Eleanor Roosevelt Finds Herself

From Geoffrey Ward’s biography of the Roosevelts comes this moving account of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Dickensian childhood, complete with neglectful mother and alcoholic father. Following the early death of both parents, the intervention of an aunt changes her life: 


…[Eleanor’s father] Elliott was delighted at her birth, and called her “Little Nell” after the relentlessly virtuous orphaned heroine of Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. But her mother seems to have been disappointed in her almost from the first. Anna was herself a celebrated beauty while Eleanor was plain, grave, shy. She called her daughter “granny” and once explained to her that since she had “no looks” she would need to have especially good manners.

      Anna would bear two more children, Elliott Jr. and Gracie Hall, but she was a distracted mother, hurt and baffled by her husband’s increasingly strange behavior, soon worsened by fresh addictions to drugs as well as drink…. Elliott took at least two mistresses; threatened his wife, then begged for forgiveness, then threatened her again; vowed to kill himself; finally got a family maid pregnant. To keep that scandal out of the newspapers, the Roosevelts had to pay thousands of dollars to the woman’s family, had Elliott committed to a French asylum for a time, and afterward insisted he stay away from his wife and children unless he changed his ways. He could not do it….

      In December 1892, at the age of twenty-nine, Anna Hall Roosevelt died of diphtheria, and Eleanor and her brothers were sent off to live with their maternal grandmother—pious, grim, dutiful. An unstable aunt lived at home. So did two drunken uncles. None of them was much interested in Eleanor. Within six months, three-year-old Elliott Jr. would die of the same disease that had taken his mother. Eleanor was a lonely girl, she remembered, timid, withdrawn, and “frightened of practically everything”—mice, the dark, other children, “displeasing the people I lived with.” Her only solace was dreams of her banished father, who sent her letters full of promises he could never keep: she would come and care for him someday; they would travel the world together; he would show her the Taj Mahal by moonlight. “Somehow,” she remembered, “it was always he and I.”…

      On August 13, 1894, suffering from delirium tremens, [her father] tried to climb out a second-floor Manhattan window, raced hysterically up and down the stairs, collapsed with a seizure, and died the following day….

      Eleanor’s memories of her parents left her with a mixed legacy. She remembered most her preoccupied mother’s severity and distance that ill-equipped her to be a nurturing mother when the time came. She worked hard to embody the qualities her father had encouraged—“unselfishness, generosity, loving tenderness and cheerfulness”—but his example also helped distort her perceptions of people; she tended to exaggerate their virtues at first, and then was inordinately disappointed later on when, inevitably, they failed to act as she had dreamed they would. From the sad lives of both her parents she also learned that no one’s love for her was likely to last, that those upon whom she counted most were sure to let her down….

      [Eleanor’s aunt] Bamie would indirectly prove Eleanor’s salvation. She had spent a season overseas in a girl’s school run by an extraordinary woman named Marie Souvestre. When Eleanor’s grandmother Hall thought she might benefit from a year or two away from her increasingly erratic uncles, Bamie suggested she be send to Allenswood, Souvestre’s boarding school, now located just outside London.

      The three years Eleanor spent there were the happiest of her life, she remembered. It was at Allenswood, a cousin recalled, “that [she] for the first time was deeply loved, and loved in return.” Eleanor was especially proud when she was elected captain of the field hockey team and eventually became the most admired girl in the school.

      But it was her relationship with Mademoiselle Souvestre that meant the most to her. The headmistress was intellectually alive, socially conscious, independent minded. “Why was your mind given you,” she liked to ask her students, “but to think things our for yourself?” She devoted herself to the tall, diffident American orphan and brought out all the tract, intelligence, discipline, energy, and empathy that would characterize Eleanor later in life. “Whatever I have become,” Eleanor would say many years later, “had its seeds in those three years of contact with a liberal mind and strong personality.”


– Geoffrey C. Ward, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, 45-49