Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11 1884 – November 7 1962) was an American human rights activist, diplomat and as the wife of President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the longest serving First Lady of the United States from 1933-1945. An active First Lady, she traveled around the United States promoting the New Deal and visited troops at the frontlines during World War II. She was a first-wave Feminist and an active supporter of the American Civil Rights Movement.
Mrs. Roosevelt was active in the formations of numerous institutions most notably the United Nations, United Nations Association and Freedom House. She chaired the committee that drafted and approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. President Harry S. Truman called her the First Lady of the World, in honor of her extensive travels to promote human rights.
Mrs. Roosevelt was the eldest child of Elliott Roosevelt and Anna Hall Roosevelt and was a favorite niece of Theodore Roosevelt. Following her parents deaths, young Anna Eleanor was raised by her maternal grandmother, an emotionally cold woman, in an autocratic house. On St. Patrick's Day, 1905 she married Franklin Delano Roosevelt; President Theodore Roosevelt took the place of his late brother in giving Eleanor's hand to her husband to be.
Eleanor and Franklin were fifth cousins, once removed. They descended from Claes Martenszen van Rosenvelt who emigrated to New Amsterdam (Manhattan) from Holland in the 1640s. His grandsons, Johannes and Jacobus, began the Oyster Bay and Hyde Park branches of the Roosevelt family. Eleanor is descended from the Johannes branch and Franklin is descended from the Jacobus branch.
Although she was still in her Uncle Teddy's good graces, Eleanor found herself at odds with his eldest daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth who was enraged that the homely Eleanor not only snagged her cousin Franklin as a husband, but that Franklin, and now Eleanor, were members of the Democratic Party, which Alice viewed as an afront to Theodore Roosevelt's position as President.
Some biographers have suggested that Mrs. Roosevelt had a romantic relationship with the journalist Lorena Hickok whom she met in 1928 and who was an out lesbian. Evidence of this possible relationship is well documented by Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of Eleanor Roosevelt's definitive biography, and by Jonathan Ned Katz in the Gay/Lesbian Almanac. Mrs. Roosevelt's bisexuality is substantiated by Cliff Arnesen, a childhood friend and member of the National Bisexual Advisory Board/GLB Veterans of America.
In 1939, the opera singer Marian Anderson was refused permission to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington because of her skin color. Mrs. Roosevelt arranged for Anderson to perform from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to a live audience of 70,000, and a nationwide radio audience.
Mrs. Roosevelt opposed her husband's decision to sign Executive Order 9066 which resulted in the internment of 110,000 Japanese nationals and American citizens of Japanese descent in internment camps on the U.S. West Coast. In 1943 Mrs. Roosevelt, along with Wendell Willkie and other Americans concerned about the mounting threats to peace and democracy during World War II, established Freedom House.
Eleanor Roosevelt and Mme Chiang Kai-shek, 1943
After World War II, she was instrumental along with John Peters Humphrey and others in formulating the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On the night of December 10, 1948, Mrs. Roosevelt spoke on behalf of the Declaration calling it "the international Magna Carta of all mankind," and the Declaration was unanimously adopted by the General Assembly later that night.
Following the death of her husband, Mrs. Roosevelt continued to live on the Hyde Park Estate, however she did so at Val-Kil, the house that her husband Franklin remodeled for her near the mainhouse. Originally built as a small furniture factory, Val-Kil afforded Eleanor with a level of privacy that she had wanted for many years. Here she entertained her circle of friends in informal gatherings. The site is now the home of the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kil, dedicated to "Eleanor Roosevelt's belief that people can enhance the quality of their lives through purposeful action based on sensitive discourse among people of diverse perspectives focusing on the varied needs of society."
In 1954 Tammany Hall boss Carmine DeSapio campaigned against her son, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., in the New York Attorney General election and successfully defeated him. Mrs. Roosevelt held DeSapio responsible for her son's defeat and grew increasingly disgusted with his political conduct through the rest of the 1950s. Eventually, she would join with her old friends Herbert Lehman and Thomas Finletter to form the New York Committee for Democratic Voters, a group dedicated to enhancing the democratic process by opposing DeSapio's reincarnated Tammany. Eventually their efforts were successful, and in 1961 DeSapio was removed from power.
Mrs. Roosevelt was a close friend of Adlai Stevenson and was a strong supporter of his candidacies in the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections. When President Truman backed New York Governor W. Averell Harriman, who was a close associate of Carmine DeSapio, for the Democratic presidential nomination, Mrs. Roosevelt was disappointed but continued to support Stevenson who ultimately won the nomination. She backed Stevenson once again in 1960 but John F. Kennedy received the presidential nomination instead.
She was responsible for the establishment of the 2,800 acre (11 km²) Roosevelt Campobello International Park on Campobello Island, New Brunswick in 1964 following a gift of the Roosevelt summer estate to the Canadian and American governments.
Mrs. Roosevelt was an accomplished archer, and one of the first modern women to participate in the sport of bowhunting. Her exploits as a 20th Century Diana are well documented in the writings of her male bowhunting contemporaries Fred Bear, Howard Hill and Saxton Pope. A close personal friendship with J.E. Davis, editor of Ye Sylvan Archer, shich was a popular bowhunting magazine of the time, led to an invitation to author several articles for that publication. Mrs. Roosevelt's tales of her hunting excursions were well received, though they did not serve to further the cause of women's liberation: in keeping with the chauvinistic standards of the time, Roosevelt's stories were published under the masculine pseudonym "Chuck Painton" to avoid offending the magazine's overwhelmingly male readership. One of Mrs. Roosevelt's prized trophies, the taking of which was immortalized in her poignant 1937 account Outwitting the Rompala Buck (Ye Sylvan Archer, v2), for many years graced the mantle above the fireplace in her husband Franklin's presidential library. It is now held as one of the organizing artifacts of the Community Forum Collection of the Smithsonian Institution.
After her death, her son Elliott Roosevelt wrote a series of best-selling fictional murder mysteries wherein she acted as a detective, helping the police solve the crime, while she was First Lady. They feature actual places and celebrities of the time.
Eleanor Roosevelt is buried next to Franklin D. Roosevelt at their home in Hyde Park, New York.
- Eleanor Roosevelt, The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt, Da Capo Press ed., 1992, paperback, 439 pages, ISBN 03680476X, dacapopress.com
- David B. Roosevelt, Grandmère: A Personal History of Eleanor Roosevelt, Warner Books, 2002, Hardcover, 256 pages, ISBN 0446527343
Last updated: 05-14-2005 21:55:37