Remembering Mrs. Roosevelt

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One night David and I were having dinner with him and Mrs. Roosevelt. And Stevenson said to Mrs. Roosevelt, “I’m meant to speak at such and such a town in New York State.” He named this tiny town, and he said, half scoffingly, “Did you ever hear of such a place? I’m sure only you have heard of such a place, Mrs. Roosevelt.” As she was serving, Mrs. Roosevelt said, “Oh, yes, I’ve heard of that town. There used to be a bus route,” and then she gave the bus route. “You could sometimes change at such and such a town if you didn’t take the morning bus. Now they have built an airport quite close, so there are flights which go—. ” Et cetera. Of course she would have known that town; she was an old campaigner. And of course she would have known how to get there; she remembered everything. She told me once about going as a member of the New York State [Democratic] Women’s Committee to track down a committeeman who was dodging her. He didn’t answer the phone. So she drove in her little car to his farmhouse and rang the bell. The wife came out, saw Mrs. Roosevelt, and said, “Just a minute.” Then she said, “My husband isn’t in.” Mrs. Roosevelt politely asked, “Do you mind if I wait?” and sat down on a rocker on the porch. “Without waiting for an answer,” she told me, “I took out my knitting. I knitted for two hours before he came out of the house.”

To return to Mr. Stevenson—Mrs. Roosevelt telephoned me one afternoon and said, “Adlai just called. He wants to see me this evening. He is leaving on a trip to Latin America and says he wishes to consult me about conditions there. But I know he’s really coming in the hope that I will persuade him to run for President. (This was before the 1960 campaign.) I will not persuade him. I believe that anyone who needs to be urged should not run. Could you and David come down at eight o’clock? With you here, the subject of the Presidency won’t come up.” I told her I didn’t think we could because David returned from his office too hungry to wait for dinner. Mrs. Roosevelt said, “I will have a plate of sandwiches for him; it won’t take long, and you can go straight up afterwards.” Mr. Stevenson had gained considerable weight around that time. Every time I passed that plate of sandwiches around, he took one, and David refused one. This continued. The visit soon ended. Mrs. Roosevelt opened the door to show Mr. Stevenson out. David and I were standing behind her in the doorway. There, lying drunk on the floor, was our house painter. After we had hired him, we learned he was an alcoholic, but we still kept him on. David leaned over to take care of him. Mr. Stevenson turned his wide blue eyes to me and said, “What’s that!” Mrs. Roosevelt efficiently took him by the elbow, both of them stepping over the house painter. She escorted Mr. Stevenson to the elevator. My last impression of that visit was the surprised expression on the face of Adlai Stevenson as the automatic elevator door slowly closed.

Did she have much of a sense of humor?

She enjoyed humor and loved to laugh. But she never made a joke—at least as far as I know. She didn’t mind a joke on her. She was a good sport. I remember coming home one late afternoon and finding that a car had just deposited Mrs. Roosevelt in front of our house. She was shaking hands with two unknown men, saying, “Thank you very much.” As we entered the house together she said to me, “I am sorry I couldn’t introduce you, dear. I didn’t know their names. We were at LaGuardia Airport. The gentlemen saw me looking for a taxi and asked to drive me. They insisted I would not be taking them out of their way. ” With a very serious face, I said, “Do you mean that you let yourself get picked up by two strange men at the airport?” She looked at me for a second, not quite knowing how to respond. “Well,” I continued, “if you’re going to be doing that regularly, Mrs. Roosevelt, please don’t give them our address. Let them set you down at some other house on the street. Remember, we have to keep our reputation!” After a moment she laughed heartily.

In September, 1962, Mrs. Roosevelt was hospitalized M. for the illness from which she died two months later. In early October she implored the doctors to let her go home, and in mid-October they did so. What do you recall of those last days?

Mrs. Roosevelt called David from her hospital room quite late on the night before she was to return home. She did not want to come home by ambulance, she said, but in her own small car. He said that was impossible and persuaded her to accept an ambulette. It would be more comfortable than the car and still discreet. She finally agreed. David accompanied her. It was a sunny, autumn day, so beautiful that Mrs. Roosevelt asked to be driven twice through Central Park.

She hadn’t been at home an hour when Maureen called to say, “Mrs. Roosevelt invites you and David to dinner this evening. ” Knowing how ill she was, I could hardly believe my ears. David agreed to this with the understanding that the dinner would take no more than ten minutes, all courses to be served at one time. Mrs. Roosevelt was lying in a hospital bed in her large bedroom. She was very weak but so happy to be at home. A table for two was set beside the bed. Her first words to me were, “What news do you have of Crania?” (my stepdaughter who was abroad at the time). Mrs. Roosevelt was being social. Her cook was tenderly helping Mrs. Roosevelt with the meal. We all pretended for a few minutes that nothing had changed. After a very short time, David gave me a sign and I said goodnight. He remained. As I waited for the elevator, the apartment door still open, I heard Mrs. Roosevelt say to David, “Tell Edna this is my first night. I shall behave better tomorrow.”