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Eleanor: The Radical Roosevelt

Hollywood just can’t seem to tell the truth about Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a fierce defender of human rights. Historian Peter Dreier steps in to set the record straight.

Eleanor Roosevelt addresses AFL-CIO.

Eleanor Roosevelt speaks at a podium at an AFL-CIO event. Photo by the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives.

Many younger Americans probably know little about Eleanor Roosevelt, and if their first encounter with her is the new film Hyde Park on Hudson, what they’ll learn is incredibly misleading and inaccurate. Other films—including Sunrise at Campobello (1960); the two-part Eleanor and Franklin HBO mini-series (1976); Eleanor, First Lady of the World (1982); and Warm Springs (2005)—have depicted different aspects of her life. Yet not one of these films accurately portrays the depth and influence of Eleanor’s radicalism.

The biggest controversy Eleanor deals with in the film is whether to serve hot dogs to the British royals.

Hyde Park on Hudson focuses on the relationship between President Franklin Roosevelt (played by Bill Murray) and his distant cousin Margaret “Daisy” Stuckley (Laura Linney) during a weekend in 1939 when the King and Queen of England are visiting the Roosevelts at their second home in upstate New York. The film shows FDR and Stuckley having a sexual love affair, although many historians believe that their relationship was merely a flirtation.

Given its focus on the affair, it is perhaps not surprising that the film treats Eleanor (Olivia Williams) primarily as a ceremonial helpmate whose major function is to help FDR negotiate the social rituals of being president. The biggest controversy Eleanor deals with in the film is whether to serve hot dogs to the British royals.

In reality, Eleanor’s life—before she met FDR, during the 13 years she served as first lady, and after FDR died in 1945—was filled with important public controversies, including her activism around such issues as workers’ rights, civil rights, women’s rights, and human rights. She became FDR’s most important, and most progressive, advisor. FDR was the most powerful president in American history, and Eleanor (who died in 1962) wielded her own power, sometimes behind the scenes but often in public, breaking the mold for first ladies. No first lady before or since—not even Hillary Clinton—has had as much influence while her husband was president.

Eleanor consistently pushed FDR to the left on key issues and appointments. The left-leaning members of FDR’s inner circle (including Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, Agriculture Secretary and later Vice President Henry Wallace, and Harry Hopkins, who formulated and ran many New Deal relief programs) often conspired with Eleanor to make sure he heard the views of progressive activists.

Throughout her life, Eleanor fought on behalf of America’s—and the world’s—most vulnerable people. Over time, she became friends with a widening circle of union activists, feminists, civil rights crusaders, and radicals whose ideas she embraced and advocated for, both as FDR’s wife and adviser and as a political figure in her own right.

From socialites to solidarity

Born in New York City in 1884 and descended from a long line of privilege, Eleanor nevertheless had a difficult childhood. Her father, Elliott Roosevelt, was an early influence on her social consciousness, taking her with him when he visited the Children’s Aid Society or served up Thanksgiving dinner to poor newsboys, where she saw the injustice of child labor. By the time Eleanor was ten, both her parents had died. She was sent to live with her maternal grandmother, a formidable woman who wanted to groom her for New York’s elite society. Her prominent relatives included her uncle, Theodore Roosevelt, who became president when Eleanor was seventeen.

Eleanor realized that she preferred volunteering with social reform groups to going to fancy balls.

Her early education consisted of a private tutor and a year in an Italian convent school. Her first and most influential mentor was Marie Souvestre, who ran Allenswood, a progressive feminist boarding school for girls outside London, which Eleanor attended from 1898 to 1902. The school taught classical languages and the arts, and Souvestre gave Roosevelt special instruction in history and philosophy. Souvestre was a demanding thinker who challenged her students with her opposition to colonialism and anti-Semitism. She invited Eleanor to be her traveling companion through France and Italy during holiday breaks from school and encouraged her to be an independent and confident woman.

In 1902, Eleanor’s grandmother insisted she return to the United States to get down to the business of becoming a debutante. Eleanor was nearly six feet tall and willowy, with prominent teeth and a weak chin—not the social belle that her mother had been and that her grandmother wished her to be.

Eleanor quickly realized that she preferred volunteering with social reform groups to going to fancy balls. From 1902 to 1903, she volunteered at the Rivington Street Settlement House on the Lower East Side, teaching exercise and dance to low-income immigrants. Unlike her well-off peers, who arrived in carriages, she insisted on taking public transportation, forcing herself to overcome her fears and walk even at night through the Bowery, a low-rent area.

She also became immersed in the National Consumers League (NCL), led by the pioneering social reformer Florence Kelley. Through the NCL, Eleanor investigated and publicized dreadful working conditions in garment sweatshops. She also met many progressive activists who shaped her political consciousness.

A unique and lifelong partnership

In 1902, Eleanor was riding a train when her distant cousin Franklin, a Harvard student, happened to board, and they spent the next two hours in easy conversation. That began their discreet romance, which he at first kept hidden from his domineering mother. It was by accompanying Eleanor that Franklin was first exposed to New York’s dismal tenements. For the rest of their lives together, she was FDR’s unofficial guide and conscience regarding the suffering of the poor, workers, African Americans, and women.

Eleanor was active in several groups that the attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, considered dangerously radical.

They were married in 1905, when she was twenty and he twenty-two, with her Uncle Theodore walking her down the aisle. During her first years of marriage and young motherhood, she grew increasingly depressed under the thumb of her mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt, who insisted on running the household. Eleanor was able to escape Sara’s domination when the couple moved to Albany, N.Y., after FDR was elected to the state legislature in 1910. She learned that she had a gift for politics and soon became one of FDR’s most trusted advisers. She lobbied for causes she believed in—eliminating poverty, improving working conditions, women’s rights, and education—and was better at connecting with people than was FDR.

By 1916 the couple had six children, including a son who died as a baby. Franklin’s appointment as assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy in 1913 brought the Roosevelts to Washington, D.C., and was the beginning of national prominence. It also marked a difficult turning point in their relationship, when Eleanor discovered Franklin’s long-term affair with her assistant Lucy Mercer, one of FDR’s several extra-marital relationships. Deeply distressed, she offered him a divorce. They remained married, however, in a loyal political partnership.

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