|Blanche Wiesen Cook|
I had read this volume around the time it was published as I was working at its publisher, Viking - Penguin, at the time.
This is pure Gilded Age era material, and Eleanor Roosevelt was as at the center of the Gilded Age as one could be as a member of the ruling, affluent class of old Dutch New York families. Recall Eleanor's uncle was Theodore Roosevelt, so like Henry Adams, Roosevelts could fairly believe the White House was part of their natural heritage. But unlike the bitter and disappointed New England aristocrat, Henry Adams, Franklin and Eleanor actually did do politics, and hold political offices -- even if Eleanor, despite her many breakthroughs, could only do so through her husband, so to speak.
This re-reading, in the depths of our own Gilded Age, while like the previous one should also be more aptly named the Age of Miseries, has me noticing things that must have just slipped by back at the start of the 1990's. Back then I knew much less of our history than I do now, and truly far less of this period of bottomless corruption and cruelty, ushered in by end to the War of the Rebellion, than I do now.
|ER in Inaugural Ball Gown|
As Theodore Roosevelt was Eleanor's uncle -- brother to her alcoholic father -- Cook gives us a great deal of background to his family. What I didn't recall on the first reading was that David McCullough's Mornings on Horseback (1981) contained all this material too (I re-read this one too, rather recently, back in 2015). As mentioned that the first time I read Vol I. I didn't know all the history I now do -- and I sure didn't know it when reading Mornings on Horseback on the subway to work, morning and night, and at lunch, These two works make good introductions to the residents of their class, for good and a whole lot for ill, who lived at the apex of the age's vaunted opulence, snobbery, bigotry, exploitation and racism.
Having finished Vol I over the weekend I immediately started Vol. II The Defining Years, 1933-1938 (2000). In the later chapters of Vol I., when Franklin goes through his first campaigns and other election experiences, and takes full advantage of everything Eleanor can and does contribute -- without even acknowledging to anyone else much less ER (throughout the work Cook refers to Eleanor Roosevelt as ER) that she's contributing anything. It was just what he was entitled to, and many women held him up at all times, beginning with his mother and her money. The portrait of FDR in these books isn't flattering. Cook gives him credit when credit is due, but in many ways and far too often FDR shows himself a selfish sob, and even just plain mean, and certainly ready to descend into political skullduggery against other politicians -- but then, he was a consummate politician and that's how they roll.
When ER begins to think politically and of politics and of unfathomable obstacles to women emerging in this sphere, I thought constantly of Hillary Clinton's What Happened (2017). I was certain, of course, that Clinton has read these books, and many more about Eleanor Roosevelt. With what knowing bitterness she has had to recognize ER's conclusions. So it was exciting then, when the Acknowledgments and Introduction to Vol. II, Cook names First Lady, Mrs. Clinton, who gave her personally a guided tour of the White House in preparation for ER's own White House years.
As ER, with the help of an ever growing circle of brilliant and close friends, began her education in feminism and then became one herself, FDR was already deeply in politics. ER found everything about politics exciting and felt right at home in all the phases of campaign, and particularly policy, but didn't allow herself to say so, either to herself or the public. She wrote and spoke constantly of the dislike of women by the political patriarchy, and their loathing and disdain at the very idea that a woman could be one of them, either as a designer of policy and strategy or as a candidate herself. Among her many articles on these subjects in these years she shared with other women in the 'ladies' magazines that when a woman was allowed to run, it would be in elections for seats in which there was no chance of the party winning. This way the party men could say they lost the election because "the candidate was a woman." ER wrote and spoke of these matters openly and often.
|Kirkus review here; NY Times review here.|