Life Lessons from Eleanor Roosevelt: The Woman behind the Mystique

Guest blog by Eleanor Roosevelt II (Niece of Eleanor Roosevelt)
Author o With Love, Aunt Eleanor: Stories from My Life with the First Lady of the World 

You know Eleanor Roosevelt for many things: her role as First Lady and devoted wife of FDR, her tireless activism for the poor and oppressed, and her groundbreaking work as U.S. representative to the United Nations. The Eleanor you probably don't know is the woman who insisted on serving hotdogs and hamburgers to the king and queen of England . . . who wept openly at the funeral for her beloved dog . . . who learned to dive at the age of sixty-plus . . . who celebrated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with a running slide down the hallway of the Palais des Nations in Geneva. 

That Eleanor has many lessons to teach, lessons about living with exuberance and integrity and love for one's fellow man. 

I learned so much about life from my Aunt Eleanor. I maintained a close relationship with her until the day she died. She was so much more than just a First Lady: she was truly an individual of great spirit and compassion. I feel privileged to have known her. I want everyone to have the chance to learn from her inspiring life. 

Eleanor Roosevelt lived a long and richly-textured life. She was a woman who lived with grace, dignity and a dedication to work that puts most of us to shame. They just don't make public servants like Eleanor Roosevelt anymore. 

The following stories reveal some life lessons that I learned from my aunt-lessons we would all do well to heed: 

o Walk the talk. During World War II, certain consumer goods were scarce. There was a campaign to persuade people to establish one meatless day a week. Aunt Eleanor was acutely aware of the privileged position of the White House and felt that she and Uncle Franklin must join in as well. So every Thursday night for dinner, she served scrambled eggs, which was one of the few things she knew how to cook . . . In general, people are delighted to receive an invitation to dine at the White House, but I suspect that during the war years, candidates hoped it would not be for a Thursday night dinner. 

o Listen to the child within. During her work with the UN, Aunt Eleanor chaired the eighteen-nation commission to draw up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On the day in December the commission finally finished its work and voted the declaration ready to be brought before the General Assembly, she gave a small reception for her colleagues at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. She wrote to me that after the guests had left and she was walking through the empty halls with her advisor, she came up with a better way to celebrate than with a glass of champagne at a party. The marble floors were polished to the shine of black ice. My aunt's feet were long and narrow, and her low-heeled shoes had leather soles. She ran, gathering momentum, and then slid down the hall, her arms outstretched in triumph. It was so much fun that she did it again. 

o Never stop learning. In her sixties, Aunt Eleanor learned to dive to prove a point to Marshall Tito, leader of communist Yugoslavia. Tito had built a swimming pool on the Dalmatian coast and invited my aunt for a swim. She said she noticed that the marshall was not able to dive, and she decided then to emphasize her political arguments with him by proving that women in a democracy, even elderly women, had the freedom not only to study whatever intellectual subject they chose but also could learn any sport. She was tired of the endless remarks about soft, capitalist Americans who did nothing but watch television. "So you see Ellie, I decided to learn to dive, and when you tell me that I have succeeded, I'm going to have a good time writing to the marshall and telling him that this soft, capitalist American is over sixty and she has just learned to dive. Americans, you see, are not afraid to dive into the unknown. They can surprise the world when they want to."

o Don't live in fear. When Aunt Eleanor was to meet with Nikita Khrushchev of the USSR at her home at Val-Kill Cottage, a Secret Service agent told her that a grove of maple trees posed a security hazard and should be cut down. "I know you'll do your job and you'll do it very well, of course, but you may not harm one of my trees," she informed him. "You may put a special agent behind every one of them if you think it necessary, but my landscape stays the same until old age or a hurricane changes it!" And the trees, which meant so much to her-some of which she and Uncle Franklin had planted when they were newly married-still shade the meadow.

o Forgive those who make mistakes. One day when Aunt Eleanor was in New York, she took a shortcut in the middle of a block, stepping into the street from between two parked cars. A taxi driver, who had just delivered a fare, backed out into the street, hit Aunt Eleanor, and knocked her down. She got right up again but the taxi driver was instantly out of his cab and beside her.

I can imagine his profuse apology. "Oh, Mrs. Roosevelt, I'm so sorry. Are you all right? Can I take you somewhere? Do you need to see a doctor? At least let me take you home." But Aunt Eleanor was most concerned about the driver. "You must leave right now!" she directed him. "You might be fired for this! Just go, get in your cab and go right now!" . . . She told me she felt relieved when he drove off, and when she was sure that no one would notice, she allowed herself to limp to her apartment.

o Live life to the fullest, today. Sometimes when Aunt Eleanor asked for questions following one of her lectures, the subject of life after death was brought up. As always, she considered her answer in the light of her own experience and judgment, and truthfully gave her opinion. I recall her with a fork in her hand as she said, "As long as I can remember, philosophers have been debating the question of life after death. I do not think that we humans have a way of proving it one way or the other, so I have decided to leave the debate to the philosophers. I am committed to my work and enjoy it, so I simply tell my audience that I have no idea if there is an afterlife or not, but I'll find out soon enough."

When Eleanor finally did "find out" the truth about the afterlife, her immense popularity was clearly revealed. So many people converged on the little town of Hyde Park-including a number of presidents-that after leaving the memorial service, some of her own family members couldn't navigate the crush of traffic to get to the burial.

It was early afternoon when my family and I made it back home to Rhinebeck after the frustration of bumper-to-bumper traffic for an hour and a half. I was disappointed to have missed the burial and lunch, but glad, in a way, to return to my familiar home and little pond and quiet woods. My heart was already full of the wonder and privilege of having had Aunt Eleanor in my life. She is always with us, urging us to carry forward her wise tolerance and love of mankind.
As side note: ER II's is the oldest living relative of Eleanor Roosevelt and was often referred to by ER as her favorite niece. ER II's father was Hall Roosevelt, Eleanor's brother. President Theodore Roosevelt was ER II's great uncle.

ER II is extraordinary in knowing and growing up with several generations of Roosevelt's. She first remembers her aunt when ER II was six and they would meet during summer stays with ER II's Great Aunt Corinne, sister of President Teddy Roosevelt. She met and knew FDR and FDR's mother as well as all of FDR's and ER's children and grandchildren.

ER II visited the White House often, starting as a teenager during FDR's presidency and continuing to her coming-out party in 1938 hosted at the White House by FDR and ER. She continued a close relationship with ER until her death in 1962. A single memorial plaque to Eleanor Roosevelt now hangs in the Hyde Park Episcopal Church opposite the pew used by ER and FDR. ER II carved that plaque.