First Ladies: Anna Eleanor Roosevelt

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Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt is one of the best known, but controversial First Ladies we’ve had. She was outspoken, independently minded and was regarded at the time of her death as “one of the most esteemed women in the world”.

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884 in New York City. Her parents were Elliot Bulloch and Anna Rebecca Hall Roosevelt. Her father, Elliot, was the brother of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Eleanor had two brothers and a half brother.

On December 7, 1892, both her mother and brother, Elliott, Jr. died from diphtheria. Her father became an alcoholic and was confirmed to a sanatorium before dying on August 14, 1894. She acted as a mother to her younger brother, Hall Roosevelt.

With the deaths of her parents, she lived with her paternal grandmother. She often considered herself an “ugly duckling” and described her childhood as “insecure and starved for affection”.

Eleanor Roosevelt

She was tutored privately before attending a finishing school in London, England. She made her society debut in New York in the December of 1902, which she stated she was miserable during because she did not know anyone anymore.

She became active in the New York Junior League and taught dancing.

In 1902, she encountered her fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on a train in Tivolii, New York and the two began a secret correspondence. Franklin’s mother, Sara, was opposed to their relationship.

The wedding date was set to accommodate President Theodore Roosevelt, who agreed to give the bride away. The couple were married on March 17, 1905.

The couple settled at Hyde Park in New York, a home owned by Franklin’s mother. Eleanor said she never felt as if the home belonged to her. Sara sought control of both the household and her grandchildren.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor and Franklin had six children. Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on May 3, 1906, James Roosevelt II was born on December 23, 1907, Franklin Roosevelt was born on March 18, 1909 and died on November 1, 1909 from a heart murmur. His death was very difficult on both of his parents. Elliott Roosevelt was born on September 23, 1910, Franklin Deleano Roosevelt, Jr was born on August 17, 1914 and John Aspinwall Roosevelt II was born on March 13, 1916.

“Eleanor disliked sex with her husband. She once told her daughter Anna that it was an “ordeal to be borne”. She also considered herself ill-suited to motherhood, later writing, “It did not come naturally to me to understand little children or to enjoy them.””


Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor’s eldest son James remembered Sara telling her grandchildren, “Your mother only bore you, I am more your mother than your mother is.”

In 1918, while unpacking her husband’s suitcase, Eleanor discovered a bundle of love letters to him from her social secretary, Lucy Mercer.

Her mother-in-law provided her much needed support and the two are said to grow close. Sara threatened to disown her son if he divorced his wife. After this the union became a political partnership. After all, Franklin’s mentor explained that divorce would “put an end to his political career”.

The family constructed a cottage at Hyde Park named Val-Kill, where Eleanor would move into and live. For the oppressed wife, this had to be a liberating series of events. She had three friends that often stayed with her at Val-Kill, Nancy Cook, Marion Dickerman, and Caroline O’Day.

While on vacation in Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada in 1921, Franklin was diagnosed with polio. Eleanor took care of her husband during his ordeal. “Later, Joseph P. Lash noted that Franklin’s attending physician, Dr. William Keen, had commended Eleanor’s devotion to the stricken Franklin during the time of his travail with his paralytic illness. “You have been a rare wife and have borne your heavy burden most bravely,” he said, proclaiming her “one of my heroines”.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

In 1924, she campaigned for the democratic nominee against her first cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. Neither her cousin nor is mother, Edith Roosevelt, ever forgave her.

Eleanor began to campaign for her husband and build political alliances. She was finding her own voice and power and took up causes important to her. She began making speeches and standing in for her husband when he was unable to make an event.

While Franklin was Governor of New York, Eleanor traveled widely throughout the state and reported her findings to her husband.

In 1930, Eleanor is said to begin a close relationship with the legendary pilot Amelia Earhart.

Eleanor also had several close friendships with a variety of men and women throughout her lifetime and maintained close daily correspondence with several of them. Eleanor Roosevelt’s relationship with her friends has been a subject of dispute among historians.

On March 4, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt became President and Eleanor was First Lady. She is said to have been depressed at having to assume the role. She’d met each First Lady that had served during the 20th Century. She set out to re-define the position, which lead to much of her controversy.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Lorena Hickok conducted the first official interview Eleanor gave as First Lady.

Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a daily newspaper column that was widely syndicated titled “My Day” about her day as a presidential spouse. She also hosted a weekly radio show and wrote a monthly magazine column. She maintained a heavy travel schedule and became well known for her speeches which soon earned her $1,000 a speech.

In early 1933, in protest by WWI Veterans, ” First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the veterans at their muddy campsite, listening to their concerns and singing army songs with them.” Later that year she visited homeless miners and their families in Morgantown, West Virginia and helped fund raising efforts to build them a community.

By the end of Franklin’s first year in office, Eleanor earned as much as her husband, but gave the majority of it to charity.

Her resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1939 after the organization refused to let Marian Anderson sing at Constitution Hall because of her color set the early tone for the civil rights movement.

While Franklin was president, Eleanor became estranged from her daughter, Anna, who often served in the social duties of the White House.

Eleanor Roosevelt

“As an unprecedentedly outspoken First Lady, Roosevelt made far more use of the media than her predecessors had, holding 348 press conferences over the span of her husband’s 12-year presidency.”

Her mother-in-law, Sarah Roosevelt, died on September 7, 1941. Less than three weeks later, her brother and only living full sibling, Hall Roosevelt, died. {She did have a half-brother still living}.

Eleanor Franklin was very active on the home front during World War II. She also toured England, visiting American troops and inspecting the British forces.

Shortly before Franklin’s death, Eleanor wanted to accompany him to Yalta, but he chose their daughter, Anna. This only increased the tension.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945 in Warm Springs, Georgia. Eleanor later learned that his mistress, Lucy Mercer Rutherford, had been there when he died. Her daughter, Anna, helped to make arrangements, which only increased the wedge between mother and daughter.

Eleanor Roosevelt

” In instructions left for Eleanor in the event of his death, Franklin proposed turning over Hyde Park to the federal government as a museum, and she spent the following months cataloging the estate and arranging the transfer.” The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum opened on April 12, 1946, setting a precedent for future presidential libraries.

After her husbands death, she moved into an apartment in New York City.

“In December 1945, President Harry S. Truman appointed Eleanor as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. In April 1946, she became the first chairperson of the preliminary United Nations Commission on Human Rights.” This was an unprecedented move. Roosevelt also served as the first United States Representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and stayed on at that position until 1953, even after stepping down as chair of the Commission in 1951.The UN posthumously awarded her one of its first Human Rights Prizes in 1968 in recognition of her work.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor remained active in pursuing social groups and speaking out politically. She was approached about running for office on more than one occasion but refused.

By the 1950s, she was an international spoke person for women. She received numerous notable awards and was voted the most admired living woman from 1948-1961.

Their son, Elliot, published a book about his parents relationship and his father’s affairs.

At some point after her father’s death, Anna Roosevelt reconciled with her mother.

President Kennedy reappointed Eleanor Roosevelt to the United Nations in 1961 and the National Advisory Committee of the Peace Corps.

In April 1961, she was struck by a car in New York City and diagnosed with aplastic anemia. Her daughter, Anna, cared for her when she became terminally ill in 1962.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt died on November 7, 1962 at the age of 78. President John F. Kennedy ordered all United States flags lowered to half-staff throughout the world on November 8 in tribute to Roosevelt.

She was buried beside her husband at their home at Springwood.

At the services, Adlai Stevenson II said: “What other single human being has touched and transformed the existence of so many?”, adding, “She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world.”

In 1973, she was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. A monument was dedicated to her in New York’s Riverside Park in 1996.

Eleanor Roosevelt will be remembered for as a spokesperson and advocate for the underprivileged and one of the most outspoken First Ladies.


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