By Michael F. Bishop
On the evening of April 12, 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt waited upstairs in the White House, her home for more than a dozen years. Her customarily busy day had included a speech at the nearby Sulgrave Club, where she received a telephone call from the White House press secretary urging her swift return. Upon her arrival, she was given terrible news: her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had died earlier that day at his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia. She was not told that he was with his longtime mistress, and another female companion.
Eleanor had been First Lady longer than any other, but now she was a widow. There was little time for grief, as there was much to do. The Second World War was still raging. Her husband’s vice-president, Harry Truman, appeared. He too had been summoned by an urgent telephone call, and suspected the worst, but arrived not knowing that he was already the 33rd president of the United States. Eleanor stood and said, “Harry, the president is dead.” Before taking the oath of office, and nearly overcome with emotion, he asked her, “Is there anything I can do for you?” She responded with perhaps the most memorable words she ever uttered, “What can we do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City on October 11, 1884, the child of wealthy and aristocratic parents. But her seemingly gilded life was tarnished by neglect and tragedy: her mother treated her with disdain; both parents (and one sibling) died when she was very young. She received the finishing school education considered proper for her sex and class, and then entered the marriage market full of anxiety and insecurity.
She would not have long to wait. Eleanor and Franklin, who were very distantly related, met in 1902 and began a relationship. The plain, awkward Eleanor seemed an unlikely choice of mate for the handsome, charming politician. But her attractions were perhaps magnified by the fact that her uncle was the president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin’s political hero. The couple was married at a lavish ceremony in New York City in 1905. Since her father had died of alcoholism more than a decade earlier, Eleanor was walked down the aisle by her Uncle Theodore.
The union seemed at first to be a success. Franklin climbed the greasy pole of politics with seeming ease, as a New York state legislator; Assistant Secretary of the Navy; and the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 1920. The couple had six children, though Eleanor was lacking in maternal instincts, lamenting, “It did not come naturally to me to understand little children or to enjoy them”. Their marital relations ended abruptly when Eleanor discovered a cache of love letters to Franklin from his lover, Lucy Mercer, who was Eleanor’s secretary. Franklin’s betrayal led the couple to the brink of divorce, but his domineering mother, Sara, threatened to disinherit him if he left his wife. She was determined that her son would achieve his presidential destiny, an impossibility for a divorced man.
Despite their marital rupture, Eleanor remained a loyal political lieutenant, and after Franklin was struck down by polio in 1921, robbing him of the use of his legs and seemingly dooming his presidential hopes, she traveled to New York and spoke to political gatherings in a successful effort to keep his ambitions alive. Her efforts would pay off when Franklin was elected governor of New York in 1928. The stock market crash the following year, and the resulting economic devastation opened the door to an even larger political prize. Miraculously, the White House seemed again within their grasp.
Franklin defeated President Herbert Hoover in 1932, and he and Eleanor prepared to take their places on the world stage. The country was crippled by Depression and the new Administration launched an ambitious “New Deal” to revive the ailing economy. Eleanor revolutionized the role of First Lady, adeptly using the media to further her husband’s political goals and her own. She wrote a regular newspaper column called “My Day,” held hundreds of press conferences, and became a prolific radio broadcaster. She was a vocal supporter of civil rights and privately pushed her husband—often to his great annoyance—to do more to address that and other issues. (As Franklin’s biographer Conrad Black records, the president’s personal physician observed in 1945 that his “blood pressure jumped fifty points in a forty-five-minute discussion with Eleanor.”)
The Roosevelt White House was a crowded and chaotic place. The private living quarters on the second and third floors were occupied by the president and first lady; occasionally their children; Franklin’s chief advisor, Harry Hopkins, who lived in what is now known as the Lincoln Bedroom; the president’s secretary and lover, Missy LeHand; and Lorena Hickock, a stout, cigar-smoking journalist with whom Eleanor had a passionate lesbian affair.
The determined isolationism of the American public kept the United States on the sidelines as Europe plunged into war with Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. But after a long courtship of Franklin by the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, America entered the war on the side of the Allies.
Churchill and his entourage soon descended on Washington, with the prime minister installed for several weeks in what is today the Queen’s Bedroom in the White House. Eleanor’s political rigidity was on display as she viewed the Tory Churchill with disdain, but there is no doubt that he could be a difficult houseguest, roaming the corridors in his dressing gown, draining the liquor supply, and keeping the president awake late into the night. He knew the impression he had made upon her, later asking, “You never have really approved of me, have you?” She would admit: “I have to confess that I was frightened of Mr. Churchill. So often I was his hostess or he was my host and we sat next to each other, but each time I felt inadequate to interest him. I was solicitous for his comfort, but I was always glad when he departed, for I knew that my husband would need a rest, since he had carried his usual hours of work in addition to the unusual ones Mr. Churchill preferred.” Indeed, one of Eleanor’s (and Churchill’s) lasting contributions to the presidency was the establishment of Blair House across Pennsylvania Avenue as an official guest house for foreign leaders.
After Franklin’s death, Eleanor moved back to Manhattan and supervised the construction of her husband’s presidential library in Hyde Park. She was showered with honors and remained a public figure, most notably as the first United States Representative to the United States Commission on Human Rights. She resisted entreaties that she run for office, but continued her political activism, publicly bestowing her endorsement on favored presidential candidates.
In 1960, Eleanor ironically endured the same fate as the former houseguest she so deplored: like Churchill in 1931, she was struck by a car in New York City. But unlike him, she never fully recovered, and in 1962 she died of heart failure at her Manhattan home. The dignitaries attending her funeral included President John F. Kennedy and former presidents Truman and Eisenhower. She was laid to rest next to her husband at their Hudson River estate and remains a 20th century liberal icon.
Michael F. Bishop, a writer and historian, is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. He is the author of “We Shall Fight: Churchill’s Greatest Speech,” to be published by HarperCollins.