It was in the early 1950s when I met Eleanor Roosevelt. It is one of my earliest memories, and considering how brief it was, it might seem surprising that it has remained so strong in my mind ever since.
But then again, she was a woman of great influence and significance in American history, a person for whom the descriptor “former first lady,” which is how she was described when I met her, sounds dismissive and woefully inadequate. She made quite the impact on me in those few seconds we had together. Clearly, I remain a huge fan.
I was reminded of all that the Roosevelts – Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor – were in America as I watched the recent PBS documentary “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” the 14-hour work by Ken Burns, who also chronicled lives and times in such memorable presentations as “The Civil War” and “The National Parks.” It was in watching his most recent series that I had a moment of déjà vu.
I got to meet Mrs. Roosevelt because of my mother, who at the time was a dress buyer for Arnold Constable department store in New York City. Arnold Constable, located on Fifth Avenue and 40th Street, catered to an upscale crowd that included the Carnegies, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. I can still remember stories my mother would tell at dinner about some of their customers – such as one woman who had trouble making up her mind about a particular dress because she was concerned it would wrinkle when she was camel riding in Arabia.
It was difficult work my mother did, not just because of the long hours, but also because, while women worked as sales clerks, not very many were buyers in those days. It was still pretty much an all-boys club, and to succeed, one had to be very, very good – and also pretty darn strong minded. My mother was both, and it was an especially sweet achievement for her, having grown up in the tenements of the South Bronx, the daughter of immigrant parents.
You might well understand why my mother revered Eleanor Roosevelt, and when she learned that Mrs. Roosevelt would be speaking at the annual banquet of a charity that Arnold Constable supported, she was delighted that she would be attending. Here some of the details are hazy in my mind. I don’t know what the charity was (though I think it was the Children’s Aid Society) and I think the banquet was hosted in the auditorium of the department store itself.
My mother decided to take me to see the great lady. And thus began my instruction. Although I was a pretty obedient child, I was not a girly-girl, much preferring brown corduroy pants, Buster Brown shoes and climbing trees to frilly dresses and tea parties. But the appropriate dress was purchased and it was discussed with me how important was the woman I would be seeing and how necessary it was that I display my best manners. It was quite a buildup.
So there I was, seated at a big round table with many ladies in their finery, gloves and hats mandatory accessories. There seemed to be an awful lot of forks by my plate, but there was an air of excitement all about. And then she walked into the room, all 6-feet tall, a bit looming and hunched in her presentation and – from where I was sitting – clearly the homeliest woman I had ever seen.
I was 5 years old at the time, and I called it as I saw it. Fortunately, it was only an inside-my-head reaction, and I joined in the enthusiastic applause with everyone else. Sadly, she had been judged by her physical appearance, even by her own mother, in the very same way all her life, and I’m sure that her lack of traditional beauty was no small factor in shaping who she was.
Mrs. Roosevelt began walking around to all the tables and stopped by to say a few words to everyone. When she approached the table where I sat, she spotted me and came directly to me. I had broken my right arm a few weeks earlier and frankly was a little uncomfortable. She honed in on that forearm cast like radar.
She stood tall over me and bent way down, then leaned in and asked about my arm, if it hurt, how I was feeling. I can’t remember what I said or if I said anything at all. What I do recall vividly is looking up into the kindest face I can remember ever having seen (other than my parents’ or grandmother’s). I remember her eyes and the concern that just poured out of them. I was both transfixed and warmed. She seemed beautiful.
In one of the episodes of the Burns documentary, there was archival footage of Mrs. Roosevelt visiting American soldiers who were injured fighting in the Pacific during World War II. The voice-over was a reading of the words that had been written by Adm. William Halsey about that visit, at first complaining that he didn’t have time to waste on a do-gooder but ending in admiration at how when she inspected the hospitals, she didn’t just stick her head into the sun room, but stopped at each bedside in each ward and spoke to each soldier, asking if she could convey a message home or if they needed anything. The admiral was impressed.
As I watched the film, I saw her stand tall by one particular bedside, bend down and lean in, making eye contact in a way that I had seen before. For a fleeting moment, I was 5 again, in a fancy dress at the grownups’ table and with a broken wing of my own. And there was the kind lady making us all feel better.