Wednesday, August 27, 2014

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.

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