The Lady's Indomitable Spirit

IN 1950, James Roosevelt, son of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, was running for governor of California against the formidable reelection campaign of Gov. Earl Warren.

I was 18, and because my Aunt Celia knew what it would mean to me, I got a precious invitation to be at her large home in Beverly Hills to meet Eleanor Roosevelt. It was a fund-raiser for the son's campaign, but the reason so many people came that night to my aunt's home on Maple Drive was so they, too, might have a chance to meet Mrs. Roosevelt.

The race was by then considered hopeless. Politicians turned aside in droves from endorsing James for governor. But not his mother. She would be there. She would help her son.

But an hour or two after Mrs. Roosevelt's arrival time had come and gone, I saw Aunt Celia twisting a handkerchief and murmuring something about, ''Where is our guest of honor?''

Dozens of ample wallets and purses stood about the buffet and in the living room, waiting. There was a sense of impending disaster. Soon people would go home, I heard. I don't know why I thought it might help if I stood outside, but I was anxious, too. This might be my only chance to meet ''The First Lady of the World,'' as President Truman had once called her.

I'd wait it out all night, if necessary.

I saw a limousine down the street. It was unwaxed, of unfashionable vintage, a common-sense limo that had seen better days. It rolled slowly up the street as the driver read the house numbers, and then it pulled up to the curb in front of Aunt Celia's home, which sat back from the street, up a long driveway's rise. The door opened. But no one came to help the passenger out. So I walked down to the limo and stood there. A lady emerged in a black dress, a simple hairdo, no makeup, nothing gussied up about her. Her style was in her eyes. I melted. It was Eleanor Roosevelt.

I would later read a newspaper article about her life that said: ''A life which tells us that the human spirit is indomitable.'' That's what hit you when you first saw her: the spirit. She smiled at me, and I introduced myself. Just another nephew of another hostess to whom this moment was priceless. I stammered, but Eleanor Roosevelt looked at me squarely, clearly. I could see it had been a long day for her. And it was not over. True to her word, however, this lady - who was to eventually count 18 grandchildren - had come to help her son at an hour when most grandmothers would be asleep in a warm bed.

She looked tired as I put an arm under her elbow and guided her up the long driveway. By the time we reached the front door and it opened to light and music and excited guests craning for a look, an amazing transformation had occurred in Mrs. Roosevelt's face. As she entered, she was smiling broadly. Her face was lively, filled with joy. With every face she saw and every hand she shook, she made people feel they were somehow important to her. She moved slowly through the room. It was a style that's referred to in Hollywood as ''working the room,'' but without the artificiality so often associated with that phrase. I watched her. She missed no one. She listened. She commented. She smiled some more.

They raised a good deal of money that night in Beverly Hills. I never got the sense that anyone contributed because James Roosevelt would make the better governor or because he even had a shot at winning. But for this lady they opened their hearts, wallets, and purses.

Adlai Stevenson wrote of Eleanor Roosevelt: ''What other single human being has touched and transformed the existence of so many others?'' She was a woman who knew what to do to help others, to put them at ease, first; then, what to do to tend to their needs, to their wounds, one might say.

That night, I stayed until she left. Aunt Celia's living room was never so warm. Many guests sat around, talking only about Eleanor Roosevelt. It had been a grand evening.

Sometime later, I visited Mrs. Roosevelt's home, Val-Kill, which she bought in 1945 from the estate of the president. There, I saw a photograph hanging on a wall: Eleanor Roosevelt, carrying her own suitcase, is walking from an airport gate's parking lot to perhaps a taxi stand.

She is alone. It is not loneliness but her solitude that sweeps over you when you see the photograph. Her head is down. She seems deep in thought. It does not occur to her that ''The First Lady of the World'' is carrying her own suitcase, one of those popular-priced little numbers that really did fit under your seat on the plane.

No one appears to have met her arrival at the airport. She doesn't appear to notice anything out of the ordinary in her taking care of herself as she arrives home. It made me think of Harry Truman's answer to a newspaper reporter's question when he returned to Independence, Mo., for the first time as a private citizen after leaving the White House.

''What's the first thing you did when you got home, Mr. President?'' the reporter yelled out to him.

Truman seemed puzzled, paused, and then said, ''Well, I carried the suitcases up to the attic.'' He didn't understand why that answer made everyone laugh. But his true character glowed out from his answer, and so it was with Eleanor Roosevelt in this photograph at an airport.

She seems just a senior adult of sensible, modest demeanor, going about her business; wearing those familiar Minnie Mouse shoes my grandmother also preferred, a simple black coat, a squashed, black straw hat, white gloves, and purse; magazines and newspapers clutched in her other hand. She is utterly unaware of dress, of fashion, or of ceremonial courtesies.

The photo catches the essential Eleanor Roosevelt in that part of her life that her biographer and friend, Joseph Lash, called ''The Years Alone.'' Alone, but not lonely. A life bursting at the seams, proving to herself and others that she was capable of more than anyone thought she could do.

''I'm a tough old bird,'' she wrote in a letter in 1956, when she was in her 70s.

I obtained a print of that airport photo. It sits above my desk. I never fail to feel a sense of ignition, a soaring of my spirits, whenever I glance at it.

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