I’ve read about sixty books on the various Roosevelts. Some were good, like volume 1 of Blanche Weisen Cook’s Trilogy of Eleanor books, and some were just okay, like the books written by her children and grandchildren. So how did Eleanor by David Michaelis stack up?
According to the publisher, Eleanor is the first biography in six decades to talk about Eleanor Roosevelt’s whole life, from cradle to grave. I can attest to that. So many books about Eleanor end in 1945 when Franklin dies, as if the last, and I think, the most important years of her life, didn’t exist.
Eleanor was thoroughly researched and it shows. The book is 30% footnotes! From her difficult childhood with a beautiful, yet remote mother who dies when Eleanor is 8, to the beloved father, whose mental collapse and alcoholism kills him when Eleanor is 10, to her death in 1962, Michaelis has it all here.
Some of the quotes from letters just get to me. Like when Franklin and Eleanor are to wed, Theodore Roosevelt writes to Franklin about how the love of two people is more important than even the Presidency. Too bad Uncle Ted was wrong about Eleanor and Franklin’s relationship.
The problem was, Franklin didn’t like to confide in anyone, not especially Eleanor. He was aloof from everyone, even those he considered friends. Eleanor would spend much of the next fifteen years learning to accept that Franklin was not going to open up to her because it was not in his nature. The big takeaway here, as mentioned in the book several times, is that Eleanor and Franklin could not relax around one another.
Part of the problem was that Eleanor didn’t think too highly of herself. The woman who is famously quoted as saying “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent” long practiced this. She had terrible self-esteem problems. Married to a man who wouldn’t confide in her, having a mother-in-law take charge of her household. Yet she soldiered on, even after having six children in ten years, even after Franklin was caught stepping out with Eleanor’s own social secretary.
One thing I thought Michaelis did well in Eleanor was show how she evolved. She was raised with the same bigoted ideas that many elitist families grew up with. But the author then shows her growth and acceptance, and finally, her fight for the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, those who did not have voices, or whose voices had been silenced too long.
Eleanor’s special friendships are explored, and there is no salaciousness to them, just documenting what was known about them without further speculation.
Eleanor’s work post-White House gets its due. Her work with the United Nations on a Declaration of Human Rights, her TV program, her continued work on her newspaper column My Day, her work for the Democratic Party in the elections of 1952, 1956 and 1960 are all written about by Michaelis.
No stone was left unturned for this in-depth biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor is a 5-star book.
Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with this Advanced Reader’s Copy. Eleanor goes on sale to the general public October 6, 2020.
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For more of my book reviews, visit www.bargain-sleuth.com
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