The first volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s fat, stately, fact-packed biography of Eleanor Roosevelt arrives not a moment too soon: It shows up just as the less fortified citizens among us, dazed by too much Nightline, may actually have begun to believe that Hillary Clinton’s oft-reported choices in hairdos and employment and her oft-repeated opinions on cookie baking and Tammy Wynette signify a feminist leap forward for the ranks of political wives.
Reading Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume One 1884-1933, which covers the years from her birth in 1884 to her first term as First Lady in FDR’s White House in 1933, puts such sound bites in perspective. ER was, of course, fortunate to live in an age when the private lives of public people were considered…private. But one suspects that even if Barbara Walters showed up at ER’s beloved Val-Kill cottage on the Hudson River in New Hyde Park, N.Y., the foremost First Lady would make graciously clear that she was not one to comment on life; she’d rather live it — touring the country as her husband’s ”eyes and ears,” devoting herself to child welfare, slum clearance, and equal rights, writing a syndicated newspaper column, serving as a UN delegate — and, in the process, becoming the most influential woman in American history.
The wonder is that ER escaped the privileged hell of her late-19th-century childhood into any kind of life at all. Her father (the younger brother of Theodore Roosevelt) was a shambling mass of woes, a womanizer, an alcoholic on whose affections Eleanor could never rely, much as she adored him. Her mother, who died when ER was 8, was a self-indulgent woman depressed by her husband’s neglect and dissatisfied with the appearance of her oldest child. (”You have no looks, so see to it that you have manners,” she once told the girl.) Fortunately, Eleanor learned to become her own person at Allenswood, the progressive London finishing school she attended between the ages of 15 and 18, and especially through her formative friendship with Marie Souvestre, the school’s headmistress. The long-standing bond between pupil and teacher became the first of a number of loving relationships Eleanor maintained with feminist women throughout her life.
Cook, a professor at John Jay College in New York City, is no stylist; her prose is stolid, academic, serviceable. But her research is rich, and her description of ER’s courtship and marriage to her cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt is especially sensitive. Cook provides perspective on the affair FDR conducted with ER’s social secretary, Lucy Mercer, while he was assistant secretary of the Navy — a betrayal that nearly wrecked the marriage. And she’s moving on the subject of ER’s involvement in her husband’s care after he contracted polio in 1921. ”Their lifelong union, for so long in disarray, was refortified,” Cook writes.
Best of all, the historian supplies important details about the world ER created with the lesbian friends who formed her circle of intimates — dynamic women like Elizabeth Read and Esther Lape, from whom she learned about political activism; or Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook, with whom she built Val-Kill; and, especially, Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok, with whom Eleanor had a deep and long-lasting love affair.
Maybe because there were no investigative journalists at her heels throughout her long and monumental life (she died in 1962), it’s easier to think of Eleanor Roosevelt as just that — a monument — than as a real woman of passions. This biography gives the extraordinary First Lady flesh. In turn, it might even help voters locate the soul beneath the sound bite the next time Hillary Clinton is trotted out to stand by her man.