Volume Two: 1933-1938

By Blanche Weisen Cook

Viking. 686 pp. $34.95

Reviewed by T.H. Watkins

On Nov. 22, 1938, Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, held a one-person sit-in at a conference on human welfare in Birmingham, Ala. When a policeman tapped her on the shoulder and told her that she had to move from the black side of the auditorium and sit with the white folks on the other side, she picked up her chair, carried it to the middle of the center aisle, and sat down. The president's wife, it was clear, would not be segregated, not even in Police Chief Eugene ("Bull") Connors's town.

The gesture was entirely typical of one of the most fascinating, admirable and maddeningly elusive women of the 20th century. It is not going too far to say that Eleanor Roosevelt was worshiped in her time (when not being reviled) and has been venerated since (when not being denigrated), and, as with all such figures in history, her memory has been layered with so much myth and misinterpretation that any attempt to discover the real woman is a daunting task. It looks as if Blanche Weisen Cook has decided that it is going to take four volumes for her to do it. She may well succeed.

Cook's first volume, published in 1992, took ER's story from her birth in 1884 to FDR's first inaugural in March 1933. It was a tale of endurance and psychic redemption, as she rose, Cinderella-like, from bleak orphanhood to stand in marriage at the side of one of the most charismatic men in American political life. Five children later, her marriage was nearly destroyed (and FDR's political career with it) when she discovered his affair with his secretary, Lucy Page Mercer. FDR refused ER's offer of divorce, and slowly they rebuilt their life together into what Cook described as a mutually supportive -- though frequently conflicted -- partnership that the biographer refused to concede was thenceforth sexually barren, as many concluded. Indeed, Cook spent a good part of the book countering the popularly held notion that ER was sexually dysfunctional, citing especially the passionate intensity of her feelings for her longtime bodyguard Earl Miller and for Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok. The relationship with Miller, Cook maintained, may or may not have been sexual; that with Hickok almost certainly was. In either case, Cook said, in effect, good for Eleanor.

Just as prominent a subject in that first volume, however, was ER's triumph over depression and terrible insecurity to become a viable social and political being, and it is that self-invented public woman who makes the second volume of Cook's ongoing biography such a valuable addition to the literature of the New Deal. Digging through masses of primary materials with a tenacity that rivals her subject's own reputation for hard work, Cook gives us in this sprawling, ambitious, sometimes cluttered but irresistibly readable book an authoritative portrait of ER as determined activist and inspired meddler, a woman of demonic energy, often crafty political instincts, and stubborn dedication to the goals of New Deal liberalism: the end of child labor, consumer protection, welfare programs, restraints on corporate excess, conservation, affordable housing, equal opportunities for women, health insurance, social security, union labor, and an end to racial discrimination.

She spoke out incessantly in public and wrote books, articles and "My Day," a column that ran in hundreds of newspapers. She built alliances diligently, manipulated bureaucrats and politicians artfully, pestered her husband privately and in company, became an official and unofficial adviser on legislation, scolded and cajoled the brilliant, hardworking drones of the New Deal, and even became something of a bureaucrat herself, as when she helped to create the planned village of Arthurdale, W. Va., a model for how small-town America could hope to live.

Arthurdale, at best, was a limited success (among other things, it excluded blacks), but perhaps ER's noblest crusade was that against lynching, and while political realities ultimately made anti-lynching legislation impossible for FDR to endorse or for a still-racist Congress to pass, his wife's sublime struggle, in alliance with the NAACP and other groups, is given the full-scale treatment it deserves. There was of course, one enormous failing in ER's public life, and Cook addresses it with painful honesty. Like everyone else in the government between 1933 and 1938, ER never spoke out -- even in her private correspondence -- against Adolf Hitler's increasingly vicious treatment of Jews in Germany, although she, like the rest of the administration, had plenty of evidence as early as the end of 1933. While Cook notes various foreign policy and domestic political concerns as the probable reasons, she refuses to let Mrs. Roosevelt off the hook: "History will always be haunted by ER's reverberating silence on the subject, since on virtually all others ER was adamant. Silence is the ultimate collusion."

Silence -- or at least a little more restraint -- with regard to another subject might have strengthened the book. ER's love affair with Lorena Hickok, introduced in the first volume of the biography, here becomes a persistent and sometimes distracting subtext, as Cook uses correspondence and other evidence to trace in exquisite detail the ups and downs of the relationship as it evolved from the white heat of initial passion to one increasingly constrained by the exigencies of ER's position and her growing commitment to a world outside herself. It is all fascinating stuff, certainly, and it does help give ER's complex personality depth and definition, but in the end there is just too much of it.

That said, Cook's portrait of a woman in the thick of things during the hardest of hard times likely will stand as definitive. If much of what ER and the rest of the New Dealers accomplished fell far short of their often bloated expectations, it was, at least, a magnificent failure -- and to the extent that some residue of that original purpose still lurks in our government, however battered it may be by the winds of expedience and unenlightened self-interest, by just so much can the nation continue to lay claim to greatness.

T.H. Watkins, who has written biographies of Harold L. Ickes and John Muir, is Stegner Professor at Montana State University and author of the forthcoming "The Hungry Years: America in an Age of Crisis, 1929-1939."

CAPTION: Eleanor Roosevelt, ca. 1936