Admiring Eleanor Roosevelt anew

Marney Rich Keenan
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It's one thing to be able to quote one of the most admired women ever: "You must do the things you think you cannot do." And "Better to light a candle than curse the darkness." Quite another to revisit the narrative that spawned them. Watching Ken Burns "The Roosevelts An Intimate History," I rediscovered my awe of Eleanor Roosevelt.

That, of course, is the gift of a Ken Burns documentary: He makes history so engaging. He called this latest seven-part PBS documentary series profiling Theodore, Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt "a factual 'Downton Abbey.'" To be sure all three overcame enormous obstacles, but Eleanor's humble perseverance in the face of such adversity was especially inspiring.

At a time when most women rarely ventured outside the home, she was a woman ahead of her time. And too, for a woman such wealth and stature, she had uncommon empathy for the less fortunate.

We know of her public achievements, the social and political causes that made her "the most consequential First Lady in American history." But Burns "intimate history" gives us the personal Eleanor: plagued by self doubt, humiliated by her husband's betrayal, devastated by the loss of an infant son.

In the book version of the "The Roosevelts" (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. Co-authored by Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward) Burns writes in the foreword: "The strategy she employed to survive included a need to be useful to others ... Her moral compass, born of that early childhood upbringing, made her right on almost every issue she confronted in later life."

She was orphaned at 8 years old. Her mother, who once explained to her daughter that since she had "no looks" she would need to have especially good manners, died in 1892. Her father died two years later at age 34 of alcoholism. Eleanor remembered herself as a lonely girl; "timid, withdrawn and frightened of practically everything: mice, the dark, other children, displeasing the people I lived with."

Growing up, her only saving grace was being sent away for three years to a boarding school outside London where she made good friends. She was also was taken under the wing of the headmistress, "a socially conscious and intellectually alive woman" who "brought out all the tact, intelligence, discipline energy and empathy that would characterize Eleanor later."

In 1905, she married Franklin Roosevelt, hoping to find a confidant. In his mother, she sought the love she never received from her own. "She found neither," the authors wrote. "Her husband was self absorbed and harbored secrets ... Her mother in law's first loyalty would always be to her son and her grandchildren."

She had to watch helplessly as infantile paralysis ravaged her husband's body and then was deeply pained by her husband's decades-long affair with Lucy Mercer, her former social secretary.

And yet, when FDR died in April, 1945, she said of the man to whom she had been married for almost 40 years: "All human beings have failings, all human beings have needs and temptations and stresses. Men and women who live together through long years get to know one another's failings, but they also come to know what is worthy of respect and admiration in those they live with and in themselves. If, at the end, one can say this man used to the limit the powers that God granted him, he was worthy of the love and respect and of the sacrifice many people made in order that he might achieve what he deemed to be his task, then that life has been lived well and there are no regrets."

Not long before she died in 1962, she was asked if she believed in an afterlife. Eleanor Roosevelt said: I don't know whether I believe in a future life. I believe that after all you go through here must have some value. ... I think I am pretty much of a fatalist. You have to accept whatever comes and the only important thing is that you meet it with courage and with the best that you have to give."

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