My history hero: Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962)

Director Ken Burns explains why he admires social campaigner and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt

This article was first published in the November 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine 

Advertisement

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) was a social campaigner, and first lady of the United States during her husband Franklin D Roosevelt’s four terms as president. Her human rights work led future US president Harry S Truman to label her the ‘First Lady of the World’.

When did you first hear about Eleanor Roosevelt?

I came from a Democratic family, and Roosevelt was one of our household’s great heroes. I was nine years old when she died, and I remember quite clearly my parents’ sadness. They explained to me more about what she had done and who she was. And then, as we were making our new documentary series, Eleanor and all of the Roosevelts became more and more familiar to me.

What sort of person do you think she was?

She was a miracle, and a testament to the human spirit. There is no reason that she should have made it through her childhood as anything other than as a terrified, timid mouse. She was orphaned as a young girl: her mother died early, as did her insane, alcoholic father, and she went to live with her grim maternal grandparents.

It is improbable that this girl would grow up to be the most consequential first lady, and arguably most important woman, in all of American history. What changed her was being sent to a British school south of London called Allenswood Academy. It was run by a very progressive teacher, Marie Souvestre, who instilled an impassioned liberal conscience into Eleanor. She later referred to the three years that she spent there as the best of her life.

What made her a hero in your eyes?

Being the spur, as she put it, in the side of her husband, Franklin. He wasn’t as idealistic – he was a much more pragmatic politician – but Eleanor pushed him on the key issues, particularly those concerning race.

Later on, after her husband had died, it was assumed that she would just disappear into a grieving widowhood. Yet she was appointed by President Truman to be one of the ambassadors to the United Nations in its earliest days, and through an incredible combination of guile and political acumen she was instrumental in passing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

What was her finest hour?

It has to be that Universal Declaration. It was one of the greatest accomplishments in world history: getting democracies and dictatorial countries, colonisers and the colonised, to agree to a recognition of what universally we feel we owe our own citizens, all the people on this planet. It was a remarkable achievement.

Is there anything about Eleanor that you don’t admire?

Yes, very much so. She was meddlesome: the other side of being a spur and a goad, of course, is being a nag!

Are there any parallels between her life and your own?

The Roosevelts are among the boldest names in the American political pantheon. They are rarified, like royalty. And yet, the things that beset them are, of course, the things that beset us all: loss, betrayal, sadness, death, illness, alcoholism.

My own mother died when I was 11, which propelled me into a kind of perpetual motion. That loss informs me every day of my life: 50 years without a mother is a long, long time. It’s been a gravitational pull on me, and I think that Eleanor was also constantly pulled by the losses of her parents, the sadness and the fears. But she learnt early on that if she could be useful to somebody, then she could be loved, and show love in return.

If you could meet her, what would you ask?

I would ask about the terrible moment when she rushed to Warm Springs, Georgia in April 1945 where her husband had just died. There she learned, to her horror, that his old love, Lucy Mercer, had been there, and that it had been part of an affair aided by her own daughter, Anna. Here, in one moment, is the blow of not only losing your husband, the president, and your accomplice in your life, but also of finding out that his old lover had been there at his death and you had not – and that the whole thing had been set up by your only daughter. I would like to ask her about that pain.

Advertisement

Ken Burns was talking to Matt Elton. Ken Burns is the Emmy Award-winning director of documentary films, including The Civil War (1990). His new series, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, is out now on DVD and on PBS America from 19 October