Eleanor Roosevelt revealed
December 15, 2010

by Jack L. Kennedy

Stories about strong, creative, caring and versatile women who are former journalists and educators are always nourishing reading. But when one such figure writes about another with authority, power, perception and perspective, the reader is due for a special treat.

This is obviously the case with the biography, Eleanor Roosevelt Transformative First Lady (University Press of Kansas). Maurine H. Beasley, the author, has spent much of her professional life making Eleanor come alive in a respectful, but non-worshiping way. This is a book that both Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt scholars and simple lovers of good historical tales should enjoy.

Colorful figures sometimes have their lives and hues squeezed out of them by well-meaning but overly analytical modern biographers. Beasley mixes candor, honesty and setting deftly with feeling and movement as she describes a woman who was not known for her beauty and whose own personality was hidden behind husband President Franklin Delano Roosevelt whom she supported despite his affairs with female staffers. Indeed, Eleanor had her own life, as "My Day" syndicated newspaper columnist, adviser and one concerned over race relations and fostering social programs in a time when that was not a "proper" female role.

Beasley is a former education writer for the Kansas City Star, professor emerita of journalism at the University of Maryland, and a Washington Post staff writer. She is an author of other Roosevelt volumes and co-author with husband Hank Beasley of The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia.

The author describes Eleanor as a bit self-promoting, a trait perhaps fueled by a longstanding lack of self-confidence, or by a need to be on stage herself while Franklin found other women for comfort who were not politely talked about during wartime. She was certainly not the stereotypical First Lady and White House hostess her predecessors had been. Eleanor was a complex study in contrasts. Her newspaper column, radio appearances, press conferences and causes had their own audiences and fans, as no First Lady did before her.

"Although she subordinated herself to Franklin's leadership," Beasley writes, "Eleanor became the first president's wife to be acknowledged in public as a significant political player by journalists and political figures, if not by herself. Clearly recognizing that her husband, not she, had been elected to office, she exercised influence through her access to administration decision makers and her opportunities to sway public opinion via mass communications. Drawing on her background in politics in New York State, {while FDR was governor} Eleanor maneuvered her way among Franklin's advisers in Washington who subscribed to her point of view."

The book notes ties to another aggressive, perceptive Roosevelt president, distant cousin Teddy; the Albany New York governor days; people who had strong personal and/or political bonds with Eleanor; questions about her closeness with some women; and her fire for teaching. Some critics might say she did not do enough, but others viewing Eleanor through the times in which she lived saw her speaking out and advocating more than most.

A full supply of notes and source material is supplied for those who want to go further down the Roosevelt road. It also includes a highly readable, somewhat unusual, bibliographic essay that reveals Beasley's appetite for all things Eleanor and for her methodology in achieving her goal.

Harry Truman (FDR's vice president), the country boy from Independence, MO with ties to the Pendergast political machine and his wife Bess--successors in office to FDR and Eleanor--brought the Roosevelt dynasty to a close. While FDR and his wife both came from patrician, financially secure backgrounds, their legacy was that they knew that wealth also carried an obligation to help others.

Franklin's death from polio with a secretary-mistress at his side changed the presidency. The republic moved on, but Beasley reminds us that Eleanor left her mark. So has Beasley, by giving us Eleanor's real persona.

Title - Eleanor Roosevelt Transformative First Lady
Author-Maurine H. Beasley
Publisher - University Press of Kansas(1st ed., Oct. 21, 2010)
304 pp.
$19.77 at amazon.com
ISBN-10: 0700617272
ISBN-13: 978-0700617272

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