By David Michaelis
Eleanor Roosevelt was the most important first lady in American history. Or at least until Hillary Clinton. But when Hillary was in the White House she claimed she was communing with Eleanor’s spirit, looking for inspiration.
Eleanor came from an important family — Uncle Theodore, after all, was president. But her upbringing was so grim that it’s a wonder she emerged functional, let alone one of our nation’s great humanitarians. Her haughty mother humiliated her by calling her “Granny.” Her alcoholic father was the beloved parent, but hardly someone you could count on in a pinch. Once she reached adolescence, Eleanor was installing triple locks on her bedroom door “to keep my uncles out.”
She compensated for feelings of unattractiveness and rejection with good works. As she grew to adulthood, Eleanor threw herself into the settlement house movement to serve the poor. Her boyfriend Franklin was impressed — and a little shocked — by her activities. He announced after she took him on a tour of tenement life on the Lower East Side: “My God, I didn’t know people lived like that.”
Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt were distant cousins in a family that would probably not have chosen Franklin as most likely to succeed. The joke was that “F.D.R.” stood for “Feather Duster Roosevelt.” But he had grand ambitions, and David Michaelis, the author of biographies of Charles Schulz and N. C. Wyeth, suggests he “was wise enough to know (as only a boy named ‘Feather Duster’ knows) that if his will to power was to be taken seriously, he needed a woman of urgency by his side.”
Michaelis’s “Eleanor” is the first major single-volume biography in more than half a century, and a terrific resource for people who aren’t ready to tackle Blanche Wiesen Cook’s heroic three-volume work. At more than 700 pages it’s hardly a quick read, but it’s a great resource for people who don’t know a whole lot about her.