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My Brush With History

Lonely (First) Lady

June 2024
4min read

I was a writer on the staff of the Hunter College newspaper when Eleanor Roosevelt, completely alone, would stop by looking for someone to talk to.

The Roosevelt townhouse was only three blocks from Hunter College’s main building at Park Avenue at Sixty-eighth Street, and one day in 1940 Eleanor just walked in off the street. The door she opened was the entrance to Echo, the college magazine. I was one of the writers, and I happened to be in the office with two other girls on the staff. We were flabbergasted. She was completely alone, without a secretary, Secret Service agent, or companion of any kind. She was looking for someone to talk to, she said, and she had slipped into a side entrance to avoid meeting up with the crowds one always encountered in the main lobby.

We dropped everything and asked her to sit down on the couch. I sat next to her, and the other two leaned on a desk facing us. Mrs. Roosevelt explained that she was a neighbor of ours and was out for a walk, and she wondered if she could rest awhile and chat with us if we were not too busy. Not too busy! We were overwhelmed and gave her our full attention.

She asked about our magazine, how often it came out (monthly) and what kinds of articles we published. With her soft, rather high-pitched voice and genuine interest in what we were doing, she soon put us at ease. What was amazing was how quickly we accepted as normal the fact that the First Lady of the land was sitting here in our little office with no fanfare or bodyguard.

Even more amazing was her request, on leaving, that she be allowed to visit us again when she had time. She said she enjoyed talking to young people but asked that we not publicize her visits, since she had time to get to know only our small group for the present.

Over the next year she dropped in once or twice a month. We became quite friendly. She called me Marian, and I called her Mrs. Roosevelt. The war in Europe was in its first year and hovered over us always, but we did not say much about it. We covered other topics, however. She took a special interest in my new cocker spaniel puppy named Rusty, not yet house-broken. I would come home at night and tell my mother what Mrs. Roosevelt recommended based on her experience with Fala. Mother regarded Mrs. R’s visits nonchalantly. “Isn’t that nice,” she remarked, “her being interested in Rusty’s problems. She’s really a very nice lady.”

My father, too, appeared to take the First Lady’s visits in stride. His parents had been immigrants who came here expecting freedom and equality, and the fact that the President’s wife was conversing with his teenage daughter struck him as entirely appropriate.

In later years I looked back on these events and wondered what was going on in Eleanor Roosevelt’s life at the time. I learned that the townhouse she and the President owned had been a wedding present from Franklin’s mother. Sara Delano Roosevelt lived on East Sixty-fifth Street and built them a twin house adjoining hers, with a connecting passage on an upper floor (a detail not revealed to the newlyweds until after the house was finished). Once they were married, Eleanor would sometimes be startled to see her mother-in-law appear in her house. After a time, though, the young couple seemed to accept these visits as part of their married life.

Often when Mrs. Roosevelt dropped by Hunter, we would plug in our phonograph, push back the chairs, and dance the Lindy to the popular tunes of the day. I have a vivid picture of her sitting on the couch laughing and clapping her hands to the music. Could she have been blamed for choosing the company of lively Hunter girls over an afternoon with her mother-in-law?

Often when Mrs. Roosevelt dropped by Hunter, we would plug in our phonograph, push back the chairs, and dance the Lindy to the popular tunes of the day.

I was especially flattered one day when she praised an article I had written for the Echo, “The War in the Bronx,” about how the Navy had taken over Hunter’s Bronx campus to train young women to be officers in the Waves. I even fantasized that she might tell her husband about it.

One day one of us asked her if the President would ever pay a visit to Hunter. She said she would ask him. Soon after, it was announced in our assembly that President Roosevelt would visit our college in October. Excitement gripped us; most of us had never seen a President.

His appearance proved more moving than anyone anticipated, because we hadn’t known how crippled he was. When we entered the hall, he was already seated on the stage, flanked by his son James in Marine-officer uniform on his right and several Secret Service agents on his left. Our college president, George Shuster, stood at the podium as we filed in.

The hall was hushed. Roosevelt was a large man, and his aura seemed to radiate to every inch of the room. When the hall was full, we all rose to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The President got to his feet with the help of James and his cane. The audience remained standing while Dr. Shuster made a short statement about how honored we were to welcome the President, who had taken time from his wartime burdens to address the young women of Hunter College.

We held our breath as Roosevelt started to walk the eight steps to the podium. For a moment he did not move at all, as if his feet were fixed to the ground. Then, overcoming the inertia of his large frame, he dragged his right leg sideways and forward and rolled his body after it, leaning on James to keep from falling. Meanwhile, he started rolling his left leg forward to take a step on the other side. In this way, rolling from side to side, he moved ahead.

A lump rose in my throat at the sight of the effort our President had to make to walk just eight steps. I glanced around at the audience, and many people had tears in their eyes. It was now clear why Roosevelt so often had James at his side.

When he reached the podium, he stood by himself, holding on to the desk. We applauded him wildly, while he smiled the famous Roosevelt smile. I don’t remember what he said, but the picture of him standing there will be with me forever.

The following year Eleanor Roosevelt spent more time traveling to far-off places, “being the eyes and legs of the President,” as he put it. I graduated in 1943, feeling the richer for my contacts with her.

Mrs. Roosevelt must have remembered her days with Hunter’s jiving girls because her townhouse was dedicated to the college in 1943. For nearly fifty years it was a student center, and from what I hear (Hunter’s having gone coed), plenty of dancing went on there. She would have been pleased.

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