Sara and Eleanor: The Story of Sara Delano Roosevelt and Her Daughter-in-Law, Eleanor Roosevelt

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9780312339395: Sara and Eleanor: The Story of Sara Delano Roosevelt and Her Daughter-in-Law, Eleanor Roosevelt

We think we know the story of Eleanor Roosevelt--the shy, awkward girl who would redefine the role of First Lady, becoming a civil rights activist and an inspiration to generations of young women. As legend has it, the bane of Eleanor's life was her demanding and domineering mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt. Biographers have overlooked the complexity of a relationship that had, over the years, been reinterpreted and embellished by Eleanor herself.

Through diaries, letters, and interviews with Roosevelt family and friends, Jan Pottker uncovers a story never before told. The result is a triumphant blend of social history and psychological insight--a revealing look at Eleanor Roosevelt and the woman who made her historic achievements possible.

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About the Author:

Jan Pottker is the author of seven previous books, including Janet and Jackie: The Story of a Mother and Her Daughter, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Pottker's interest in Sara and Eleanor was sparked when she realized that a myth had grown around Eleanor at the expense of Sara---much the same as the relationship between Jackie and her mother had been underplayed and distorted over time. Pottker has a Ph.D. from Columbia University and lives in Potomac, Maryland, with her husband, Andrew S. Fishel.

From The Washington Post:

For 50 years, the accepted wisdom has been that Eleanor Roosevelt was some kind of secular saint, while her mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt, was a monster. Both women have been misperceived, according to Jan Pottker's dual biography, but it is Eleanor's posthumous reputation that has waxed while Sara's has waned.

During her lifetime, Mrs. James Roosevelt was the most admired presidential mother in American history. Time magazine featured the wealthy 76-year-old dowager on its cover during the week of FDR's first inaugural, lauding her aristocratic charm and special closeness to her son. At her death, in 1941, kings and potentates, her hosts during countless foreign trips, mourned her, as did more than 130 organizations that had benefited from her largesse.

So when and why did popular perception of Sara change? Pottker cites the 1958 success of Dore Schary's Broadway melodrama "Sunrise at Campobello" as a major factor. The play -- later a movie -- portrayed Sara at 66 as an overbearing matriarch who patronized her daughter-in-law and grandchildren, and who discouraged her only son from entering what she considered the sordid world of politics.

Adoring relatives now condemn the trashing. "That was not the way she was," says a great-granddaughter. "She never raised her voice." Eleanor's former son-in-law blames her for the derogatory characterization, claiming that she encouraged it to garner sympathy for herself.

Eleanor had indeed cooperated with the playwright, ostensibly in exchange for royalties to be paid to her cash-strapped children. She publicly declared the play to be "excellent" while allowing its unfairness to Sara, "who was a great personality, never petty." Privately, however, Eleanor complained that "Franklin's children were more my mother-in-law's children than they were mine." In this lies the crux of the matter.

Eleanor and Franklin's son Elliott once said that his mother was austere and distant: "The warmth in our lives came from Father and Granny." He and his four siblings (another died in infancy) relished the many weeks spent each year at Hyde Park, their grandmother's Hudson Valley estate. Sara, who saw that Eleanor had neither aptitude nor taste for child-rearing, soon stepped in to fill the void. Surely she must have been appalled to hear that Eleanor had hung her first-born out the window in a cage for air, rather than take the baby to Central Park.

The story of Eleanor's wretched childhood, which left her feeling victimized, is familiar. Her alcoholic father and superficial mother neglected her. At 10, she was orphaned, and a cold grandmother sent her abroad to school. Craving closeness and suffering low self-esteem, Eleanor was incredulous when her handsome, gregarious fifth cousin Franklin proposed. How could he want a buck-toothed, 19-year-old introvert like her?

Actually she was quite a catch. She had some money, and her Uncle Theodore happened to be president of the United States. Franklin admired TR more than any other man and hoped to emulate his trajectory in politics.

Though full of doubt about Franklin's constancy, Eleanor accepted him anyway. Sara felt that her son, still in college at 23, was far too young for family responsibilities. But the president approved Eleanor's choice, and traveled to New York on St. Patrick's Day, 1905, to give her away.

Once Franklin indeed strayed -- with his wife's secretary, Lucy Mercer -- Eleanor decided to leave. Sara, certain that he would be president one day, ruled out divorce by threatening to withhold her financial support. Eleanor shut down emotionally after that -- at least, until her midlife friendships with several career women, whom Pottker delicately calls her "cronies" but whom FDR referred to as "he-shes."

While Franklin underwent never-ending physical therapy at Warm Springs, Ga., Eleanor wrote dreary newspaper columns and crisscrossed the country, making political speeches on his behalf. Always reluctant to share her husband's spotlight, she had no scruples about stepping into her own.

She once told a biographer that, had she matured earlier, she might have been more tolerant of Sara. Yet the animosity she felt toward her mother-in-law was that of a woman, not a girl. Eleanor envied Sara's beauty, her sunny disposition, her fluency in German and French, her brilliant skills as a hostess and property manager, and her easy empathy with the disadvantaged. Moreover, she resented the fact that Sara's fortune (made by her father in the Chinese opium trade) subsidized her own household. Even in the White House, the Franklin Roosevelts received the modern equivalent of $1.4 million a year from the generous Sara, who (contrary to myth) visited sparingly. Above all, Eleanor was jealous of the bottomless love Franklin felt for his mother.

After Sara's death, she said, "It is dreadful to have lived so close to someone for 36 years and to feel no deep affection or sense of loss." Inconsolable, Franklin wore a black arm band for more than a year.

It is a pity that Pottker does not document and tell this poignant story better. Her source notes are bewilderingly inadequate. She lists books, articles and archives, but never specifies where particular quotes come from. She cites four books having to do with race and Booker T. Washington in one chapter, yet mentions neither subject in the text. The material is badly arranged, minor characters are sketchy, and the prose often lacks sequitur. Too many paragraphs merely list social engagements. TR is familiarly referred to throughout as "Teddy," a name that he detested.

An editor should have caught some errors. On one page, James Roosevelt is 52 when he met Sara, and on another he is 56. (The former age is correct.) It was in Manhattan, not Oyster Bay, that they fell in love. Franklin was almost 19 in December 1900, rather than "not quite eighteen" or "nearly twenty-one," as Pottker states on consecutive pages. Henry Adams's Washington house was demolished, not made part of the Hay-Adams Hotel.

Reviewed by Sylvia Jukes Morris


Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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