Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)

Figure 1.--Eleanor Roosevelt was photographed with her father and two brothers, Elliot Jr. and Hall, in 1891. Eleanor addored him, but he was an alcoholic. Note the long, but uncurled hair of the two boys.

Franklin married a distant cousin, a shy young woman, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, on March 17 1905. Eleanor had had a trying childhood. Her mother, a beautiful socialite who gave her little affection, died when Eleanor was eight. Her father, Theodore Roosevelt's brother, was spirited and charming. But he was unstable and alcoholic, and he died when Eleanor was 10 years old. Orphaned, she lived with her maternal grandmother and entered her teens feeling rejected, ugly, and ill at ease in society. When Franklin, a dashing Harvard man 2wo years her senior, paid her attention, she was flattered and receptive. Franklin was clearly serious in 1903 when he brought her to Campabello, his special space, to spend time with his mother. Elenor was the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt. They mairred in 1905. Her uncle President Theodore Roosevelt gave her away. That shy young lady was to become the greatest First Lady in American history. Without her support it is doubtful if Franklin could have even become president. Once president, it was Eleanor who traveled from one end of the country, serving as her husband's eyes and ears, championing the cause of the weak and dispossed. She was perhaps at the time even more controversial than her husband, but today is widely seen as the greatest of all the First Ladies--a towering figure in American history.


Eleanor in sharp contrast to her future husband, two dreadful parents. Her parents, Elliott and Anna Hall Roosevelt, were members of socially prominent families. Her father was the brother of Theodore Roosevelt making her the niece of the future president. Her mother essentially disliked Eleanor because she wasnot pertty enough. Rejected by her mother whose primary interest was her social life, Eleanor came to idealize her father Elliot who was slowly detroying himself with alcohol. Elliott was a more loving parent than her mother, but because of his alcoholism, he was often not there for his children. Once her father left her on the steps of his club while he poped in for a drink. He became drunk and was taken home. Not knowing, Eleanor waited on the steps outside the club for hours. The impact of her parents had a lasting impact on Elenor. She became shy and filled with self doubt. She came to crave affection and after marring Franlin was deeply wounded by his infidekity.


Eleanor had two younger brothers, seen here with their father (figure 1). Elliot was the oldest and Hall the youngest. The boys are seen here with long straight hair. Apparently it was also curled.


Elliott was named after his father.


Hll was named after his grandmother's family. Elenor as the oldest played a mothering roll for her younger brothers--especially Hall. As an adult, Eleanor often treated Hall more as a son than a brother. The portrait here shows Hall with straight hair, but Elenor as an adult she remembered his blond curls. He was the the brightest of the children, but waistd his talents and died of alcohol abuse. The alcohol made him rather unpredictable, and his nephews and nieces were a little afraid of him. The loss of Hall was very difficult for Eleanor, coming right after her husband lost his mother. Eleanor had already lost her parents and other brother and Hall was the last of her family. [Goodwin, pp.276-277.]


Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City on October 11, 1884. She had an intensely unhappy childhood. Her mother, widely known for her beauty, called Eleanor "granny," making fun of what she considered her unattractive daughters shy personality. Her father, whom she adored, was banished from the family because of alcoholism. Her parents died when she was young, and she was raised strictly by her grandmother Hall. Her childhood and adolescent experiences left her with a deep sense of insecurity and inadequacy and a craving for praise and affection.

Figure 2.--Eleanor's experiebces at the English school Allenwood left a lasting impression. Elenor bloomsed at the school, but few would have thought she would be the American First Lady who would help America lead a great crusade to save England and indeed the world.


She first attended private classes and at the age of 15 was sent to Allenswood, a finishing school near London. With the encouragement of the headmistress, Marie Souvestre, the shy girl emerged as a school leader. She returned to New York in 1902 to make her debut in society, but soon sought to escape its rituals through work with the city's poor at a settlement house.


A distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt had known Eleanor as a child. Eleanor was only two years younger than Franklin. Their bloomsing relationship was a surprise to their social set. Franklin's mother Sarah certainly was not pleased, a fact that was not to help the relationship between the two women. Franklin was out going, handsome, and wealthy. Eleanor was plain, little money, and without prospects. He was one of the country's most elegible bachelors. He could have mairred practically anyone. But something about Eleanor caught his eye. It was not pjysical beauty. What it was we do not know. There must have been something about her personality and intelect and iunterest in social endevors that drew Franklin to her. Eleanor was probably a little surprised, but certainly flattered by the attentions of this dashing young man.


Eleanor on March 17, 1905, married Franklin in a White House ceremony. Franklin certainly must have conceived of the idea of becoming president by this time. Elenor was given away marriage by the then President Theodore Roosevelt, as her father had died when she was young. Sarah gave the two a brownstone in New York next to hers as a wedding present. She then opened a passageway between the two homes so she could come and go nas she pleased.

Sara Delano

The Roosevelt marriage was really a marriage of three. With Franklin came his mother Sara. She has smetimes bveen called the mother-in-law from Hell. Her wedding present was a luxurious New York brownstone--next door to her home. There is no doubt that the relationship between the two women was a tril and their relationship strained. Sara did not want Franklin to marry Eleanor and constantly intefered in their lives. It is also true, however, that Sara was by far the most important woman in Franlin's life. It was Sara who raised him annd was largely responsible for formning his character ans social outlook. It is impossible to look at Franklin's Roosevelt's achievements and his bond with the American people wihout thinking of Sara.

Figure 3.--The Roosevelt family is pictured here in 1919. The two younger boys wear sailor suits with long white stockings and strap shoes. The two older boys wear Eton suits. Note that Sarah is included in the portrait, holding John.


Eleanor Roosevelt gave birth to six children, one of whom died in infancy. The oldest was their only girl, Anna. The surviving boys were James, Elliot, Franklin Jr., and John. Critics often claim that she was not the best of mothers. Given her own persoal experiences as a child she probably was not capable of the developing the kind of tender personal relationship that is the ideal. It is probably true, however, that she did her best. When they were young she did stay at home to look after them. Her formidable mother-in-law, Sarah, virtually lived with the Roosevelts. Eleanor reportedly largely submitted to the domination of Sarah in raising the children. Some accounts, however, of friction between the two exageratre the actual sityation.

Public Duties

After her husband's election to the New York state Senate in 1910, she performed the social role expected of the wife of a public official. President Wilson appointed Franklin Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I (1914-18). This was the same position that Theodore Roosevelt had held and did his best to promote war with Spain. The family moved to Washington. Eleanor for her part pitched into war work with the Red Cross.

Personal Independence

The end of World Wat I coincided with a grave personal crisis, the discovery of her husband's love for another woman. Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt were eventually reconciled, but the relationship was never the same. When they returned to New York in 1921 she determined to build a life of her own. She became active in the League of Women Voters, the Women's Trade Union League, and the women's division of the Democratic Party. Her personal emancipation was completed after Roosevelt was stricken with polio in 1921. Eleanor Roosevelt was determined to keep alive her husband's interest in public affairs. Sher was encouraged and tutored by Louis Howe, Roosevelt's close adviser, whom she had nortvapproved of. With his help she became her husband's political stand-in and an effective spokesperson. Eleanor by 1928, when Roosevelt actively returned to the political arena as a candidate for governor of New York, she had become a public figure in her own right. In 1926 she helped found a furniture factory in Hyde Park to aid the unemployed. In 1927 she became part owner of the Todhunter School in New York City, serving as vice principal and teaching history and government.

First Lady

Eeanor certainly must be classified as our greatest First Lady. When her husband became president in 1933, she feared the move to the White House would make her a prisoner in a gilded cage. But as First Lady she broke many precedents. She initiated weekly press conferences with women reporters, lectured throughout the country, and had her own radio program. Her widely read syndicated newspaper column, My Day, was published daily for many years. Traveling widely, she served as her disabled husband's eyes and ears. Her travels were lengendary and with out president for a First Lady. The cartoonists loved tommake fun, but in a more gentle way than is common in our modern era. One cartoon was completely black except for a miners helmet light with the caption of "It must be Mrs. Roosevelt." She was a major voice in his administration for measures to aid the underprivileged and racial minorities. When the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow black singer Marion Anderson sing at Constitutiin Hall, Mrs. Roosevelt resigned her membership and made possible a stiring performance in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It is often said that Eleanor articulated what should be done and Franklin what could be done. Eleanor made her one venture during 1941 while her husband was president into holding public office herself. She served as codirector of the Office of Civilian Defense. She worked under New Yor Mayor Fiorlla Laguardia. They had many differences. He wanted hardware like fire engines. She wanted to used the OCD to develop people. Many of their differences wound up on her husband's desk--which he dreaded. Elenpr resigned after a few months following Congressional criticism of some of her appointments. During World War II she visited troops in England, the South Pacific, the Caribbean, and on U.S. military bases. There were few major spots that American soldiers went that Mrs. Roosevelt did not follow them. On more than one occasion she visited the families of severly wounded servicemen when she returned home.

Figure 4.--Mrs. Roosevelt is pictured here with daughter Anna and two of herv grandchildren, John Boettiger Jr. and Curtis Roosevelt in 1943. John wears his Eton suit with an Eton collar. The Peter Pan collar was becoming increasingly popular for the younger boys wearing Eton suits.

Later Years

When her husband died on April 12, 1945, the First Lady assumed that her role in American life was esentially over. Nothing could have been furthervfrom the truth. She did not fully appreciate the connection nd affection thatvthe American people had toward thecPresident and herself. She she went on to 17 more years of notable public service, perhaps the most satisfactory of her career. President Truman appointed her a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations (December 1945). As chairman of the Commission on Human Rights she was instrumental in the drafting of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. She resigned from the United Nations after Republican Dwight Eisenhower was elected (1952). She was a strong supporter of the civil rights movement in America during its formative years. And her concern with racial justice only grew after her White House years. She served on the national board of directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Preople (NAACP), the Congress for Racial Equalityb (CORE), and other major civil rights organizations. She developed friendships with many civil rights leaders. She got vinvolved in the aftermath of race riots, chairing some of the investigations. She visited internment facilities. She became a target for segregationist groups. The Ku Klux Klan placed a bounty on her head. She received deathb threats which did not prevent hervfrom making public appeaeances in the South. Like many Americans with liberal orientations, however, she never spoke out strongly against Soviet Communism and its monumental violations of civil rights. While chairing the commsion tasked with drafting the U.N. Universal Declation of Human rights she had been denied a visa to visit the Soviet Union, although she invited the Soviet participants to visit the United States. [E. Roosevelt II] Eleanor Roosevelt travelled to numerous foreign countries. She finally visited the Soviet Union twice, and received Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev at Hyde Park in 1959. Her primary focus was, however, on deteriorating East-West replations, not on Soviet violations of the U.N. Charter on Human Rights that she played such an imoportant role in creating. We note Solzhennitsyn creates a scene in pne of his novels about a throughly fooled Mrs Roosevelt visits the Gulag. She is shone what look like a humane, clean, and safe place for the inmates, but quickly reverts to the oppresive reality the moment she leaves. [Solzhennitsyn, First.] Mrs. Roosevelt was certainly not a Communist sympathizer, despite the appeal of an egalitarian society. She distanced herself from Henry Wallace anbd the left-wing progressive wiung of the Democratic Party which was sympthetic to (anf largely ignorant of) the Soviet Communism. Eleanor supported the embattled President Truman and his get tough with Stalin Cold War policies. She helped found the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) (1947). The ADA was an anti-Communist, independent political lobby within the Democratic Party dedicated to promoting the New Deal legacy of democratic liberalism. Mrs. Roosevelt was reappointed by President John Kennedy (1961). She remained active in Democratic party politics and was a strong supporter of Adlai Stevenson in the presidential campaigns of 1952 and 1956 and at the Democratic convention in 1960. In addition to Democratic politics, she was active with many charitble concerns such as the Wiltwyck School for Boys. In her later years, Mrs. Roosevelt presided over her large family at Val-Kill, her home at Hyde Park. She kept up a voluminous correspondence and a busy social life. "I suppose I should slow down," she said on her 77th birthday. She died the next year in New York City (November 7, 1962). She buried in the rose garden at Hyde Park next to her husband. Her many books include: This Is My Story (1937), This I Remember (1949), and On My Own (1958).


Cook, Blanche W., Eleanor Roosevelt, vol. 1: 1884-1932 (Viking Penguin 1993).

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Font in World War II (Simon & Schustr: New York, 1994), 759p.

Lash, Joseph P.Eleanor: The Years Alone (Norton 1972).

Rooevelt II, Elenor. "The Declaration of Human Rights", July 31, 2008. The author here is Mrs. Rooevelt's niece.

Solzhennitsyn, Aleksandr I. The First Circle. This is a novel. We are not sure if there was any factual basis for this scene. Solzhenitsyn does not repeat it in Gulag, although he is very critical of Churchill and Roosevelt for both good and unrelistic reasons. Turning over Soviet POWs who did not want to be repatriated including men from the Ost units was a terrible violtion of human rights. Expecting the Allies to force Stalin to change his policies in Estrn Europe was both unrealistic and potentially dangerous.


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