Finding the real Eleanor Roosevelt

Have you ever gained greater insight into a person's character once you have walked through their house? 

In March 2013 I embarked on a research trip to the US/Canada in search of the real Roosevelts. Having read biographies and autobiographies, diaries, letters and memoirs, I still felt I possessed only a superficial understanding of the people that Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt really were.

Home is where the heart is, so visiting the places the Roosevelts lived and worked was the most valuable piece of research I could have possibly carried out. Not only did I obtain an insight into the characters of this unique couple from the furnishings, wall hangings, framed photographs and place settings they chose, but I was also offered an illuminating glimpse into the time in which they lived. All of the private homes of the Roosevelts, including Val-Kill and Springwood in Hyde Park, New York, as well as the 'Cottage' on Campobello Island and the 'Little White House' in Warm Springs, Georgia, have been scrupulously maintained by the National Park Service.

My children on the bluff in front of the Roosevelts' house, Springwood
When I walked in to the sitting room of Eleanor Roosevelt’s cottage at Val-Kill I was able to imagine a fire blazing in the large hearth and the First Lady positioned on a nearby sofa, knitting. The lounges and armchairs were plush and inviting and the walls were covered with hundreds of framed photographs of her family and friends. 

Eleanor Roosevelt's sitting room inside Val-Kill
One corner of the space housed a cosy reading nook and a substantial shelf, heaving with books. I examined the breakfront in the dining room and noticed the china. It was a very ordinary looking setting, simply decorated with apple blossoms. Despite the compact space, the table was large and I easily pictured at least ten people seated around it. From just two rooms I was able to determine the warmth, intelligence, generosity and sociability of the First Lady.

However, the most vivid picture of Eleanor Roosevelt was painted for me by Mrs Doris Mack, a volunteer tour guide with the National Park Service at Mrs Roosevelt’s cottage in Val-Kill. Mrs Mack first met Eleanor Roosevelt at an NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) meeting in the late 1940s. I daren’t ask another woman her age, but from the things she discussed, I placed her at about ninety. 

My tour guide, Mrs Doris Mack, with Eleanor Roosevelt in 1958.
Picture courtesy of National Park Service WD Urbin
During the three hours we were together, Mrs Mack shared many great insights into the character of the First Lady. She and her late husband were guests at Mrs Roosevelt’s table many times. Having met Mrs Mack I knew immediately why the First Lady invited this woman into her life and home. She was eloquent and witty and, despite her age, Doris Mack was spirited. She and the First Lady had a great deal in common.

Meet Mrs Doris Mack, and tour Val-Kill, with this video

Touring Eleanor Roosevelt’s modest, even austere, cottage and speaking with Doris Mack told me more about the First Lady than all of the books I had read. I hope this comes across in THE PRESIDENT'S LUNCH.

Meeting Doris Mack was my greatest brush with fame. What is yours?

See a story about Doris Mack HERE.

The title that created a book

What comes first, the book or its title?

While the idea for The President’s Lunch was still very young in my mind – only a couple of days old, in fact – I joked to my husband Chris about a possible title. 

It was late in 2010 and the film The King’s Speech was only recently released. I hadn’t seen the movie, but it seemed as if every person I knew had not only seen it, but had also absolutely adored it.

Every conversation I had at that time seemed to begin with the other party asking excitedly, ‘Have you seen The King’s Speech?’. They stared at me in astonishment, mouths agape, when I told them I had not. Everybody wanted to talk about it.

So when Chris asked me whether I had a title in mind for my next novel, I replied wryly, ‘I should call it The President’s Lunch. It will sell like hotcakes.’

Voila! I had my title.

As silly as it may seem, once the title was set the storyline fell into place. I began to develop themes around cravings and appetites and the sustenance one requires for emotional satisfaction. The housekeeper, Mrs Nesbitt, moved into the background and it was the remarkable relationship of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt that shifted to centre stage.

Franklin & Eleanor
(image from FDR Library)
I read the First Couple’s biographies, memoirs, letters and diaries and the idea grew and took shape. It quickly became clear that Franklin and Eleanor were a couple with very different but distinct appetites.

I was chuffed! From the merest seed of an idea there had grown a lush tale of an extraordinary couple and their inner circle. 

Although the title was first spoken in jest, it became a perfect fit for the eventual story. In fact, the title helped to create that story.

What are your favourite book titles?

Further reading

If you’re interested in learning more about Franklin and Eleanor, check out:
  • Blanche Wiesen Cook’s two volume biography, Eleanor Roosevelt. Penguin Books. 1992 & 1999
  • The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt. HarperCollins, 1961
  • Jean Edward Smith’s award-winning FDR. Random House, 2007
  • Eleanor and Franklin by Joseph P Lash. W.W Norton & Company, 1971

Author appearance: The Bookshop Bowral

It can both frightening and delightful to sit face to face with a crowd of people who have read, or are about to read, my latest work.

Fortunately, at the gorgeous The Bookshop Bowral in the southern highlands of NSW, the experience was 100% delightful.

The people of Bowral are both charming and well read. Their insatiable appetite for literature is well served by bookstore owner Marie.

We spent around an hour discussing The President's Lunch. During this time I realised how much people love the idea of weaving fiction into true history - they can be educated and entertained at once. When done well it creates a very fulfilling experience for the reader.

Behind the book 1: An idea is born

Over the next four weeks I will be bringing you the story of how an Australian author gets into the heads of an ex US President and First Lady, then researches and writes a historical fiction novel that revolves around their time in power. This week it's all about the birth of the idea.

The President’s Spuds

The idea for THE PRESIDENT'S LUNCH came while I was completing the first draft of PERFECT NORTH, my novel published in 2013. It was 2010 and I was busy searching online food sites for a recipe for roasted potatoes. 

I didn't want just any old roasted potatoes, though. I was seeking something special, roasted potatoes with a twist, so I visited the Gourmet magazine website. An American publication, Gourmet never disappointed when it came to finding something a little out of the ordinary. 

Once the recipe was sourced I stayed on the site and began scanning the featured articles. Eventually I came across a piece written by American journalist and culinary historian, Laura Shapiro. It was titled FDR’s Anti-epicurean White House.  

What followed was the astonishing tale of Henrietta Nesbitt, the presidential housekeeper during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s twelve-year administration. 

I knew something of FDR’s presidency from the American history courses I took at university, but after reading Shapiro’s article I became fascinated by the fact that the wheelchair-bound president, who navigated the United States through the rough days of the Depression, Pearl Harbour and World War Two, was never served a tolerable meal while at the White House. 

The volatile relationship between the leader and his housekeeper struck me as a wonderful premise for a Frank Capra film, or even a novel. 

It was the merest kernel of an inspiration, and I knew an entire novel could not be written around a president and his housekeeper, but I was determined to nurture the idea into something special.

In searching for a recipe I had found my twist! Not only did I walk away from my computer that day with the delicious foundations for a new novel, I also discovered a delightful recipe for roasted potatoes with bacon, garlic, cheese and parsley

WIN! a book pack per week (ends Sept 5)

Head to the Jenny Bond Books Facebook page to enter a weekly competition to win not one, but two books each week.

I'm giving away a copy of THE PRESIDENT'S LUNCH and of PERFECT NORTH, both signed, to a lucky winner each week.

This week, all you have to do to be in the running is tell me about your worst kitchen disaster.

Go on, it can't be as bad as what President Franklin Roosevelt put up with at the hands of his hardline housekeeper Henrietta Nesbitt, can it?

To enter, CLICK HERE.

Pics from The President's Lunch launch

Here are images from the launch of The President's Lunch at Electric Shadows Bookshop. Thanks to special guest Mark Dapin, award-winning author & journalist, for helping me announce my new novel to the world!

Window display for The President's Lunch
Conversation with award-winning author and journalist Mark Dapin
With Katarina, owner of Electric Shadows Bookstore
Introducing the audience to Mrs Nesbitt