Sara and Eleanor, by Jan Pottker

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Donald Isler
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Sara and Eleanor, by Jan Pottker

Post by Donald Isler » Thu Jul 15, 2010 12:46 pm

Sara and Eleanor
The Story of Sara Delano Roosevelt and Her Daughter-in-law, Eleanor Roosevelt
By Jan Pottker
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004

In her fascinating book, Sara and Eleanor, author Jan Pottker writes that the 1956 play, Sunrise at Campobello, played a large part in the deterioration of the reputation of Sara Delano Roosevelt (1854-1941), mother of the 32nd President. Sara is portrayed as being snobbish, bossing around Franklin and Eleanor even as she spoiled her grandchildren, and putting down politicians. This appears to be quite at odds with the position of considerable respect she enjoyed during her lifetime and, in fact, upon attending a reading of the play her grandson, Franklin, Jr. said “That’s awfully rough on Granny. That’s not an accurate picture.”

It’s hard to imagine two more different people than Sara and Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962).

Eleanor, daughter of Franklin’s fifth cousin, Elliott (who was the brother of President Theodore Roosevelt) had a most unhappy childhood. She had a beautiful, though not very caring mother who died when Eleanor was eight. The following year a younger brother of Eleanor’s died, and the year after that her father, an alcoholic whom she adored, also died. After that she lived under the care of her mother’s mother, who was not particularly kind to her.

Beset with insecurities she first came into her own at a boarding school in England, and as an adult, with her work as a teacher, prolific writer (including a column, entitled My Day, which appeared five days a week from 1935 till shortly before her death!) and as a humanitarian. She seems to have had little idea about how to be a mother (her children said that they got warmth from their grandmother instead) or run a household. And after discovering Franklin’s dalliance with her secretary, Lucy Mercer, at the end of the First World War, she worked hard to focus on her own identity, and accomplishments.

Surprisingly, Eleanor, as a young woman, was quite anti-Semitic, making comments such as not wanting to attend a “jew party” and even refusing to read a book about Woodrow Wilson because it was written by a “filthy Jew.” By contrast, Sara had some Jewish friends, was interested enough to attend a Friday evening Sabbath service with friends, and, at the end of her life, was supporting Jewish organizations that were helping Jews in Palestine, and refugees from Hitler.

By contrast with her daughter-in-law, Sara came from a warm and wealthy family where people helped, and supported each other. Having convinced herself that she might not marry, after meeting a number of men who didn’t interest her, she changed her mind when she met James Roosevelt, a widower. They married in 1880, when she was 26 and he was 52. James had a son from his first marriage, who was six months older than Sara, and he had two children, born in 1879 and 1881, to whom Sara was kind, especially after their mother died.

Sara was completely devoted to James (who died in 1900), as she was to her only child, Franklin, who was born in 1882. She was not a pushover, having the courage to speak out when something was wrong (especially to her son), but she saw her chief role as being supportive of the men in her life.

After the deaths of her parents Sara was a very wealthy woman. One of the big surprises in this book is that Franklin and Eleanor always lived considerably beyond their means, and Sara made up the difference. Even when they were in the White House she was subsidizing them at the rate of $100,000 a year. Eleanor later complained that she did not feel her home was her own home, but, in fact, whether it was the estate at Hyde Park, or the adjoining town houses in New York on East 65th Street, it was Sara who always made their elegant lifestyle possible.

Although later in life, after her husband and his mother were both dead, Eleanor was freer in expressing complaints about her mother-in-law, during her younger years Eleanor generally got along very well with Sara. Sara denied discouraging Franklin from marrying Eleanor. She said she was merely concerned that they were so young (23 and 20). She tried hard to be a mother also to Eleanor, and Eleanor looked to her for approval, and wrote her numerous letters thanking her for her financial support, and expressing affection. Sometimes the two women even worked as a team to persuade Franklin of something, though they didn’t necessarily get what they hoped for. Perhaps the best example of this was in 1936, when he was President, and they both lobbied him to support an anti-lynching law. Eleanor even sat in the gallery of the Senate chamber to witness the debate. But Franklin, fearing he would lose southern support in the upcoming election, would not support the bill.

In her later years Sara relished her role as mother of the President, giving many speeches, receiving many awards, and even appearing on the cover of Time magazine. Until close to the end of her life she was a very busy lady, traveling between her several homes and to Europe, supervising her own finances, and the affairs of her various properties. Among other things, it was impressive that this “society lady” accepted the invasion of her home, and life by people who were not from her social class, and apparently was gracious to everyone. She certainly enjoyed being the country’s “First Mother” more than Eleanor enjoyed being First Lady.

A few items in the book seem questionable, or inaccurate. For example, the author writes that Franklin died as a result of the stresses of being President for so long, and leading the country during the Great Depression and World War II, and from after effects of the polio he suffered in 1921. While the former seems likely, I had never heard that these after effects necessarily caused the stroke which killed him.

Other inaccuracies involve time. The author refers to events in March, 1911 and the terrible tragedy of the Titanic the following month. Except that the Titanic sank in April, 1912. She also mentions Eleanor’s aunt, Edith, the widow of President Theodore Roosevelt, introducing President Herbert Hoover at the 1932 Republican convention, dressed in mourning garb, “a full quarter of a century after her husband’s death.” In fact, Teddy had died just 13 years earlier.

But these are relatively minor matters.

There are so many stories here, and a great deal of history of the Delano and Roosevelt families, and much about the (Republican) Oyster Bay and the (Democrat) Hyde Park Roosevelts.

One reads about Sara’s trip in 1862, with her mother and many siblings, to China, where they joined her businessman father, who lived there several years. They traveled in their own ship and went, not across the Pacific but across the Atlantic, and via the Indian Ocean. As refrigeration did not exist yet, they embarked upon this trip (which lasted four months!) with chickens, geese, pigs, turkeys and a cow, all of which turned into dinner during the trip.

As a ten year old Sara remembered her grandfather leaving the house, then running back to report the shocking news that President Lincoln had been shot. Her grandmother was especially sad, because she remembered the national mourning when former President Washington had died.

Fast forward to 1933, when Franklin decided to recognize the Soviet Union. His mother was upset and vowed never again to visit the White House. But she relented within two weeks.

This book is well worth having for anyone interested in the Roosevelts and their era, and those who would like to know more about a remarkable,and much maligned lady.

Donald Isler
Donald Isler

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Re: Sara and Eleanor, by Jan Pottker

Post by jbuck919 » Fri Jul 16, 2010 4:26 pm

The play Sunrise at Campobello seems to have gotten just about everything wrong. Eleanor Roosevelt went to see it, and came out saying "That was a very nice play, but it has about as much to do with my family as the Man in the Moon."

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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