Little Anna Eleanor was a troubled child. She spent much of her girlhood following her mother and father on their pilgrimages to European spas and Kurhäuser; daddy had a drinking problem and was to die at 34. She was ten at the time, a “plain, insecure, lonely little girl,” “sullen and rebellious,” who was expelled from her French convent school “for tantrums and lies.”
She entered the Allenswood school in England, and became the favorite pupil of the headmistress, Marie Souvestre; in that Sapphic atmosphere of poetry and high ideals, she throve. But her grandmother summoned her back to America, where she made her debut and married cousin Franklin.
What lay beneath the surface of the strange girl? We learn, in Blanche Wiesen Cook’s study of the last 20-odd years of her life, that she possessed a “heart dedicated to profound democratic change.” She was “concerned about the people — all people.” “As educator, journalist, and prescient activist/public citizen,” she “had a profound and enduring impact,” and her “profound love of people, and for the world, was fortified by cherished friendships.” She believed in “freedom for all humanity.”
It will be gathered that Cook is not especially alive to her subject’s contradictions. Mrs. Roosevelt was, Cook observes, a “democratic socialist,” yet her whole life was predicated on patrician privilege and a superior social position. Had she been plain Eleanor Jones, no one would have paid the least attention to her program of passionate pity. It was because she was Eleanor Roosevelt, niece of one president, wife of another, scioness of the Anglo-Dutch cousinships of primeval New York, that people were grateful for her condescensions. Why the sight of a great lady caressing the wretched for the cameras should stir us I am not sure, but it does, as Princess Diana amply demonstrated; I suppose that in some cryptic depth of soul we still believe the touch of the White Queen will heal our assorted scrofulas.
But was there not meekness in her stooping? Was there not self-abasement in the perpetual descents to slum kitchens, shantytowns, foul tenements? When that the poor have cried, Mrs. Roosevelt hath wept. Yet here again the humility was a function of the elevation, in this case the woman’s conviction of her own moral superiority. She professed to feel only a Buddha-like sorrow for those who had not attained to her degree of enlightenment; she “pitied” her enemies, Adlai Stevenson said, those narrow souls who, “preoccupied with themselves” and the “self-deceptions of private success,” resisted her vision.
Lionel Trilling said of one of Henry James’s characters that she “is the very embodiment of the modern will which masks itself in virtue, making itself appear harmless, the will that hates itself and finds its manifestations guilty and is able to exist only if it operates in the name of virtue” — in the name, that is, of a facile progressivism. Mrs. Roosevelt’s own social program was simple: “Greed and materialism” were to be “replaced by full employment, training, and planning to ‘advance the people’s interests.’” The more thoughtful socialists have always recognized the inherent conflict of interest in such programs. To bring about the big-enchilada reforms of which the Mrs. Roosevelts of the world have dreamt, George Orwell pointed out, those in authority must boss the little people. And bossiness corrupts.
That Mrs. Roosevelt should have overlooked the difficulty is understandable. Trilling explained: “Some paradox of our nature leads us, when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.” After a visit to the Roosevelt White House, the writer Klaus Mann marveled that Mrs. Roosevelt, though possessed of “so aristocratic a background,” should have developed “so democratic a heart.” Trilling would have seen the predictable combination for what it was — a highly pleasurable form of self-aggrandizement. It is heady stuff to distribute alms to gaping plebs and find yourself adored. Mrs. Roosevelt fed on what her friend Joseph Lash called the “loving acclaim,” the “outpourings of affectionate homage,” sources of “strength, sustenance, and satisfaction.”
She loved the power and the glory of it, as most of us in her place would have done, even as she denied that the love of power is and always has been a driver of social reform. The extent of her self-deception is evident in her attitude toward the country that, in her time, had undertaken the most far-reaching program of social upheaval. As late as 1939, Mrs. Roosevelt looked on Soviet Russia “as a positive force in world affairs.” This in spite of the purges, the show trials, the engineered famines, the forced-labor camps. It won’t do to say the horrors weren’t known in the West. They were known, but they were ignored — dismissed. Mrs. Roosevelt would change her mind about Soviet Russia, but she seems never to have come to grips with the problem that that experiment in social engineering revealed. The more thorough the program of social reformation, the more coercive must be the state that oversees it — and the more regimented and constricted the life of the people who live under it.
As a study of the quandaries of the social reformer, Cook’s book leaves something to be desired. But as a record of events, it does not fail to be interesting. Mrs. Roosevelt’s position obliged her to live rather high on the hog, and her social calendar was crowded with historic personages. Bernard Baruch, Queen Mary, Harry Belafonte, Clementine Churchill, Admiral Halsey, King George VI — scarcely a day passes when she is not hobnobbing with her coevals in fame. One tires, it is true, of her sermons, her forgiving us our coarsenesses, our failure to live up to her expectations. Even her husband tired of the pathological purity. Cousin Alice Roosevelt Longworth understood Franklin’s predicament and encouraged his dalliance with Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd. “He deserved a good time,” Alice said. “He was married to Eleanor.”
The saintly woman forgave him, of course, and redoubled her efforts to do good. Yet somehow it was off-putting; another Roosevelt cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, went so far as to suspect “a certain lack of humor” on Eleanor’s part. Her marriage degenerated into what her son James called an “armed truce.” By the time she and Franklin reached the White House, they were living apart with rival courts and harems. Her seraglio was dominated by journalist Lorena “Hick” Hickok and private secretary Malvina “Tommy” Thompson, his by secretaries Marguerite “Missy” LeHand and Grace Tully and cousins Daisy Suckley and Laura “Polly” Delano. Yet the couple, though physically estranged, had a good working relationship, and in her capacity as presidential ambassadress Eleanor was useful to Franklin, who exercised considerable ingenuity in finding remote places to which to dispatch her.
But the peace was always precarious; Eleanor’s incessant do-gooding wrought on the president’s nerves. The barrage of “phone calls and letters distracted and upset him.” Daughter Anna remembered how once her mother had the temerity to interrupt one of her father’s cocktail hours. “Now, Franklin,” she said as she came into the room with a stack of papers, “I want to talk to you about this.” That most imperturbable of men found himself — perturbed. “Oh, God,” Anna remembered thinking, “he’s going to blow.” No wonder, Cousin Daisy observed, that Franklin “was easier” when Eleanor was away.
Franklin fought the war, and Eleanor hectored him for spending too much time drinking and smoking with Churchill, whom she in turn hectored about India. Then Franklin sickened and gave up the store to Stalin to preserve the pipe dream of United Nations. After he died, Eleanor made the U.N. another of her pet projects and helped to secure the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No less a scholar than Mary Ann Glendon, in her book A World Made New, has made much of this achievement, although the skeptic may be forgiven for wondering how much the new world Mrs. Roosevelt made differed from the old one it replaced. Much of it languishes under tyrannical governments, and the United Nations Human Rights Council, the body responsible for making Mrs. Roosevelt’s universal rights universal, has itself in recent years been in the charge of such tenderly humane regimes as Colonel Qaddafi’s Libya, President Putin’s Russia, and the Castro brothers’ Cuba.
Cook notes that to this day the United States is not in compliance with the U.N. rights protocols, and ventures to hope that Mrs. Roosevelt’s example will inspire the country to ratify the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Covenant of the Universal Declaration. What precisely this would achieve is not clear. The citizens of such signatories to the covenant as Malawi, Cuba, Burundi, Afghanistan, and Zimbabwe are all theoretically guaranteed the “right to an adequate standard of living,” yet most of them languish in a more or less abysmal poverty. Justice Scalia used to observe that paper rights are worthless without genuine restraints on the power of government to coerce individuals. Economic rights are no less vacuous where utopian policies such as those Mrs. Roosevelt naïvely championed lead to scarcity and suffering.
Still, she was a nice woman, well bred, who spoke excellent French, and who, when she came to be curious about Adolf Hitler, read Mein Kampf in the original German. I think she would forgive me the criticisms expressed in this article.
– Mr. Beran, a contributing editor of City Journal, is the author of Forge of Empires, 1861–1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, among other books.