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Mrs. Roosevelt, The Russian Sniper, And Me

June 2024
4min read

In October of 1957, in an astonishing series of events, I found myself at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., as an all-expenses-paid delegate to the First Congress on Better Living, sponsored by McCall’s magazine.

At the time, I was a typical fifties housewife, with a split-level in the suburbs, a husband, three kids, and a dog. However, I had a closet vice—I entered contests. McCall’s had announced a Remodel-A-Room contest and I sent away for an entry blank. The builder of our house had skimped on eating quarters, so I sent off as my entry a plan to convert our garage into a dining room. Early one morning in April the phone rang. It was McCall’s “House and Home” editor. She wanted to fly out to see if the plan I’d entered was feasible. She came, she measured, she nodded: it was. I’d won! In the fall the room I’d designed would be built.

But there was more. In July I was invited to the Congress on Better Living. The magazine had decided to send one hundred of the top contest entrants to Washington, D.C., to share their ideas about the American homes of the future. This invitation was the contest’s greatest gift. I felt truly important. The trip was even more exciting than I’d imagined, running the gamut from practical discussions to a tea hosted by Pearl Mesta. And on the final night, if she got back from Russia in time, Eleanor Roosevelt would be the keynote speaker. Now, I knew Mrs. Roosevelt. Well, let’s say I had met Mrs. Roosevelt.

In 1942, as America adjusted to life during wartime, I was a student at the University of Washington in Seattle. The war didn’t seem quite real until Mrs. Roosevelt came to the campus.

We had a reception for her and a band of foreign students she was traveling with, and I was invited by virtue of holding some campus office. I remember standing in the receiving line feeling awed by the prospect of meeting Mrs. Roosevelt. I actually was quaking by the time my turn came to shake hands with her, but she was warm, friendly, and smiling. I came away glowing, but then my attention wavered somewhat because a circle had formed about Wing Commander David Scott-Maiden, a devastatingly handsome Royal Air Force fighter pilot who was in Mrs. Roosevelt’s group. Also with her were another RAF pilot, one Danish and two Dutch naval officers, and a woman sharpshooter from Russia named Ludmilla Pavlichenko.

She strode in wearing her Russian army uniform, surveyed our posh entry hall with distaste, and said, “Second Front!”

That night at a general assembly, Mrs. Roosevelt introduced each of the visiting students and asked them to tell us a bit about what was happening in their countries. The Russian sharpshooter’s tale was the most overwhelming. The Germans had killed her husband and young children and wiped out the rest of her family. She had picked up a rifle and taken to the woods to stalk Nazi soldiers. One by one she killed some 257, sometimes hiding in the woods all night to get a good shot. By now she had killed more enemy soldiers than any other individual Russian and had received the highest medal for bravery from the Soviet government.

I listened to Pavlichenko with particular interest because she was going to spend the night at my sorority house. It was my job to greet her and show her to her quarters.

Later that night, Ludmilla Pavlichenko and her interpreter arrived on our dark doorstep. (We already were having blackouts in Seattle.) I opened the front door and she strode in wearing her Russian army uniform, complete with cap, cartridge belt, and boots. She surveyed our rather posh entry hall with distaste and then fixed me with her sniper’s eyes, speaking two words, then immediately repeating them. Baffled, I turned for help to the interpreter: “Second Front! She says she wants a Second Front!” I nodded, which I hoped conveyed earnest agreement, though at the moment I couldn’t quite see what to do about it. I showed her to our lovely little guest suite with its pale carpet, pink moiré drapes, skirted dressing table, and pretty bedspreads. Ludmilla’s eyes swept the room and her face froze. Disgust? Contempt? Both? I began to feel frivolous and somehow apologetic. I bid her and her interpreter goodnight and backed out, wondering if they would rather spend the night on the floor than be corrupted by such capitalistic decadence. She left before I was up the next morning. Afterward I often wondered what happened to her and if she had survived the war.

But now it was 1957 and the last night of the Congress. All the McCall’s delegates, plus dignitaries and officials from embassies and government agencies, and all the brass from the magazine, had gathered in the grand ballroom of the Shoreham. None of us knew for sure if Eleanor Roosevelt would be there or not. Then an official announced that she had arrived. The entire room rose to its feet, clapping a thunderous welcome. When everyone quieted down, she started to speak in her high, inimitable voice.

She said that because of the growing Cold War, she had not been allowed to go where she wished during her recent trip to Russia. Her every move had been accompanied by a “guide.” She spoke of the impossibility of talking candidly with people for fear of getting them in trouble. Then she said, “I particularly wanted to see Ludmilla Pavlichenko, whom I knew during the war.” I sat bolt upright. At that moment, Mrs. Roosevelt and I were probably the only two people in that packed room who actually knew Ludmilla Pavlichenko!

Mrs. Roosevelt said she had persisted until finally she was taken up to Ludmilla’s home in Moscow. Because Ludmilla was a revered war heroine, the government had allowed her a two-room apartment. She had remarried and started a new family.

When Mrs. Roosevelt arrived, Ludmilla had greeted her with cool formality. They chatted, then Ludmilla made some excuse to pull Mrs. Roosevelt into the small bedroom and shut the door. Safe, she’d thrown her arms around Mrs. Roosevelt, half-laughing, half-crying, telling her how very happy she was to see her. Then in whispers she asked about the friends she’d made when she traveled around the United States in 1942.

I felt so happy to know that Ludmilla had survived and had a second chance at life (her personal second front?). Mrs. Roosevelt went on to say that someday she would like to give a group of ordinary Russian working women a tour of the United States. After she finished speaking there was clapping, then the official said she had agreed to take a few questions. I hesitated but then I raised my hand. When the official pointed at me I rose and said how very glad 1 was to hear about Ludmilla and how very lucky I felt to be here on this particular night to be able to hear about her. I knew I had to have some question, so I asked the only one that occurred to me. “Mrs. Roosevelt, if you of all people had trouble even getting to see Ludmilla, and if Ludmilla had to take you into the bed- room and shut the door, then whisper to talk to you, how could any group of ordinary Russian women ever be able to talk openly about what they saw here in the United States?”

She cocked her head to one side and then said, “Well, my dear, the word gets out, you know. The word always gets out.”

The word did get out, didn’t it? It took over thirty years, but it certainly got out. But then Mrs. Roosevelt was always ahead of her time!

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