In 1960, the "Chairman of the Board" asked the first lady of the world if she had one word of encouragement for viewers of his "Frank Sinatra ABC Special."
"That one word would be 'hope.'" said Eleanor Roosevelt.
"Just 'hope'?" Sinatra asked.
"Yes, it's the most neglected word in our language."
Yes, hope – as in "those high, apple-pie-in-the-sky hopes" – propelled Roosevelt to become a globe-trotting humanitarian, and for 12 years America's first lady, emphasis on "first." She was the first first lady to cross the country by air, and the first to have press conferences. And as David Michaelis chronicles in his new biography, "Eleanor" (published by Simon & Schuster, a Viacom/CBS company), Roosevelt was also the first first lady to write a daily newspaper column – and host a weekly radio show.
Correspondent Mo Rocca asked, "Of all the monikers/titles assigned to her, which was the one that was her favorite?"
"She registered herself over and over again as 'homemaker,'" said Michaelis. "Or 'housewife.' She thought that you were a genius if you could make a home anywhere you were."
Feeling at home with herself was a lifelong journey for Eleanor. She was born in 1884 into material wealth and emotional scarcity. Michealis said, "She wasn't allowed to show fear. She wasn't allowed to cry. If she was upset, she was told to go in the bathroom, put her head over the tub, and cry there."
She adored her father, the brother of future President Teddy Roosevelt, but he struggled with addiction. Her mother, said to be the "second most beautiful woman in New York," openly mocked Eleanor for her serious demeanor, calling the young girl "granny."
"It was a way of saying not just, you look old and sour; you look like something I don't want to be, and I don't want my family to have anything to do with it," Michaelis said. "It was a real excommunication."
Rocca asked, "And what did that do to Eleanor?"
"Well, she herself would say, 'I wanted to sink into the floorboards.'"
Orphaned at the age of nine, she was engaged at 19 to her fifth cousin, the ambitious Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
"What did Franklin see in Eleanor?" Rocca asked.
"Well, she had one thing: she was the president's niece," Michaelis said. "He worshipped Theodore Roosevelt. Meeting Eleanor was the moment where he could say to himself, 'By God, I'm marrying that woman, and I'm going to be President of the United States myself."
The marriage would become one of history's great political partnerships. Rocca asked, "She immediately feels useful?"
"Useful and therefore loved," said Michaelis. "And I think the great disconnect for them was in discovering that they could only be useful to each other, but might not make each other happy as intimates."
Although they would have six children, Franklin would find romantic love with other women; Eleanor would seek intimacy with both men and women.
Throughout Eleanor's life, she channeled her own hunger for affection into compassion and service to others.
"She was a noticer of other people, who didn't like to be noticed herself," Michaelis said. "She much preferred the attention to be on you than on her."
During World War I, while Franklin served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Eleanor visited Arlington National Cemetery daily, to bear witness to the burials of fallen American soldiers. "If nobody turned up, she felt absolutely it was her duty to stand by that grave and to observe everything, and listen to 'Taps,'" Michaelis said. "I was just thinking: I began every morning for a number of years when I was writing this book listening to 'Taps.' And 'Taps' is sort of the Eleanor Roosevelt anthem, because in it, she was able to connect, through sorrow and pain, to the country in its most sorrowful and painful moments."
"Loss?" said Rocca.
"It's what her life was primarily based on."
By the time Franklin was elected president, he had been stricken by polio. Eleanor became his eyes and ears, going right to the source of the country's pain during the Depression – meeting miners in Appalachia; challenging Southern Democrats to support anti-lynching legislation; and during World War II visiting internment camps where Japanese-Americans were imprisoned simply because of their race.
Michaelis said, "She brought back the truth. [FDR] always trusted that she was going to give a truth that others might not, or they might sugarcoat."
The first lady was often alone at the wheel, driving herself cross-country. "People looked into her eyes and saw somebody who was listening to them, and who was somehow seeing them in ways that they maybe had never been seen. She was letting you know that your government belonged to you. But more importantly, you belong to your government, and you had something to do. Democracy was a two-way street."
After Franklin died, Eleanor spent more time in a stone cottage at Val-Kill, New York, her longtime sanctuary, but she never retired.
In 1959, she hosted her own public television show, "Prospects of Mankind." Now in her seventies, she held forth with younger leaders, like Senator John F. Kennedy.
It so happens that David Michaelis' mother, Diana Tead Michaelis, worked on the program – and a four-year-old David once met Mrs. Roosevelt: "I was trying to get a stick of gum off the first lady, off my mother's boss. She was fresh out of Juicy Fruit. And that's the memory.
"But what I took away and feel still is this feeling of a person from whom goodness was literally pouring forth from these eyes that were alive and radiant," he said.
Rocca asked, "Where do you think that light comes from?"
"I think it comes out of fearlessness," said Michaelis. "There's finally a lack of fear of being who you are, so that you can be that person for millions of people."
Eleanor Roosevelt died on November 7, 1962, mourned by millions the world over – a once-uncertain child of privilege turned global champion of the dispossessed.
Rocca asked, "You must have wondered, 'What would her message to people be today?'"
"Live your life imaginatively, excitingly," Micheaelis replied. "Be yourself. Be the best possible version of yourself while you're here. It's not gonna be for very long."
READ A BOOK EXCERPT:
For more info:
- "Eleanor" by David Michaelis (Simon & Schuster), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon
- Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, N.Y.
- Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, Hyde Park, N.Y.
Story produced by Jay Kernis. Editor: George Pozderec.