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A Feminist Portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt

FRANKLIN and Eleanor Roosevelt, among the best-loved and most admired people in American politics, were also among the most viciously detested.

Shocked political and social conservatives - and snobs of every stripe - referred to FDR as "that man in the White House": a rich, well-favored aristocrat whose liberalism made him seem a traitor to his class. What was said against Eleanor was usually less printable.

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But to her many friends, associates, students, and other admirers, including the great majority of Americans and people of all nationalities around the world, Eleanor Roosevelt was a courageous and compassionate woman, a tireless worker for world peace, a champion of poor and working people, a friend to refugees, a foe of racism and bigotry, and a spokesman for the rights of women and children.

"To this day," declares her latest biographer, Blanche Wiesen Cook, "there is no agreement as to who Eleanor Roosevelt was, what she represented, or how she lived her life. Her friends and her detractors have made extravagant claims of goodness and mercy, foolishness and naivete. She has acquired sainthood and been consigned to sinner status."

Cook, an academic historian, syndicated columnist, and radio commentator, credits the women's movement with providing her with an approach to biography that would replace the hagiographical icons of a noble-spirited, high-minded, sexless great lady with a more down-to-earth portrait of a brave, life-affirming woman - still noble-spirited, but not without political savvy; still high-minded, but not without physical and spiritual passion.

Cook's emphasis is on the ways in which Eleanor Roosevelt made a life for herself - never at the expense of her husband and his political career, but still a life in which her own interests, political beliefs, activities, friendships, and loves took on an importance independent of her role as wife to Franklin and mother to their children.

In this, the first of a projected two-volume biography, Cook takes us from Eleanor's birth in 1884 to her husband's inauguration in 1933 as the nation's 32nd president.

Eleanor was the daughter of a beautiful but vapid mother and a charming, affectionate, but alcoholic and increasingly absent father, both of whom died before she was 10. Subsequently, she was brought up in the household of her maternal grandmother.

This biography devotes a substantial amount of space to examining Eleanor's family background. Her ancestors on both sides were socially prominent old New York families with checkered histories of distinguished accomplishment on the one hand (Theodore Roosevelt was Eleanor's uncle) and alcoholic excess on the other.

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Although Eleanor's mother, Anna Livingston Hall Roosevelt, has generally been viewed as a cold, superficial beauty who ridiculed the little girl for being solemn and unattractive, Cook feels she deserves some credit for not destroying the child's glowing image of her errant father, Elliott, even while she, as his wife, was facing the unpleasant consequences of his increasingly irresponsible behavior. (Blustery, rough-riding Teddy Roosevelt, exasperated by the decline in his once-loved brother's self-cont rol, spent a good deal of time and energy trying to have him committed.)

Cook's account of Eleanor tackles the question of how this shy child from a troubled family background learned to make herself into a wise and compassionate woman, capable of fulfilling her own needs and goals, while working to make life better for others. Cook stresses the strong influence of female role models, like Eleanor's impressive paternal aunt, Anna Roosevelt Cowles, and her teacher, Marie Souvestre, who ran a progressive girls' school in England, where young Eleanor blossomed and excelled.

Eleanor also learned by counter-example, Cook points out. Where her mother's disillusionment with marriage turned her cold and withdrawn, Eleanor transformed her own shock over Franklin's affair with Lucy Mercer into an impetus for renewing and expanding her interest in politics and people.

A fascinating motif is Cook's discussion of Eleanor's special feeling for the Saint-Gaudens monument to Henry Adams's wife: a statue of a veiled, grieving woman in Washington's Rock Creek Park.

Marion Hooper Adams, better known as "Clover" Adams, was a gifted woman who committed suicide shortly after the death of her beloved father - and also, as Cook points out, quite possibly as a result of finding out that her husband was in love with another woman.

Eleanor Roosevelt (who knew Henry Adams) often visited the monument and brought close friends to see it. Cook speculates that meditating on Mrs. Adams's unhappy fate helped Eleanor resolve to find positive ways of dealing with her own problems and sorrows.

Cook's emphasis on feminist issues includes a timely and interesting account of the questions that divided Eleanor's feminist contemporaries in the early years of the century, when proponents of an equal-rights amendment squared off against other, equally sincere, feminists who feared such an amendment might undo the legislation that they were urging to protect women and children from exploitation in the workplace.

Although Eleanor acknowledged that she herself delighted in working 12 to 16 hours a day on behalf of causes she believed in, she took her stand with trade unionists and other labor leaders fighting for the 40-hour work week to protect people too poor and powerless to pick and choose their working conditions.

Some of Eleanor's best friends were lesbian couples, like Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, Democratic party activists who shared a cottage with her at Val-Kill on the Roosevelt estate in upstate New York, and who were her partners in running Todhunter, a progressive girls' school in New York City.

Enemies who accused Mrs. Roosevelt of consorting with "blacks, Jews, and Sapphists in slacks" were right about her openness to people of all backgrounds.

In this book, rumors of Eleanor's possible love affairs, formerly squelched by her loyal defenders, are reexamined in a favorable light.

Cook sees no reason not to suppose that Eleanor's handsome, lively, fiercely protective bodyguard, a former state trooper called Earl Miller, may have been her lover. Eleanor's son James considered it likely, and a voluminous correspondence between the two seems to have vanished mysteriously.

Cook also finds the evidence of Eleanor's romantic attachment to journalist Lorena Hickok overwhelming: The two exchanged thousands of letters, many of which strike Cook as unambiguous love letters. Cook also offers a reassessment of Eleanor as a graceful, attractive woman, who - despite her own feelings of awkwardness - had several eager suitors in addition to her handsome, ebullient cousin Franklin.

It's nicely ironic that, from Cook's modern feminist perspective, the rumors circulated by Eleanor's enemies and the secrets once disbelieved or denied by her admirers, are now viewed as evidence of Eleanor's independent character and her ability to build a full and rewarding life.

Cook's approach is refreshing and her research is sound. Although she has a feminist outlook, it does not intrude to the point of serious bias or distortion. The narrative is very readable: fast-moving, straightforward, and sympathetic.

But Cook's perceptions and the language in which she conveys them lack subtlety and finesse. Her insights into character, valuable as they are, do not go far beyond the purview of consciousness-raising groups and 12-step programs. She applauds Eleanor for acting affirmatively and deplores her lapses into the passive role of long-suffering "patient Griselda."

A provocative, engrossing biography that contributes significantly to our knowledge of this remarkable woman, Cook's "Eleanor Roosevelt" still falls short of being a book as truly distinguished as its subject.

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