Q&A with with David Michaelis, author of ‘Eleanor’

America’s longest-serving first lady brought people’s everyday concerns to the White House, and made government seem more approachable. 

Nancy Steiner/Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
Biographer David Michaelis appears with his new book “Eleanor.”

David Michaelis thinks of Eleanor Roosevelt as “under understood.” The acclaimed biographer, whose previous subjects include Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and illustrator N.C. Wyeth, aims to change that with his cinematic account of America’s longest-serving first lady, titled, simply, “Eleanor.” The book covers her lonely childhood; her frosty marriage to her distant cousin Franklin; their White House years, dominated by the Depression and World War II; her intimate relationships outside their marriage, most significantly with journalist Lorena Hickok; and her widowhood, during which she became a forceful advocate for human rights. 

Q: A great deal has been written about Eleanor Roosevelt. Why does she merit a new biography now? 

We all think we know her and have an image of her in our mind, but there are so many nuances to her. I felt this woman was ready for a complete story where she would emerge from events, rather than be at the mercy of events.

Q: How did her childhood shape her?

Her mother was always disappointed in her for not being a better reflection of herself. As her father, who was Theodore Roosevelt’s younger brother, deteriorated into alcoholism and opiates, he would focus on Eleanor in a way that made her a co-delusionist with him. He would tell her that they were going to go around the world and do important things together. Her mother, father, and a younger brother all died within 19 months, leaving her orphaned at the age of 10. That could have been it, she could have just been lost. But her response was to keep this illusion that her father had spun for her alive in a fantasy way. She formed this idea of herself as a woman who was going to go around the world with a powerful Roosevelt man. This was a template for what she actually did with Franklin Roosevelt.

Q: She initially opposed suffrage, and she downplayed her early activism by saying she was merely a stand-in for her husband. How did her views of the political possibilities for women expand over time?

She was in constant evolution. She was not for women voting at first, but look how effective she became as a politician. The only way women are going to stop being bossed by men, she said, is if they become the bosses. This is exactly what she did. She proved that there’s something bigger than being elected, and that’s the influence that she developed by organizing and learning how the game is played. She was very good at getting things done.

Q: She offered Franklin a divorce after discovering his affair with Lucy Mercer, but they stayed together. How would you characterize their partnership?

Polio kept them together. Had he not gotten polio, Franklin would probably have run for president in 1924 instead of 1932, he certainly would have been beaten, and they probably would have divorced. Because polio happened, they became paradoxically a very modern couple, because they found a way of being independent of each other while maximizing their dependence on each other. She was not going to buckle under all the obstacles that their marriage presented. 

Q: How did she change the role of first lady?

She brought a simple thing to the job that had not been there: mobility. A first lady didn’t leave the White House. She was the first to use aviation as a tool, as she used the automobile as a tool. People came to the president, but Eleanor went to you. The connection she made with people was personal, the feeling that your government belonged to you, your concerns were of concern to the government. She would bring people’s problems back to Washington, and she would fix things. 

Q: It’s remarkable that Eleanor was the first person to address the nation after the attack on Pearl Harbor. What did she say?

Not only was she the first to address a population that was panicked, but she knew that being real was the way to alleviate people’s fears. She was saying that she believed in people to rise to the occasion, to come together and summon their bravery. Her voice rings at the end when she says, I trust that we will do this together because “we are the free and unconquerable people of the United States of America.”

Q: What is her legacy?

The very phrase “women in the White House” meant something different after Eleanor. Women were part of the furniture before she arrived. After her, there was always the question: Will the first lady have input into the presidency?

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