Friday, July 26, 2013

Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 1: 1884-1933

1992, 1993 Penguin edition
Blanch Wiesen Cook
Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 1: 1884-1933
Bought new for $14.00
Worn paperback

Although Cook never resolves the important question of how to pronounce Eleanor's last name (her maiden name was from the "rooze" side rather than the "rose" of her fifth cousin), she does a good job of showing the various aspects of the woman who was niece of one president and wife of another, as well as a successful politician and organizer in her own right.  ER (as Cook usually refers to her, although ERR might be more accurate) was a complicated woman who didn't fit the simple stereotypes that had held some 30 years after her death, although I believe that this book (a bestseller) helped to shatter them.

Although Cook is never explicit or even definite, which is not possible considering the protectiveness of ER's privacy by friends and family, she does address the question of ER's sexuality.  ER was thought of in her lifetime (including by some of her children) as almost asexual, a cause or result of FDR's philandering.  The reality seems to have been more complex, but it appears that she did not fully enjoy sex-- with people other than her husband-- until she was middle-aged.  She was friends and perhaps lovers with a small circle of lesbians, and FDR called their hideaway, which he helped design, "the honeymoon cottage."  On the other hand, the two great loves of ER's life seem to have been with her bodyguard, Earl Miller, and her favorite reporter, Lorena Hickok.  Because of that protectiveness, including the burning of letters and other important papers, some of this is of necessity speculation, but Cook makes a plausible case from the surviving clues.

She also explores how Eleanor went from a sheltered, awkward, lonely poor little rich girl (and orphan whose First Lady aunt kept her distance) to a poised and charming, as well as shrewd, "woman political boss," involved in feminism and other liberal causes.  (Her father's family was Republican, like Teddy.)  It was interesting to see that the political lines were drawn differently in the first third of the twentieth century, that for instance, Jane Addams (of Settlement House fame) supported TR's "Bull Moose" run for the presidency, but they had a falling out over WW I.  Also, while I've been supportive of the ERA since my early teens (around the time I heard it failed to pass), Cook helped me to understand why some feminists (not just ER) opposed it, on the grounds that protective labor legislation could more easily be established for women (and children) and then extended to men, rather than immediately giving everyone the radically short work-week of 48 hours!

The timing of the book is interesting, not only because (as with Cox's Addams Family book, excuse the comparison) she was able to interview people who have since passed on (e.g. ER's last secretary, Maureen Corr, who died in 2009), but also because this book came out at the time the U.S. was about to get arguably the most controversial First Lady since ER.  Betty Ford said a lot of then shocking things, but I never got the impression that she was as divisive a figure as Hillary Clinton, and Rosalynn Carter's involvement in her husband's administration doesn't seem to have been as deep at HRC's, while even Nancy Reagan seemed to upset fewer people than Hillary did.  Perhaps it's not surprising that Clinton would find solace in "talking to" ER.

While this volume covers almost half a century, Volume 2, coming up in 1999, only gets us up to 1938.

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