This combined history and memoir by her grandson arrives on the 40th anniversary of Eleanor Roosevelt's death. Remarkable for her intellect, energy and compassion, the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt has left a legacy, her chronicler argues, that is fully as durable in its own way as the one compiled by FDR as he led America through the Great Depression and all but the last few months of World War II. She was the first First Lady to achieve stature independently from that of her husband, and the first to demonstrate and tap into the latent political power of women.
Because his childhood memories of vacations and holidays with his grandmother are his most vivid ones, David Roosevelt writes of her with an unvarying mixture of warmth and wonder. Not so of FDR, who appears as a marginal figure in the author's thoughts. It may take the reader awhile to adjust to Roosevelt's repeated use of grandmere (a designation the French-speaking Eleanor requested of her grandchildren), but ultimately the preciousness wears off. Fortunately, Roosevelt leans on the research of scholars to fill in the factual blanks and interpretive nuances his own restricted perspective denies him.
Born into the same wealthy and socially prominent New York family that included her future husband (a distant cousin), Eleanor was handicapped early by a mother who rejected her and a father who was loving but dissolute. Her most positive early role models were her uncle, Teddy Roosevelt, and her teacher, the free-thinking Marie Souvestre. Both inspired her to think beyond the decorative, social and domestic roles then assigned to women. In what appeared to be a real affair of the heart, she married Franklin in 1905, when she was 20, and soon began having children. Five years later, Franklin scored his first political victory, election to the New York State Assembly. From the outset, the author says, Eleanor was his most reliable (if not always his most enthusiastic) political ally even though it would be several more years before women won the right to vote.
After Franklin fell victim to crippling polio in 1921, he grew even more reliant on Eleanor, and by the time he ascended to the presidency in 1933 she was perhaps the most vital part of his inner circle, serving as his eyes, ears and personal representative. As a young girl, she had worked to better the lot of New York's poorest. In her capacity as First Lady, she became a tireless advocate for the nation's downtrodden. She probed, lectured, wrote books and articles, even became a syndicated newspaper columnist. After FDR died in 1945, she continued her advocacy, ultimately helping to write and pass the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
David Roosevelt's most revealing recollections of his grandmother are of her soul-mending retreats to Val-Kill Cottage, in New York, and Campobello Island, off the coast of Maine. The book is illustrated with 260 photographs, many of which have not been published before.