Eleanor Roosevelt, who was the wife of the 32nd U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt for a record four terms from 1933 until his death in 1945, is not just the longest-serving First Lady of the United States. Over the course of her life, she was an American political figure, diplomat and activist. Those who knew her best — like her son James Roosevelt — once described her as "a great lady, a great person, and, above all, a great mother."

Back in 1960, James paid special tribute to his mother with a personal, heartfelt letter published in the May issue of Good Housekeeping for Mother's Day — roughly two years before she died. In it, James details his mom's search for self-fulfillment and his perspective on her evolution from a shy, young bride to becoming one of the most admired personalities of our time.

My Mother, Eleanor Roosevelt

By James Roosevelt, with Sidney Shalett

In writing of my warm and wonderful life with my mother Eleanor Roosevelt, I never can forget that I have been privileged to have a mother, as well as a father, who is one of the great personages of our time. Yet I – and my sister and brothers – think of her not in her role as the peripatetic spokesman for democracy, champion of the oppressed and underprivileged, and crusader for a thousand and one good causes, but as our generous, everloyal, deeply human mother, who has taught us, inspired us, loved us – and spoiled us – all our lives.

I have written of my father, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that he was not one but three parents. He was the rollicking companion and playmate of prepolio days; the gallant fighter of his convalescent period, struggling not to lose touch with his children while engaged in his desperate person battle to conquer his deadened legs; and, finally, the father of the White House period, who had to balance his family relationships against his responsibilities to the world. I have much the same feeling about Mother; she has been at least four mothers, each a separate and distinct personality.

james roosevelt 1960 letter eleanor roosevelt fdr and eleanor with all their children, the roosevelt family left to right elliot, fdr, franklin delano, jr, james, wife eleanor holding john, and anna
The Roosevelt family left to right: Elliott, FDR, Franklin Delano, Jr., James, Eleanor holding John, and Anna.
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First, there was the mother of my earliest memories – shy, uncertain, afraid of her shadow, ridden by inferiority and “guilt” complexes, and dominated by an imperious, all-demanding mother-in-law. In those early days, it seemed completely natural to us children that “grannies” were the real heads of families and that mothers were only slightly above us small fry in the household hierarchy.

Then came the mother who was the heroine of Father’s period of illness and convalescence. When infantile paralysis struck her husband, rendering him first a helpless cripple and then a man who never again would walk without the aid of cane and braces, Mother’s true strength and courage emerged. She was his nurse, his “legs,” his good right arm, his wellspring of confidence. When it became necessary, the erstwhile meek and subservient daughter-in-law even stood up for him against his well-meaning but overpowering mother, who, overcome by the tragedy that had engulfed her Franklin, wanted him to retire from the public eye and bury himself at Hyde Park. Mother became the mortar that held the family together in the face of strains, separations, and financial crises.

franklin d and eleanor roosevelt relaxing on the south lawn of the roosevelt home in hyde park, new york
FDR and Eleanor relaxing on the south lawn of the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park.
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Then, in the period of Father’s return to public life – first as governor of New York, then as President – still another Eleanor Roosevelt emerged. This was the mother who kept track of her restless, turbulent brood while she herself evolved into a roving, one-woman task force for social and international causes. Even her family marveled at her seemingly inexhaustible energy, and Father howled with glee when the British, during World War II, gave Mother the code name of Rover.

Finally, there is the Eleanor Roosevelt of today – a woman on her own. Though I am her son, I view her unabashedly as a great lady, a great person, and, above all, a great mother. When Father died, just 26 days after their fortieth wedding anniversary, Mother refused to lapse into idle widowhood. Soon she was creating a useful and productive career.

Last October 11, Mother — though she refused to celebrate it — passed her seventy-fifth birthday. I am pleased that these recollections of mine are appearing in the issue of Good Housekeeping devoted to observance of its own seventy-fifth birthday. I do not mean to write, however, of Mother as if she were an institution. She wouldn’t like that, I can assure you.

Despite all the honors that have been heaped upon her, Mother remains completely natural and unassuming and absolutely without side.For example, when she was in India a few years ago, she donned a plain cotton dress and tennis shoes and devoted a long day to touring the slums. She kept going so long she was late for a reception in her honor. Not wishing to keep guests waiting while she cleaned up and changed into appropriate clothing, Mother simply went to the reception as she was and met the leading citizens of Bombay in her soiled cotton dress and sneakers.

To me, Mother’s true greatness as a person lies in the fact that she is not infallible.

It is not easy thing to be the son of two parents who are not only world figures but extraordinarily complex personalities. There is no doubt that my brothers, my sister, and I would have benefited had Mother and Father — particularly Father — been stricter disciplinarians and had they had more time to devote to us.

We were outrageously pampered by our wealthy grandmother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, who delighted in upsetting what parental discipline we had by giving us new cars to replace ones we had wrecked and showering us with costly gifts and trips to Europe. Indeed, Father’s softness as a disciplinarian was directly attributable to the fact that his strong-minded Mama, as he called her, tried all her life to dominate him. Even after he became President, she would remind him to wear his rubbers, to drink only bottled water, and to keep himself “in order” when traveling in the tropics. After resisting this sort of maternal swaddling from childhood to manhood, Father developed a psychological block against telling us how to run our lives. Mother had the same feeling.

To me, Mother’s true greatness as a person lies in the fact that she is not infallible. Far from it. Her deep, penetrating wisdom often is tempered with naïveté, and she will do and say impulsive things or allow herself to be used by persons whose motives are suspect. But these are slips which stem from her heart and from her boundless, instinctive sympathy for humanity.

The real miracle is that Mother ever lived down the traumas of her early childhood and became the strong character that she is. If ever there was a real-life prototype for the “poor little rich girl” character of the lachrymose Victorian novels, it was Mother. Her own mother, Anna Hall, whom Mother remembers as one of the most beautiful women she has ever seen, treated her daughter as an ugly duckling; she even shamed the little girl by calling her “granny.”

It was a different story with her father, Elliott Roosevelt, brother of Uncle Theodore, who became President. He adored her and called her “little Nell” and “golden hair.” When he was around, he showered her with all the love and companionship a child could want from a father. But he was not well, and he lapsed into alcoholism (which gave Mother her lifelong horror of strong string). When Mother was eight years old, her mother died of diphtheria, and her tyrannical Grandmother Hall refused to sanction more than occasional visits from her father. He, too, died before Mother was ten; for a long time, Mother refused to believe her beloved father was gone, and, as she has written, she lived in her private dream world in which they still were together.

There were other scars that added to her feeling of loneliness and rejection. She lived for a while with a beautiful but tragically unstable young aunt, who sometimes was warm and loving and at other times heaped her with scorn and verbal abuse. There also were two well-loved uncles who became alcoholics. But Mother had a good mind, an inner strength, and an innate sense of humanity — the qualities that eventually led her into what her detractors call her “dogooding” activities — which enabled her, though she suffered, to survive and grow. It was Mother, incidentally, who gave Father his first close-up glimpses of what poverty meant. She induced Father, then a rather shallow, typically upper-class Harvard undergraduate, to call for her at the Rivington Street Settlement House in lower New York, where she was doing social work; then she took him to a tenement to call on a sick child. The experience left him shaken, and he exclaimed, “Human beings can’t live this way!”

The early years of married life did little to build up Mother’s confidence; there was always her formidable mother-in-law in the background, and Father’s mother was an empire herself. To be sure, the marriage of Franklin Roosevelt to his fifth cousin Eleanor was accomplished over his mother’s objection. She had nothing in particular against Cousin Eleanor, but she had been looking forward to enjoying her handsome son’s company when he had graduated from Harvard, and she wasn’t ready for him to leave the nest. Granny took him off on a Caribbean cruise, hoping the romance would cool, but Father was stubborn, too, and, on March 17, 1905, he and Mother were married.

As Mother always had yearned for a mother of her own, her desire to be accepted and loved by Sara Delano Roosevelt was almost pathetic. But the young bride found herself swamped not with affection but with domination by her mother-in-law. Granny was excessively generous — she gave the newlyweds material things they never would have been able to afford otherwise — but she did love to manage. The young couple’s first rented house, conveniently close to her own, was selected by Granny. Their second home was a Christmas president from her, but she built one herself right next to it — with connecting doors. Mother hated that house and protested to Father that she didn’t want to live in it, But Granny had her way. Even our summer home at Campobello was a gift from Father’s mother. She helped him meet his bills, paid his insurance, and even sent us barrels of apples and potatoes from the Hyde Park farm. Father, of course, was quite accustomed to her generosities and thought nothing of dropping hints on what he might like in the way of gifts. For instance, in November, 1913, when he was assistant secretary of the Navy, he gaily wrote her: “Dearest Mommer — I’m still alive and have wore out three sets pyjams in one year. If you go to Army & Navy store remember your affected son. F.D.R. Also he likes negligee shirts not silk and without collar.”

Mother’s indecision in those days is hard to believe. It is difficult to visualize the Eleanor Roosevelt of today writing, as she did to Father in 1913: “My head whirls when I think of all the things you might do this coming year — run for governor, senator, go to California. I wonder what you really will do.” An even more remarkable line appeared in one of her letters to “Dearest Honey”— her customary salutation of that period — shortly after he had been nominated for vice president in 1920. “Oh, dear! I wish I could see you or at least hear from you,” she wrote. “I hate politics!”

Father always loved to tease Mother. On their European honeymoon, though he was almost as unsophisticated as his bride, he treated her as if she were a helpless little child. In presidential years, when Mother became such a world traveler, he referred to her as “my will-o’-the-wisp wife” and joked about her fantastic energy. When her public statements differed from his own views, he told her to go right ahead and do as she pleased “because I can always say I can’t do a thing with you.” Mother learned to return the riposte; when he went out on the campaign trail and was lionized by women’s clubs, Mother let him hear from her about the “lovely ladies” who, as she put it, “worship at your shrine.”

Mother’s strength and courage revealed itself when she was truly a soldier during the difficult, painful period between the time that polio struck and Father’s return to active politics. Father himself had a courage that was simply unbelievable. He never let any of his children see him with his spirits sagging, and he constantly conjured up cheery ways to boost our morale. Yet, as I have since learned, he had his periods of black despair, and it was then that Mother came through for him. Working closely with the faithful Louis Howe, Father’s political aide, Mother strengthened his resolve not to give in to the temptation to crawl into a hole at Hyde Park and let the world pass him by. Once the active period of his sickness was over, Mother simply refused to treat him as an invalid; she even dismissed the nurses and saw to it that he led as normal a life as was possible for a man in a wheel chair.

president franklin d roosevelt and wife eleanor roosevelt smiling and waving from an open car returning from inauguration ceremonies, january 20, 1941
FDR and Eleanor smiling and waving from an open car returning from inauguration ceremonies in January 1941.
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As time went by, Mother did more and more things for Father and for the family. Though she died a thousand deaths every time she had to stand up before strangers, she began making speeches for him to keep his name before the public.

During the four winters when he cruised off the Florida Keys in a houseboat, hoping that sunshine and swimming would restore his limbs, she stayed in New York, keeping the family together. Finances were difficult. We never were actually poor; the trouble was that we never learned to live economically, and the private schools, European vacations, servants, and chauffeur-driven cars went right on. Father frequently was forgetful about sending the monthly allowance and Mother’s letters of this period were filled with almost desperate pleas, such as: “I find after paying all the household bills . . . and cash for food . . . I have $151.45. . . . Please send me what you can. . . .” And: “. . . The regular expenses go on the same as ever. . . . I just pray I will have enough. . . .” Mother taught school, wrote articles, and took an ill-fated fling at operating a furniture factory to bolster the family finances.

The emergency of this new Eleanor Roosevelt was not without its price. Father gained a valued and trusted new lieutenant and a new pair of legs and eyes, but he lost a good deal of the woman Eleanor; indefatigable as she was, Mother simply could not be the little homemaker and self-effacing housewife, as well as the political helpmate. Perhaps the evolution was inevitable, and Mother’s public career would have developed even if Father had not been stricken with polio; I suspect the drive within her was so strong that she could not have been content forever in a purely domestic role. Be that as it may, the diminution of the woman Eleanor cost Father a good deal in simple companionship and added poignantly to the burden of loneliness that beset him with the advent of polio and the beginning of his years in the glaring limelight of the presidency.

There was a deep understanding and an indestructible affection between them.

With all his outward gaiety and gregariousness, it is hard to visualize Father as a lonely man, but there were times when he was dreadfully alone. The presidency can be as confining as any prison, and Father had the additional physical handicap of not being able to get around on his own; also, he had no real personal confidants with whom he could talk over matters of a private nature.

By this I do not mean to imply, as so many Roosevelt haters and scandalmongers have untruthfully alleged, that Father and Mother were not compatible. Even in the years when both of them became so intensely busy, there was a deep understanding and an indestructible affection between them. To the end of his days, Father, in his letters to Mother, addressed her as “Dearest Babs” — the nickname he had given her on their honeymoon. Her tender feeling toward him is indicated in the following excerpt from a letter she wrote to him in 1931, just after he sailed to see his mother, who had been taken ill in Europe: “. . . I hate to see you go. . . . We are really very dependent on each other though we do see so little of each other. I feel as lost as I did when I went abroad. . . . Dear love to you. . . . I miss you and hate to feel you so far away. . . .”

Just as Father, even when the terrible years of World War II closed in on him, never ceased trying to be a warm, close, personal father to his five children, Mother, too, always had a maternal eye on us. Neither of them believed in openly interfering or attempting to dominate us. All of us, I am sure, hurt our parents many times by rash or indiscreet actions, but always we received from them the same unswerving loyalty and affection.

Mother was slightly inconsistent; while she did not intrude by injecting herself directly into our affairs and attempting to advise us directly, she constantly was writing Father about our various jams. In the case of my sister Anna, it was poor work at school and later was her interests in boys. In my case, Mother fretted over my erratic scholastic record and what she considered my addiction to frivolity and expensive living. I was following in my Father’s footsteps at Harvard by joining all the right clubs, and once, when I wrote a candid letter home admitting there had been a certain amount of financial outlay and drinking connected, with my initiation into Hasty Pudding, Mother caustically wrote Father at Warm Springs: “Too bad James needs the money; you can never get away from your many gold diggers, can you? I can’t say three nights drunk fill me with anything but disgust.”

My brother, Elliott liked to play cards, and Mother, learning while en route to Europe that two state employees (Father then was governor of New York) had cleaned him of $70, sent off a hot letter to Albany: “I had a talk with him about gambling but I did not realize it was for sums like that he had played. I think perhaps you had better not tell him we know but if you get a chance say something about using judgment in all things and the right use of money. Mama gave him his Poughkeepsie Savings Bank book which I think was unwise if he is doing fool things of this kind.”

As Franklin, Jr., and John came of age, Mother worried about their conduct, too. One letter to the White House asked bluntly: “Will you speak seriously and firmly to F. Jr. and John about drinking and fast driving? (Father didn’t). I really think it’s important.” She also discussed with Father our various business problems and our divorces, but rarely did she mention these matters to us, except obliquely.

Mother came into her own during the twelve years Father occupied the White House. While she made some mistakes, she had become one of Father’s greatest assets. Though he delighted in teasing her — often doing it so subtly that Mother wasn’t sure she was being ribbed — Father relied upon her in many ways. She made inspection trips, including her memorable survey of the wretched Puerto Rican slums, which left her aghast at the thought that humans could live in such misery. She also appraised situations and personalities for her husband. Her comments were sharp and to the point — e.g., her 1939 letter to Father: “The WPA mess seems to me the fault of the unions. Perhaps no job should be done by WPA which would otherwise be done by regular labor, but that is the only legitimate grievance that I can see.” Father valued and respected her judgment, even though he did not always agree with her or follow her recommendations. He was conscious, too, that some of her supercharged activities provided ammunition for the anti-New Dealers, but he did not try to curb her.

I’ve always felt that Mother’s true greatness of spirit revealed itself on that terrible day — April 12, 1945 — when Father died in Warm Springs. Harry S. Truman, deeply shaken by the event that had precipitated him into the presidency, came to see her at the White House. “Is there anything I can do for you?” he asked. Mother looked at him with sympathy and understanding and replied, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one who is in trouble now.” At the moment of her supreme grief, she was concerned about the new President’s burden.

With Father’s death, Mother was confused and lost – but only momentarily. One of the most perceptive things Mother ever has written about herself is found in her autobiographical volume, This I Remember. Recalling her life in the White House, she observed: “. . . I think I lived those years very impersonally. It was almost as though I had erected someone a little outside of myself who was the President’s wife. I was lost somewhere deep down inside myself. That is the way I felt and worked until I left the White House.”

That era ended, Mother began working her way out of her impersonal shell and became not the President’s widow but Eleanor Roosevelt, active citizen. President Truman appointed her as a delegate to the United Nations organization meeting in London in 1946, and she served with genuine distinction.

Father, who knew Mother and her overgenerous impulses well, had left a remarkable will in which Mother was the major immediate beneficiary. However, he drew up airtight provisions that restricted her from using a penny of the principal — only the interest from the estate. He had a reason for this, which he confined to me (as the eldest son, I was to be the family trustee) some time before his death: he was simply afraid that Mother, with her penchant for good causes, would give away the entire estate and be left destitute.

I think that Father was partially right and that Mother, if free to follow her own impulses, indeed would have given away at least a large portion of the estate. He was wrong about one thing. However; Mother would never be destitute. Immediately after his death, she weighed her situation. She could have lived more than comfortably on the estate income, but the idea of idleness appalled her. I once heard her say emphatically that she had no desire “to become an old lady in a little lace cap.” She decided she would earn an income of her own in order to have money to contribute to the philanthropic, political, and humanitarian causes — as well as the many private, personal charities — in which she so firmly believes.

So Mother went to work. Today she earns a sizable sum as a writer and lecturer, and she gives away the major portion of it, over and above her business operating expenses. By conservative estimate, Mother has given away well over a million dollars.

She has established her place not only in the pages of history but in the hearts of her countrymen.

As one of the three trustees of Father’s estate, I sometimes have the unhappy duty of telling Mother she cannot do something on which she has her heart set. Recently, for example, she wanted the estate to invest a considerable amount of money in a four-story town house in New York City; she was going to live and work in half of it and rent the other half to her personal physician and his wife. We did not think it was a proper business investment under the terms of Father’s trust; also, we doubted the wisdom of her incurring such a responsibility at her age, so we turned her down. Mother was hopping mad — mostly at me— but she didn’t stay angry long; in fact, I’ve never known her to stay peeved with any of us for any length of time. She merely went out and made private financial arrangements to buy her house and now is living there happily, with nothing to worry about except a 20-year mortgage.

I can testify personally to Mother’s remarkable generosity and also to the fact that she has no large sums of ready cash or other assets. In 1950, when I made my ill-fated race for governor of California, I finished the campaign owing $100,000. I paid it off with a personal loan from Mother, which I have secured with a life-insurance policy payable to Mother or her estate. I know that her generous act in bailing me out left her with virtually no capital assets except her current income; yet she did it without a murmur.

Similarly, to help my brother Elliott, Mother permitted him to sell off certain real estate which was not irrevocably tied up by Father’s will. As a matter of fact, this has been the subject of a fierce family argument, with Sis, my brothers, and I all jumping on Elliott for permitting Father's beloved Hilltop Cottage to pass out of the family.

Mother never forgets Christmases, birthdays, or anniversaries, and the Eleanor Roosevelt Amalgamated Annual Gift List is a truly formidable institution. It includes each of her five children and their spouses (even one or two ex-spouses of whom she is fond), her 21 grandchildren, and her 12 great-grandchildren, not to mention innumerable godchildren, relatives, and friends. She starts her yule shopping on December 26 of each year, collecting appropriate gifts whenever and wherever she sees them and piling them in what she calls her “Christmas closet.” It did not surprise me a bit when I read in the newspapers that Mother, touring Israel last year, had bought a live camel for her granddaughter Nina. Fortunately, the camel was jettisoned before reaching Hyde Park.

james roosevelt 1960 letter eleanor roosevelt eleanor with her kids and grandkids, eleanor roosevelt enjoys christmas with her daughter anna roosevelt boettiger, grandson curtis dall, and granddaughter anna dall in seattle, washington, usa
Eleanor enjoys Christmas with her daughter Anna, grandson Curtis Dall, and granddaughter Anna Dall.
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Mother divides her time today — when she isn’t in Israel, or in Moscow, or teaching her class at Brandeis University, or doing something for the Eleanor Roosevelt Institute for Cancer Research in Denver, or making a speech in any one of the fifty states — between the new town house in Manhattan and her rambling cottage at Hyde Park. Each of her residences has the same flavor as any place, including the White House, in which the Roosevelts ever lived. The décor, if you can call it such, is a mélange of family photographs, mementos of Father, water colors by the late Louis Howe and other amateur artists, autographed pictures of world figures, well-worn furniture, bric-a-brac, and some plain junk from the four corners of the earth — almost every piece, of course, with a story behind it.

As for Mother’s daily schedule — any day — it wearies me just to think about it. She usually arises any time between 6:00 and 7:00 A.M., never later than 7:30. Often she entertains departing house guests at the breakfast table, then herself takes off for New York or Washington or elsewhere for a full day of meetings, interviews, and speeches. Before the day is over, she will have dictated one or two newspaper columns and answered a batch of her interminable correspondence. Nightfall will find her back at Hyde Park or New York or starting off for somewhere else to make still another speech. If she is asleep by 1:30 A.M., she is lucky; often she does not get to bed until 3:00 A.M. Frankly, I don’t know how she does it, but her energy is boundless, and she was telling the exact truth when she wrote recently; “At present I look like Methusaleh, but I feel no older than my youngest friends. I am sure that I am no more exhausted at the end of a busy day than many who are half my age.”

james roosevelt 1960s letter eleanor roosevelt, eleanor roosevelt with anna, james and elliott sitting on couch in black and white
Eleanor with daughter Anna and sons James and Elliott.
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Mother still is here — very much so! — and I pray she will be with us for many years. It is gratifying to all of us who love her so dearly that the calumnies, the vicious libels, the tasteless jokes about Eleanor Roosevelt have all but vanished. True, there still is a crackpot fringe ready to condemn anyone who bears the name of Roosevelt — Hyde Park branch. Of course. But from every corner, in this country and abroad, words of respect and affection may be heard whenever the name of Eleanor Roosevelt is mentioned.

Even if I am her son, I think she has earned these tributes and that she has established her place not only in the pages of history but in the hearts of her countrymen. I feel certain that Father would be enormously proud of how Mother has molded her life without him, just as she was — and is — proud of him. To have had such a father and to have such a mother is the greatest legacy a son could ask for.

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