I grew up in the era of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency when he and his wife Eleanor were revered by the American people. It was a time of Depression and the citizens placed all their faith in the ability of FDR to bring us through those hard times.
An extraordinary compilation of photographs and motion pictures makes up this documentary which is directed by Sue Williams. Because of the era, the pictures are mostly all black and white or in sepia tones. The presentation manages to capture the personality of Eleanor Roosevelt from her younger days until the post-war years when she continued to speak out concerning the issues that were close to her heart.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt owed a great deal to his wife’s aid, her loyalty and her talents. The documentary reveals the difficult childhood of Eleanor whose mother regarded her as ugly, shy and awkward. Eleanor’s father loved her dearly but was away most of the time and suffered from alcoholism as well.
Eleanor’s life changed when her fifth cousin Franklin started courting her. Eleanor’s surname was also Roosevelt as she was the daughter of Elliott Roosevelt, the younger brother of Theodore Roosevelt. Eleanor and Franklin married in 1905 when she was 21 years old. Her uncle Theodore gave her away.
Eleanor’s relationship with her mother-in-law Sara Delano Roosevelt was not a happy one. Sara had always dominated her son’s life and continued to do so after he and Eleanor married. Eleanor was a true partner to Franklin through his early political career when he became Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York State, his bout with poliomyelitis, and his eventual run for the Presidency of the United States. She overcame her shyness in order to make public appearances on behalf of Franklin.
Eleanor and Franklin’s early married life was spent in a townhouse connected to Sara Delano Roosevelt’s townhouse. It wasn’t until 1925 that the couple had their own home at Val-Kill in Hyde Park, New York. Eleanor loved Val-Kill and lived there to the end of her life.
Her true colors were shown in her support of Marian Anderson, a black singer who was denied the use of Washington’s Constitution Hall because of her color. Eleanor’s influence let to Marian Anderson’s concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Her defense of women and blacks was legendary, a project which she carried on for her entire life.
Franklin’s friendship with his secretary, Lucy Mercer, as well as a later secretary, Missy LeHand, caused grief to Eleanor as these affairs became known to her. Franklin and Eleanor managed to work together for their common values and for the good of their family and the country, and were somehow able to put aside these major differences.
At the same time, Eleanor was criticized for a close relationship she had with Lorena Hickok (called Hick), although it was never determined that this was a true lesbian relationship. Eleanor also had a deep friendship with Earl Miller, her bodyguard, who taught her riding and swimming. Miller, several years younger than Eleanor, denied that it was ever a romantic relationship. Later on, Eleanor developed a love for her physician, David Gurewitsch. Her affectionate nature was part of her being.
Eleanor had seen the lack of involvement of Theodore Roosevelt’s wife Edith in the duties of the First Lady and felt that her path would be different. She was the first First Lady to hold weekly press conferences and had a daily newspaper column called “My Day.”
Eleanor’s forty-year life with Franklin ended when he died in Warm Springs, Georgia, accompanied by his daughter Anna. It was later found that Lucy Mercer was present when he died. I remember the day clearly in 1945 when my friend across the street ran over to our house to tell us that Franklin Roosevelt had died.
Eleanor’s political career did not come to an end upon the death of her husband. President Truman named her the only female delegate to the United Nations. She was given the chairmanship there of the Committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and served as the first chairperson of the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
Eleanor Roosevelt died at the age of 78 in 1962. She has been called the Most Influential Woman in America, the Most Controversial Woman in America, as well as the Most Admired Woman in the World. She set the stage for the First Ladies who would follow her so that they felt free to embrace their favorite pursuits.
Made-for-TV Documentary, Eleanor Roosevelt: American Experience