A Career in Pursuit of the First Lady of Surprises


By the time Blanche Wiesen Cook completes the final volume of her acclaimed three-book biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, she will have spent about 20 years writing about the former first lady.

The lure?

"This is the first time all of my interests come together. And Eleanor Roosevelt is really a woman for our time. Every issue on the agenda in her time is an issue on the agenda right now," says Cook, a diplomatic historian and peace activist.

She mentions specifically Roosevelt's advocacy of a national health care plan, a first-rate public education for all children, social justice and international peace. As Cook has toured the country promoting "Eleanor Roosevelt: Vol. 2" (Viking), she says she has found "people are really tired of the politics of cruelty. Everywhere I've gone, people have responded with such warmth to Eleanor Roosevelt's vision, which was to make things better for all people."

She quotes Roosevelt's denunciation of skimpy funding for the education of black children: "How stupid we are. We're all going to go ahead together, or we're all going to go down together." Cook adds, "I think that's the challenge for this moment in every community."

The 58-year-old biographer, a New York native and history professor at City University of New York's John Jay College, says she is encouraged by Hillary Rodham Clinton's planned run for a U.S. Senate seat in New York. When Eleanor Roosevelt was asked to run for office, Cook notes, "She said, 'I'd rather be chloroformed.' "

Still, Cook thinks Roosevelt would be "sort of delighted" to see Clinton run--now that there is an organized women's movement to provide support, something that didn't exist for Roosevelt.

A Woman of Uncommon Charisma

Cook and "ER," as Cook calls her throughout the books, met when Cook was student council president at Hunter College. The writer recalls, "This was the halcyon days of the civil rights movement. . . . She was very pleased and encouraged us to think about civil rights and to be activists"--and to support the antinuclear movement.

But what Cook remembers most clearly is "just her energy. She was 60 at the time and had the most luminous blue eyes, and when she entered the room the energy of the room actually changed, the level just zipped up. And when she was talking to you, she was talking only to you, and she was always so interested. She really had an incredible gift."

Vol. 1 was a bestseller, a fact attributable in some measure to its disclosure that Roosevelt may have had an affair with New York state trooper Earl Miller, who guarded President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and may have had a lesbian relationship with Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok. In Vol. 2, Cook further explores the Roosevelt-Hickok relationship, stopping short of characterizing it as sexual--"I leave it up to the readers."

Cook says, "Some people say to me, 'Well, these are Victorian women, or these are Edwardian women . . . [or] these letters don't mean what they seem to mean,' which seems a very silly idea to me because these are professional writers who are used to writing precisely what they mean to write. So when Eleanor Roosevelt writes, 'I can't wait to lie down beside you and take you in my arms,' I have no reason to believe that's some Edwardian code for something else. And if it were, what would it be?"

Roosevelt and "Hick" frequently vacationed together and exchanged voluminous correspondence. In one letter Roosevelt writes, "Hick darling: Oh! how good it was to hear your voice. It was so inadequate to try to tell you what it meant. [Eldest son] Jimmy was near & I couldn't say je t'aime et je t'adore as I longed to do. . . ."

Politics and Private Life Are Entertwined

Cook's interest, she says, is that of historian, not voyeur: "We didn't know that she had a private life. And one of the things that I discovered was that Eleanor Roosevelt worked very, very hard to have a private life. People always say, 'Why do you spend time on that? Why don't you just tell us about her wonderful politics?' It's really a strange thing to ask of a biographer.

"Eleanor Roosevelt's entire politics, which is so much why we study her, was fueled by love--and love is an experiential thing. It's not an abstraction. So it really matters that she had love in her life and a support network of people who were devoted to her. . . . FDR has his court. She has her court. He has his live-in companions; she has her live-in companions."

And the media of the time was discreet and respectful. Cook observes, "We've gone from the imperial Presidency to the captive Presidency," a hypocritical time of "demonization of consensual sex, a new level of politics that I think is frankly strange and really disturbing." She suggests most presidents have had extramarital alliances--except maybe Herbert Hoover, "and he weighed 300 pounds."

Cook begins the second volume with "A Silence Beyond Repair," a chapter that chronicles what Cook views as "one of the most heartbreaking parts of the story"--Eleanor Roosevelt's failure to speak out against anti-Jewish violence in Nazi Germany.

"I really think she was silenced by the State Department. She was silenced in all kinds of ways on international issues," says Cook, who is Jewish and says she has pondered the issue at length.

"However, the silence beyond repair is that she maintained this silence even in her columns and private letters, and it's really quite a bitter story. I read this sort of curled in agony. . . . And then she breaks her silence, and I think it's rather a heroic stand that she takes ultimately. Long before most people, long before her husband."

Cook said she understood better after reading a memoir by Varian Fry, an American magazine editor who went to France in 1940 to help political refugees in danger of being extradited to Germany. In his book, "Surrender on Demand," Fry wrote: "Nothing I accomplished could have been done had it not been for Eleanor Roosevelt."

Cook says, "That made me realize I was looking in some of the wrong places and that she was very involved in a quiet way, getting refugees into this country, getting visas extended, finding sanctuary for people. That was one level.

"The other level was that she dedicated herself to making sure it didn't happen here. She began to speak out really very bluntly about the kinds of bigotries and terrible things that were going on in the United States while Fascism was exploding all over the world. And every time she did, she received the most obscene hate mail."

Roosevelt was at one time what Cook terms "candidly, though privately, anti-Semitic," although her views eventually changed.

After FDR's death, Bernard Baruch, a leading financier and a Jew, proposed marriage to Roosevelt. She refused, but, Cook adds, "she was very gratified that he looked upon her as a mind and not as a woman. He really was very protective of her, even when he knew she shouldn't do that or say that."

A Marriage of Two Strong-Minded People

FDR also respected Eleanor Roosevelt, even though his friends called her strident (and hers called him slippery), and she was, as Cook points out, "the only first lady to leap for her pen to disagree with her husband."

But did he love her? "I think he did," says Cook. "He depended on her. He liked strong women in his life." In the Oval Office, he had a portrait of his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, facing him as he sat at his desk, while his wife's portrait hung on the wall behind him.

"He was a man who . . . juggled relations and he juggled emotions. And Eleanor Roosevelt was direct and demanding and ultimately passive aggressive and indirect emotionally. So there's a kind of labyrinthian geography to their relationship."

As an example, Cook says she became "obsessed" with Henrietta Nesbitt, the White House housekeeper, whose domestic skills were so poor that guests were known to eat before coming to dinner at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Cook concluded that Nesbitt was "ER's Revenge," the title of the book's third chapter--a subtle way to punish her husband for his philandering. Although FDR could have demanded the dismissal of the housekeeper, who bent over backward to ignore his every request, he did not. The couple had a hard-won balance of power between them and to make an issue of Nesbitt would have destroyed it, Cook says.

The third volume of Cook's biography, to be published around 2001, will cover the years remaining until Roosevelt's death in 1962 at the age of 78. Will there be any bombshells? "There are always bombshells with Eleanor Roosevelt," Cook says. "There are lots of excitements and nuances and surprises."

Beverly Beyette can be reached by e-mail at beverly.beyette@latimes.com.

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