Angel on F.D.R.'s Shoulder

  • In a vintage animated cartoon, a little kitty cat falls into an icy well, and Pluto debates with himself whether to save her. A tiny red Pluto with horns and tail appears on his shoulder and tells him, in the voice of a gangster, "Nah, forget about the cat, whadda you care?" On the dog's other shoulder there appears a tiny Pluto outfitted as the better angel of his nature. She commands Pluto, "Now save that kitty!" Every adult seeing the cartoon years ago recognized the busybody angel's fluting voice as that of Eleanor Roosevelt.

    Her detractors had great fun with Eleanor Roosevelt. Her relentlessly feminist biographer, Blanche Wiesen Cook, goes to the other extreme. Her second volume of Eleanor Roosevelt, a projected three-volume life (Viking; 686 pages; $34.95), runs now and then to hagiography: "Her ethic was simple: She wanted to see the best she could imagine for herself and her loved ones made available to everyone."

    The Pluto cartoon had it right, but not necessarily in a bad sense. As Robert Sherwood observed in the mid-1930s, E.R. became "the keeper of and constant spokesman for her husband's conscience." She sat on F.D.R.'s shoulder and hectored him and sometimes disagreed with him publicly, and filled his famous bedside In box with nightly memos on how to save the nation from the icy well into which it had fallen. She traveled incessantly and showed a hands-on, sympathetic curiosity about the lives of poor and black and beleaguered working Americans. TIME called her Eleanor Everywhere. E.R.'s brave, stubbornly autonomous performance broke new psychological and moral ground for American women.

    Cook's Volume II--sometimes overburdened with detail but nonetheless fascinating--covers the Depression years of 1933 to 1938, from F.D.R.'s first Inauguration to the eve of World War II. Cook manages a strange optical illusion of history: the men, including F.D.R., sometimes recede to the muzzy margins--the masculine world being crude and obtuse and brutal--while the busy, vivid termagants of Eleanor's circle go about trying to do good and save the world.

    Woven through Cook's narrative runs the private thread (titillating, somehow endearing) of Eleanor's long affair with Lorena Hickok, a stout and mannish journalist. In the past, historians have usually sidestepped the question ("...whether Hick and Eleanor went beyond kisses and hugs...there is absolutely no way we can answer with certainty," wrote Doris Kearns Goodwin in No Ordinary Time). Cook simply takes it for granted that the ardor of their correspondence and their lives together was sapphic. Next case.

    The Eleanor Roosevelt of Cook's portrait--vulnerable, irritating, indefatigable, self-righteous, almost unthinkably generous--is not an entirely new version of the woman we know, but a more complete one. E.R. had an insufferable side; she also possessed an imaginative humanity that no First Lady--and no President--has matched since then.