Eleanor Roosevelt Roosevelt

young eleanor2

Young Eleanor Roosevelt

The trick question is “what was Eleanor Roosevelt’s maiden name?”

It was Roosevelt. She was Anna Eleanor Roosevelt Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt: Poor Little Rich Girl

baby eleanor

Little Eleanor was a plain and serious child. Her beautiful mother called her “Granny.”

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was a patrician-born New Yorker. Her father was Theodore’s brother Elliott, her mother, Anna Hall, was a stunning socialite. While the family was not wealthy by Rockefeller or Vanderbilt standards, their pedigree was older and even higher.  Money was never a problem.

Anna Hall died when Eleanor was eight, and her father, an alcoholic with an addiction to pain killers, died when she was only ten. He had adored his “Little Nell,” but he had been unfit to live in the family surroundings most of those years. Nevertheless, she would be devoted to her father’s memory for the rest of her life.

So little orphan Eleanor went to live with her eccentric Grandmother Hall and some equally dotty Hall aunts and uncles. There was always food on the table, a roof over her head, a decent enough education and a complete lack of affection or fun. It was a loveless and excruciatingly lonely childhood, and the little girl became understandably shy and inward.

little nell and family

Baby Hall, Elliott Roosevelt, Eleanor and Elliott Jr. Elliott Jr. would die when he was only four.

Uncle Theodore and his brood of rambunctious Roosevelts were happy to include her at various Sagamore Hill outings, but Eleanor was always uncomfortable. She grew too fast, eventually reaching 5’9″, was skinny, awkward, unathletic, plain as a post – with a hopeless overbite.

Eleanor Roosevelt and The Allenswood School

By adolescence, “what to do with Eleanor” began to concern her Roosevelt kin. It would be Theodore’s sister, her Aunt Anna Roosevelt Cowles who suggested the lonely young girl might benefit from the Allenswood School in England.  She had attended the school herself years earlier, and found it to be stimulating.

Run by Mlle. Marie Souvestre, the Allenswood School was a fine, well regarded boarding-finishing school for young women that focused on academics, where Eleanor Roosevelt had always excelled. The Allenswood School proved to be a seminal experience, and perhaps her happiest years. For sure they were the happiest years of her youth.

young eleanor

Eleanor Roosevelt was sent to the Allenswood School when she was fifteen. Her three years there were the happiest of her childhood.

The most important thing (among several) that Eleanor learned, was that she could actually make friends – something that had been woefully missing. For the first time in her life, she was popular. Her classmates liked her. She was invited to participate.  Her teachers admired her and encouraged her natural abilities. With no real home to return to, she occasionally stayed at the school during vacations, and accompanied her teachers on stimulating outings that exposed her to the treasures Europe had to offer.

When she graduated, Grandmother Hall insisted that Eleanor return to New York to prepare for her social debut. She was undoubtedly a reluctant debutante, but a debutante she was. Her societal pedigree made the experience mandatory.

Eleanor Roosevelt and The Junior League

Once Eleanor had completed her obligatory year of balls and luncheons and parties, she was once again at a loss. Her social standing made it impossible for her to “get a job.”   The college education she truly wanted, was equally frowned upon in a circle that encouraged social skills and early marriage. She was expected to continue socializing – and to find a suitable husband quickly. Neither of those choices were appealing.

Eleanor Roosevelt was always a serious minded young woman, although the hairdo was one of the fashionable styles of the early 20th century.

About that time – the early days of the 20th century – the Junior League was formed. It was an adjunct of the Woman’s Clubs that had first appeared after the Civil War, and boomed thereafter as an outlet for intelligent women with time on their hands. The Junior League dedicated itself to charitable activities, and recruited the younger set – women between eighteen and thirty-five.  Eleanor joined. It was socially acceptable.  Not even Grandmother Hall could disapprove.

Membership in the Junior League also offered the young woman exposure to a whole new world, with new people and new experiences that she believed were worthwhile. Not quite twenty, Miss Eleanor Roosevelt volunteered to help out at the settlement houses.

Eleanor Roosevelt on Rivington Street

Settlement houses on New York’s Lower East Side were akin to today’s community centers. They were founded in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and some still exist today.  They were generally located in the midst of some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country’s large cities, and dedicated to assisting the tired and poor who came to huddle on our teeming shores. They provided a hands-on lifeline for the entire immigrant family, from childcare and sewing classes to recipe exchanges, English classes and employment counseling, dances and picnics and even Sunday baseball games for the men.

Eleanor had signed up to help at the Rivington Street Settlement House, and after the first day, decided that she enjoyed it. She also discovered her true vocation, and the one she would follow for the rest of her life: being useful. She immersed herself in organizing activities to help these people of much promise and broken English.  The days passed quickly for her, and her original plan of spending a day or possibly two each week at the settlement house turned into a daily job, albeit unpaid.

young couple

Eleanor Roosevelt would marry her 5th cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt when she was twenty.

The people in charge of the facility liked Miss Roosevelt. The fact that she was the niece of the President of the United States was not lost on them either. But even without her famous uncle, Eleanor had found a home and a purpose. She also made new friends. She was needed.  She was happy.

On one of her train trips back uptown, she ran into her fifth cousin, home on vacation from Harvard. As they chatted, Eleanor’s usual shyness disappeared as she shared her enthusiasm for this new experience. Her cousin was sincerely interested, and asked many questions. Eleanor invited him to go with her and see for himself. To her complete surprise, he did.

That would be another seminal experience for Eleanor – and one for her cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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