- Historic Sites
Remembering Mrs. Roosevelt
An Intimate Memoir
December 1981 | Volume 33, Issue 1
Yes. Very. On one of our overseas trips we traveled to Poland as part of a delegation of the World Federation of United Nations Associations. Sightseeing in Krakow, we entered an old castle that had a forbiddingly steep, long staircase. My husband took aside a member of the official party and quietly suggested that we all climb the stairs slowly. Mrs. Roosevelt was instantly suspicious as we began the slow ascent and asked the official, “Why are we going so slowly?” The poor man answered, “Because your doctor said we should.” With that, in a rage, she shook off everyone and ran up the stairs leaving the rest of us behind. It cost her a good deal of energy to do that. She stayed angry the whole morning.
Another time, Mrs. Roosevelt was invited to the house of a lady whom she didn’t especially care for. She was a very pretentious person, and Mrs. Roosevelt was irritated from the word go. I don’t know why she went. Perhaps the lady had contributed to some cause in which Mrs. Roosevelt was interested. It was a huge dinner table, and there were many, many servants, and out came a parade of delicious courses. Every time Mrs. Roosevelt was served, she said very firmly, “No, thank you.” And every time the hostess was a little more agitated: “Well, won’t you try a taste?” “No.” She wouldn’t have any of it. Would Mrs. Roosevelt like a sandwich? “No.” Some soup? Mrs. Roosevelt was getting more annoyed. And when she did that, you had to leave her alone. Finally, she gave in and took three green peas on a big plate.
Mrs. Roosevelt was very angry with the Tammany leader Carmine De Sapio, and never forgave him for deliberately sabatoging her son Franklin Jr. ‘s bid for state attorney general. At a Hyde Park New Year’s Eve dinner years later, after De Sapio had been defeated by the New York Reform Democrats of whom Mrs. Roosevelt was a leader, she said to Franklin with undisguised satisfaction, “I have heard that Mr. De Sapio is cross with me.”
Joseph Lash refers several times in his biography to her infrequent bouts of depression. Did you notice them?
I cannot judge their frequency, though I know she had them. Not wanting to upset any one around her and because of her strength of will, Mrs. Roosevelt was able to control her behavior. But when personal pressures mounted and she was with people with whom she felt she could be herself, her feelings could sink quite low. She tended to blame herself, especially when there was family trouble, saying that her life was no longer useful to anyone. Maureen, who worked so closely with her, recognized these difficult periods. So did David, and Mrs. Roosevelt confided her feelings to him. I know that before we were married, David would walk Mrs. Roosevelt’s dog with her at night. He told me that sometimes during those walks she was almost suicidal. He believed her openness with him on those occasions was partly due to her wish to be talked out of her depression. He could do that. They understood each other, and David was psychologically responsive to her.
We were together in our car once when she was feeling low. She had just found out that Maureen Corr’s brother-in-law was in the hospital and Maureen had been going to see him after work every night. Mrs. Roosevelt burst out, “Did Maureen not tell me of his illness because she thought I was too old to hear bad news?” There was a long silence. Slowly David answered, “She wouldn’t have told you,” he said, “even if you were forty.” As her calm returned, I thought to myself, “That must have been the right number!”
Why did she surround herself with people?
Contact with people energized her. There was also a fear of being alone. I don’t think it came about when her husband died or when her children grew up, as it often does. I think the loneliness in Mrs. Roosevelt’s case came from early childhood and was part of her personality, her make-up, and she was very dependent on those whom she loved to fill the gap in her loneliness. I think her work habits helped, too. She once wrote to my husband, “I’m not busy enough”—she had just arrived in Paris and was working for the United Nations—”and I don’t sleep well.” Also, she had a zest for living and was happy in her large gatherings of family and friends. One Christmas at breakfast at Hyde Park a greeting-card envelope was brought in to her with no last name or address. It simply read, “Mrs. Eleanor.” But the card had reached her. We all laughed. I told her that we now had evidence she was famous.
I don’t remember her having had a night off. She made sure there was something to do, someone to see, and if she found that something was canceled, she’d call us and we’d get together for dinner. Even when we traveled, she depended on the mail from home. You’d have thought she’d have been happy to be free of all those hundreds of letters for a few days.
For example, a stranger once wrote to her asking for some small amount of money. It was the end of the day, and Maureen was very tired. She asked, “Couldn’t we leave this letter for tomorrow morning?” Mrs. Roosevelt said, “Yes, of course.” Maureen left. Mrs. Roosevelt went right out to the mailbox here on Seventy-fourth and Madison after midnight to mail the needed check, because if someone needs money, he needs it now .
During her last years she was said to be a very close friend of Adlai Stevenson .
That has been exaggerated somewhat, I think. She liked and admired him very much. She supported him three times for the Presidency. She worked hard for him, but she was not patient with him when she thought he lacked assertiveness.