By Blanche Wiesen Cook
Reviewed by Brigid O’Farrell
“Admired and beloved, scorned and reviled, influential, controversial, and timeless, Eleanor Roosevelt changed history.” Thus begins Blanche Wiesen Cook’s much awaited third and final volume of Eleanor Roosevelt’s biography. Neither Roosevelt nor Cook disappoints. No matter how much has been written by and about ER (as she frequently signed her name) there is always more to learn about one of the most admired and most vilified women of the twentieth century. Indeed, her life story remains a source of fascination for many, as well as a guide and inspiration for those committed to human rights and social justice. In 2016 alone, Cook’s volume follows Patricia Bell-Scott’s work exploring ER’s relationship with the activist, civil rights lawyer, and minister Pauli Murray, The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship, Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Struggle for Social Justice, and Susan Quinn’s Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady. [See reviews in this issue]
The first volume of Cook’s biography, Eleanor Roosevelt: The Early Years, 1884-1933 (1992) covered ER’s difficult childhood, marital challenges, and early political career. The second volume, Eleanor Roosevelt: The Defining Years, 1933-1938 (1999), explored her first five years in the White House. While the previous volumes comprehensively covered a multitude of issues, ideas, and people, in this one, Cook, a professor of history at John Jay College and Graduate Center, City University of New York, focuses on how ER was—and was not—able to influence public opinion and policy in two areas during World War II: race discrimination at home and the plight of war refugees around the world.
In 1939 Eleanor Roosevelt was 55 years old and had been married to Franklin D. Roosevelt for 34 years. They had raised a daughter and four sons, whose various wives, husbands, and grandchildren were all part of life in the vibrant, often-tense, and ever-changing world of the Roosevelt White House. The Roosevelts’ complex marriage allowed them both a great deal of independence which meant that an array of intimate friends joined the family circle. ER had become well known for her indefatigable schedule, prolific communications, and concern for others. During the Great Depression many came to her for help, and she responded both publicly and behind the scenes. She was accused of being a Communist, attacked by members of Congress and fellow journalists, and placed under surveillance by the FBI. She was the target of multiple death threats. In a Gallup poll in 1939, however, her approval rating with the public was 68 percent, while her husband’s was just 51 percent.
From this starting point, Cook’s final volume covers the years of World War II in depth, moving back and forth between ER’s public and private lives. While supporting US allies and troops, the first lady spoke out forcefully regarding many of the issues raised by the war: the slaughter of Jews in Europe, the lynching of African Americans at home, race riots in defense industries, race segregation in the military, restrictions for women in war work and the armed forces, the internment of Japanese American citizens, and the endless, isolationist, racist, and anti-Communist resistance from Congress, the State Department, and much of the public. At the same time, in letters, newspaper columns, and other venues, she shared her thoughts about plays seen, concerts heard, books read, grandchildren visited, and, always, Democratic politics. Central to her influence and her moods was her relationship with her husband.
Cook uses a wealth of primary and secondary sources to supplement ER’s own My Day columns (she published more than 8,000): her talks, books, articles, radio shows, television broadcasts, press conferences, and voluminous correspondence—especially with a group Cook calls ER’s “steadies,” to whom she revealed some of her inner feelings, frustrations, and joys. This core group included Esther Lape and Elizabeth Read, early activists and mentors from New York City; Malvina “Tommy” Thompson, ER’s long-serving personal secretary; Earl Miller, her handsome, fun-loving bodyguard; and the influential reporter Lorena “Hick” Hickok. While the relationship with Hick was no longer as intimate as described in Volume II, she remained ER’s dear friend and continued to live in the White House. As this volume begins, Joe Lash, a leader of the American Youth Congress, enters this close circle with his future wife, Trudy Pratt. There were tensions among all these people, others came and went, but ER sought emotional and political support, advice, and counsel from her steady confidantes, and they’re central in this biography.
Cook writes that “ER believed union rights, civil rights, and human rights would help create a peaceful world defined by economic security, housing, health, and freedom for all humanity.” She was passionately committed to these goals. Her 1940 book, The Moral Basis of Democracy, articulated the philosophy behind much of her activism. As war raged in Europe, ER called on fellow citizens to decide what democracy means, “to clarify in our minds the standards by which we live.” Equality was the basis of democracy, she argued, both political and economic. Within this framework ER addressed racial discrimination and the plight of war refugees. Cook skillfully shows how she educated the public, helped individuals and groups, and influenced her husband’s administration.
In the summer of 1940 alone, ER helped establish both the Committee for the Care of European Children and the Emergency Rescue Committee. Together with the journalist Varian Fry, she worked to save the lives of more than 2,000 Europeans. At the same time she pushed FDR and the State Department to do more not only for those being attacked in Europe by Hitler and Mussolini, but also for the Chinese suffering under Japanese occupation and, starting in 1942, for the Japanese Americans being sent to internment camps. Many of her efforts, however, were not successful. When the steamship SS St. Louis cruised the East Coast with 926 refugees, the US refused them entry. “To date,” writes Cook, “not one word about the St. Louis has been found in ER’s writings.” Her husband placed certain topics off limits for strategic and political reasons, and she complied.
From ER’s perspective, Cook effectively shines a light on the anti-Semitism of the US State Department. The strong resistance and obstruction that ER met with were experienced by others in the administration. When Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau’s efforts to rescue Jewish refugees were thwarted, he initiated a review of the State Department. Finally, in 1944, he took FDR his report, “On the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.” According to Cook, the report detailed the complicity of people like Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, a friend of FDR’s who was, in ER’s word a “fascist.” Long left the department, and an independent War Refugee Board was established, but rescue efforts were slow, and few doors were opened in the United States. ER later wrote “We let our consciences realize too late the need of standing up against something that we knew was wrong. We have therefore had to avenge it—but we did nothing to prevent it.” She carried this lesson to the United Nations.
In addition to helping refugees, civil rights was a second key part of ER’s social justice platform. She believed that racism must be eliminated, and that “[i]f democracy is to survive, it must be because it meets the needs of the people.” Cook details ER’s work on many issues with African American leaders including Walter White of the NAACP; A. Phillip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Mary McLeod Bethune, director of Negro Affairs at the National Youth Administration; and Pauli Murray, the civil rights activist and lawyer. ER focused on ending the wage differences and deplorable conditions in defense plants faced by black and women workers. She fought for an end to racial segregation in housing and employment, and lobbied for the full integration of black and white women in the military. Cook documents several cases in which ER and her allies were successful in shifting policies, as well as helping individuals. The combat missions of the all-black Tuskegee Airmen and improvements in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), for example, are attributed in part to her support for their corps. She was unsuccessful, however, in other cases, such as the fight to save Odell Waller, a Virginia sharecropper sentenced to death for killing his white landlord in self-defense. Although the case drew national attention and repeated interventions by ER, and eventually ended up in the Supreme Court, Waller was executed in 1942.
With her own four sons on active duty in the war, ER brought comfort to hundreds of thousands of US troops. In 1942, FDR asked her to go to England and Cook describes her task: “to use her personal warmth and diplomatic magic to fortify the Anglo-American alliance, encourage troop morale, and keep the United Nations together.” While often in disagreement with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, she successfully toured bombed-out sections of London, met with women’ s military organizations, visited factories, and talked with the troops. In 1943 she traveled from Hawaii to New Zealand, Australia, and seventeen Pacific Islands, visiting hospitals and recreation centers. In 1944, FDR asked her to go to the Caribbean and South America to visit military bases and diplomatic installations. She wrote columns for the public and reports for government officials about her travels, and of course maintained regular contact with the president.
When FDR excluded her from the war discussions, including from his trips to Teheran and Yalta for meetings with foreign leaders, she felt sidelined and angry. Yet, Cook argues, FDR’s 1944 message to Congress guaranteeing education, training, job security, and health care for returning veterans in what became known as the GI Bill reflected ER’s positions. The bill renewed her faith, and she was hopeful as plans for the United Nations moved forward.
Cook writes that ER was often lonely. She experienced periods of depression and longed for the kinds of loving relationships that she had experienced neither in her childhood nor her marriage. As Cook writes, Eleanor and Franklin had a strong partnership: supportive, respectful, affectionate. Yet their complex relationship also led to strong disagreements and even emotional damage. ER could not be uncritical of her husband—in fact, she came to feel she was the only person who would disagree with him and remind him of the values they had fought for together during the New Deal. While FDR sometimes felt frustrated with her, on a rare occasion in 1943, he gave a New Year’s toast “To the person who makes it possible for the president to carry on,” and raised a glass to his wife.
Cook covers the last seventeen years of ER’s life, after FDR’s death in 1945, in an epilogue. Yet, ER accomplished much in this period, from helping to create the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights to chairing President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women. Cook’s discussion of ER’s focus on race and refugees during the war makes an important contribution to our understanding of US history and Roosevelt herself, but this is not the full biography that those looking for more insight on ER’s late-life positions on education, workers’ rights, women’s rights, and politics may be looking for. Because of her evolving role in advancing women’s rights, this period in her life is of particular importance to historians of women.
ER brought a unique energy, self-discipline, skills, compassion, and love to those last years that deserve their own in-depth historical analysis. Cook has taken us through one more phase of this amazing woman’s life, illuminating her basic humanity, her many activities, her relationships, policies, and emotions. But the story isn’t over. The final volume of Eleanor Roosevelt’s biography is still to come.
Brigid O’Farrell is an independent scholar affiliated with the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at George Washington University. Her research and writing focus on women’s labor history and sex segregation in blue-collar employment. Her most recent book is She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker (2010).