The Public and Private Lives of Eleanor Roosevelt

Adapted and expanded here is a story that first appeared in last year’s inaugural season of “Study With The Best,” a regularly scheduled 30-minute TV news magazine on CUNY-TV Channel 75.

Eleanor Roosevelt  bookWe all know about the public life and public works of Eleanor Roosevelt. Perhaps the most famous woman of the 20th century, she was involved in the women’s, social justice, and peace movements, and she was a life-long member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

But FDR’s first lady had a private life, too, a private life that caused a sensation when it was revealed in the prize-winning 1992 book Eleanor Roosevelt: Vol. 1 1884-1933 by Blanche Wiesen Cook, distinguished professor at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

The public had been led to believe that Eleanor was a lonely, depressed and unhappy woman. Wiesen Cook discovered that the first lady had several friendships, including one with State Trooper Earl Miller and with the celebrated pioneering Associated Press reporter Lorena “Hick” Hickock.

“Everywhere I went, on talk TV and talk radio, I was attacked… Eleanor Roosevelt was attacked for having a private life,” says Wiesen Cook, adding that the exact nature of each relationship is left up to the reader. “There was hysteria that accompanied the idea that Eleanor Roosevelt might have had a private life, whether it was in response to the fact that Franklin, her husband, had a private life and she was wounded, terribly, terribly wounded when she first discovered his affair with Lucy Mercer.”

Tv scene about Professor Cook
Professor Cook

Wiesen Cook says that when Eleanor discovered FDR’s indiscretions, “she opened her heart to friendships and excitement and adventures, and she wasn’t just going to be left behind alone with her five children to suffer in the corner. And she was going to live a very full and complete life. And she did.”

Indeed, the relationship she had with Hickock “was a tremendous friendship and lifelong intimacy and affection,” Wiesen Cook says. Hickock, the highest paid political reporter in the country, was “sort of in-your-face, tough” and Miller was “her great romantic, handsome state trooper.”

Wiesen Cook says that Roosevelt had been coping with adversity all of her life. Her father, an alcoholic, died at 34, and her mother gave up on the world at age 29. An orphan at 10, Eleanor Roosevelt learned early to carry on without complaint. “She really did spend the rest of her life wanting to make things better for all people in want and need and troubled people just like her own mother and father,” Wiesen Cook says.

Wiesen Cook says that her efforts on behalf of ER have been important not only because hers is a controversial biography of a famous woman, but also because it teaches a universal lesson about living life to the fullest in the face of great and—in Roosevelt’s case—very public, scrutiny.

The second volume of the biography, covering the crucial years of FDR’s presidency, 1933-38, appeared in 1999, and Wiesen Cook is now completing the third and final installment, which will focus in particular on the widowed former First Lady’s involvement in post-war peace and social justice diplomacy.

“The most amazing thing for me as a political person about the story is that to the end of her life, she never stopped growing and learning and changing and becoming better,” says Wiesen Cook. “And so for me, she’s a wonderful role model of just how to be in the face of great adversity.”

Contents October 2002

From High School Dropout to Surgeon General – Thanks to BCC

Extending the Lifespan of Learning

The Bronx: A Thriving River Runs Through It

Chancellor's Message: Celebrating CUNY Poets

Two Bills for CUNY Signed by Governor

Colleges Set Out Welcome Mats For First “CUNY Week” Outreach

New Technology: Two Conferences

Celebrating the Pleasures of Literature

The Public and Private Lives of Eleanor Roosevelt

Capturing the Life of a Complex General

TV Boot Camp Gives Students Taste of “60 Minutes” Magic

Big Cats' Novels Change America

Imagining Hopper

New Stars in Faculty Firmament

John Jay Law Enforcement News Honored for Articles on 9/11

Preserving the History of the Puerto Rican Diaspora

Vigils, Bells, Art, Eloquence—and Silence: Campuses Observe September 11

Three WTC Workers from City Tech Receive Scholarships

Future Holds New Home, New Master’s for CUNY’s School of Architecture

N.J. State Human Resources Executive Comes to CUNY

Hostos Goes Electronic on the Grand Concourse

New Shuttle Service Eases Lehman Commute

Leap in Fall Enrollment

CUNY Board Adopts State Early Retirement Plan