October/november 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 6
Franklin Roosevelt’s exuberant selfconfidence was in large part the gift of his fond parents, a legacy of the affection and approval with which he was always surrounded as a boy. Eleanor Roosevelt had no such foundation upon which to build. Her father was an alcoholic; her mother remote and harassed. Both were dead by the time their daughter was ten, and she was raised by relatives whose interest in her was for the most part merely dutiful. She was timid, withdrawn, frightened of “practically everything,” she remembered—mice, the dark, other children, “displeasing the people I lived with.” Her Aunt Edith, Theodore Roosevelt’s second wife, had thought her likely doomed: “I do not feels she has much of a chance, ” she wrote when her niece was eight, “poor little soul.”
That poor little soul grew up to become the best-known, most admired woman on earth, of course, and just how far she traveled may be seen vividly in Without Precedent (Indiana University Press), a collection of a dozen assorted articles having mostly to do with her public and political career. The book is aptly named: no other First Lady before her—or any who has lived in the White House since she left it nearly forty years ago—could conceivably have inspired a similar compendium. Try to imagine articles with titles like “Bess Truman and Reform” or “Nancy Reagan and Foreign Affairs.”
Eleanor Roosevelt’s lifelong struggle to make herself matter has been most exhaustively and authoritatively chronicled in four books by her friend Joseph P. Lash, and he has now chosen to mark her centenary with two more: Life Was Meant To Be Lived (W. W. Norton), a relatively brief, richly illustrated biographical tribute; and a second and final volume of her personal letters, A World of Love: Eleanor Roosevelt and Her Friends, vol. II (Doubleday & Company).
Nearly every inch of her climb required her to surmount psychological obstacles. The thing always to remember, she said—and the italics are hers—is that “ Yow must do the thing you think you cannot do .” Although as a schoolgirl she had been so timid that she could not bring herself to spell even the simplest words aloud in front of her classmates, she taught herself as an adult to face huge and sometimes hostile audiences without apparent qualm: “If you forget about yourself,” she wrote, “[forget about] whether or not you are making a good impression on people, what they think of you and … think about them instead, you won’t be shy.”
Early experiences with her own erratic father and with an uncle whose drunken whims sometimes included firing a shotgun at her from an upstairs window had fostered in her an entirely understandable terror of irrational behavior. She learned at least partially to subdue it during World War I when, as the wife of the assistant secretary of the Navy, she regularly made herself visit the mental ward of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington. There she had herself locked in so that she might talk with battle-shocked sailors, some chained to their beds, others unable to stop shouting of the horrors they had seen at sea. “I wanted to bang at the door, to get out,” she remembered, “but I was ashamed of myself. I would not have shown my terror for the world.” Her fear of people who had lost what she called the “power of self-control” never entirely left her; to the end of her life her face froze in their presence and so did her emotions. But she did not let it interfere with her performance of the duties that justified to her her own existence.
She filled much of her life with such self-administered tests, designed to reassure herself that if her anxieties could not always entirely be dispelled, they could be managed, kept in perspective: she was not fully persuaded that she had rid herself of racial prejudice, for example, until she had kissed her black colleague Mary McLeod Bethune on the cheek.
The struggle took its toll and did not invariably succeed. She worried constantly that she might slip back, give in to the anxiety she called the “great crippler.” And her deepest fear—that she could never truly hold anyone’s love for long—ate at her always. The hundreds of personal letters Lash has newly culled from the countless thousands she wrote demonstrate again the near desperation with which she sought to hold on to the affection of a host of friends and family members. Joy did not come naturally to her; she was in fact “almost a melancholy person,” a niece remembers, but she could recognize happiness in others, and when she did, “you could almost feel her touching it and liking the warmth of it. …” Her giant web of correspondence was woven at least in part in an effort to capture and keep some of it for herself.
No childhood terror lasted longer than her fear of water. She had been traumatized at three when the steamship on which she and her parents were traveling to Europe was rammed by another vessel in the fog and seemed sure to sink. “I remember only that there was wild confusion,” she wrote. “My father stood in a boat below me, and I was dangling over the side to be dropped into his arms.” The crewmen to whom she clung had to pry her fingers loose before she was released to fall screaming through the air to safety. This experience so terrified her that when her parents continued their voyage on another ship, they thought it best to leave her behind with relatives for what turned out to be half a year; it may have been during that long separation that she first learned the bitter price exacted by giving in to fear.
Later, during a childhood visit to the Oyster Bay home of her Uncle Theodore and afraid to tell him that she could not swim, she obeyed his order to dive off the dock and sank like a stone; then, when she managed to flail her way back up to the surface, a playful cousin pushed her under again. She was “very much frightened,” she admitted; “Never again would I go out of my depth.”
As a young woman she doggedly mastered her fear of sailing so that she could accompany her young husband on his yacht Half Moon as he explored the twisting coves and inlets of Campobello Island. But she did not dare even try to swim until 1922, when she was herself a mother and wanted to be able to watch over her own children in safety as they swam.
Diving took much longer—until the summer of 1939, in fact, when she was fifty-six years old and took lessons from Dorothy Dow, a junior member of her White House staff whose amiable and unpretentious letters have now been published in Eleanor Roosevelt: An Eager Spirit (W. W. Norton). “Finally she could dive,” Dow wrote, “not only from the side of the pool but from the diving board as well. She was anxious to perform for the President, as he said he didn’t believe she could do it. One day he drove over from the Big House [at Hyde Park, to Val-Kill, his wife’s own nearby cottage] and sat at the edge of the pool. I sat down on the grass beside him, and he said, ‘I understand that you are the one who taught her all this.’ I acknowledged the fact. So, Mrs. R. walked out on the board, got all set in the proper form and went in flat as could be. She could have been heard down at Poughkeepsie! I thought the President would explode laughing, and his hand came down on my shoulder so hard I almost fell over. Mrs. R. came up red in the face, with a really grim expression, said nothing, walked out on the board again, and did a perfect dive. We all gave her a big hand, and she was pretty proud of her accomplishment—which she certainly should have been.”
Out of such small, satisfying victories she manufactured herself. “We do not have to become heroes overnight,” she wrote in her last book. “Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.”