Saturday, March 28, 2015

Eleanor Roosevelt's Val Kill

Eleanor Roosevelt's Val-Kill paints a portrait of a first lady


National Park Service/Courtesy

Eleanor Roosevelt built Val-Kill as a factory and school to train unemployed farm workers and later used it as an office and retreat for herself and her secretary

When we teach our OSHER Lifelong Learning course on the most influential people of the 20th century, we highlight Eleanor Roosevelt, whom Harry S. Truman once called the “First Lady of the World.” So, we eagerly looked forward to visiting Val-Kill, the home she created for herself on the grounds of Hyde Park, N.Y.

            After a 15-minute film focusing on her spoken or written words, a National Park Service ranger enthusiastically provided details about her life as we toured her home and the surrounding grounds.

            Roosevelt had a miserable childhood. Her father, a brother of President Theodore Roosevelt, was an alcoholic whom she loved. Her mother thought she was too homely to attract a worthy husband and did nothing to build her self-esteem. Both parents were dead by the time she was 10, and a rather rigid, emotionally cold grandmother took over her care.

            At 15, Roosevelt was rescued by being sent to the Allenswood School in England, where the head mistress, Marie Souvestre, saw her potential and encouraged her compassion for the oppressed, a quality for which she later became recognized.

            After returning to New York, Roosevelt worked with poor immigrants and introduced her distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt to the conditions of the “common people.” Because of his upper-class upbringing, he was surprised by what he saw.

            After their marriage, they lived with his mother, Sara, under conditions that gave Eleanor Roosevelt little to say about the management of the household and social activities. But after Franklin Roosevelt contracted polio, she took over the responsibility of keeping his potential career alive. After discovering his affair, she cut off physical relations with him but continued to be his eyes and ears to the world. She often pushed him to do more for civil rights. His problem was that if he did too much, he would lose the Southern votes he needed to keep the presidency. He often used her controversial comments as a way to see how far he could go with the public. If serious negative reactions were aroused, he would shrug his shoulders and say, “That’s my misses’ view.”

            With two of her closest friends, Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, Eleanor built Val-Kill as a factory and school to train unemployed farm workers to make furniture, pewter pieces and weavings.

            When the factory closed in 1938, Eleanor turned the building into an office and retreat for herself and her secretary. It became a place of rest and respite after her whirlwind trips around the country and the world. She preferred it to the Hyde Park home because she was free of Sara Roosevelt’s direction. After Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945, Val-Kill became Eleanor Roosevelt’s permanent home. Her two friends continued to live in the adjoining Stone House until 1947.

            Roosevelt met with friends and famous people at Val-Kill. Our guide indicated Roosevelt did not favor Jack Kennedy, who visited her at Val-Kill, because he thought like a politician and was not willing to do much about supporting civil rights because it might lose him votes. The country was not ready to wholeheartedly support some of her social innovations, especially in race relations.

            Our guide also pointed out that she didn’t cook. She enjoyed entertaining and frequently spontaneously invited extra guests, leaving the cooks short of food at times. The problem was solved after they finally told her they would prepare meals for 20, and if that turned out to be too much food, she could get used to eating leftovers.

            From the 1930s until she died in 1962, she continued to write a daily column, “My Day.” She also hosted a television talk show and continued to write books. President Truman appointed her as a representative to the United Nations General Assembly, where she chaired the committee that wrote the Declaration of Human Rights.

            The visit to Val-Kill affirmed our belief that Eleanor Roosevelt was truly one of the great influences of the 20th century.

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