Eleanor: A book review by Bob Morris

David Michaelis
Simon & Schuster (October 2020)

“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”  Eleanor Roosevelt

Over the years, I have read hundreds of biographies and reviewed many of them. This is one of very few that I can say, once having read it, I felt deep sense of gratitude for the pleasure of feeling so closely associated — both emotionally and untellectually — with Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962). In brief, her Wiki bio points out that she served as the First Lady of the United States “from March 4, 1933, to April 12, 1945, during her husband President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s terms in office, making her the longest-serving First Lady of the United States. She served as United States Delegate to the United Nations General Assembly from 1945 to 1952. President Harry S Truman later called her the ‘First Lady of the World’ in tribute to her human rights achievements.”

Eleanor was a member of the prominent American Roosevelt and Livingston families and a niece of President Theodore Roosevelt. She had an unhappy childhood, having suffered the deaths of both parents and one of her brothers at a young age. “She married her fifth cousin once removed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1905. The Roosevelts’ marriage was complicated from the beginning by Franklin’s controlling mother, Sara, and after Eleanor discovered her husband’s affair with Lucy Mercer in 1918, she resolved to seek fulfillment in leading a public life of her own. She persuaded Franklin to stay in politics after he was stricken with a paralytic illness in 1921, which cost him the normal use of his legs, and began giving speeches and appearing at campaign events in his place. Following Franklin’s election as Governor of New York in 1928, and throughout the remainder of his public career in government, Eleanor regularly made public appearances on his behalf; and as First Lady, while her husband served as president, she significantly reshaped and redefined the role of First Lady.”

David Michaelis thoroughly examines each of the major developments in her childhood and youth, in her private and public lives throughout 40 years of marriage to FDR, and then his death in 1945 until her own death seventeen years later. She once observed, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” Insofar as her life and work are concerned, Michaelis brilliantly discusses all three.

These are among the subject areas of greatest interest to me:

o The emotional “baggage” she was forced to haul throughout her childhood and youth
o The nature and causes of the significant changes in her relationship with FDR throughout their marriage
o Excluding FDR and their children, the people in her life who were of greatest importance to her
o The major stages of her personal growth
o The major stages of her development as a public figure, both in the U.S. and worldwide

o The public issues of greatest importance her and how specifically her advocacy supported them
o Her relations with Soviet officials
o Her political skills (what Truman once characterized as “the art of the possible”)
o Lessons to be learned from her life and work following FDR’s death, especially when involved with the U.N.
o What the last 3-5 years of her life reveal about her character and values

Please do not be deterred by this biography’s heft (536 pages of text). Having read and then re-read it, I can attest to the fact that Michaelis is a brilliant storyteller as well as an historian of the highest order. He adjusts the pace of his lively narrative to accommodate an ever-changing (or at least ever-evolving) context but never drags his feet. His pace as a writer reminds me of David’s Lean’s in several of the films he directed, notably Bridge Over the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Dr. Zhivago: Both pay close attention to significant details within a broad perspective.

Much as I enjoyed reading David Michaelis’ earlier works, Shultz and Peanuts and N.C. Wyeth, I enjoyed reading Eleanor even more because the dimensions of her life and work were wider and deeper; also because of even greater importance to me, he expedites his reader’s access to them with uncommon ease and precision. Bravo!


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