"Eleanor" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
After 11 years of research, David Michaelis has written “Eleanor,” a thorough biography of Eleanor Roosevelt following her from her birth in 1884 to her death in 1962. He was able to utilize previously unpublished archival sources and interviews to present a comprehensive portrait of one of the most powerful women of the 20th century.
Michaelis organizes Roosevelt's life journey into seven sections, each mirroring one of the roles she played throughout her life: “Granny,” “Orphan,” “Missus,” “State-Woman,” “Mrs. Roosevelt,” “Agitator” and “Worldmaker.”
He reports that Eleanor was a shy, repeatedly overlooked child, whose mother shamed her by calling her “Granny.” Her privileged but cloistered childhood was marred when she became an orphan at the age of nine because of her mother Anna's death due to diphtheria and her alcoholic father Elliot’s suicide shortly thereafter.
Eleanor was sent to be raised by her maternal grandmother but was actually shuttled among many relatives for care. Instead of being showered with attention from her many relatives, Michaelis writes she was mostly ignored.
Eleanor grew up lonely. She felt awkward because she was tall for her age and was convinced she was ugly. She tried to make up for these seeming deficits by doing good works in order to win the love of others.
Allenswood, a school for girls in London, run by the talented and sophisticated Marie Souvestre, saved her. There she became the teacher's pet. She and Souvestre spent much time together outside of school traveling throughout Europe. “This was the first time in all my life,” Eleanor reported, “that all my fears left me.”
Years later, as the spouse of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, her fifth cousin, Eleanor’s life became intertwined with much of the President’s work. She influenced major policies like the New Deal, the U.S. entrance into World War II and the establishment of the United Nations.
Michaelis details her involvement as the President’s proxy in the politics and history of this extraordinary era of economic depression and warfare, but he also emphasizes anecdotes, stories and quotations from her life creating an intimate portrait of this widely admired woman. As a public figure, she became more prominent than many elected officials. She wrote a daily newspaper column, published more than 20 books, hosted radio and television programs and became the polio-stricken FDR’s surrogate at many foreign and domestic state occasions.
The author’s lively and nimble narrative is dotted with countless side stories that reveal Eleanor's personality and elucidate her complicated, unconventional marriage to Franklin and her intimacy with journalist Lorena Hickok.
Michaelis notes, for example, that in the year 1937 alone, Eleanor traveled 43,000 miles. “Never before had a president's wife set out on her own to assess social and economic conditions or... visited a foreign country unaccompanied by the President.” This unofficial diplomat took home vital information learned from her visits to armed forces personnel at military posts and hospitals and from her meetings with foreign heads of state. FDR reached many significant and historic policy decisions by drawing on the data she provided.
After being the longest-serving first lady in U.S. history, Eleanor Roosevelt achieved many significant and widespread accomplishments during her post-White House days. She became the Chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and spearheaded the adoption of the first Universal Declaration of Human Rights in history.
After the introduction of the atomic bomb, she encouraged U.S. citizens to cope with the accompanying anxiety about global annihilation by developing a “world mind.” She insisted we cannot live for ourselves alone but must learn to live together or we will die together. Most of her groundbreaking actions in this period were in support of racial integration, humanitarian aid and world peace.
“ Eleanor” has nearly 100 pages of notes and 30 pages of bibliography that indicate the extent of Michaelis’ meticulous research. The author also has written “Schulz and Peanuts” and “N.C. Wyeth,” winner of the Ambassador Award for Biography. Simon and Schuster is the publisher of this 675-page book which includes 32 pages of color photographs.