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The Paradox of Eleanor Roosevelt: Alcoholism’s Child

ISSUE:  Spring 1987

Somewhere between the two extreme images of Eleanor Roosevelt—that of the shallow busybody first lady and that of the humanitarian reformer and consummate politician—stands a complex figure full of contradictions and paradoxes,” observed Tamara Hareven in the anthology that marked the centenary of Eleanor’s birth in 1984. The collection was titled Without Precedent, and Hareven’s essay on “ER and Reform” led off the volume’s concluding section on “Paradoxes.” Author of an admiring biography, Eleanor Roosevelt (1968), Hareven conceded in 1984 that Eleanor’s “omnipresence and involvement in many different causes, her paradoxical statements, and her support of seemingly contradictory causes bewildered her contemporaries and left even her Supporters feeling that her activities had no coherent pattern.” The editors of Without Precedent explained that a scholarly reassessment was needed because the contradictions in Eleanor Roosevelt’s long and eventful life were not explained by the soap opera elements of the standard litany. According to this melodrama, Eleanor survived an orphaned and loveless childhood, a faithless husband and domineering mother-in-law, and emerged as an independent personality only after her husband was felled by polio in 1921. Her need to serve so long as Franklin’s eyes and ears transformed the shy Eleanor into an autonomous public leader. It was a triumphant process that reached full flower after she was widowed in 1945 and that was sustained through worldwide acclaim until her death in 1962.

But beneath the soap opera scenario, Eleanor’s extraordinary career was marked by a series of interlocking paradoxes that produced a contradictory symbolism. She was a crusading idealist yet also a shrewd political pragmatist, an aristocrat with leftist persuasions, an aggressive liberal reformer who symbolized the liberated woman, yet who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. She was inherently shy, yet she constantly pressed herself upon the public consciousness with her ubiquitous speeches, press conferences, and publications. She was accused by her conservative detractors of being a busybody do-gooder who loved the whole world, yet even to her loved ones Eleanor seemed unable to express emotions spontaneously. “Mother was always stiff, never relaxed enough to romp,” her daughter Anna recalled. “Mother loved all mankind, but she did not know how to let her children love her.”

Roosevelt scholars have explained the origins and persistence of these contradictory tendencies in basically three ways. One explanation is primarily political and generational, and seeks to explain why Eleanor was so slow to support such major female reform issues as suffrage, peace, child-labor laws, and the ERA. It accounts for Eleanor’s extraordinary career as a transitional bridge, linking the elite social reformers of the Progressive era to the modern equalitarian feminists through acts of individual achievement, while aggressive and collective feminism, which had won the suffrage, lay dormant for 40 years. A Victorian child of the late 19th century, Eleanor grew up with her agrarian party in the maturing 20th-century urban nation; hence her ideological time lags were but growing pains, paralleling the Democratic transition from Jeffersonian states rights to the nationalist reforms of the New Deal. Her steadfast opposition to the ERA embarrassed modern feminists, but the protective legislation that it threatened understandably represented the liberal triumph of her generation.

A second explanation is structural. It accounts for the differing social functions and degrees of freedom permitted to a woman whose place had been defined in general by America’s inherited patriarchal values, and specifically by her famous uncle and husband, from whom her escalating status was derived. In this stepwise transition, Eleanor became first the First Lady of New York, then of the White House and the nation, later of the United Nations, and ultimately of world humanitarianism in general. The “office” of First Lady was itself a paradox, requiring of serious and purposeful occupants a petticoat pretense to the contrary. Empowered vicariously by FDR, Eleanor ultimately found in widowhood her greatest freedom and fulfillment. She lacked the freedom of an Alice Paul, but the many restrictions of her ascribed status were balanced by its unique visibility as a bully pulpit.

A third explanation for Eleanor’s contradictions has necessarily been psychological. Yet unlike most such explanations, where psychohistorians and their detractors have clashed over what deeper and (usually) darker impulses drove a Jefferson or Lincoln or Wilson, the psychological assessment of Eleanor Roosevelt has been strikingly consensual. Eleanor was a first-born female followed by favored sons in Victorian America’s male-dominated society. In her Autobiography (1961), she recalled herself as a “shy, solemn child even at the age of two, and I am sure that even when I danced I never smiled.” Moreover, from the earliest age she felt profound emotional rejection because she was “without beauty. I seemed like a little old woman entirely lacking in the spontaneous joy and mirth of youth.” Her mother, Anna Hall Roosevelt, whom Eleanor called “one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen,” even called her plain little daughter “Granny,” and Eleanor “wanted to sink through the floor in shame.” Joseph Alsop recalled that once, when his mother was having tea with Anna, who was her cousin, Anna turned to her little daughter and matter-of-factly remarked: “Eleanor, I hardly know what’s to happen to you. You’re so plain that you really have nothing to do except be good.” From the palpable bond of regal mother and preferred sons, homely little Eleanor felt emotionally excluded by a “curious barrier between myself and these three.” “I felt I was apart from the boys,” she said, and “something locked me up.”


Modern feminist scholarship has of course had much to say about the implicit centrality of women’s subordination in these political, social, and psychological explanations. Feminist reassessments of Eleanor’s role tend to emphasize the liberating role of her extensive network of close female friends, in whose special feminist nurture Eleanor’s wounded independence was reinforced. But the psychological consensus rests on Eleanor’s formative years, especially on the unusual influence of the women who governed the child’s life. Eleanor’s own autobiographical accounts and the reconstructions of her biographers have emphasized her rejection by a series of exceptionally beautiful, cold, and dominant women. In sharp contrast, these same sources celebrated the intense bond of love between little Eleanor and her warm and gentle father, who alone seemed to build her battered self-esteem.

First among the hard women was Anna Roosevelt, Eleanor’s critical and demanding mother who was often subject to headaches and depressions, and who so clearly seemed to prefer the company of her two sons. In FDR: A Centenary Remembrance (1982), Joseph Alsop recalls Anna Roosevelt unflatteringly as “a rigidly conventional woman who somehow combined religious devotion and intense worldliness,” but whose most ostensible characteristic was her stunning beauty and its accompanying vanity. Anna’s brother-in-law, Theodore Roosevelt, despised her frivolity, which “had eaten into her character like a cancer.” But Anna suddenly died of diphtheria when Eleanor was only eight years old, and Eleanor and her baby brothers were abruptly shipped off to her “stern grandmother,” Mary Livingston Ludlow Hall, who was “extremely severe toward her daughter’s brood.” As the beautiful daughter of a Livingston and the widow of Valentine Hall, Eleanor’s “incompetent” grandmother “distractedly” presided over a feckless household in which her six strikingly beautiful children were spoiled. But the poor orphaned grandchildren felt the nay-saying brunt of their dour grandmother, who according to Alsop’s mother possessed “the greatest knack for making her surroundings gloomy of all the women in New York.” In the austere Victorian atmosphere of upper class society in New York and Oyster Bay, Eleanor was “surrounded by carefree selfish aunts,” and subjected to the “stern supervision” of “impatient maids and strict governesses.” Finally, there was Eleanor’s marriage at the age of 19 to her distant cousin Franklin, and with it a prolonged thralldom as daughter-in-law to the domineering and disapproving Sara Delano Roosevelt. Lacking self-confidence and a natural maternal touch, Eleanor yielded her children’s nursery to English governesses. Franklin’s strong willed and elegant mother in effect expropriated Eleanor’s children, referring to them as “my children,” and explaining to them that “your mother only bore you.”

Lonely, insecure, and rejected as a female ugly duckling, little Eleanor’s sole vital source of reassurance and affection was her beloved father, Elliott: “He dominated my life as long as he lived, and was the love of my life for many years after he died.” Theodore’s younger brother, Elliott, was remembered by Eleanor as “charming, good-looking, loved by all who came in contact with him, high or low.” Whereas her mother Anna loved high society, Eleanor recalled, her father “had a background and upbringing which were alien to my mother’s pattern.” Unlike status-conscious Anna, Elliott possessed the common touch. He seemed equally at home with his fellow polo players and huntsmen, the crippled children in the Orthopaedic Hospital, the street urchins in the Newsboys’ Lodging House. Unlike Theodore, whose combativeness could be tinged with bombast and a certain self-righteous priggishness, Elliott generated an infectious warmth. Frequently described as “lovable,” like his father, Robert Roosevelt, Elliott as a young man was known for his generosity and humor—and for his glamor, among the young ladies. His mother and his sister adored him, and his letters reflect a wellspring of gentleness that sustained the affection in which he was so widely held. Elliott married Anna after a brief and formal courtship. Their firstborn child, Eleanor, bonded profoundly with her father, and he called Eleanor his “gay Little Nell.” “He also gave her the ideals that she tried to live up to all her life,” her biographer Joseph Lash believed, “by presenting her with the picture of what he wanted her to be—noble, brave, studious, religious, loving, and good.”

Thus Eleanor’s childhood memories and the reconstructions of biographers and historians have pictured a child’s world that was physically and psychologically dominated by beautiful women who were stern, cold, austere, even cruel. This severe environment was relieved only by the adoring and adored Elliott, who was the love of young Eleanor’s life—and so remained, singular and forever, after her shattering discovery in 1918 of her husband Franklin’s affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Franklin’s infidelity is one of only two major, male-centered blots on a record of childhood and young adulthood that otherwise is dominated by almost unrelieved matriarchal oppression. But the other has largely remained a closet phenomenon, because it involved the indisputable alcoholism of her beloved and shining father, Elliott.


Much has been made of the crushing impact of Franklin’s self-indulgent love affair, of how it confirmed Eleanor’s profound sense of inadequacy as wife and mother, and how she subsequently sublimated her emotional needs by seeking personal fulfillment through social and political action in the public arena. Recent biographers of the Roosevelts have been generally aware of Elliott’s closet alcoholism. In Eleanor and Franklin (1971), for instance, Lash described Elliott’s disastrous self-destruction in brief but brutal detail. David McCulloch was even more explicit in Mornings on Horseback (1981), and both Edmund Morris, in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979), and Geoffrey Ward, in Before the Trumpet (1985), devoted an entire chapter to Elliott and his tragic demise. These recent reassessments have treated Eleanor’s damaging childhood with becoming sensitivity. But few biographers have felt impelled or perhaps qualified to draw major clinical conclusions from Elliott’s severe drinking problem. The Roosevelt literature most typically draws a common-sensical surmise that Eleanor’s encounter with her father’s shadow weakness endowed her with a special sensitivity to grief and suffering. This painful but character-building experience was said to have strengthened her resolve to exercise personal responsibility and to avoid the tragic deterioration she had witnessed from weakness, self-pity, and self-indulgence. Alsop even speculated that “the beauty of Eleanor Roosevelt’s mother must have been harder on her than her father’s alcoholism,” and that the oppressive period under her grandmother Hall may have been “far worse.”

Yet consider Eleanor’s own mature recollections of the extraordinary intensity of this father-daughter bond. She not only cherished every joyous moment with him but was also truly “desperate to please him.” She remembered with painful vividness those instances where her lack of physical courage had failed and thereby disappointed and even angered him, as once on a donkey ride, and again in a shipboard accident at sea—something a strong son would surely never have done. Even when Elliott’s drinking bouts were causing a great deal of family anxiety, as when his second son (and third child), her brother Hall, was born and Elliott returned from one of his periodic seclusions in a sanitarium, Eleanor remembered that “he was the only person who did not treat me as a criminal!” When her mother died so suddenly in 1892, Eleanor recalled with astonishing candor that “death meant nothing to me, and one fact wiped out everything else. My father was back and I would see him soon.” She and Elliott formed a “secret pact,” wherein father and daughter would be left alone forever “to live in a dream-world in which I was the heroine and my father was the hero. . . . Into this world I withdrew.”

Withdrawal was required, because Anna had decreed, with Theodore’s insistence, that upon her death, the children were to be raised by their grim maternal grandmother, Mrs. Valentine Hall, and Elliott was to be exiled. Eleanor realized “what a tragedy of utter defeat this meant for him. . . . He had no wife, no children, no hope.” Two years later Elliott himself was dead, and little Eleanor, ten years old and orphaned, had seemingly no hope also: “Attention and admiration were the things through all my childhood which I wanted, because I was made to feel so conscious of the fact that nothing about me would attract attention or would bring me admiration.” But Eleanor admonished her mother even in her grave for responding to her father’s drinking less with love than with high-minded strength.


But what was Elliott really like? Clearly he was, by all contemporary accounts, uncommonly blessed with wealth and station, warmth and charm, dashing good looks, and sporting bonhommie. But something was wrong. Inexplicable symptoms of troubled behavior occasionally surfaced from an early age, and although they were variously dismissed or explained away in Elliott’s youth, especially by devoted family and friends, their clarity today derives from a modern retrospective. As a boy, Elliott was said to suffer from periodic “rushes of blood to the head.” As a young man hunting tigers in India, he was seized by a “fever” of exotic origin and recurring treachery. A splendid athlete, Elliott was curiously accident-prone, and his excessive falls from horseback were eventually attributed by family and friends vaguely to “semi-epileptic seizures.” Eleanor herself shared a belief that some sort of tumor in the brain may have helped explain her father’s strange inner weakness. His increasingly disturbed behavior included, beyond physical symptoms, recurrent bouts of depression, and a generalized inability to hold steadfast to his goals or fulfill his plans. Elliott dropped out of St. Paul’s, never attended college, couldn’t seem to write his promised book on big-game hunting, failed to sustain his business enterprises.

Increasingly, as Elliott persisted in his lively but unfocused bachelorhood through his early twenties, his drinking drew troubled commentary. A closet malady, it was explained as an apparent consequence of his epilepsy or tumor or whatever (Elliott was given to invoking “my old Indian trouble”). In hindsight, the severity of his affliction became clearer to his contemporaries, especially in response to the embarrassment and shame it was to visit upon the Roosevelt gentry. As Edith Carow Roosevelt later recalled: “He drank like a fish and ran after the ladies. I mean ladies not in his own rank, which was much worse.” In her biography of Theodore’s wife, Edith Kermit Roosevelt (1980), Sylvia Jakes Morris describes how Theodore and Edith “dreaded having him to dinner, and saw as little of him as possible.” They deplored the “racy Long Island circles in which he and his society-loving wife moved,” and despaired that the “utterly frivolous” Anna would ever act as a stabilizing influence.

Initially, Elliott’s story-book marriage to the lovely Anna gave promise of deliverance from prolonged youthful follies to a new and sober maturity. But it was not to be, for Elliott was dying from a fatal illness. We shall doubtless never know for certain whether there was any medical substance to the various notions about epilepsy or tumor or mysterious fever, although it is highly unlikely. Such more socially acceptable explanations have commonly been summoned, especially by the gentry, to avoid the dreaded stigma of drunkenness. But the essential malady was clear: Elliott was a chronic alcoholic. Early in his marriage he renewed his reckless sprees with his hunting and polo friends. He grew increasingly nervous and moody, spinning downward, through Eleanor’s childhood, toward the acute stage that was to end disastrously, as was the nature of his devastating and incurable disease, in mental disintegration and death. In 1888 he fell from a trapeze during amateur theatricals. His broken ankle was misdiagnosed, requiring it to be rebroken and reset, and generating an agony that added the commonly available narcotics laudanum and morphine to his alcoholic addiction. He became increasingly hostile and depressed, given over to drunken rages, and by 1890 was in a state of collapse that included even threats of suicide.

On the family’s desperate trip to Europe in 1890, Elliott began with a solemn oath of abstinence. But soon he succumbed to violent binge behavior. This led to a bizarre series of events, which Theodore called his “nightmare of horror.” It included Elliott’s commitment to a sanitorium in Vienna; a mad-dash escape spree to Paris, where Elliott took up with an American mistress; the panic of newly pregnant Anna, who rushed home with the children to sue for divorce on grounds of insanity; the violently drunken Elliott’s internment in a secure Paris “asylum”; and, to cap off a drama more fit for pulp fiction, the blackmail threat of a paternity suit by a pregnant servant girl in New York, Katy Mann. To the enraged Theodore, his brother’s spectacularly immoral behavior constituted an “offense against order, decency, and civilization” and a desecration of the “holy marriage-bed” by his “flagrant man-swine” brother, Elliott, who had thereby forfeited all family place.

Abandoned in the Paris asylum, the disintegrating Elliott alternated between periods of guilt-ridden penitence with solemn pledges of reform to Anna, and violent raging that she had betrayed and “kidnapped” him. When the divorce suit caused a press sensation over the public humiliation of the prominent Roosevelts, Theodore sued for a Writ of Lunacy against his brother. He then fetched Elliott home from Paris a broken man, who in return for the quashing of the divorce and lunacy suits, forfeited most of his property and family rights, and agreed to submit to “Dr. Keely’s Bi-Chloride of Gold Cure.” This was an expensive, five-week treatment offered in Dwight, Illinois, and based on the body’s temporary, chemically-induced rejection of alcohol; its effect was similar to the modern drug antabuse, in which the traumatic rejection quickly passes with the cessation of injections. The devastated Elliott also accepted exile to a family hide-away near Abingdon, Virginia. Alsop described the mountainous property on the Virginia-West Virginia border as a lumber tract “long used as a place to store family drunkards”—who were “numerous” among the extended Roosevelt clan.

Elliott strove heroically during his early stay in Virginia to live a respectable and abstinent life and to earn Anna’s forgiveness. As always, his vows soon collapsed before the power of his addiction. Then Anna’s sudden death from diphtheria in 1892 was followed shortly thereafter by the death from scarlet fever of their firstborn son, Ellie, and following these terrible blows Elliott slid into the protected nether world of a well-heeled alcoholic derelict. In devoted letters to Eleanor he promised to visit “Father’s Own Little Nell” frequently. But he did so irregularly, often forgetting his promises in blackouts, and once abandoning her for six hours with the doorman at New York’s Knickerbocker Club while he got drunk and passed out inside. By 1894 he was living in New York City under an assumed name with a mistress—”like some stricken, hunted creature,” Theodore said, who “can’t be helped,” and should be left alone to drink himself to death. When Elliott died from delirium tremens and a drunken fall in August 1894, little heartbroken Eleanor was not even taken to his funeral.


What are we to make of the extraordinary dissonance between this catastrophic plunge by Elliott the alcoholic, and Little Nell’s knightly vision of her adored father? Elliott Roosevelt was truly a pathetic figure who, despite his wealth and privilege, suffered like millions of his fellow alcoholics from an ancient disease that was publicly regarded not as a disease at all but rather as a shameful mark of moral degeneracy. He lived in a not so private hell and died a full generation before a nonmedical program of recovery was found that could successfully arrest this incurable disease. Since the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, which was based on psychological and spiritual principles rather than on scientific knowledge, another generation of study and treatment has produced the beginnings of a modern scientific understanding that alcoholism in the chemically dependent individual appears to have biological origins as well as psychological predispositions, including probable genetic roots. The American Medical Association did not even recognize alcoholism as a disease until 1955.

By the 1960’s the clinical treatment of alcoholism had produced an awareness that the alcoholic’s family develops a parallel psychopathology of its own, which was referred to as co-alcoholism or co-dependency. Initial investigation of this phenomenon concentrated on the spouse of the alcoholic. But in the 1970’s a new body of clinical literature began to describe parallel patterns of breakdown throughout the alcoholic’s family, with special attention to the vulnerable children of alcoholics. Recent clinical research has concentrated on these children, even through their adulthood, when the proximate cause of their dysfunction had often been long removed. The clinical and social implications and treatment of this phenomenon are explored in such clinically-based books as Janet G. Woititz, Marriage on the Rocks (1979), Toby R. Drews, Getting them Sober (1980), Sharon Wegscheider, Another Chance: Hope and Health for the Alcoholic Family (1981), and Woititz, Adult Children of Alcoholics (1983).

So within the past generation treatment and research in alcoholism as a biophysical disease has greatly diminished the causal role of psychological factors in creating chemical dependency. But at the same time this experience has produced a clinical understanding that alcoholism is essentially a family disease in its social context. This in turn has enhanced the role of psychological factors in conditioning the co-dependent behavior of family members in general, and in particular it has revealed unanticipated patterns of thought and behavior in the adult children of alcoholics that often persist with astonishing and crippling tenacity. In Eleanor Roosevelt’s case, Elliott was the immediate alcoholic (somewhat removed were Eleanor’s uncles, Edward and Valentine Hall, whose addiction and behavior paralleled Elliott’s, and of whom Alsop reports: “both these handsome men became drunkards at an early age”). Elliott’s disastrous decline fits the classic pathological pattern with cruel fidelity. But what about its impact on Elliott’s spouse and children—specifically upon Anna and Eleanor?

In recent years the accumulation of thousands of case histories of alcoholic families in clinical records has produced a taxonomy of family roles or models of distorted adjustment that were defined by the controlling behavior of the alcoholic parent. His role (in Elliott’s case, the father’s— although alcoholism appears to be a sex-neutral disease) centers on denying his alcoholism, both to himself and to others. This leads to a familiar pattern of hiding, lying, morning drinking, blackouts, and generally deteriorating physical symptoms that typically trace a fever chart that plunges pathologically downward. But the concept of alcoholism as psychologically a family disease means that the lives of all family members are fundamentally distorted by the behavior of the chemically dependent parent. The first secondary victim is the spouse, who paradoxically functions, in the taxonomy of co-alcoholic roles, as the Enabler.

The Enabler is chief of the supporting cast, shielding the alcoholic spouse from the consequences of his irresponsible and antisocial behavior. Her role (the spousal role of wife predominated in the early case studies, but the Enabler is no more inherently female than the alcoholic is male) is paradoxical because her instinctive protection helps prolong the agony of mutual family destruction. She pinch-hits for her alcoholic spouse, hides his mistakes, alibis and lies for him, even to herself. As a result she pays an enormous price, the least but most obvious being embarrassment and shame in facing family, friends, creditors, and the larger community. As the alcoholic increasingly relieves his own pain by projecting his guilt and self-hatred onto her, she becomes exhausted and filled with self-doubt. To endure these painful attacks from within, she does exactly what her alcoholic spouse has done—she turns off her feelings. She turns them off, that is, except for the swelling and corrosive anger, which she alternately bottles up and heaps back on him.

We can recognize these symptoms in the miserable Anna Roosevelt, whose extreme stress made her nagging, severe, cold—Eleanor’s “critical, demanding mother who was often subject to depressions and headaches.” The accelerating stress of living with an alcoholic spouse often wreaks havoc with the Enabler’s health, leaving her exhausted and physically vulnerable. In Wegscheider’s description of this dangerous but familiar syndrome in Another Chance, the Enabler “experiences one or several of the familiar stress-related conditions—digestive problems, ulcers, colitis; headaches and backache; high blood pressure and possible heart episodes; nervousness, irritability, depression.” By 1892, when Anna was only 29, her headaches and backaches were so severe that eight-year-old Eleanor slept in her room and would spend hours stroking her mother’s head. By the end of the year the exhausted Anna had succumbed to diphtheria and died.

Within two years of Anna’s untimely death, both the alcoholic father and his first-born son were dead. Eleanor’s baby brother, Ellie, died of scarlet fever complicated by diphtheria, and her youngest and surviving brother, Hall, inherited both his father’s personal gifts and his curse as well. A charming lad of great promise, Hall slowly drank himself to death, succumbing at last to a failed liver in 1941. Eleanor herself was so emotionally close to her father that she was especially vulnerable to the family pain, which according to the clinical literature has tended to drive the children of alcoholics to adopt one or more of four basic roles in response to the family disruption and anguish. All of the roles serve an immediate need to adjust to an abnormally stressful situation, but all thereby exact a long-run price by distorting personality and behavior. One common role is the Mascot, who is driven by fear of rejection into acting the clown, thereby gaining attention by providing amusement, but paying the price of arrested maturity. A second is that of Scapegoat, the wild child who reacts to the pain and guilt with delinquent behavior, thereby gaining negative attention, but at a price of self-destructive behavior. But both roles were alien to the inner nature of quiet little Eleanor, who sought so hard to be a good girl. Instead, Eleanor appeared to have followed two other common yet ostensibly contradictory roles.

The first was that of the Lost Child, escaping into solitude, lonely and shy. Eleanor made her secret, sacred pact with her father, and into that dream world she withdrew. But the other and later role, which marked her transition to womanhood, and flowered slowly as she overcame her awkward shyness, was that of Hero. In the clinical literature, the Hero is driven by feelings of guilt to become a compulsive overachiever. Such achievements would provide Eleanor with the attention and admiration that she felt she had lacked all through her childhood. But the Hero, like the other distorted role-playing models, pays a high inner price. The ultimate goal of her achievements is not to satisfy her own needs, but rather to make up for the massive deficit of self-worth that the alcoholic so dear to her and the alcoholic family around her has created. In this view, and especially in light of the profound bond between father and daughter, Eleanor’s primal deficit drove her to an extraordinary life of compulsive overachievement that could never succeed in paying off the debt and assuaging the guilt, and thereby allow her to acknowledge her own terribly damaged self-esteem, or her own deeply buried anger at her father for betraying her love and abandoning her.


Joseph Lash, who was Eleanor’s close friend as well as biographer, sensed the punishing measure of unrealistic expectations and inevitable frustrations that were fused into Eleanor’s heroic role-playing. Because she so idolized her father,

she would strive to be the noble, studious, brave, loyal girl he had wanted her to be. He had chosen her in a secret compact, and this sense of being chosen never left her. When he died she took upon herself the burden of his vindication. By her life she would justify her father’s faith in her, and by demonstrating strength of will and steadiness of purpose confute her mother’s charges of unworthiness against both of them.

But she also repressed from conscious awareness a painful but truer picture of her father as unpredictable, frighteningly irresponsible, undependable. The price exacted for repressing that picture was the impairment of her own sense of reality—a tendency, as Lash saw it,

to overestimate and misjudge people, especially those who seemed to need her and who satisfied her need for self-sacrifice and affection and gave her the admiration and loyalty she craved. Just as her response to being disappointed by her father had been silence and depression because she did not dare see him as he really was, so in later life she would become closed, withdrawn, and moody when people she cared about disappointed her.

Lash called this Eleanor’s “Griselda mood,” after the long-suffering wife in Chaucer’s “The Clerk’s Tale.” It seemed especially to characterize her often painful relations with her five children, who between them counted 17 marriages, and who as adults produced embarrassing public displays of immaturity and petty egotism. But Lash missed the crucial connection between her father’s alcoholism and Eleanor’s frenetic and often incoherent reaching, as she roared through life at full throttle.

Throughout her adult life Eleanor understandably demonstrated a powerful aversion to alcohol itself, the savage agent of so much of her heartbreak and misery. “Eleanor had not a single close male relation of her own generation or the preceding one,” Alsop asserts, “who did not end as a drunkard, with the sole exception of her President-uncle and her President-to-be-husband. No wonder she loathed the sight of any form of drink as long as she lived.” But at a deeper level, she also demonstrated to a high degree throughout her career so many of those traits and attributes that are clinically associated with the adult children of alcoholics. The inventory of symptoms includes difficulty with intimate relationships, tendencies toward both impulsiveness and being super responsible (or super irresponsible), extreme loyalty even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved, and a constant quest for approval and affirmation.

But cautions are in order. The chief caveat is against a crude reductionism that would appear to explain away Eleanor Roosevelt’s entire rich career, as if it were merely derivative of a darker, monocausal force, an acting out of a path foredoomed by her father. Eleanor Roosevelt was a strong woman of firm Victorian moral beliefs, who continued to grow throughout her amazing fourscore years. Unlike many children of alcoholics, Eleanor was not so crippled that her talents were buried and her life severely disrupted. Unlike many adult children of alcoholics, she did not tend to lie, or to have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end. Unlike many Heroic role-players, she did not burn out her health—indeed, she had a constitution of iron.

Eleanor’s compulsion to pursue her causes prompted Franklin Roosevelt’s immortal prayer: “O Lord, Make Eleanor tired.” But Eleanor would not, could not tire. Toward the later war years Franklin sought refuge from the relentless single-mindedness with which she pursued her causes. He sought instead the company of his daughter Anna and Lucy Mercer Rutherford, who provided him with what his son Elliott called “a woman’s warm, enspiriting companionship, which my mother by her very nature could not provide.” Eleanor’s inability to find emotional fulfillment in her marriage reinforced her long quest for special personal relationships with a series of quite different men (Louis Howe, John Boettinger, Earl Miller), but especially with women. The latter frequently came in pairs of “Boston marriages” (Esther Lape and Elizabeth Read, Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman), but also singly, as with the extraordinary Marie Souvestre, the headmistress of Allenswood finishing school near London, and later with Rose Schneiderman, Molly Dewson, Lorena Hickok.

In 1980 Doris Faber published her controversial biography, The Life of Lorena Hickok: E.R.’s Friend, which explored the possible lesbian relationship between Hickok and Eleanor, and prompted Joseph Lash’s spirited denial in Love, Eleanor: Eleanor Roosevelt and Her Friends (1982). Hickok’s lesbianism seems clear enough. But the lesbian claims on Eleanor, beyond fond Platonic ties, are implausible. Historian William Chafe has concluded that “the preponderance of evidence suggests that Eleanor Roosevelt was unable to express her deep emotional needs in a sexual manner.” Such intimacy seemed beyond her inner reach, whoever the presumed partner. Eleanor eventually pulled back from the overpossessive Hickok, as she seems to have ultimately withheld herself in all of her close personal relationships. “I know you often have a feeling for me which for one reason or another I may not return in kind,” she wrote Hickok. “I am pulling back in all my contacts now. I have always done it with the children, and why I didn’t know I couldn’t give you (or anyone else who wanted or needed what you did) any real food, I can’t now understand.” Eleanor simply could not let herself go emotionally, whether with Hickok or Franklin or Earl Miller or even with her own children.

But what she could do, with an iron discipline and determined self-control, was to seek vicarious fulfillment through her public causes. During her early widowhood, her normal work routine consisted of approximately a half dozen full-time jobs hopelessly interrupted by constant travel. This included the UN Human Rights Commission, a tight schedule of lecture tours, a regular radio commentary with her daughter Anna and a television show under her son Elliott’s management, a daily column published in 75—90 newspapers, a monthly question-and-answer page in the Ladies Home Journal and later McCall’s, writing the second of three autobiographies, and attending to board meetings and assorted support and fund-raising appeals for the American Association for the United Nations, Brandeis University, Americans for Democratic Action, the United Jewish Appeal, the NAACP, the Citizens Committee for Children, and on and on. Eleanor’s children frequently upbraided their mother for her insistence that no meeting was too small and no worthy cause too obscure to merit her attention. She replied to their resentment with the lame if not fantastic explanation that she had to accept such invitations because “I need the publicity,” or “Because nobody else will go. It’s important they should know someone cares.” Lash found Eleanor fallen into her mood of deepest depression over her children’s frequent quarrels and divorces. Yet she never changed a life style that constantly took her away from them and led her to respond to countless invitations from groups weighty or marginal in an unending search to bolster a self-esteem that was so terribly damaged in childhood.

Eleanor’s hectic schedule and reputation for availability not surprisingly generated a deluge of correspondence, and it was her unbreakable rule not only that engagements must be kept, but also that letters must be answered—the latter often averaging from 50 to 100 a night. Small wonder that her avalanche of speeches and writings said little that was novel or original or of lasting value. For all her empathic instincts, Eleanor lacked a mind of exceptional or creative ability, and her grueling regimen guaranteed that her speeches and writings would rarely soar above the commonplace. Small wonder, also, that her critics, who often mainly despised her left-wing causes, accused her of cheapening the office of First Lady by constantly galavanting about the globe while her children were improperly raised, by writing articles for pay, making broadcasts, even appearing in paid commercials. “The First Lady presented an image,” Hareven conceded, “not of serene domesticity but of hectic travel, disorganized activities, and busybody occupations.”

In light of all the blows and disappointments that she suffered throughout her life, and also in light of her rather normal intellectual gifts, Eleanor Roosevelt’s achievements remained astonishing. While the devastating impact of her father’s alcoholism appears to have exacted a high and unfair price in damaging her self-worth and blocking her emotional release and private fulfillment, it seems also to have fueled a rare lifetime of top-speed striving for purposes that were both worthy of the effort and much in need of champions with prestige, energy, and a stout heart. Chief among Eleanor’s prescient understandings were her conviction that women were to be taken seriously and must play a serious role in public affairs, that America’s treatment of its black citizens was a moral abomination, and that guardianship of human rights was a global responsibility that transcended traditional nationalisms. That her astounding drive in this higher calling was heavily derived from the childhood pain of an alcoholic family is also testimony to her strength and capacity for growth and should not detract from the power of her symbolism to those whose causes she championed.

Painfully shy but publicly loquacious, loving mankind but with bottled-up emotions, moved by compassion yet impelled by an innocent childhood’s inheritance of guilt, this paradoxical woman drove through life in an endless quest. In the process she surmounted a tragic and crippling legacy with becoming strength for an enriching 78 years. Peace, to her restive spirit.


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Ellie's picture
Ellie · 7 years ago

Thank you for this great article!

jaxonya's picture
jaxonya · 7 years ago

decent read. You used the word alcoholic too many times, though. It was getting a little obvious that you had the point in your mind. Relax and dont compound the already obvious.


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