Roosevelt, Eleanor

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was Theodore Roosevelt’s niece. Her father was Theodore Roosevelt’s younger brother Elliott Bulloch Roosevelt.

On December 1, 1883, Theodore Roosevelt served as best man at his brother’s wedding to the beautiful New York socialite Anna Hall. Ten months later, Elliott and Anna became parents when their first child, Anna Eleanor (always called by her middle name), was born on October 11, 1884. The couple would have two more children, both sons: Elliott, Jr., and Gracie Hall (known as Hall).

Eleanor and her brothers were raised in a wealthy but unstable family. Anna Roosevelt was a distant and preoccupied mother who thought Eleanor was too plain to be beautiful. Elliott Roosevelt was addicted to alcohol and possibly pain killers. His alcoholism was a constant source of turmoil. For Eleanor, it was also the cause of separation from the father whom she adored. She once waited for hours for him to emerge from his club. Finally she watched as he was carried out, unconscious from over-imbibing. Elliott’s alcohol abuse and his violent rages—as well as his adulterous relationship with a family servant named Katy Mann—drove Theodore to spearhead a family effort to have his brother confined for a time to a sanatorium. When Anna died of diphtheria in 1892 and Eleanor’s young brother Elliott, Jr., passed away six months later, Eleanor and Hall went to live with their maternal grandmother in Tivoli, New York. Eleanor longed for her father and had only a child’s blurry understanding of his absence. His instability meant that the adults in her life kept to a minimum the times she saw him. On August 14, 1894, Elliott Roosevelt died as a result of his alcoholism. Eleanor was not quite ten years old.

Both before and after her parents died, Eleanor visited Sagamore Hill and so spent time with her Uncle Theodore, Aunt Edith, and her Roosevelt cousins. She was the same age as her cousin Alice, and the two girls played together well. Theodore taught Eleanor how to swim, just as he did his own children. Eleanor participated in pillow fights, story times, and picnics and hikes with her Sagamore Hill relatives. Such visits decreased somewhat after Elliott’s death. Eleanor and Alice saw little of each other while Eleanor was away at boarding school in England. By the time she returned in 1902, her Uncle Theodore was president of the United States and her cousin Alice had become the internationally famous first daughter.

Eleanor had developed a keen social conscience while away at boarding school. Back in New York, she volunteered with the Junior League, the Rivington Street Settlement House, and the Consumers League. Theodore Roosevelt often held up Eleanor as an example of appropriate behavior to his own wayward daughter. Eleanor was occasionally invited to White House events—including Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural—but her social circle did not usually overlap Alice’s. Both young women adored their Auntie Bye (Theodore Roosevelt’s sister, Anna Roosevelt Cowles) who loved and supported them and made her home into a safe haven when they needed it.

On St. Patrick’s Day in 1905, Eleanor married her fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Roosevelts offered the White House as a venue, but Eleanor declined. Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Franklin that he was “as fond of Eleanor as if she were my daughter.” Theodore Roosevelt stood in for Eleanor’s deceased father and gave the bride away. The following year Eleanor was pregnant with her first child and did not attend Alice’s White House wedding. Eleanor would give birth to six children between 1906 and 1916, five of whom would survive to adulthood. Eleanor and Franklin lived in Hyde Park, New York. From there, Franklin launched his political career, guided and assisted by Theodore Roosevelt. Uncle Theodore and Aunt Edith also helped Eleanor understand how to acclimatize to the demands put upon a politician’s spouse. Both Eleanor and Franklin studied how the Roosevelts conducted themselves as president and first lady and would later credit them with shaping, in part, their own time in the White House.

Image from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. FDR is in the straw hat.

In 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt launched his Progressive Party bid for president, Franklin—a Democrat—was serving as a New York State Senator. While he and Eleanor supported many of Uncle Theodore’s ideas and programs, they could not come out publicly for him, although Eleanor Roosevelt was working for woman’s suffrage in New York. During World War I, Theodore Roosevelt was proud to see Franklin in his old position of Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and just as pleased to observe the many war-related volunteer activities that occupied Eleanor.

Eleanor mourned when her Uncle Theodore died in 1919 and remained in contact with Aunt Edith and the rest of her cousins—including Alice. Eleanor Roosevelt’s fame was still ahead of her. She would become a politician in her own right (although unelected), a fierce champion of social justice and equal rights, and the longest-serving First Lady in U.S. history. When President Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945, Eleanor chaired the United Nations Commission on Human Rights where she was the moving force behind the writing and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. President John F. Kennedy appointed her to chair his Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. Like her Uncle Theodore, Eleanor Roosevelt spent her working life concerned about those Americans who did not enjoy the privileges that she did. She remains one of the nation’s most respected and best-loved citizens for her work on behalf of women, African Americans, youth, and the poor.