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Discover Another Side of Eleanor Roosevelt in New Biography

The future first lady displayed both brilliance and insecurity from an early age

spinner image photo of author david michaelis and his book cover eleanor
Nancy Steiner/ Simon & Schuster

History buffs are sure to devour Eleanor, a weighty, probing tome on the remarkable life of Eleanor Roosevelt. Biographer David Michaelis dives deep into her difficult childhood with troubled parents — her mother lost to diphtheria, her father to alcohol — in a family in which privilege offered no protection from heartache. The author later explores her groundbreaking roles as first lady and human rights warrior, as well as her complicated romantic relationships with husband Franklin and others.

The section excerpted below, from Chapter 2 (titled “Orphan"), describes Roosevelt's time at Allenswood, an elite girls school in London. It was led by the regal headmistress Mademoiselle Marie Souvestre, who helped the young American develop her political consciousness and intellectual confidence — even while, at age 15, she battled social anxiety and homesickness.

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I was brought up in a rather peculiar way. —E.R.

On the first evening session of every term, Souvestre read poetry aloud. Challenging the girls to listen carefully, she read out a favorite poem two or three times, lingering over lines she especially liked. Then she would call for a volunteer to stand and recite these lines back to her without looking at the printed page.

On her first poetry night, Eleanor stood, finding that the lines came to her as naturally as Uncle Ted's old favorites from “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” In fact, she was a prodigy of aural memory, but at Oak Lawn no one had noticed these triumphs of the ear. At Allenswood, her talent shined.

The attention she captured intensified the next day when Mademoiselle praised her before a full assembly. In her autobiography, Eleanor Roosevelt reflected, “This was the first time in all my life that all my fears left me.” But no sooner had she shown promise as a school exemplar than self-consciousness welled up behind her new public front.

This time, it started when Eleanor, anticipating a visit with a new friend's family, became “so homesick and woebegone that everyone was sorry for her.” The new comrade who triggered this episode was Helen Agnes “Nelly” Post, a spirited, roguish girl who had been at school a full year longer. Eleanor would come to feel intimate with “Bennett,” her sturdy roommate; and she increasingly admired the lovely German girl Carola de Passavant, and enjoyed her friends Avice Horn, sent “home” from Australia, and Hilda “Burky” Burkinshaw, back from India. But to Eleanor, mischievous Nelly Post was the tuning fork. Without even a knock — simply by bursting impishly through the door of Mademoiselle's library — Nelly set everyone around her vibrating.

From their first class together Eleanor found her irresistible. She “had a fine mind and a very warm heart,” said Eleanor, but she also “had the most violent temper I have almost ever seen, and I doubt if anyone had ever tried to discipline her.” In Fraulein Petritsch's classroom, to Eleanor's horrified delight, Nelly's pranks and capers repeatedly brought the lesson to a complete standstill. She was a natural subversive — more like a Western American than an Easterner. Indeed, Nelly's family's ranch in the Texas Panhandle, the vivid unseen promise of its wild “miles and miles of country to ride in” — 525,000 acres, to be exact — became one of their secretly shared subjects at Allenswood.

The two Americans took history with Mademoiselle Souvestre, and though there were eight others in the headmistress's study, so far as Eleanor was concerned “there was no one but [Nelly]. This impression of mine was helped considerably by the fact that Mlle. Souvestre seemed to feel that there were only two members of her class — [Nelly] and myself.”

She was elated by the headmistress's recognition of their yin-and-yang closeness. Still more mystic chords seemed to have been struck from their startlingly similar backgrounds. Nelly's father, like Eleanor's, had been a much-loved New York sportsman — Arthur Post, who five months before Nelly was born had died in the Anglo-American sporting community of Pau. Nelly's mother, Lizzie Wadsworth, was fashionable, beautiful, and impersonal.

Eleanor and Nelly made friends so quickly, and so immediately generated excitement as a pair, that when Nelly's family planned to drive out from London the very first Sunday afternoon, Nelly insisted that Eleanor come with them. She thought that it would be pleasant for Eleanor to “see some other Americans.”

All of a week earlier, Eleanor had felt wondrously free of her former life. Now, faced with the prospect of being exposed to family acquaintances as the laughably plain daughter of Anna Hall Roosevelt, she wanted to run and hide. Worse, any outing that involved horseback riding with gutsy Wadsworth women, as Nelly had gaily promised, could not help but reveal Eleanor's own fears.

No amount of coaxing could pull “Little Nell” out; she was spooked, once more diminished into the form of “a big girl with a pigtail.” When the polished carriage clattered up the drive with Nelly's cousins and half sister and glamorous mother, Eleanor stayed in her room. Nelly went out by herself to greet her family and tell them about her friend. Sixteen-year-old Harriet Wadsworth would recall her cousin describing “the little American girl who was so homesick,” then going back inside to “lead out the most pathetic and awkward little girl you ever saw.”

Eleanor said hello shyly, recalled Harriet, then “slunk back into the school."

While these superb horsewomen could only remind her of her failures, she redeemed herself among other notable figures. When Mademoiselle had important guests to dinner — illustrious literary or artistic figures, as well as “one or two Prime Ministers of England and France” whom she sat on either side of herself — Eleanor had no trouble contributing from her place opposite the adults. Her classmates marveled at how “Totty” was “never awed by anyone” and could “lead Mademoiselle off on almost any track and keep her going.”

Playing the part of Mademoiselle's mindful protégée allowed Eleanor to exercise her natural curiosity and to pick up material from the visiting adults, which she would blend into her own thinking and then sprinkle into related subjects at her next evening session with a delighted Souvestre. Eleanor ever after felt guilty of copycatting, believing herself to be simply mirroring her way into a position of pseudo-authority without sustained study. When variations on this situation repeated in her adulthood, she made an art of being better informed and more carefully prepared than her colleagues.

By the end of first term, her report card showed enthusiastic endorsements from her teachers and high praise from the headmistress: “She is the most amiable girl I have ever met.” Eleanor could be counted upon “to influence others in the right direction.” And as time went on: “Eleanor has the warmest heart that I have ever encountered. As a pupil she is very satisfactory but even that is of small account when you compare it to the perfect quality of her soul."

From Eleanor by David Michaelis. Copyright © 2020 by David Michaelis. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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