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Mollie D. Somerville, 102

Mollie D. Somerville; White House Aide Wrote Memoir of Eleanor Roosevelt

Mollie D. Somerville waited until she was almost 90 to write about her memories of life with Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Mollie D. Somerville waited until she was almost 90 to write about her memories of life with Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt. (By Sylvia Bal Somerville)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 24, 2009

Mollie D. Somerville, who got her start as a writer and researcher working for Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House, died July 7 of congestive heart failure at Arleigh Burke Pavilion in McLean. She was 102.

"Perhaps I am the only one still alive who, as an adult, worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt," she wrote in her 1996 memoir, "Eleanor Roosevelt As I Knew Her" (1996). "Many people have written about Eleanor Roosevelt, yet few knew her personally or were part of the times in which she lived. Often she is judged unfairly by today's standards."

Rife with personal remembrances and anecdotes, and steering clear of rumors, the book addressed the inner workings of the White House from 1932 through 1941, when Mrs. Somerville resigned because of the birth of her first child. She wrote numerous books and magazine articles but waited until she was almost 90 years old to put her remembrances of Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt to paper.

"She didn't want to do a kiss-and-tell," said her son, Richard C. J. Somerville of Carlsbad, Calif. "I think she wanted to wait until everyone had passed on. She wanted to write a pleasant, lofty book about her life at the White House. She didn't want to turn it into anything tawdry."

Reserved, proper and self-contained, Mrs. Somerville traveled with the Roosevelts, stayed at their homes in New York and took tea with them. She held both Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt in high esteem.

"Some writers have suggested that Mrs. Roosevelt had sexual relationships outside of her marriage," Mrs. Somerville wrote in an "author's statement" at the beginning of her book. "I do not believe she did. Such liaisons would have been completely out of character for her. Eleanor Roosevelt was the same person in private as she was in public."

About President Roosevelt's extramarital affair with Lucy Mercer, Mrs. Somerville wrote that she learned about it only years later, when the story surfaced in print.

"Mrs. Roosevelt never spoke publicly about deeply personal matters; if she had been asked about the affair, for instance, she would have pretended not to hear the question," Mrs. Somerville wrote.

She was born Mollie Dorf on May 25, 1907, in New York City. She grew up in the Catskill Mountain town of Hunter, N.Y. She attended Columbia University and began working for an architect who designed a home for the Roosevelts' daughter, Anna, and her first husband.

The Depression cost her that job in early 1932, but Anna Roosevelt alerted her mother, and Mrs. Somerville was hired to work on Franklin Roosevelt's presidential campaign. After the election, she accompanied the family to Washington and became a member of Eleanor Roosevelt's staff.

Working from a converted dressing room in the White House residence, Mrs. Somerville handled correspondence, bought birthday gifts with the family's private charge card and did research for the first lady's journalism. She toured the Washington area for Eleanor Roosevelt's children's book "A Trip to Washington with Betty and Bobby" (1935), noting proudly that her work became the third chapter and that the first lady used her notes for other chapters.

She married while working in Washington. After leaving the White House, she continued to do research and to write, anonymously penning two books for trade associations in 1959 and 1960.

Her marriage to James William Somerville ended in divorce, and to provide for her children, she went to work for the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. As the daughter of European Jewish immigrants, she herself was ineligible to join the DAR. She also was a former employee of the woman who famously resigned from the organization after opera singer Marian Anderson was refused the right to sing at its Constitution Hall, an incident she recounts in her book.

Mrs. Somerville wrote a book commemorating the DAR's 75th anniversary in 1965 and after 100,000 copies of "In Washington -- the Story of the DAR" sold out, she wrote another, "Washington Landmark" (1976). Her third book on the organization, "Pillars of Patriotism," was published in 1985. She contributed to every issue of the DAR's monthly magazine during her 23 years there.

She also wrote a history of Alexandria, "Washington Walked Here" (1970) and "A Guide to the Washington D.C. Streets Named for the 50 States" (2001). She did research for others on the history of the George Mason family and wrote articles on Chief Justice John Marshall and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse. Mrs. Somerville was at work on a book about the Statue of Liberty when she died.

In addition to her son, survivors include a daughter, Margaret Ann Somerville of McLean; and two grandsons.

Toward the end of the Clinton administration, Mrs. Somerville contacted the office of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was known to have an affection for Eleanor Roosevelt. Clinton invited her to the White House for a private tour, which Mrs. Somerville accepted. On that trip, her daughter said, an elevator operator whose father and grandfather had worked in the White House introduced himself and marveled at her memories. It was the first time she had been back since the day she left in 1941.

"I think she wanted to cherish it in her mind as it had been," her son said. "Working there had been a highlight of her life."

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