Eleanor Roosevelt - First Lady Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Eleanor Roosevelt - First Lady

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Eleanor Roosevelt was America's First Lady (the President's wife) from 1933 to 1945. She transformed the role from one of silent support to one of diplomacy and political activism. The rumours about her are almost as famous as the woman herself.

The Early Years

It may seem strange, but no matter how plain a woman may be, if truth and loyalty are stamped upon her face, all will be attracted to her and she will do good to all who come near her.

She was born Anna Eleanor Roosevelt in 1884. She quickly showed signs of the tall and 'plain but headstrong' (her own words) woman she would become. She began her life in New York City, where both of her parents died by the time she was ten years old. After her mother's death in 1892, Eleanor moved to her grandmother's residence in the village of Tivoli, New York. Her mother's wish of sending her to Europe as part of her education, and her grandmother's belief that the excessive gaiety of the American household was too much for a girl of 15, meant that she was sent to England in 1899.

She attended Allenswood boarding school outside London until her grandmother decided the time had come for her to come out aged 18. Her mentor, Mlle Souvestre, was the headmistress there.

After returning to America as an adult, Eleanor was introduced as a debutante to many politically influential men. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a distant cousin, engaged her in a lengthy two-year courtship despite disapproval by some members of the family. They were finally married in 1905. Eleanor's uncle, Theodore Roosevelt, another famous American president, gave her away at the ceremony.

Eleanor had six children by her husband. She proved a capable and strong-willed wife and mother. Later in her life, she complained that for the first ten years of her marriage she did nothing but have babies.

The Political Years

At all times, day by day, we have to continue fighting for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom from want - for all these things that must be gained in peace as well as in war.

Eleanor's husband, known to America as FDR, was a member of the US Senate and lived in Albany, New York. Through their frequent personal debates, Eleanor came to understand American politics. When FDR was stricken with polio in 1921, Eleanor stepped up to the plate by simultaneously supporting his career and nursing him back to health. She later learned that FDR had contracted infantile paralysis while on an outing with the Boy Scouts.

After recovering from his illness, FDR remained paralyzed from the waist down. In part due to Eleanor's vocal and unflinching support, he nevertheless continued up the American chain of command. The couple's combined political expertise was such that members of the press agreed to keep FDR's handicap a secret. This was crucial during an era when some voters would otherwise have erroneously questioned FDR's leadership abilities. In the years leading up to 1933, he became Assistant Secretary of the Navy, New York governor, and finally President of the United States.

While in the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt transformed the role of First Lady. She expanded the practice of holding diplomatic parties, called frequent press conferences, travelled worldwide giving lectures on numerous subjects, and conducted many radio broadcasts. She even expressed her personal opinions candidly in a weekly newspaper column titled 'My Day'. Her honesty, integrity, and graciousness won over an America that had never seen a strong woman in such public limelight before.

During the latter years of FDR's presidency, Eleanor took increasing charge of matters at the White House. Politicians, newspaper reporters, and military personnel alike willingly took her orders and advice. She was known especially for her concern for underprivileged people in America and throughout the world, including racial minorities, low-wage labourers, women and children.

After FDR died in 1945, Eleanor left the White House and served instead as an American spokesman to the United Nations. She helped to found UNICEF and establish the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She was named the chairman of the Human Rights Commission, and at the age of 61 she was asked to serve as the American delegate for the first meeting of the General Assembly. She continued serving the United Nations until 1962, the year of her death.

Eleanor was buried beside her husband in a rose garden at their joint estate in New York. The American government has set up a White House page for Eleanor Roosevelt to honour her memory and her contributions to American and world politics.

The Rumours

No human being can ever 'own' another, whether in friendship, love, marriage or parenthood. Many human relationships have been ruined and happiness far too often changed to misery by a failure to understand this.

Eleanor discovered her husband's affair with Lucy Mercer1 in 1918. She was devastated, but later indicated that this time served as an epiphany of sorts. FDR's executive secretary, Marguerite (Missy) LeHand, lived in the couple's house, and some speculation arose about Missy and FDR's relationship. Many rumours about Eleanor Roosevelt revolve around her supposed ability to overlook her husband's infidelities.

But the rumours began even before Eleanor was married. When she returned to New York as an adult debutante, she was asked to live with her alcoholic uncle Vallie. It was well known that Eleanor had three locks installed on her bedroom door shortly after moving in. Her sudden drop in self-esteem indicates that she may have been abused, but she preferred not to speak of the matter.

Rumour also abounds about the close lesbian friends Eleanor gained in the 1920s following her husband's illness. These included Elizabeth Read and Esther Lape, a lesbian couple. Read became Eleanor's financial adviser and attorney.

Another group included Caroline O'Day, Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman. Cook and Dickerman were a couple, while O'Day remained unattached. FDR actually built a house for Eleanor and these three ladies. They were all involved in the women's rights movement and in politics, but since Eleanor lived in this joint house off and on until her death, rumours persist that much more than simple residence was going on.

Yet another rumour concerns Eleanor's bodyguard from 1929 to 1933. Earl Miller was athletic, charming and handsome. Though a womanizer before he met Eleanor, the bodyguard stopped his carousing shortly after they met. He gained a sudden interest in women's rights and began to refer to his employer as 'the Lady.' Letters and photographs remain that point towards a deep affection between the two.

Eleanor's close relationship to Lorena (Hick) Hickok from 1933 until Eleanor's death is the final subject of rumour. One of the first female reporters, Hickok initially covered the First Lady for the Associated Press. It was unusual at the time for a female reporter to cover politics, but Eleanor insisted on allowing only women to interview her or attend her press conferences. The two became very close and Hickok was known to be a lesbian at the time. Hickok was variously said to wear men's clothing, smoke cigars, drink scotch and play poker with other reporters. It was Hickok's suggestion that Eleanor begin the newspaper column, 'My Day'.

The Associated Press felt that Hickok's relationship to the First Lady compromised her journalistic integrity, so she was forced to resign late in 1933. She eventually took up residence in the White House working there for the Democratic National Committee. In 1945, poor health got the better of Hickok. She moved away from political life to New York, where she wrote numerous biographies about Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt until her own death in 1968.

After Hickok's death, a collection of letters written by Eleanor was discovered - dozens of which included passages of open longing for Hickok. We now know that Hickok gave a ring to Eleanor in 1933, that she burned many of Eleanor's letters after the former First Lady died, and that photographs of the Roosevelt's family dinners at the White House were often cropped to remove Hickok before being published.

1Lucy Mercer was a social secretary to Eleanor Roosevelt.

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