Eleanor Roosevelt on Her Own
After FDR's death, Val-Kill Cottage in Hyde Park, N.Y., became Mrs. Roosevelt's haven. The things she prized speak to a bright, shy woman's character and a life filled with convictions and contradictions.
By Allen Freeman | From Preservation | March/April 2002
Seven years ago, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton paid her first visit to Val-Kill Cottage, the converted furniture factory in Hyde Park, N.Y., that Eleanor Roosevelt called home from 1945 to 1962. Clinton, then First Lady, was to receive an award. "I went up early," Clinton said during an interview in her Senate office. "I'd read about Val-Kill and knew it was a place that meant a lot to Mrs. Roosevelt, who is one of my great heroines. As I went through the house with Park Service guides, I saw where she had summer dinners, where she sat and read, where she did her correspondence, where she slept."
Val-Kill Cottage is where Eleanor Roosevelt entertained Winston Churchill, Nikita Khrushchev, Jawaharlal Nehru, Marshal Tito, Adlai Stevenson, youngsters from the local Wiltwyck School for delinquent boys, and members of the large Roosevelt clan. It's the base from which she traveled the world during three postwar years as head of a commission responsible for drafting the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is where, in August 1960 at the age of 75, she offered political advice to Sen. John F. Kennedy, the 43-year-old Democratic presidential nominee seeking her endorsement. And at Christmas each year her grandchildren gathered at Val-Kill to open presents she'd collected for them during her travels.
Although in 1995 Clinton was living in the same house in Washington where Mrs. Roosevelt had once lived, "So many changes have been made since the Roosevelts were in the White House that even if you try to figure out what rooms she would have used, they don't have the sense of her being there," she said. "The rooms at Val-Kill do.
"There is nothing fancy about it at all," Clinton said. "The dining area is the kind of place that the vast majority of American families would feel comfortable in. The sitting area in front of the fireplace has very comfortable chairs and couches—you could just imagine people sitting there after dinner. And there is the little alcove where she met with Sen. Kennedy. You are aware of being in the midst of this juxtaposition of extraordinary historic events with the day-to-day living of grandchildren running in and out of the house and friends coming to call and sitting in a chair listening to the radio after dinner."
A few weeks after seeing Sen. Clinton, I visited Val-Kill Cottage with Allida M. Black, the director and editor of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers and a professor of history at George Washington University. Her 1997 book, Casting Her Own Shadow, covers Eleanor's political career after FDR's death. Val-Kill curators Anne Jordan and Frank Futral met us at the site, a plain, two-story building that defies most romantic associations with the word cottage. Built of concrete block covered in stucco, it does, however, sit—if awkwardly—in a pastoral landscape.
As we stood in the living room, its ordinary furniture arranged in little groups that welcome good conversation, I asked Black about Kennedy's visit, and she spoke as if the two figures from history were in the room with us. "He's a wreck about it because she did not support him," Black said. "Eleanor supported Adlai Stevenson and had left the convention after Kennedy was nominated. She's refused overtures from him. They meet back here [in the alcove]. He expects Eleanor to say he has to make Adlai secretary of state and put Chester Bowles at the U.N. That's not what she says at all; she says the president should be able to appoint his own cabinet, but he is not going to get elected unless he shows up at traditional Democratic constituencies. Forget the South, she says. You're going to lose the South anyway because you can't atone for your Catholicism.
"But to give this advice," Black said, "she switches the chairs so that she is sitting in the taller chair and talking down to him. Eleanor was very skillful at being gracious and powerful at the same time."
Val-Kill's living room brings up memories for Eleanor's 60-year-old grandson Christopher Roosevelt. Later, in a telephone interview from his law office in Armonk, N.Y., he would recall going "up there with my father, who was an expert at making something called bullshots, which are like bloody marys. He would ask me to go around and ask who wanted what, and I would always go to my grandmother, and she would always say, ‘Now, tell me what that is again?' I would explain to her that it was beef bouillon and a little bit of salt and pepper and some spices like Worcestershire sauce, and of course, a little vodka. And she would smile and respond: ‘It sounds verrry healthy, but I think I will stick with this small glass of sherry,' which was, at most, what she drank. I think probably that was a result of her father being a fairly serious alcoholic." He also remembers his grandmother standing at the open door of the screened porch "calling us for lunch or supper in her screechy voice, ‘CHIL-dren. CHIL-dren.'"
Anne Jordan explained as we walked into Eleanor's bedroom that the Park Service acquired Val-Kill unfurnished in 1977. "When Mrs. Roosevelt died in 1962, there was no great movement to create a historic site, not that she ever thought there would be," Jordan said. "Her family inherited the contents of Val-Kill Cottage. Family members took things that were important to them, and the rest was sold at auctions in the '60s and '70s." The Park Service relates Mrs. Roosevelt's later years to the public by telling stories associated with the artifacts. "Things are coming back all the time," she said, referring to donations and purchases.
Mrs. Roosevelt kept items in her bedroom that reminded her of the people who made her happy, Black interjected. You see photos, some in cheap frames, of Franklin as a young man, Franklin with his mother and father, and Franklin and Eleanor's children, grandchildren, and close friends. A small picture of an unidentified baby, normally hung on the wall, was out for conservation on the day I visited; Jordan described it as "like a really bad Hallmark card from the '30s. My theory is that someone Eleanor really liked gave it to her." There's a little ivory box from Tiffany's engraved AHR, for Eleanor's mother, Anna Hall Roosevelt. Futral acquired it on eBay and identified it positively by a sticker from Eleanor's estate auction. A plain dressing table, opposite the foot of the bed, was not hers but rather a piece that she gave to her oldest child and namesake, Anna Eleanor. It came to the cottage from a granddaughter.
Eleanor slept most nights on the adjacent sleeping porch, where she watched the rising sun reflect off Val-Kill pond and then started her day. She wrote many of her 28 books and "My Day" newspaper columns at Val-Kill, working with her secretary, Malvina "Tommy" Thompson, here on the sleeping porch or downstairs in Thompson's apartment in the office they shared. "Eleanor tried to make the column chatty," Black said. "She would dictate to Tommy, who would type a rough draft that Eleanor would edit. And Tommy would incorporate Eleanor's completely illegible—;on the best days—;scrawl into sensible prose, write up the final version, and then wire it off that afternoon."
Down in the office, you see evidence of Mrs. Roosevelt's informality and closeness with coworkers and friends: for instance, deeply padded armchairs arranged around the one television set in the household. When Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie visited, he removed his shoes and sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the television to view a filmed interview he'd made about democracy. On Eleanor's desk in a corner, there's a misspelled nameplate, "Elenor Roosevelt," made by and given to her by a little girl, a student at a Hyde Park public school. "Eleanor would never do anything disrespectful to this child," Black said. "She put it there, and it stayed there for a decade."
Because Mrs. Roosevelt placed the associative value of objects far ahead of any intrinsic worth they may have had, Jordan and Futral mirrored that attitude as they collect items for the cottage. They weigh each object's value in telling Eleanor's story against its probable cost. They have singled out family silver because Val-Kill has had so little of it to show the public. The oldest piece the Park Service acquired at an auction at Christie's last year was an early-18th-century French spoon that belonged to Mrs. Roosevelt's great-great-great grandfather, Robert R. Livingston, a signer of the Declaration of Independence from New York State. Jordan described how Eleanor casually used such heirlooms alongside jelly glasses: "It's who she was. Interpreters can now bounce [their interpretations] off these new objects as a way to talk about the complexity of this person."
After Franklin contracted polio in 1921, the family frequently picnicked at a quiet spot on land he acquired a few miles east of Springwood, the big house at Hyde Park where he grew up and his widowed mother still lived. He could rest and feel secure there, on the bank of a stream. FDR and Eleanor usually brought along several friends, including New York Democratic party activists Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman. One day in August 1924, Eleanor rued the approaching end of the season and FDR proposed building a "shack" that Eleanor, Cook, and Dickerman could share year-round as a retreat. He may have considered it a counterpart to his refuge at Warm Springs, Ga., visits to which Eleanor could not abide because of her discomfort with the region's institutionalized segregation. Franklin and Atlanta architect Henry Toombs turned FDR's shack idea into a quaint fieldstone house called Stone Cottage. When it was completed early in 1926, Cook and Dickerman moved in, making it, at FDR's invitation, their full-time residence.
That year, Eleanor, Cook, Dickerman, and a fourth friend named Caroline O'Day came up with the idea of starting a furniture factory to employ local agricultural workers who were leaving Dutchess County for jobs in cities. They built a pair of utilitarian buildings about 30 yards behind Stone Cottage and called the operation Val-Kill Industries: Val from the valley location and Kill from Fall Kill, the name of the stream (kill is Dutch for stream). Cook designed many of the colonial reproductions and arts and crafts pieces the workers turned out; Eleanor marketed them to department stores and supported the venture by buying and giving them away. Demand for the furniture, never very strong, declined in the Depression years, and they closed down the factory in 1936.
By then, Eleanor's friendship with Cook and Dickerman had cooled, and she needed a retreat of her own apart from the White House and the big house of her mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt. Leaving Stone Cottage to Dickerman and Cook, Mrs. Roosevelt had the two buildings joined into one, shaped as an L, and the interior spaces partitioned with pine paneling. The larger apartment was for herself and guests and the smaller was one for Thompson. Eleanor added porches and began calling the place Val-Kill Cottage.
When Franklin died in April 1945, his widow quickly transferred his mother's house to the government —;Sara had died in September 1941, and Franklin and Eleanor had planned the gift—;and took Val-Kill Cottage as her main residence. Cook and Dickerman would vacate Stone Cottage in 1947, and John, the youngest of Franklin and Eleanor's four children, and his family would move in four years later.
Eleanor had generated controversy ever since Franklin's rise in politics; if anything, her notoriety intensified during the Val-Kill years. She prodded the liberal wing of the Democratic party, advocated civil rights, and spoke out early and decisively against McCarthyism. She resigned from the United Nations in 1952 and traveled on behalf of human rights organizations, lectured at Brandeis University, answered letters that arrived by the bagful, wrote her books, and carried on the newspaper column she'd started as First Lady in December 1935. She stayed active until 1962. Hospitalized that fall in Manhattan, she asked to be taken to her apartment on East 74th Street, where she died on Nov. 7 of complications stemming from tuberculosis.
Her children, heirs to her small estate, converted Val-Kill Cottage into four rental units, eventually selling it in 1970. Redevelopment plans for the site prompted a local preservation drive, and the work leading to Val-Kill's status as a national memorial took off from there. Congress created the 180-acre Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site in 1977. It's the only Park Service site dedicated to a First Lady, attracting 77,000 visitors a year. Women especially seem to respond to the place and to Mrs. Roosevelt's life.
Anne Jordan said she is sure Eleanor never imagined making the modest building a historic site, much less one illustrative of her ideas. The former First Lady herself wrote: "About the only value the story of my life may have, is to show that one can, even without any particular gifts, overcome obstacles that seem insurmountable if one is willing to face the fact that they must be overcome."
She would be surprised as well by the Eleanor chronicles that keep pouring out. Her friend Joseph P. Lash wrote three books about her, the first published in 1964. Notable also are two lengthy installments, published in the '90s, of Blanche Wiesen Cook's projected three-volume biography, and three works written or edited by Black. Last year's crop included The Three Roosevelts by James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn and several other titles.
The attempts to describe her strengths and courage and to sort out the contradictions of her life seem worth the trouble. She was a homely, shy woman who married a handsome charmer and pushed herself into the strongest currents of a turbulent century. A prosaic, often preachy essayist, she wrote her popular newspaper columns, filled with blunt opinions about controversial subjects, for nearly a quarter of a century, pausing only briefly after her husband's death. She was a dutiful wife and mother. She was loyal to friends but chose to end several close relationships on matters of principle. She was born into a family of wealth and status but identified with the world's underprivileged—;as Black put it, she was "a woman who understood social class and who struggled with class but was not totally defined or trapped by it." And, of course, she chose to live in a converted furniture factory, which her nation now preserves as a memorial to her life.
Mrs. Roosevelt traveled to the United Nations, to Washington, to India, and to Moscow and returned to her Hyde Park home after every trip to regain her strength. "At Val-Kill I emerged as an individual," she wrote. She received death threats and was the favorite target of hate groups including the Ku Klux Klan but refused intensified Secret Service protection. She brought people to her remote cottage and served them simple and sometimes terrible food. Millionaires and homeless people came to her table. She engaged them in conversation, perhaps stretched their minds, and allowed them to be themselves just by being herself. "Here, she came down from her pedestal," Black told me.
By the middle 1950s, Mrs. Roosevelt was fed up with the Democrats, who she felt were much too cautious, Black said. "She started to identify with people outside the party and outside the system, like the radical student activists, who were trying to make the party accountable, which is why Val-Kill is so important. It was at this site that she had the latitude, physical and emotional, to bring people together."
Today Val-Kill Cottage is a fine metaphor for Eleanor Roosevelt. It's as plain and unaffected as she was, as complex and contradictory. The grounds are more shaded than they were in her day, and Stone Cottage is now a conference center operated by the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill. Near the oblong pond that the Roosevelts created 75 years ago by damming Fall Kill, there's a little garden where Eleanor cut roses to place in the rooms of her overnight guests. A wooden bridge crosses the stream.
During Hillary Clinton's second trip there, in 2000 to designate Val-Kill as an official Save America's Treasures project, she paused at the top of the stair hall leading to Mrs. Roosevelt's bedroom. Clinton gazed for a minute or two at a reproduction of a Herblock political cartoon that Mrs. Roosevelt put in a dime-store frame 50 years ago and hung at eye level. Black believes that Eleanor placed it where she would see it every day to remind her that people expected her to speak out and interpret national issues.
The Washington Post had published the drawing just as the Communist witch hunts were gearing up and after Eleanor had spoken out against McCarthyism. She was one of the first public figures, if not the very first, to do so. It shows an immigrant mother and daughter on a ship in New York Harbor headed to Ellis Island. As they pass the Statue of Liberty, the girl says, "Of course I know. It's Mrs. Roosevelt."
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