It’s hard to think of a First Lady who played a more influential role in her lifetime than Eleanor Roosevelt. While her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt became known for his leadership in the Great Depression and World War II, Eleanor earned a glowing reputation for her work in defending human rights and shaping the role of the First Lady into what it is today. Learn more about this great woman by reading the facts below.
1. Swell Season
Eleanor Roosevelt grew up in the lap of luxury alongside the creme de la creme of New York high society. She was from two prominent American families, the Livingstons and the Roosevelts, and their fast-living set was known as “The Swells.”
2. Granny Eleanor
Because of Roosevelt’s serious, grave demeanor as a young child, her nickname growing up was “Granny.” But there might have been a darker motive behind this nickname: her mother Anna was ashamed of how plain her daughter was turning out to be, and she may have given Eleanor the name out of some misplaced spite.
3. What’s in a Name?
Roosevelt’s first name wasn’t actually Eleanor. Her full name is Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, but Roosevelt much preferred her middle name to her first name. She would use it to introduce herself throughout her adult life, and that’s how she’s become known to history.
4. Relations in High Places
Not only was Eleanor a niece to President Theodore Roosevelt, she was also a niece to the highly accomplished brothers Valentine and Edward Hall, tennis players who won the National Eastern Doubles Championships in 1892.
5. Tragedy Upon Tragedy
Sadly, tragedy struck Roosevelt very early in her life. She was just eight when her mother passed away from diphtheria, the same disease that took her younger brother months later. Her father Elliott struggled with alcoholism and tried unsuccessfully to kill himself, dying of a seizure soon after. Roosevelt was subsequently brought up by her grandmother, Mary Livingston Ludlow.
6. Man Hands on Misery to Man
The deaths of Eleanor’s mother and father had an enormous impact on her. She suffered from bouts of depression for the rest of her life, and her surviving brother Hall grew up to become an alcoholic.
7. They Took the Midnight Train Going…to Tivoli
Roosevelt only truly got to know Franklin Roosevelt, her future husband, when they met by chance on a train in 1902. Prior to that, the two had almost never met, even though Franklin was her father’s fifth cousin. From there, they would develop a secret romance through furtive letters.
8. This Won’t Affect Thanksgiving, Will It?
When Eleanor finally married Franklin, she was walked down the aisle by her famous uncle, the current president Theodore Roosevelt. Speaking of Teddy, he would jokingly praise Franklin for “keeping the name in the family” by marrying Eleanor.
9. In Tribute
One of the early role models in Eleanor’s life was Marie Souvestre, the headmistress of the posh private school she attended. Interested in encouraging independent thinking in her students, Souvestre took an interest in Roosevelt. The two women would maintain a communication until Souvestre’s death in 1905, whereupon Roosevelt made sure to always keep a picture of her mentor on her desk.
10. Noble Causes
Even before her husband’s election to the White House, Roosevelt was involved with several public causes. Working with the Women’s Trade Union League, Roosevelt campaigned for a 48-hour work week, an established minimum wage, and a ban on child labor in the United States.
11. Try and Beat That!
Because her husband served four terms as US President, Roosevelt holds a record for being the longest-serving First Lady in US history.
12. Pushing the Issue
During her time as First Lady of the White House, Roosevelt would hold press conferences where only female journalists were welcome. As a result, many news agencies ended up hiring their first female reporters, breaking new ground for women across the US.
Eleanor had six children in her life. Despite the large family, she felt that her mother-in-law Sara Roosevelt domineered over her kids. As she said, “Franklin’s children were more my mother-in-law’s children than they were mine.” Eleanor also wrote that it was an effort for her to “understand little children or to enjoy them.”
14. Is That All It Is?
At the time of Roosevelt’s inauguration as First Lady, the role was understood to be a purely domestic one. In fact, Roosevelt’s predecessor, Lou Henry Hoover, had to abandon her previous activism when her husband became president. Roosevelt, as a result, was very depressed about moving into the White House, to the point that one contemporary writer called her the “Reluctant First Lady.” Thankfully, she would ensure that the role of First Lady went far beyond domestic and hosting duties.
15. More Than Friends?
One of the most important and fascinating relationships that Eleanor had was with Associated Press journalist Lorena Hickock, who covered the future First Lady in the final months of Franklin’s presidential campaign. Eleanor frequently wrote Hickock multi-page letters with contents like “I want to put my arms around you & kiss you at the corner of your mouth.” She even wore a sapphire ring gifted to her by Hickock at Franklin’s inauguration. Historians have puzzled for years about whether or not the two had an explicitly sexual relationship, but the affection was certainly there.
16. Was She a Tough Grader?
In 1927, Roosevelt began teaching part-time at the Todhunter School for Girls, which she purchased with several of her friends. She taught courses in American history and literature for three days a week until Franklin’s election as president.
17. Eleanor and Amelia Forever
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Roosevelt formed a close bond with pioneering pilot Amelia Earhart. In 1933, the duo even snuck out of a White House event in their gala clothes to fly from Washington D.C. to Baltimore together. Roosevelt was devastated when Earhart tragically disappeared while flying around the world, commenting, “I am sure Amelia’s last words were ‘I have no regrets’.”
18. Getting a Head Start
Roosevelt first began writing her autobiography in 1937, fully 25 years before her death. The final version of these writings was eventually titled The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt, and they were published in 1961.
19. I Forgot I Looked So Good Back Then…
In the late 1950s, Broadway witnessed the triumphant play Sunrise at Campodello, which was adapted into a film soon after. Actress Greer Garson portrayed Roosevelt in the film, and Roosevelt herself was fully supportive of the project.
20. Is She Half-Canadian?
According to Roosevelt herself, the happiest day of her life was when she made the field hockey team at her private school.
21. Well, if You Won’t Go, I Will!
When World War II initially broke out in Europe, the United States stayed out of the fighting. However, that didn’t stop Roosevelt from considering a trip to Europe to work with the Red Cross. As the First Lady, however, she was persuaded to give up this idea, as the risk of her getting hurt or captured was considered too great to national security.
22. Hear Me Roar
While Roosevelt was only the second First Lady to speak over the radio, she was the first one to have her own regular radio programs. Roosevelt hosted these programs throughout the 1930s. Just in case anyone accuses her of being self-serving, she also donated her salary for these radio shows to charity.
23. What a Pity
In 2012, Roosevelt was portrayed by Olivia Williams in the film Hyde Park on the Hudson, which also starred Bill Murray as FDR. Sadly, the film was roundly criticized for historical inaccuracies, and was not a critical or commercial success.
24. Mortal Enemies
Roosevelt’s liberal causes, including her staunch support for civil rights, earned her the undying enmity of notorious FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Roosevelt took serious issue with Hoover’s intrusive surveillance tactics, and in turn, Hoover kept quite a large file on Roosevelt.
25. We’re Better Than This, Right?!
Roosevelt was never one to let panic and grief justify prejudice. Even in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, she publicly urged Americans not to target Japanese-Americans out of revenge or any other justification for bigotry.
26. Autumn Love
Roosevelt was assigned bodyguards as First Lady. One of these bodyguards was Earl Miller, who also acted as her impromptu tennis coach, horseback riding instructor, and close friend. Some historians have even speculated that Roosevelt was in love with Miller, though there is no evidence they ever consummated a relationship.
27. Consummate Professional
Aside from all her other responsibilities and personal projects, Roosevelt wrote six weekly opinion pieces as part of a newspaper column titled My Day. She would discuss all sorts of political opinions, as well as address her own personal life. During the nearly three decades she wrote the column, she only missed a single week—when her husband Franklin died in 1945.
28. Alright, That’s Enough
Roosevelt was well-known for her staunch opposition to discrimination based on race in a time when segregation was a socially-accepted institution. Her defiance took Alabama by storm in 1938 when she attended the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in Birmingham.
Roosevelt was informed of the segregated seating arrangement separating white and black attendees. She actually ordered someone to measure out the distance between the white and black seating areas, and then sat down directly in the center of the law-enforced distance, daring anyone to arrest her in this no-man’s land. Nobody did.
29. Know Your Rights
In 1946, Roosevelt was appointed by US President Harry Truman to the United Nations as a delegate, where she became one of the architects behind a little document called the Declaration of Human Rights.
30. Fitting Honor
In honor of Roosevelt’s tireless work for human rights, President Bill Clinton established the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights in 1998.
31. Near Miss
In 1960, Eleanor was struck by a car at the age of 76! Incredibly, this accident did not prove fatal, though it did result in her getting diagnosed with aplastic anemia.
32. In-Law Hell
Despite Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt’s power couple status, the union was wracked with drama and tragedy almost from the beginning. For one, Franklin’s mother Sara was staunchly opposed to the marriage, and didn’t think Eleanor was good enough for her son. She even took Franklin on a vacation to talk him out of going forward with anything. When that didn’t work, she resorted to more desperate measures.
33. Neighborly Love
Sara proved herself a true monster-in-law after the wedding, when she provided a brownstone house in Manhattan to the young couple. Sounds nice, right? Well, she also bought herself the attached building next door, installed adjoining entrances all throughout the houses, and came and went as she pleased. Although Eleanor complained about this behavior to her husband, Franklin wasn’t going to go up against mommy dearest any time soon.
34. Mommy, Can I Go Buy a Defense Budget?
But all that was really just the beginning of Sara’s plotting. In fact, all the way up until she died in 1941, Sara tightly controlled the family finances, including giving Eleanor and Frankie-poo allowances. Yes, this means that while Franklin D. Roosevelt was President of the United States of America, he was still getting pocket change from his mom.
35. Well, This Is Awkward…
In the fall of 1918, Eleanor came upon several love letters between her husband and a woman named Lucy Mercer while unpacking one of Franklin’s suitcases. Mercer was his secretary, and the affair and its discovery shattered the marriage. Franklin even wanted to divorce Eleanor and marry Mercer, but his own mother—of all people—talked him out of it. From then on, the Roosevelt union was strictly professional, with Eleanor focusing on her philanthropic work.
36. Not Much of a Holiday
In 1921, just three years after Eleanor discovered his illicit affairs, Franklin suddenly fell ill while on a family vacation. Disturbingly, it was no mere fever: in addition to a temperature, he also had widespread paralysis, numbness, and incontinence. The Roosevelts were beside themselves with worry.
37. Somebody Call Dr. House
When the doctor finally saw Franklin, he was diagnosed with polio. Most people still think this is the illness that afflicted the President, but the truth is more complicated. Many modern doctors believe Roosevelt’s symptoms are actually more consistent with Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that causes muscle weakness. Whatever the cause, Franklin was paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life.
38. Politician by Proxy
After her husband’s paralytic illness, Eleanor took an active role in his political campaign, a unprecedented move for a politician’s spouse. She travelled around the country and appeared at public events as his representative.
39. The Worst of Times
Despite any affection lost from the discovery of Franklin’s extramarital affairs, Eleanor was tireless in her support when he was diagnosed with a paralytic illness. Even Franklin’s own physician loudly proclaimed his admiration for Eleanor’s help, and it’s long been speculated that she was a chief reason for Franklin’s survival during this difficult time.
40. The Long Goodbye
Of course, Franklin made a great recovery, and went on to accomplish nothing less than the Presidency after his 1921 illness, but the Roosevelts still made it a habit to downplay many of his medical issues while he was in office—until on April 12, 1945, he complained of a “terrific headache,” slumped over, and died of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was mourned by an entire nation.
41. Fan Fiction?
Roosevelt’s son Elliott co-wrote numerous books about his parents’ lives, including the highly controversial The Roosevelts of Hyde Park: An Untold Story. In it, Elliott revealed Eleanor and Franklin’s intimate sexual lives, and spilled the beans on his dad’s affairs not only with Lucy Mercer, but also with secretary Missy LeHand. In Elliot’s view, his mother Eleanor’s “sensibilities were not tuned to sexual attraction of any kind” while in contrast his father was “about the most flirtatious character I had ever known.”
Perhaps more damning, Elliott confesses in the book that the pragmatic Eleanor had little time for the “pursuit of the rainbow that would enable [Franklin] to walk” after his tragic illness, despite Franklin’s hope that one day, maybe, he could use his legs again. The book alienated Elliott from his siblings, who all denounced the tome.
42. Farewell, Great Lady
Eleanor Roosevelt died of cardiac failure on November 7, 1962 at the age of 78. In her final days, her daughter Anna took care of the former First Lady. Like her husband, she was greatly mourned: at her funeral, the political Adlai Stevenson said, “What other single human being has touched and transformed the existence of so many?”
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