Editor’s note: Because of the death of Charles Kuralt The New York Times has re-released this commentary he published in the magazine’s Female Icons issue (November, 1996).
I unbuttoned Eleanor Roosevelt’s dress.
I was very nervous, though she did her best to make it easy for me.
I had grown up persuaded that Eleanor Roosevelt was the greatest living American, not excluding her husband, the president.
This idea came from my grandmother. To her, FDR was a lofty and distant figure, but she felt she knew Mrs. Roosevelt from her column, “My Day,” which appeared six days a week in The Raleigh News and Observer. My grandmother would walk a mile down the dirt road to the mailbox beside the highway, bring the newspaper home and read to our family at the kitchen table at night. She nearly always read us “My Day.”
Mrs. Roosevelt frequently expressed her wish for a better life for Americans in those Depression days, a wish my grandmother approved of and shared.
These readings took place by the light of a kerosene lamp. Hardly any farms in our part of North Carolina had electricity in the 1930s. The big power companies couldn’t see any profit in it. When the light poles of the Rural Electrification Administration finally came marching down that dirt road in 1939 and we got an electric light bulb over the kitchen table, my grandmother gave Mrs. Roosevelt the credit.
Eleanor Roosevelt was reviled and caricatured by Republicans and fat cats, of course, but in our area, we were unacquainted with persons of either variety. The president’s wife was adored as a humanitarian and respected as a reformer. Everybody realized that reforms were needed.
Mrs. Roosevelt had been a teacher and thought the country needed better education. My grandmother had been a teacher too, and thought the same. The middle-aged woman in the White House and the middle-aged housewife on the farm saw eye to eye on everything. They shared a lack of pretension.
My grandmother drove her own farm wagon and later her own old Chevrolet. Mrs. Roosevelt took city buses and traveled on trains by ordinary day coach.
When Mrs. Roosevelt’s memoir, “This Is My Story,” appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal installments, my grandmother saved the magazines in her bookcase, where they remained until she died.
So when I finally met Mrs. Roosevelt, it was like meeting a monument. She proved to be a gracious and smiling monument. I was prepared for that. I was not prepared for what followed.
The occasion was Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to Hyde Park. The radio-microphone had just been invented for TV use, and as a young reporter for CBS News, I asked Mrs. Roosevelt to wear one of the things so that we could hear the conversation as she showed Khrushchev around the house and grounds. She agreed.
Then the producer insisted that the apparatus be concealed from the camera’s view.
“Mrs. Roosevelt,” I said, “I’m going to have to hide the mike inside your dress.”
She smiled. “Do whatever you need to do,” she said.
I unbuttoned the back of her dress and attached the transmitter to her corset. I passed the microphone cable under her armpit. She obligingly leaned forward and let her dress slide off her shoulders so that I could hook the mike to her bra.
As I stood there toying with the underwear of the greatest living American, I wondered what my grandmother would have thought. And I was profoundly grateful to Mrs. Roosevelt for being so matter-of-fact about it all.
Khrushchev came and went. The microphone worked fine. When the event was over, Mrs. Roosevelt asked me to drive her down from the main house to her cottage, Val-Kill, and invited me in for tea.
“But you’ll have to excuse me for half an hour,” she said. “I must do my daily bit of writing now. I write a newspaper column, you know.”
“Yes,” I said. “I know.”
I blurted out the story of my grandmother’s kitchen-table readings of “My Day” and said something about my grandmother’s career as a rural teacher.
Mrs. Roosevelt said, “Your grandmother sounds like just the sort of person we need more of.”
I was able to give a heartfelt reply. I said, “She felt the same about you.”