The Senate took up the matter of Eleanor Roosevelt's old cottage yesterday, and who do you think was the most persuasive advocate of turning it into a national historic site?
Archie Bunker's wife.
"Bring your sister," she urged in a film shown to the subcommittee, and learn to develop a soul of iron."
The idea of Edith Bunker pumping iron, soul-wise or otherwise, is the sort of insight you get from attending Senate hearings.
Alluding to Shakespeare, Jean Stapleton said she knew people thought of her as Edith Bunker and might wonder what she was doing before the senators.
But as Shakespeare said ("One man in his time plays many parts") an actress can play many parts too and she wanted the world to know she admired Eleanor Roosevelt enormously, loved playing the part of Eleanor in a short film designed to promote the saving of Eleanor's cottage and its 173 acres of land as a public monument to her.
Sen. James Abourezk (D-S.D.) chaired the Subcommittee on Parks and Recreation hearings which had the novelty of dealing with a project nobody seems to oppose.
As Curtis Roosevelt, member of the United Nations Secretariat and grandson of President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, told the subcommittee . "It is the only thing the Roosevelt family has ever agreed on."
After the President's death in 1945, the cottage called Val-Kill, a mile or so from Hyde Park, became Eleanor's only home, except for an apartment in New York. Roosevelt said anybody who ever saw Eleanors room at Hyde Park, sandwiched between his frgrand father's and great-grandmother's bedrooms, could see that Hyde Park "was not her domain."
Instead, he said, it was at Val-Kill, built for her in 1926, that she flowered. After the President's death she received Stevenson, Kennedy, Khrushchev and many other notables at this cottage, and when the world was rough (as it often was for Eleanor Roosevelt) she found comfort in this rural cottage and land full of daffordils and purple loosestrife.
Rhoda Lerman, who wrote the script for the film shown to the senators, with Stapleton had no idea what purple loosestrife was, but Eleanor was found of it.
Stapleton, who looks as much like Eleanor Roosevelt as Jacqueline Kennedy, got a handwritten note from Sen. Pat Monyhihan (D-N.Y.) complimenting her on her brilliant and moving performance. The secret of it, Stapleton thought, was the voice. She got recordings of Eleanor's voice and played them steadily on a cassette for weeks, and the son of the Roosevelts' old driver said he could just see Eleanor when Stapleton spoke.
Sen. Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.) said that quite apart forom the rightness of this memorial ot Eleanor, he had personal reasons for wishing to see her honored. She worked, he said, at a settlement house in New York, where as a youth, "I first learned to take a bath, learned to play basketball."
Ah, said Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) that is another reason to honor Mrs. Roosevelt - she launched Javits on a distinguished career.
"Well," said Javits modestly, "at least I learned to take a bath." (Laughter.)
Monynihan slipped in quitely and sat in the first seat he saw. Hatfield noticed it was on the Republican side, though Moynihan is a Democrat. "Glad to welcome the senator to the Republican side," said Hatfield.
"He never did know the difference," said Abourezk. (Laughter.)
Everybody except the dogcatcher of Hyde Park is on record approving federal historical status for the cottage.
And even he, or she, is not on record opposing it.
Roosevelt said the place was sold a few years ago to some doctors as an investment, and thought there would be no enormous tortrouble buying it. (The Interior Department estimates about half a million should suffice, the owners want a bit more than a million, but Roosevelt things it will work out.)
Abourezk seemed to be one of the few people at the hearing who never knew Eleanor Roosevelt, but got to the point of why many people revere her memory:
"A lot of First Ladies have had causes. But with Eleanor Roosevelt, they weren't causes designed to put her in the limelight, but to advance humanity."
A private committee hopes to work with the Interior Department to use the cottage for a conference center and the Department believes that would work well. Roosevelt added that since 20 per cent of the land at Hyde Park is tax free, Val-Kill would pay to the town the equivalent of yearly real estate taxes.
Stapleton as Eleanor in the film keeps calling on women to develop their own souls of iron, accepting their responsibilities and never accepting defeat.
Lerman said she wrote the script two years ago in a feminist vein, but meant nothing beastly to men by it and, indeed, thought men and women were interested in much the same thing.
Stapleton was done up in very soft pink with rosebuds woven all over her dress and seemed a great deal less distraught than television viewers might expect. Of course, she left that dingbat at home.