It’s not often that I finish writing a nonfiction book and want to read more about the subject. But I’ve just sent off the completed manuscript of my book about Eleanor Roosevelt to my editor at Abrams Books for Young Readers, and I’m not ready to say goodbye to the former First Lady quite yet.
In part, that’s because my (as yet untitled!) book is about Mrs. Roosevelt and civil rights, so that’s where I focused much of my research. However, although African Americans’ fight for equality was strong on Roosevelt’s radar during her White House years and beyond, many other issues captured her interest and garnered her support: women’s rights, the future of America’s youth, refugee issues, economic concerns, world peace. Mrs. Roosevelt’s involvement in each of these subjects makes for compelling reading.
And then there’s Eleanor Roosevelt’s fascinating personal story, a high-class soap opera. Born into a life of wealth and privilege, little Eleanor was derided by her beautiful mother, adored by her alcoholic father, and orphaned before she was 10. Eleanor was raised by an uninvolved grandmother, and it was not until she was 15 and left home to attend school in England, where she was mentored by an innovative and caring teacher, that she began to acquire a sense of self—only to lose it after her marriage to her charismatic cousin, Franklin Roosevelt. Married life, six children in quick succession (one of whom died as a baby), and an overbearing mother-in-law, along with Franklin’s plunge into public life, unmoored her. Then, in 1919, a body blow: Her discovery of the love letters between Franklin and her social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Though the marriage survived, it was forever changed.
Thousands, perhaps millions, of words have been written about Eleanor and Franklin’s relationship, along with speculation about the other people who held prominent places in their lives and hearts. But the bottom line is that the couple forged a partnership that worked for them and worked for a country plunged into crisis by the Great Depression and World War II.
Eleanor, over the years, strengthened, travelling the country—and the world—to encourage Americans, oversee programs, and initiate action that both inspired the country and helped get it moving. She spoke on radio, wrote books and a newspaper column, and became a brilliant politician in her own right.
She was also despised and vilified by those disliked her actions and her push for civil rights. The First Lady was called the worst of names and, on a more personal level, was made fun of for her looks. Still, she persisted.
To read about her is to want to know more. What pushed her forward? How did she overcome the roadblocks and disappointments that she constantly faced? What was the bond between her and FDR that allowed her to overlook his failings and play to his strengths?
Eleanor Roosevelt’s life has many lessons for today’s women—and men. Here is a piece of advice she offered everyone: “The danger lies in refusing to face the fear, in daring to come to grips with it . . . You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Blanche Wiesen Cook has done outstanding work writing three volumes on Eleanor Roosevelt, the last coming out this year.
No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Doris Kearns Goodwin has written a compulsively readable book about the Roosevelts during World War II.
The Firebrand and the First Lady, by Patricia Bell-Scott
This recent Carnegie Medal finalist by Patricia Bell-Scott examines the relationship between E. R. and a young, African-American activist. (Read an interview with Bell-Scott here.)