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Eleanor and Franklin: The Story of Their Relationship

Based on Eleanor Roosevelt's Private Papers

by Joseph Lash

Eleanor and Franklin: The Story of Their Relationship
Based on Eleanor Roosevelt's Private Papers, by Joseph Lash
New York: W.W. Norton, 1971

Reviewed by Ed Lengel

Where presidential history is concerned, seemingly trivial paths can lead to controversy. Several years ago, while employed by an organization dedicated to preserving White House and presidential history, I gave an interview to a major news organization about presidential pets. Partway through the discussion, my journalistic interlocutor asked me if I could think of examples when a president had turned to a beloved pet to help him through difficult times. For a moment I pondered President Lyndon B. Johnson’s beagles and the Vietnam War-then quickly abandoned the thought when I remembered how he laughed over their yelps of pain as he lifted them up by the ears. So I moved on to the obvious answer: President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Scottish Terrier, Fala.

As anybody with the slightest knowledge of World War II history knows, Fala accompanied the president throughout the war years and was a White House fixture. In my interview, I mused on how FDR doubtless enjoyed Fala’s company during some of the war’s more stressful moments. When the interviewer asked why the president needed Fala when he had Eleanor standing by him, I thoughtlessly remarked that since Franklin and his wife often didn’t get along, Fala might have presented a cuddlier alternative.

Big mistake.

A few days later, my boss called me to the carpet. Powerful people, it seems, had been scandalized by my remarks, which might endanger our organization’s relationship with the Roosevelt family {they didn’t, but I guess we didn’t know it then). Did I really mean to say that Eleanor made Franklin’s life so miserable that he had to turn to his dog for consolation?

Laughable as this contretemps seems now, it touches on a deeper historical truth: Franklin and Eleanor did have a tumultuous relationship. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine otherwise, given the brilliance of their respective political minds and the strength of their personalities. Like any other presidential couple in the modern age, their carefully cultivated public image presented them not just as friends and intimates, but as political partners-of course with Franklin always in the lead, as befitted the prejudices of the time. But the truth was more complex. While they undoubtedly respected each other, and broadly shared the same politically progressive views, they had profound disagreements on tactics and sometimes on principles as well. Eleanor, always forceful and opinionated, restrained herself in public but was not shy about expressing her views to her husband, much to his annoyance. They clashed over the food served in the White House. And then, of course, there were Franklin’s infidelities.

Franklin’s death in 1945 provided Eleanor with a long-awaited opportunity to demonstrate her leadership abilities, as she became an outstanding figure domestically and internationally, especially through the United Nations, before her death in 1962. For many decades thereafter, nevertheless, she remained in her late husband’s shadow thanks to the public narrative they had collaborated in constructing during the Depression and World War II. Not until the release of her papers, and subsequent scholarly research into them, did she begin to stand forth in her own right as one of the outstanding leaders of the twentieth century.

Joseph Lash, one of Eleanor’s closest confidants during her lifetime, set the ball rolling by publishing a personal memoir in 1964 that chronicled his own work alongside her through her long career. A few years later, Franklin Roosevelt, Jr., offered Lash an opportunity to peruse Eleanor’s private papers with a view to writing a dual biography. The resulting two-volume work, published in 1972, won the Pulitzer Prize for biography and has been reprinted in multiple single-volume editions ever since.

Lash was no dispassionate observer. He was an advocate, with roots (like Eleanor) in the intellectual wing of the socialist movement of the 1930s that informed Eleanor’s views throughout her life. His work was a tremendous accomplishment notwithstanding, not least for gently demolishing the myth that Eleanor was a feisty but nonetheless subservient helpmeet to Franklin’s leadership from his earliest days in politics before World War I, to his death at Warm Springs, Georgia. While Lash’s view of their relationship was sympathetic, he also revealed the creative if not the personal friction that underlay their many accomplishments. Notably, the book also helped to uncover Eleanor as the first truly modern First Lady, who effectively created the position as a White House office with its own staff and agenda.

Fifty years after publication, however, Eleanor and Franklin is only a starting point, not just to the story of their relationship, but to the many accomplishments of their lives. Disappointingly, it ends with Franklin’s death in 1945, thus not exposing the remarkable story of her seventeen-year public career afterwards. For that, fortunately, there are a number of more recent biographies-such as David Michaelis’s Eleanor (2020)-to fill the gap. Even Fala plays a role, for in the seven years between Franklin’s death in 1945 and his own in 1952, the dog became Eleanor’s boon companion-and no doubt a consolation in times of stress!

Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.

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