privileged, she believed that service was her duty. But it was the degree of her work, and the passion and wisdom that she brought to it that set her apart. Mrs. Roosevelt worked because she had to. It fulfilled her. She coped with loneliness by devoting herself to others. She depended upon contact with people.
As her physician, my husband frequently urged her to curtail her schedule. After these sessions with him, she would be “good” for a while, but it never lasted. On one occasion when he was particularly insistent that she cut down on her work, and she was growing irritable with his arguments, he finally said, “I worry about so many people in the course of a day. Do you want to add to my worries?” That remark made a big impression on her and calmed her down—for a time.
There was a big to-do when Khrushchev came to Hyde Park. I remember the Secret Service wanted to have some trees on the property cut down as a safety precaution. Mrs. Roosevelt was indignant and told them that they had managed to guard her husband among those trees, and they could do the same for Khrushchev. Among the invited guests was Mr. Henry Morgenthau, Jr., President Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury. The young state troopers had never heard of him, and in the tight security he was mistakenly kept out of the FDR Library during the tour. But even in all the tumult of her children, grandchildren, friends, reporters, FBI men, State Department people, the Khrushchevs, and their entourage, Mrs. Roosevelt noticed that Mr. Morgenthau was not around. Word came back from her, “Find Mr. Morgenthau.” And he was found and escorted inside. That evening after dinner in Mrs. Roosevelt’s cottage after the VIPs and crowds had gone, Mr. Morgenthau started to rise from his chair in Mrs. Roosevelt’s study, exclaiming, “Eleanor, nobody knew who I was today.” She replied firmly, “Henry, sit down! Do you think that if I stopped working for six months anyone would remember me?”
Sometimes in a public place people would come up to Mrs. Roosevelt and say the most poignant things. They would speak of their gratitude for something, or tell how their lives had been touched and changed through her efforts. She would simply smile and say, “Thank you very much,” while moving on. At first I thought her replies were oddly superficial. I thought it was because, being partly deaf, she couldn’t hear what was being said. But I don’t believe that now. I believe that past successes no longer interested her. It was the new challenge that counted.
The public pictures her as eternally sweet-tempered. Could she get angry?