Now it is Eleanor Roosevelt's turn to have her private life exhumed. Someone has said that the women we buried was not who we thought she was, and so they have disinterred her letters, dissected their vital organs and sent them to the cruelest coroner of all, the public.
Those who think her prose was purple are arguing with those who think her life was tinged with lavender. Across the table tops and country, people are talking about her "sexual perference" as if it were hair color: did she or didn't she? Only her friend knew for sure.
Well, they say that every generation writes its own history. Ours, it appears, is sexual. We thrust our own obsessions back into time and come up with Jfk's promiscuity, Thomas Jefferson's black mistress and, now Eleanor's friend Lorena Hickok.
It seems, moverover, that we have greater taste for suspicions than for facts, for the unknown than for the known. We continually want to unmask our heroes as if there were more to be learned from their nakedness than from their choice of clothing.
It is odd in this case especially, because what we do know about Eleanor Roosevelt is so much more vital than what we don't know. A tall woman with a voice that begged caricaturing, she grew up in an era when form dictated feelings -- when, as she said, "you dressed, not according to the weather but the date."
We know that by all accounts, including her own, she had a miserable childhood. Regarded cooly by her mother, who called her "Granny," she was told, "In a family that had great beauty, you are the ugly duckling of that family."
We know, too, that she worshipped -- and struggled to please -- her father long after that attractive, self-destructive and unreliable man was gone.
At 43 years of age she could still write, "I knew a child once who adored her father. She was an ulgy little thing, keenly conscious of her deficiencies, and her father, the only person who really cared for her, was away much of the time. . . [but] he wrote her letters and stories telling her. . . she must be truthful, loyal, brave, well-educated. . . . She made herself as the years went on into a fairly good copy of the picture he had painted."
From the time she was 10 and an orphan, she spent a neglected childhood with her grandmother in a dark gloomy house where, as a cousin recalled, "we ate our suppers silently."
At a very young age, then, Eleanor knew too much about life's blows. As a young wife, she learned more. After 10 years of marriage and six children, her husband fell in love with Lucy Mercer and "the bottom dropped out of my particular life, and I faced myself, my surroundings, my world honestly for the first time. I really grew up that year."
Even when her husband died, Eleanor knew "he might have been happier with a wife who was completely uncritical. That, I was never able to be. . . . Nevertheless, I think I sometimes acted as a spur even though spurring was not always wanted or welcome. I was one of those who served his purpose."
She became a great lady, then, not because she was a first lady, but because she was able through enormous will to turn her pain into strength, to turn disappointment into purpose. It was as if her backbone had been permanently strengthened by the brace she wore in childhood.
The facts, just the facts, of her life might have defeated any of us. Add to that list a dead child and a husband strickened with polio. But she used them, the way she used her rigorous disciplines of calisthenics and ice-cold showers, to make herself stronger.
With this gutsiness, she cared about the poor even when the press accused her of interfering, and supported civil rights in the days when an anti-lynch law was highly controversial with Southern Democrats. She promoted women in government when others disparaged them and, as a widow, worked for human rights in the world and the United Nations when others grew resigned.
And, yes she was also effusive and loving in letters to women friends. She was as intimate as her husband was remote. As James Roosevelt once wrote: "Of what was inside him, of what really drove him, Father talked with no one."
All this, the important facts, the fundamental truths, are known, not suspected. As Arthur Schlesinger once added them up: "Her life was both ordeal and fulfillment. It combined vulnerability and stoicism, pathos and pride, frustration and accomplishment, sadness and happiness."
That is still the best epitaph.