Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt, was the first lady of the United States from 1933-1945. That makes her the longest-serving First Lady in U.S. history, serving three terms. She lived through the Great Depression, saw Pearl Harbor destroyed, and most of Europe left in ruin through Hitler’s endless march during WWII.
She was an advocate for social justice and an early progressive in a largely conservative country. She pushed for the New Deal, often pushing further and faster than her husband reasonably could thanks to stalwarts in the Congress. Even after her husband’s death in 1945, she would later serve on the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women under Kennedy and as U.S. Delegate to the United Nations (an organization started by her husband) under Truman.
Despite her amazing work and career, it strikes me that Eleanor Roosevelt lived a shitty, shitty life. Or more specifically, lived through tragedy.
She was born of a beautiful mother, but she herself struggled with her appearance. She often acknowledged how unattractive she felt.
In 1903 when she was still in her teens, she met Franklin and their courtship began. In late 1904 she became engaged. According to letters sent between them, they seemed to have a storybook love life. However, her mother opposed the marriage. But that was a moot point as her mother soon died of dyptheria. Her father, an angry drunk, had died years earlier. Her younger brother and sister had died in childhood years earlier, too. In March 1905, Eleanor Roosevelt married Franklin D. Roosevelt. They were fifth-cousins once removed.
She had six kids, five of whom survived birth. One, a boy, died post-labor.
As her husband became more and more involved in politics, Eleanor wanted no part of it. First, as he became governor of New York and later the Secretary of the Navy. Then, FDR was diagnosed with infantile paralysis – Polio. Suddenly she was married to a crippled politician.
She stuck by him, jumping into the role of “FDR’s Legs” as people called her. Going places he couldn’t, particularly on the ships and battlefields across the world to inspect the troops. She also went out into the country and mingled with people, as FDR could not. FDR had developed a series of tactics designed to not let people see him as crippled with steel leg braces. He would only acknowledge his paralysis once in his long career, only a year or so before he died.
When FDR wanted to spend almost their entire life savings to build a retreat in Georgia for polio victims, she objected, saying it would never recoup the money, but he did it anyway. It broke even.
In 1918 she discovered that her husband was having a secret affair with Eleanor’s own social secretary, Lucy Mercer. She found out when she discovered love letters in Franklin’s suitcase after he returned from a trip overseas.
Their relationship was all but over, however, FDR persuaded her to stay with him for political reasons. They began living separate lives in separate places and they were never intimate again. Franklin agreed to never see Lucy Mercer again.
Ironically, because of FDR’s paralysis, she would play an integral role in the campaign to get him elected into the White House, a position she didn’t want. She didn’t want to be a First Lady, either. In fact, she loathed the idea, but went along with it anyway and did several campaign stops throughout the election.
In 1926 she got her own cottage and her life independent her husband’s expanded. She lived alone, doing work she didn’t want to do and married to a man she couldn’t trust or love anymore.
Near 1944 as FDR brought the nation through the waning days of WWII, FDR’s daughter arranged visits with his once-lover Lucy Mercer behind Eleanor’s back. On six occasions, FDR spent time with Lucy Mercer, she herself now a married woman, at the White House while Eleanor was away. Her daughter knew the entire time.
When FDR died in 1945, Eleanor discovered her husband was seeing Lucy Mercer again, despite promising not to. She was crushed that her daughter would do such a thing. And now, her husband was dead, too. Eleanor survived another twenty years.
Eleanor is buried at Hyde Park in New York, where her and Franklin spent much of their life. She is buried next to Franklin, a man she couldn’t trust or seemingly love and a man who forced her into doing thing she didn’t want to do.
She lost her mother, father and siblings early in life. She grew up alone with the support of some distant relatives. She got caught up in a career she didn’t care much for, but tried to make the best of it. She married a man she once loved, but who later left her for another woman and then returned and used her for political gain. Her own daughter would later facilitate the affairs again behind her back and she’d be buried next to her loveless husband because she had no where else to go.
I see some parallels between me and her. What a strong woman. What a remarkable yet seemingly harsh, shitty, shitty life.