Eleanor Roosevelt was nearly forty before she had a life, and place of her own.
FDR, Eleanor and Polio
The marriage between Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, fifth cousins by birth, had never been a joyful one. Their personalities were poles apart, and while they truly cared for each other and recognized and appreciated the others’ strengths, the young Mrs. Roosevelt was never comfortable – or happy – with motherhood and matronly engagement in the social scene of the New York well-do-do. Her volunteer work helping new immigrants and World War I soldiers was far more satisfying.
Sara Delano Roosevelt, Franklin’s overbearing mother, was another cross to bear. Eleanor, still in her twenties, did not have the self-confidence to wrest control of her life (or family) from the domineering woman.
When he was thirty-nine, Franklin D. Roosevelt was stricken with polio. His political career had been a steady rise to a point of becoming the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate in 1920. It would now fall to Eleanor to provide the impetus and continual spur to keep him engaged in life, living and politics.
Eleanor Becomes “Eleanor”
At the end of World War I, Eleanor Roosevelt discovered that her husband had become romantically involved with another woman. It was a devastating blow to the inward and unfulfilled woman. After fifteen years of marriage, she was at a crossroads. She had borne six children in ten years. One died. She was further trapped between an overbearing mother-in-law and a time-consuming round of social obligations that she hated.
She offered her husband a divorce. He was ambivalent, but his mother was horrified by the scandal. She threatened to cut her son off without a cent. FDR’s longtime political advisor, Louis Howe, was also adamant, insisting that FDR was cutting his own political throat.
Franklin and Eleanor came to an amicable resolution. They would remain married, but they would lead emotionally detached lives. Since neither of them were bitter or rancorous people, each cherishing personal harmony, they could make their new relationship work.
Eleanor and Franklin: The Long Separations
Once the acute phase of his illness had passed, FDR’s main goal was his health and regaining his mobility, which would forever be denied.
His treatment centered on swimming in the warm waters of Florida and Georgia; he was gone for weeks and even months at a time.
The five Roosevelt children were now in boarding school. The huge estate in Hyde Park, about an hour from New York City, was her mother-in-law’s. Not hers. Not even her husband’s. Eleanor felt more like a guest than a resident.
She began to find interests of her own; interests that had surfaced decades earlier with her volunteer work in the settlement houses of the Lower East Side. She had loved it.
Eleanor as Eleanor
Eleanor had never been an active suffragette, but when women got the right to vote in 1920, Eleanor joined the League of Women Voters, and at Louis Howe’s suggestion, and with her husband’s enthusiastic support, she became active in the women’s division of the Democratic Party. This led to her acquaintance with dozens of women whose interests coincided with hers.
With FDR and the children away, there was little to keep her at Hyde Park. Her outside activities increased, and her political connections (being niece of Theodore Roosevelt and wife of FDR) were excellent credentials. There was also her own innate abilities. Her opportunities broadened. She loved it.
Sara Roosevelt was displeased. She had been unenthusiastic by her son’s political inclinations at best. To have a daughter-in-law off and running in such “unladylike ” circles was horrifying. Eleanor spent more and more time away from Hyde Park.
A Place of Her Own
It was FDR, aware of his wife’s discontent with the old life and fulfillment in the new, who suggested that she might like having a place of her own. Somewhere where she would not feel constrained. Where she could invite her friends, chair committee meetings in comfort – or even stay up late to read or write. Without disturbing anyone.
The Hyde Park estate was large, with plenty of room to build a separate cottage. FDR was always eager to make his wife happy when and if he could. Of course Eleanor would always stay in the “big house” whenever FDR and the children were in residence. For appearances and convenience.
It was truly a cottage – only six rustic rooms. Eleanor had been an enthusiastic sponsor of a consortium of local craftsmen in the nearby village of Val-Kill, ergo, her “cottage” was furnished by those craftsmen. The arts-and-crafts utilitarian style suited Mrs. R. perfectly. She always preferred function to decor. And knowing that it helped support local interests and families was a primary benefit.
FDR was more than a mere supporter. He became a frequent visitor when he was home. In appreciation, Eleanor had a swimming pool built on her property, since the large estate did not have one, and swimming was an essential exercise in FDR’s health regimen. The entire family used it during warm weather.
FDR did not become the owner of the Hyde Park estate until 1941, when his formidable mother died.
With his wife’s agreement, the President made his will, which included arrangements for the estate’s future. After his wife’s death, the property would go to the government and provisions were made to build a Presidential Library, the first planned by a living president.
Eleanor survived him by more than fifteen years, and saw the completion of the FDR Library.
The former First Lady never lived in Hyde Park again. Val-Kill would be her home from then on.
Roosevelt, Eleanor – Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt – Harper & Bros. 1961
Cook, Blanche Wiesen – Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume One 1884-1933 – Viking Press, 1992