The First First Lady, Vol. 2 (and a Handbook for Hillary?)

Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 2, 1933-1938 , by Blanche Wiesen Cook. Viking, 686 pages, $34.95.

The big story with Eleanor Roosevelt was change. She began as a sheltered Hudson River Valley aristocrat and ended up a radical world citizen, the universally respected “First Lady of the World.” As the 20th century’s most influential woman, a selfless advocate of outcasts everywhere, she championed change itself as a force for good in the world.

As with all great reformers, it took Eleanor Roosevelt a long time to figure out who she was and where she fit in. Like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, she learned to use the force of discrimination experienced first hand–caste and race in the case of Gandhi and King, gender and class in hers–to throw society, jujitsu-style, off balance. Like Robert F. Kennedy, she was the trusted eyes and ears and moral muscle to an extravagantly charming and often aloof President. But what makes Eleanor Roosevelt an ideal and inexhaustible subject for biography is that each time her life demanded that she transcend herself in order to move ahead, she risked everything. Abraham Lincoln may be democracy’s only other indispensable apostle of change whose personal growth contains as many purifying metamorphoses.

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt first had to rescue herself from, as she termed it, an “odd sort of childhood.” She was the neglected Ugly Duckling of tragic though beloved parents, both of whom she lost (her mother, a New York Livingston, to diphtheria; her father, an Oyster Bay Roosevelt, to alcoholism) by the time she was 9. Eleanor married in 1905, at age 20, her exuberant fifth cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose mother bullied the inexperienced young Eleanor throughout their early marriage.

It took Eleanor 13 years to shed the role of overpowered wife and timid mother and become the equal of her husband in deciding how she would live her life and where and with whom. At two turning points in her foundering marriage–the discovery in 1918 of Franklin’s infidelity (with her social secretary) and the onset in August 1921 of his affliction with polio–she remained loyal to her husband not out of forgiveness or pity or love alone, but out of self-reliance and the reciprocal devotion of an ever-growing circle of women she met through political and social work.

Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt’s most complete and searching biographer, continues the saga she began in an award-winning first volume, taking six jam-packed years, 1933 to 1938, to frame her minutely detailed portrait of the transfiguration of Eleanor into E.R. In this second of three (more likely four) intended volumes, the first of which brought a reluctant 48-year-old Eleanor to the White House, we learn that she had reason in 1933 to be apprehensive at the prospect of losing the personal and political independence she had gained in the 1920’s.

When the new First Lady (the title itself would not enter colloquial use until 1934) arrived at the White House, her one assignment, Ms. Cook notes, was to “create a gracious and pleasant environment.” Until E.R., the doings of Presidents’ wives went mostly unrecorded, a convention dating back to Mason Locke Weems’ declaration that examining the details of Martha Washington’s life was “contrary to the rules of biography.” E.R. would be the first First Lady whom history could not subordinate. In addition to her official East Wing duties, she immediately laid claim not just to an unprecedented public life adjacent to her husband’s but also a private life of her own.

As “eyes and ears,” the Mrs. Roosevelt of legend served the New Deal in a powerful, independent role. Out in front of F.D.R. on practically every important issue of the Depression and prewar years, from civil rights to America’s entrance into the World Court, E.R. suffered well-known agonies of frustration as the goad and conscience of the Roosevelt Administration. In scene after scene, as the President torpedoed the London Economic Conference of 1933 and kept silent on the Wagner-Costigan anti-lynching bill of 1934 and remained indifferent to Fascist atrocities in Ethiopia and the Loyalist government in Spain, Ms. Cook shows how the Roosevelts’ complex interdependence influenced policy, with E.R. weathering compromises to push the President a little further next time. Always anticipating the next move in every fight, Eleanor little by little propelled Franklin–and the electorate–toward the future. We can now see that intuitive E.R., even more than practical F.D.R., drew the lines on the map of things to come.

Initially, both Roosevelts were silent on Nazi Germany. In 1933, F.D.R. offered no response to urgent appeals from abroad to address Germany’s “ferocious anti-Semitism and fanatical racism.” The following year, in an episode that was fully reported at the time but has been omitted ever since by F.D.R.’s biographers, the President sent a celebratory “greeting” to a rally at Madison Square Garden sponsored by the “Friends of the New Germany.” In a hall draped with swastikas, Nazi bunting and the Stars and Stripes, F.D.R.’s message was read aloud and given three “heils” by 20,000 cheering German-Americans. Ms. Cook meanwhile puzzles over E.R.’s restraint in the face of vivid reports of the Nazis’ anti-Jewish violence sent by Americans visiting Berlin. Anti-Semitism tainted Eleanor’s youthful letters, but Ms. Cook blames E.R.’s uncharacteristic White House silence on the Administration’s isolationism and the connivance of F.D.R.’s State Department, which was intent on squashing any American voice raised against Germany.

Ms. Cook has restored the balance lacking in our understanding of the parallel administration run by the First Lady on issues of public housing, racial integration, women’s issues and internationalism. She has also broken new ground in the ongoing excavation of the separate lives led by Eleanor and Franklin. Some of E.R.’s independence and confidence as First Lady came from the relationship she formed in 1932 with 38-year-old Lorena Hickok, a veteran Associated Press reporter, the most highly regarded female journalist in the country. To judge by the surviving evidence of a massive, amorous correspondence stretching across three decades, the intimacy of E.R. and Hick, as she was known, was based on mutual respect, understanding, trust–and sex.

Earlier accounts insist, with a weird Alice-in-Wonderland logic, that the emotional and physical bond between First Lady and First Friend must be seen as a desperate or obsessive “substitute” for another, supposedly more realistic kind of love that was missing from Hick and Eleanor’s lives. Nonsense. Ms. Cook has once again coaxed scholarship out of the rabbit hole and back to reality. True, letters do not tell the whole story, and no one except the correspondents can say with absolute certainty how far and in what ways the relationship developed. But Ms. Cook’s scrupulous, forceful, fully rounded portrait of two women in love is amply convincing.

Ms. Cook’s narrative loses focus, however, when she strays, led on by her own painstakingly inclusive research, into mirrored celebration of feminist milestones. E.R.’s official appreciation of women’s breakthroughs is significant–for example, she sponsored musical receptions in the East Room of the White House to honor the composer Amy Beach’s contribution to American music. But do we need a list of “other women composers” who “also gave concerts”? Ms. Cook’s otherwise compelling story of one woman’s life takes on the solemn sound of an almanac of all women–correct, admirable, lifeless.

Cavils aside, the completed volumes of Ms. Cook’s Eleanor Roosevelt will surely become the standard reference. More immediately, Volume 2 may serve as a field manual for New York’s next Senate race: It maps out strategy and tactics against which the Republicans may have to run. As Mrs. Roosevelt’s truest successor in the art of presidential partnership, Hillary Clinton has already mastered the first lesson by accruing power from a husband’s philandering, whether with a Lucy Mercer or a Monica Lewinsky: Don’t play the victim, win respect as he loses his. A second E.R. lesson that a female politician must bring to the total war of New York politics: Winning admiration is still not as effective as inspiring fear. The third, manifestly most important of Mrs. Roosevelt’s precepts, has so far been the toughest for Mrs. Clinton: Win or lose, risk everything. The First Lady of the World learned it the old-fashioned way, not from opinion polls but from life itself.