“How Eleanor R…

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“How Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) Became First Lady of the World,” by Betty and Franklin Parker, bfparker@frontiernet.net  Dialogue Given 14 April 2012, Cumberland Mountain Park, Crossville, TN, to the Eleanor Roosevelt Society Fund Raiser.

Frank:  Greetings to Eleanor Roosevelt Society members and guests.  I am Franklin Parker, Introducer and Questioner for this 15 minute dialogue on “How Eleanor Roosevelt Became First Lady of the World.”

Betty: I am Betty Parker wearing my Eleanor Roosevelt dress and hat, telling you from best sources intimate facts on how a nervous, shy, troubled rich girl, orphaned at age 10, became to many historians the greatest American woman of the twentieth century.

Frank:  Eleanor had 6 pregnancies in 10 years (one baby boy died), 1 girl, 4 sons, while encouraging FDR’s presidential ambitions.  She helped him rise from New York State Senator (1910-13), to Assistant Secretary U.S. Navy (1913-20, including WW I), to a failed run as Democratic Vice President (1920).  She saw him stricken with polio (August 1921), nursed him, defied his possessive mother, Sara Roosevelt’s pressuret for FDR to retire as invalid manager of her Hyde Park estate.

B as Eleanor:  During the 7 years he struggled unsuccessfully to walk (1921-28), FDR’s political advisor Louie Howe (1871-1936), Albany, NY, newsman remade me into FDR’s surrogate, taught me to speak, write, to keep FDR’s name alive, to lead Democratic women just as they won the vote (1920), to make women politically influential. 

Frank:  In 1924, NYC’s Catholic politician Al Smith (1873-1944), anxious to be nominated the Democratic presidential candidate, wanted respected Protestant FDR to nominate him.

B as Eleanor:  FDR advisor Louie Howe seized the moment, had FDR carried unseen into mammoth Madison Square Garden.   With limp legs steel-braced and leather-strapped, using a cane, gripping son James’s arm, FDR shuffled forward to grip the sturdy lectern.

Frank:  Flashing his broad smile, FDR gave a rip-roaring nomination speech, radio broadcasted nationally, ending with a ringing: “And so I give you the next President of the United States, Alfred E. Smith, the Happy Political Warrior.”  Result: while Al Smith lost the 1924 presidential nomination, FDR won national attention.   FDR, not Al Smith, was the Happy Warrior. back into the political arena.

B as Eleanor:  Four years later, 1928, Al Smith, as the Democratic presidential nominee, facing Herbert Hoover, insisted that FDR run for NY State Governor.  

Frank:  1928, recall, was a Republican year.  Al Smith lost to Herbert Hoover.  But thanks to Louie Howe’s maneuvering FDR won as 2-term NY State Governor  (1929-32).   When Depression joblessness reached 25%, FDR’s NY State-funded, job-creating, building bonanza of roads, canals, dams, bridges, cheap public electricity, reforestation made him the leading national anti-Depression politician.

B as Eleanor: Thus did Louie Howe, with my help, positioned FDR for the White House.  FDR’s later presidential New Deal programs and fireside chats came from his NY State experience. 

Frank:  Time now for Eleanor to tell how she rose from a troubled ugly ducking orphan rich girl to the greatest First Lady in U.S. history

B as Eleanor:  My beautiful MaMa married dashing Elliott Roosevelt (1860-94), Uncle Teddy Roosevelt’s younger brother.  MaMa, ashamed of my plain looks, protruding front teeth, receding chin, publicly called me “Granny.” I felt ugly, afraid, unloved.  Something was wrong with PaPa, often absent, who, when home, hugged and loved me.  I adored him.

Frank:  What did you think when you pieced together family whispers?

B as Eleanor:  MaMa’a coldness to me, her early death, age 29, I was 8, I saw as aggravated by PaPa’s drinking, drug use, extra-marital affairs.  ¶PaPa’s “nervous condition,” I later realized, probably undiagnosed-untreated epilepsy, he relieved with excessive drink and drugs.

Frank: How did your troubled parents affect your later life?

B as Eleanor:  MaMa was pleased when I rubbed her migraine-pained forehead. I learned that if I wanted to be loved, I had to be useful.  ¶From PaPa’s unfulfilled promises I learned to expect disappointments.  I saw their lives as cries for help.  Their suffering made me want to be useful, to help others in need.

Frank:  Orphaned at 10, you lived with stern GrandMaMa Hall’s (1863-92) troubled family. 

B as Eleanor:  My Aunty Bye Roosevelt saved me, had me sent to England to Mlle. Marie Souvestre’s (1830-1905) Allenswood school.  Those happy 3 years changed my life. 

Frank:  What did you learn at Allenswood?  What was special about headmistress Mlle. Souvestre?

B as Eleanor:  Only French was spoken.  My French nurse had taught me to speak and think in French.  I fitted in.  Mlle. Souvestre awakened in me the need for social service.  She took me on trips to France, Switzerland, Italy; let me travel unchaperoned to historic places, gave me confidence.  I kept her picture on my dressing table all my life.

Frank:  Back in NYC.  Tell of your social work, courtship, marriage.

B as Eleanor:  I felt useful teaching disadvantaged girls at a NYC slum settlement house.  Riding the train up the Hudson Valley FDR and I accidentally met, renewed our childhood acquaintance.  FDR invited me to Hyde Park, to Campobello, where I visited with my maid as chaperone.

Frank:  FDR found in you his ideal mate, serious, concerned, unlike his other frivolous girl friends.  Being President Teddy Roosevelt’s niece helped.  FDR proposed, you accepted.  How did you get along with possessive mother-in-law MaMa Sara?

B as Eleanor:  She dominated our early married life.   Our children, when I corrected them, ran to Grand MaMa, who gave in to their every whim.  I was stifled,  lost my self confidence.

Frank:  How did you regain your confidence?

B as Eleanor: Ever-perceptive advisor Louie Howe showed me how to help FDR’s career, how to increase women’s political awareness.  From 1920 onward I followed his suggestions, learned from him how to speak, write, and serve.

Frank:  What women’s organizations made you an activist?

B as Eleanor:  League of Women Voters, Women’s Division of the NY State Democratic Committee, Consumers League, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. 

Frank: In chairing the National Democratic Women’s Platform Committee (1924), you advanced women’s political influence.   After FDR’sNovember 1932 election what role did you see for yourself as First Lady?

B as Eleanor: I was 49, determined to continue active public service, to advance goals Franklin and I shared.  ¶ He needed me to be his legs, eyes, ears.  I was always on the go, telling him things he needed to know.

Frank:  Biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin listed your many firsts as First Lady: first to hold regular press conferences, first to write a syndicated “My Day” newspaper column, first to give sponsored radio broadcasts, first on a lecture circuit, first to testify before congressional committees on needed reforms, first to urge FDR to create the G.I. Bill.  Comment, please comment.

B as Eleanor:  I started press conferences for women reporters because I wanted more women reporters hired, equally paid and  respected with men.  Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok (1893-1968) gave me the idea and became my intimate friend.  Louie Howe helped me plan the news conference.15

Frank: You helped put many qualified women into top positions, including Frances Perkins (1882-1965), the first woman cabinet officer in U.S. history.  Perkins created the 1935 Social Security Act. 

B as Eleanor:  Frances Perkins was FDR’s chief cabinet ally throughout his 12 year presidency.

Frank:  Why did you initiate the 1935 National Youth Administration (NYA)?

B as Eleanor: I wanted work-study funds for 18 to 25 year olds.  The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) took care of many 25-plus year old jobless.

Frank:  You urged African American rights, hosted White House African American leaders, urged anti-lynching legislation which congressional committees chaired by Southerners always blocked.

B as Eleanor:  African American singer Marian Anderson (1902-93) was denied to sing at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall.  I publicly resigned my DAR membership.  I helped her to sing instead on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. 

Frank:  You started the Homesteads movement, first in Arthurdale, W.VA.; the second here in Crossville, TN, and visited both.  ¶What disappointed you most as First Lady?

B as Eleanor:  I was disappointed that Social Security  omitted self employed farm workers and others not on a payroll; disappointed that universal health care failed to be passed; disappointed that the State Department blocked admission of Jewish refugees, especially children; disappointed over hysteria-induced internment of innocent Japanese Americans. 

Frank: Characterize your relationship with FDR.

B as Eleanor:  I was the irritating liberal spur under his political saddle.  I pushed him to advance human rights.   I was the liberal conscience he needed, to fuel his political power to do good. 

Frank:  After FDR’s April 12, 1945, death, you thought your political life was over.  Why did Pres. Harry S Truman ask you to be a U.S. delegate to the United Nations?

B as Eleanor:  He wanted me at the U.N. to help fulfill FDR’s dream for a peaceful world.  I felt inadequate but urged by my family, I reluctantly accepted.

Frank:  Powerful, influential men in the U.N., fearing your activism might upstage them, put you on a U.N. Refugee Committee, thinking you would cause the least trouble there. 

B as Eleanor:  How wrong they were.  Homeless, stateless WW II refugees, fearing persecution if returned to their former homelands, became a major U.N. and world problem.  Our U.N. Refugee Committee became the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.  Pushed into the chairmanship, I saw the enormity of the refugee problem, saw ahead that new independent nations would arise from former European colonies in Africa, Asia, and need specific human rights recorded for our time, a new Magna Carta.

Frank:  What were your greatest challenges?

B as Eleanor:  Our  18 member U.N. committee came from countries with different languages, histories, traditions, values; different socio-economic political structures. We argued, disputed endlessly.  Consensus required patience, tact, sometimes blunt talk.  It was US-USSR Cold War time.  Powerful Russian leader Andrey Vyshinsky (1883-1954) shouted at me relentlessly: The State must set human rights.  I calmly answered: Human rights unencumbered by political ideology must be universal, worldwide,.

Frank:  When did the Commission finish its draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Eleanor:  Fall 1947 I pressed for day and evening meetings to finish the draft Declaration before Christmas 1947.  The UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 unanimously, without dissention. Andrey Vyshinsky shook my hand, embraced me.  I want it to be remembered above all for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Frank:  Eleanor,  give us some parting words.

B as Eleanor:  FDR expected me to goad him, kept a basket beside his bed for my notes, wanted me to be the conscience that fueled his political power to do good.  ¶Family connections, 5 children, 31 grandchildren, 40 years of marriage tied us together.  ¶He cheated on me you know.  But when our 3rd-born died in infancy, when my only surviving brother died, FDR hugged me.  There were affectionate moments.  Deep down we needed and loved each other.

Frank:  Eleanor, rest well next to FDR.  ¶We thank you for being here, thank Amy for inviting us, thank Jean Clark for her Chronicle article which got us here. All honor to the Eleanor Roosevelt Society.   End.

For other articles by the authors:

Under subject in google.com, or bing.com, or any other search engine type and click on:  Franklin Parker, or Franklin and Betty J. Parker, or bfparker, or bandfparker, or bfparker@frontiernet.net


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