THE FIRST of these two books will make the greater stir, although, in time, the second may well become a minor classic in the growing literature of women's relationships. Love, Eleanor, however, will do more to satisfy the apparently insatiable contemporary appetite for revelations about the private lives of great men and women. It is the first of two volumes in which Joseph Lash interprets and arranges the voluminous correspondence of "the writingest lady" of our time. He was asked to do so by Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., who instructed him to "withhold nothing that might bear on the relationship of Eleanor Roosevelt with those closest to her." It was her son's conviction that his mother's letters to any one person had to be judged in the context of those written to other close friends, and that her style of writing should be judged in the framework of what was "conventional and customary" when she was growing up.
All the stories, old and new, of Eleanor Roosevelt's complexities and vulnerabilities are addressed in this volume, and all the rumors sorted out. What kind of daughter, mother, wife, was Eleanor Roosevelt? When did she know, how did she react, to her husband's infidelity? Was the relationship with reporter Lorena Hickok a lesbian one? Did Eleanor have a physical relationship with handsome trooper Earl Miller, her one-time bodyguard? What of the charge made by the FBI and G-2 officials that Lash himself and Mrs. Roosevelt had had an "affair" and were part of a Communist conspiracy? Did the president send him to the Pacific front?
Lash approaches his material as a biographer, rather than an editor, and sees it as his task to "set the scene"--to throw light on Mrs. Roosevelt's relationships by depicting as well as he can her world and time. It is hard for one who shared at least part of that time to know whether he has been successful.
In the 1940s, for example, when I first met Mrs. Roosevelt, she was already a living legend--the widow of a great man, influential in her own right, a woman who had set a new standard of service and engagement for the wives of public men. No woman had ever done more as an advocate of the poor, of workers, the stateless, women, and children everywhere. In the ensuing years she was to become quite literally what she was often called, "First Lady of the World," and, in the words of John F. Kennedy, "a living symbol of world understanding and peace." No woman in history has been so widely known and respected. And no woman in public life has survived more vilification and ridicule.
But she has been dead for 20 years, and we live in a different world. Does dwelling on the anomalies of her private life detract from her achievements and justify her critics? In an era of 15-minute celebrities, of a widespread craving for constant titillation, and of alienation, can Eleanor Roosevelt's capacity for duty, service, work and passionate, affectionate loyalty be understood? Lash has evidently wrestled with the question. "I personally find it difficult to argue that a great woman's inner drives, her life-style, her relationships insofar as they can become disentangled, do not shed light on her achievements," he says in his introduction, and concludes that, in any case, "the letters are there and what are we to make of them?"
The most interesting part in his setting of the scene is his discussion of the Victorian world of Eleanor Roosevelt's youth--a world of "starchy exterior" and "turbulent sentiment" within. In the 19th-century world in which Eleanor Roosevelt began her life "same sex" relationships of intense physical and social intimacy (but not necessarily, or even usually, sexual) were often lifelong.
He reminds the reader of Henry James' The Bostonians and of Carroll Smith-Rosenberg's pioneering research, The Female World of Love and Ritual, which portray an American society in which ardent emotional ties between women were casually accepted. The expression Eleanor Roosevelt gave to her friendships must be considered against that background, and in the context of her own intense need for the affection and approval of which she was deprived. With a small group of close friends, both men and women, "she used expressions of endearment as passionate as those to be found in the Hickok correspondence, equally open to many interpretations, equally suggestive in some cases of a physical relationship." Was the Hickok friendship then a lesbian one? "This is to be doubted . . . but who is to say what 'lesbianism' is?"
Joseph Lash is less detached in refuting the allegations of counter-intelligence that he and the First Lady had an "affair" and were involved in a Communist conspiracy during World War II--charges which came to light during his research via the Freedom of Information Act. The charges are nonsensical, as he proves by revealing the three-way correspondence carried on at the time by himself, his future wife, Mrs. Trude Pratt, and Mrs. Roosevelt, who befriended and mothered them both and was fully privy to their romance. He is justifiably indignant about the spying and "the primitivism" of the FBI and G-2 and at the persistence of the story in the files. (The last person who seems to have looked into it was John Dean!) Whether he was, or was not, shipped overseas with FDR's approval, however, remains somewhat ambiguous and should probably be considered in the framework of the president's difficulties with the American Youth Congress with which Lash was associated--a story told in more detail in the author's other books on the Roosevelts.
"Important as is the refutation of that allegation," says Franklin Roosevelt Jr., "I hope the more compelling story told in the book of my mother's love will not be overshadowed." "She was always there when we needed her," he says of that love. His statement is borne out in Mother and Daughter, the exchange of letters between Eleanor Roosevelt and her daughter over a period of 50 years. Eleanor often confessed that she was awkward and inept in her early years of mothering--too yielding of authority to bossy nurses and a dominating mother-in-law--but these letters show her as a woman who did indeed develop into a mother who was "always there." She seems to have been extraordinarily present to her daughter--present in interest, in support through difficult times, in practical ways and in outpourings of affection. Yet Anna, according to Bernard Asbell who knew her, never felt secure in her mother's love. Perhaps nothing could undo the beginnings.
Given Mrs. Roosevelt's feeling for her only daughter as revealed in these letters, it is easier to understand her hurt at Anna's preference for her father, and her true anguish when she learned that Anna had acted as hostess to Lucy Mercer Rutherford, the woman who had displaced her in her husband's affections. As for Anna--it was the theory of her third husband, Dr. James Halsted, that "after a life of never quite feeling her mother reachable and touchable," she sensed herself after her mother's death "as occupying her mother's space, at last being in touch with her, becoming her."
These letters do, as Asbell says, answer the question, "What was it like, everyday to be a Roosevelt?"