Eleanor and Franklin by Joseph P Nash – A Book Review

Eleanor and Franklin book coverEleanor and Franklin: The Story of Their Relationship Based on Eleanor Roosevelt’s Private Papers by Joseph P. Nash chronicles the evolution of Eleanor Roosevelt from an insecure girl and young woman into a woman who would impact the lives of many, many people. When visiting US installations during WWII, more than once she heard soldiers cry out “Hey, there’s Eleanor!” She radiated warmth and compassion with a down-to-earth style that made people feel like she belonged to them in some way. In many ways she did belong to them. She lived her life in service of others because she truly cared about the condition of human beings and wanted to make their lives better.

Very few people if any will argue that Eleanor Roosevelt was a remarkable person. However, it is easy to think that remarkable people are born that way. That plucked down in history at any time, they would have lived a similar life of accomplishment. This might be true, but I think often the difficulties in life are what bring out the best qualities in people. Mr. Lash takes the time to show us the circumstances in Eleanor’s life that shaped and formed her into the remarkable woman she was.

Lash takes considerable time explaining the dynamics of Eleanor’s childhood. Her father Elliot was the brother of president Theodore Roosevelt. Her mother Anne Hall was decended from the prestigious Ludlow and Livingston families. They were the darlings of society when Society was small and intimate. Anne along with her sisters were celebrated beauties and Elliot had a vibrant and out-going personality. Eleanor, a serious child, was not a beauty and was made aware of this by her mother and her aunts. She worshipped her father who was fun-loving and the light of her life. But her childhood was short-lived. Her father was an alcoholic and unstable emotionally. It eventually became necessary for Anne to leave him and take Eleanor and her brother Hall. As difficult as this was, it was compounded when both of her parents died leaving Eleanor and Hall in the custody of Anne’s mother. Here she grew up in the shadow of aunts and uncles who had their own problems.

When Eleanor married Franklin, she was an insecure young woman eager to please. Although Franklin loved Eleanor, she always longed for a depth of intimacy that he was unable to meet. Her mother-in-law Sara Delano Roosevelt was very domineering, and although she was always very nice to Eleanor, she was determined to have her way and direct the course of her only son’s life if at all possible. She would be a constant presence in their lives, always in the background criticizing and trying to direct until the day she died. Eleanor gradually broke free of this, but it wasn’t until they were in the White House that she really started blossoming.

Eleanor and FDR with Anna and James c. 1908 (source)

Eleanor and FDR with Anna and James c. 1908 (source)

Eleanor and Franklin covers Eleanor’s childhood, her life as a young wife and mother, her role as Franklin emerged as a leader in politics, and their life together at the White House. Lash uses Eleanor’s correspondence and published writings to show how she dealt with becoming a public personality, raising her children with her mother-in-law constantly in the background, Franklin’s infidelity, and finally the difficult years in the White House where she made the “office” of First Lady something it had never been before.

She was criticized as much as she was loved. She often felt that it was her duty to tell Franklin things that others around him would not say, in a way to be his conscience. Many thought she was butting in where she didn’t belong. By the time Franklin was president, they no longer had the traditional marriage. She said to intimate friends that she was no longer in love with him, but she served him in love. It was a role that many women couldn’t have tolerated. There were other women in his life that gave him space to relax and laugh. Eleanor couldn’t give him that, but she gave what she could, a view to the world that he didn’t have. She was an advocate for women, African-Americans, youth, soldiers, anyone who asked. There were times when she was taken advantage of. She knew this, but had to help if she could.

The book is dense. It is filled with details but is very readable. Expect to give it some time. It is a must read if you want to understand Eleanor Roosevelt, but also gives you a different perspective of FDR’s presidency. Eleanor and Franklin ends with Franklin’s death in the spring of 1945. Mr. Lash has written a sequel Eleanor: The Years Alone. I haven’t read it yet, but you can be sure I will.

(Originally published on SSS News & Notes.)

Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the DAR

Marian Anderson by Carl Van Vechten (source)

Marian Anderson by Carl Van Vechten (source)

On Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, Marian Anderson performed in what may be her most famous concert in the United States. It began with a stirring rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The interracial crowd was estimated at 75,000 and the radio audience in the millions. Her final selection was the Negro spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and in finishing this concert, Marian became a powerful symbol for African American artists, in part because the concert came about due to the bigotry of others.

Marian Anderson was born in 1897 to John Berkley Anderson and his wife Annie Delilah Rucker. The Andersons were a devout Christian family with significant musical talent. (Marian and both of her younger sisters would all go on to become singers.) At the age of six, Marian’s Aunt Mary convinced her to sing in the church choir. This gave her the opportunity to sing solos and duets and she soon began singing at other functions around the community.

Marian Anderson c. 1920 (source)

Marian Anderson c. 1920 (source)

After graduating high school, Marian wanted to study music at the Philadelphia Music Academy, but was rejected because she was black. Instead she studied privately with the help of people in her community. She won a contest to sing with the New York Philharmonic in 1925 and after a number of other concerts sang at Carnegie Hall. But racial prejudice made it difficult to build a career in the United States, so she moved to Europe.

Marian’s career in Europe was very successful. She toured and made contacts that would help form her future career, including Kosti Vehanen and Sol Hurok who would be her accompanist/vocal coach and manager, respectively, for the rest of her career. She also made a profound impression on the composer Jean Sibelius who became her friend and adapted and composed songs for Marian throughout her career. Although she had thousands of fans in Europe, Hurok convinced Marian to return to the US in the late 1930s where she toured and became famous, although racial prejudice still presented roadblocks.

Because she was so popular, in 1939 when Howard University planned to host a concert with Marian, a large turnout was expected. The only hall large enough to hold the expected crowd was Constitution Hall belonging to the Daughters of the American Revolution. When they were approached, the DAR refused to allow a black artist to perform in the Hall. This caused quite a stir which prompted the resignation of many members, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Marian Anderson before the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.

Marian Anderson before the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.

The First Lady had considered what to do. She wrote in her newspaper column about the sometimes difficult choice of whether to remain in an organization and work for change from within, or to leave the organization in protest. At times Eleanor felt that making a problem public was not the best strategy, but the rejection of Marian Anderson by the DAR was already public, so she chose to leave the organization and let it be known why.

Not long before this, Eleanor had attended the Southern Conference on Human Welfare in Birmingham, Alabama. The Conference had a large number of black delegates, but the city insisted that they adhere to the cities segregation laws. When Eleanor arrived with her friend Mary McLeod Bethune, the police told her that she couldn’t sit with her friend. Her solution was to have her chair moved to the center aisle where she would sit neither on the “white” side nor the “colored” side. This caused quite a stir as did her resignation from the DAR.

Eleanor’s decision to resign from the DAR received world-wide attention. She had her opponents, but many more who supported her decision. In the wake of the uproar, Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, and Marian’s manager Sol Hurok came up with the idea of an open air concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial. With the support of both the President and First Lady, they approached Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to arrange it. The gathering was a great success.

Marian Anderson went on to have a long distinguished career. She was the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera; she continued to tour in Europe and toured Australia, India, and the Far East; and she entertained troops during WWII. In 1943, she even performed at Constitution Hall at the invitation of the DAR as a benefit for the Red Cross.

It seems fitting that Marian would begin her final concert tour at Constitution Hall in October 1964 and end at Carnegie Hall on April 18, 1965. Although officially retired she continued to appear publicly. She was active in the civil rights movement, giving benefit concerts and inspiring many others. Marian was the recipient of many awards during her life including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the United Nations Peace Prize, and the George Peabody Medal.

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