Blanche Wiesen Cook’s Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume One, 1884–1933 is the first of a three-volume biography that reexamines the life and work of Eleanor Roosevelt. When published by Viking in 1992, it quickly became a bestseller. It was also controversial.

The biography is written from a feminist perspective, and it presents Roosevelt as a role model for women today. Cook explains that Roosevelt was unwilling to live her life within the strict limits imposed by a male-dominated society. As a woman of wealth and privilege, married to a rising politician, Roosevelt would normally have been expected to confine herself to managing the household, raising the children, perhaps engaging in some worthy charitable work, and supporting her husband’s career. But Eleanor Roosevelt insisted on developing a more independent life. She forged a new identity for herself by engaging in meaningful political activity at a time when women had just received the right to vote. Cook sees Roosevelt as a committed progressive who championed an agenda of social reform and who attained genuine political power in her own right.

The controversial aspect of the biography mostly concerned Cook’s argument that when Eleanor Roosevelt was married and in her forties, she had an affair with her bodyguard, Earl Miller, and also had an erotic relationship with a female reporter, Lorena Hickok. Previous biographers have been far more cautious in assessing both of these friendships. Cook argues her case persuasively from the available evidence, but not everyone has been convinced of the truth of her conclusions.


In her introduction to Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume One, Cook explains that many years after Eleanor Roosevelt’s death, she remains a controversial figure. People disagree about whether she was a paragon of goodness or foolishly naïve. In addition, stereotypical ideas of what kind of life a woman should lead have obscured the full measure of Roosevelt’s achievements. For Cook, Roosevelt’s life was a personal and political journey that re- flected all the complex issues at work in the twentieth century. It was a life of noble ideals and practical achievement.

Chapters 1–3: Ancestry and Early Childhood
Eleanor Roosevelt was born into an aristocratic family in 1884. Her mother was Anna Livingston Ludlow Hall, who married Elliot Roosevelt in 1883. Elliot was the older brother of Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who would later become president of the United States. When the boys were young, Elliott was the more accomplished of the two, but he did not live up to his promise. He was often unhealthy, and by adulthood he was drinking to excess.

Eleanor’s mother was aloof and made Eleanor feel unloved and unattractive. But Eleanor felt understood by her father, who encouraged her to excel. Elliot, however, had become an alcoholic. Although he could be charming, he was also given to moods of anger and self-pity.

Eleanor’s early childhood was not happy. Her father’s alcoholism worsened, and fearing public scandal, Theodore Roosevelt tried to persuade Anna to leave her husband. Eleanor was sent to a convent school, where she was lonely. Theodore demanded that Elliott be put in an asylum and declared insane, a proposal that divided the family. Elliott entered an asylum near Paris.

Eventually Elliott returned to the United States, where he entered a treatment center. He regained his health and left the center in the spring of 1892, but his wife did not want to see him. Tragedy struck when Anna contracted diphtheria and died at the age of twenty-nine.

Chapters 4–6: Death of Father, School, and Courtship
Shattered by his wife’s death, Elliott started drinking again, but he continued to write warm letters to Eleanor. She treasured these letters and worshiped her father. Elliott died suddenly on August 14, 1893.

Eleanor was now living with her maternal grandmother, Mary Livingston Ludlow Hall, and her aunts Maude and Pussie. Eleanor enjoyed this sixyear period in her life, acquiring a sense of belonging that she had never felt in the turbulent home of her parents.

When she was fifteen, Eleanor was sent to Allenswood School in England, where she spent three happy years. Allenswood catered to the daughters of wealthy European aristocrats and America’s leading families. It was run by a Frenchwoman, Marie Souvestre, an earnest teacher with a feminist outlook. Eleanor became Souvestre’s favorite student; Eleanor’s confidence grew and her personality flourished.

Returning to the United States, Eleanor felt out of place in the world of New York dances and parties. She knew that she was not the belle her mother had been. By...

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