(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Blanche Cook has been working on a multivolume biography of Eleanor Roosevelt for many years. Her first volume, covering Roosevelt’s life from her birth to 1933, was published in 1992 and attracted much critical praise. This installment looks at a much shorter period, the first five years of Eleanor Roosevelt’s tenure as First Lady. It effectively weaves together Roosevelt’s tempestuous personal life with the many social causes to which she was devoted. The result is a compelling portrait of a woman who overcame personal grief and political obstacles to emerge as an advocate of peace, civil rights, and feminism during the New Deal. Cook is favorable to her subject, but she provides a measured assessment of how Eleanor Roosevelt handled the awesome responsibilities she assumed in March, 1933.

Cook’s study is based on extensive research in Eleanor Roosevelt’s voluminous papers at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, other manuscript collections around the nation, interviews with those who knew or worked with Eleanor Roosevelt, and a wide array of other sources. Mrs. Roosevelt was continually writing letters to friends, acquaintances, and the public at large, and the documentary record that Cook had to master is immense. While much of this material is the boilerplate that any public personality sends out, there are treasures in the correspondence of the First Lady with Lorena Hickok, Isabella Greenway, and other friends. Cook shows the reader the ways in which Eleanor Roosevelt’s real feelings spilled through her carefully controlled letter writing. Cook pulls all of this together in a lengthy account that never fails to hold the attention of a reader. She has an eye for the apt quotation and a good sense of the personalities involved. All students of Eleanor Roosevelt will be in Cook’s debt for the hard work she has done in assembling a reliable narrative of Roosevelt’s life.

Cook looks into every corner of Roosevelt’s existence. There is a chapter devoted to the issue of White House food, which was notoriously bad during Eleanor Roosevelt’s tenure as First Lady. The reliance on Henrietta Nesbit as the White House cook comes through as Mrs. Roosevelt’s continuing revenge on her husband for his affair with Lucy Mercer. He was not going to have creature comforts as president if the First Lady had anything to say about it. The narrative also examines the troubled relationship of Mrs. Roosevelt with her children and their efforts to be independent of their famous and feuding parents. Cook’s account should provide a badly needed historical perspective for journalists and their pundit colleagues who approach the travails of modern first families with an underdeveloped sense of what has taken place in White Houses past.

Although Eleanor Roosevelt attracted severe criticism from the conservative press that dominated so much of the American media in the 1930’s, she had the benefit of a very gentle coverage from the female reporters in Washington, D.C., who wanted her to succeed. In the regular press conferences that she held for women journalists, Mrs. Roosevelt faced an audience dependent on her for stories and reluctant to embarrass the First Lady with tough queries. Mrs. Roosevelt’s finances, personal travels with Lorena Hickok, and use of her position to advance an agenda would receive more critical scrutiny now, as Hillary Rodham Clinton learned in the modern White House.

During these hectic five years, Eleanor Roosevelt transformed the role of the First Lady. She wrote newspaper columns, traveled more than any previous presidential wife had done, and became a political force in her own right. Her political partnership with Franklin D. Roosevelt made this possible. Although their marriage still reflected the strain of his infidelity during the Lucy Mercer episode of 1916 to 1918, they had come to a tacit agreement that Mrs. Roosevelt could pursue her own agenda as long as she did not embarrass the president and the administration unduly. Eleanor Roosevelt had a shrewd sense of how far she could go in prodding the president to action, and their mutual respect made her a valuable member of the White House team. Franklin realized that she could be a valuable listening post and launcher of trial balloons for his presidency.

Cook deals with many fascinating aspects of the New Deal. She goes into excellent detail on Mrs. Roosevelt’s Arthurdale project to help the rural poor in West Virginia. The First Lady’s growing concern for civil rights also receives full coverage, as does the backlash from southern whites that often descended into scurrilous gossip and underhand retaliation. On the other...

(The entire section is 1905 words.)