Wednesday, September 9th, 2015...11:00 am

“It was a glorious flowering”

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When I arrived at the Houghton Library, it was to do research for a project I am pursuing on Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the United States, and World War II. While naturally the main site of interest for any researcher studying the career of Eleanor Roosevelt is the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, NY, which houses Mrs. Roosevelt’s own paper archives, it is not the only useful repository. Houghton has a great deal in the way of archives from the Roosevelt family. Much of it is from the Oyster Bay (Republican Party) branch of the Roosevelt family—that is, President Theodore Roosevelt, his siblings and their descendants.

Eleanor Roosevelt has a large presence, both direct and indirect, in the Roosevelt family archives—although one must be careful to search for “Eleanor (Roosevelt) Roosevelt”  as distinguished from “Eleanor Butler Alexander Roosevelt,” the wife of ER’s cousin Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. Even though Eleanor is usually thought of as part of the Hyde Park (Democratic Party) branch of the Roosevelts, Eleanor was born into the Oyster Bay clan, as the daughter of TR’s brother Elliott, and only migrated to the Hyde Park clan by marrying her distant cousin Franklin. As a result, there is various early correspondence and other material of hers preserved at Houghton. During the 1920s, Eleanor became estranged from most of Theodore Roosevelt’s family, even as the two clans became increasingly opposed politically—Eleanor deepened the rift by some dirty campaigning against her cousin Theodore, Jr. when he ran for Governor of New York in 1924 against FDR’s ally Al Smith. Eleanor also clashed, both personally and politically, with the famously acerbic Alice Roosevelt Longworth (Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer’s recent book Hissing Cousins explores the troubled relationship between the two cousins).

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Nevertheless, despite their political differences, Eleanor maintained various ties with her Oyster Bay relations. One of her enduring relationships was with her first cousin Corinne Robinson Alsop Cole (no relation of mine), the daughter of Eleanor’s aunt Corinne Roosevelt Robinson. The cousins, born two years apart, visited each other frequently in their girlhood years, then attended the same finishing school. Although Corinne was a Republican Party leader in New England and served two terms in the Connecticut House of Representatives, she and Eleanor remained personally friendly. Corinne was also grateful for Eleanor’s efforts to assist her eldest son Joe Alsop in developing a career as a Washington journalist and foreign correspondent, and then during World War II to learn news of Joe and his brother Stewart Alsop, who were both serving in the military overseas. The two cousins saw each other from time to time (Whenever she visited Washington, Corinne was forced to choose whether to stay with Eleanor at the White House or with Alice Longworth at her house), and also corresponded. The Corinne Robinson Alsop Cole Papers have over 50 pieces of correspondence from Eleanor Roosevelt.

In addition, Houghton holds Corinne’s correspondence and other materials concerning the 1965 documentary film The Eleanor Roosevelt Story, for which she was interviewed and provided voiceover narration. One especially revealing piece of correspondence is Corinne’s letter to her old friend, the poet/statesman Archibald MacLeish, who was serving as a producer of the film (Series VII, folder 574). In it, she paints a sympathetic portait of Mrs. Roosevelt’s troubled youth, and expresses doubt that the film could properly explore the most interesting aspect of her cousin’s life, namely “the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of her transition from a lonely, dreary, not very interesting little girl, to the most outstanding citizen of the world [of the recessed(?) decades].” While Corinne’s assessment is critical—she underlines Eleanor’s total absence of any sense of humor and claims that the daily My Day newspaper columns that Mrs. Roosevelt produced made her cringe by their “goody-goody” quality—she underlines the “glorious flowering” that her cousin underwent as a mature and useful person. Altogether the letter represents a revealing portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, and one informed by a lifetime acquaintance.

[Thanks to Dr. Greg Robinson, Professor of History, Université du Québec À Montréal, and a 2014-15 Houghton Visiting Fellow, for contributing this post.]

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