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Review: Eleanor in the Village: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Search For Freedom…In Greenwich Village by Jan Jarboe Russell

My Interest

If you’ve read here much, you know I collect all the books on the Roosevelts. Eleanor is a particular favorite of mine. This book promised a look at Eleanor’s often overlooked life apart from Franklin in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. It seemed to promise new information and new insights, so I bought a hardcover copy for my collection and sat down to read it.

The Story

In spite of the premise, the book starts back with the Vanderbilts and New York in the Gilded age–a chapter that ends by mentioning Eleanor’s parents and speculating that “the sparkling events at the Vanderbilt ball would quite naturally have appeared to Anna and Elliott [Roosevelt] to be another moment emblematic of untold promise and beauty ahead for the two of them….” (p.7).  All of Eleanor’s life up to the time of Greenwich Village–the supposed focus of the book–is replayed. All the stories of her sad childhood and early marriage to Franklin are trotted out.

Eleanor, Marion, and Nan source

Eventually, we get to the short chapters on Eleanor’s actual time spent with Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, with Esther Lape and Elizabeth Reed–the women who helped Eleanor “find herself” and, in the case of Nan and Marion, who formed a household with her at Val-Kill on the Hyde Park (Springwood) estate. The actual information give was sparse. It was the same with her life after FDR’s death–sparse. The final chapter of her life, living in the same building with David Gurewitsch and his wife had barely more information.

My Thoughts

I really sat there wondering why this book was published. The notes on sources were few and far between. She makes assertions such as these (below) without backing them up with any evidence. (These are just two I selected to illustrate this–there were more.)

“One might even legitimately wonder if FDR ever would have become president were it not for Eleanor’s ongoing and transformative experiences in the Village.” (p. 79)

It was Louis Howe who “made” FDR. Eleanor certainly helped, but most of what she did came after polio. FDR started in politics when he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and his ambition to be president came way before that.

“Louis Howe and Franklin joked that the women were ‘she-males,’ a loaded prases that conveyed their belief that Eleanor and her women friends would never be equal to men at home or in politics.”

WOW. Way to read into what was then a contemporary (if very mocking) term for lesbians! Franklin and Howe were far too astute to not see how useful Eleanor and the League of Women Voter’s cofounder Esther Lape, her partner, respected attorney Elizabeth Read, and Head of the Women’s Division of the NY Democratic Party Nancy Cook were to getting the newly enfranchised women voters on their side to think anything of the kind! Nothing is offered as proof of this meaning of the ‘she-male’ phrase.

The tone of the book is that of a biography for the middle grades to junior high school-age students. In fact, I even went back to Amazon to see if I had missed it being designated as such!

Eleanor with Earl Miller source

This book, like nearly all biographies of Eleanor since the “revelation” many years ago of her apparent love affair with Lorena Hickok, mostly catalogs the possible romantic interests of Eleanor after the breakdown of her marriage to FDR. In a book that champions the “New Woman” and the liberation of same-sex couples, it was humorous to see the author fall back on the old chestnut that Earl Miller (ER’s bodyguard), Joe Lash, and David Gurewitsch were all “surrogate sons” because they were younger than Eleanor. The chemistry between ER and Earl is well documented, the other two probably were platonic, but it is the idea that rankles.. Of course, the subservience by the FBI was also mentioned. The FBI did not like Joe Lash because of what they saw as his communist sympathies. We learn so little in this book about Eleanor–that is the shocking take-away.

Eleanor with Dr. David Gurewitsch source

My Verdict

If you know nothing of Eleanor Roosevelt, this is a short, introduction to some aspects of her life background, and times. It is a pleasant, fast, read that can be finished in an afternoon. If you are looking to really know about Eleanor in any way but the most superficial, see Blanche Weissen Cook’s great biography of Eleanor, or Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time.

2.5

Eleanor in the Village by Jan Jarboe Russell

 

 

For an account of Eleanor’s life with Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook, see The Three Graces of Val-Kill by Emily Herring Wilson.

 

Another book by Jan Jarboe Russell

In spite of my feelings about this book, I would like to read Russell’s book The Train to Crystal City a nonfiction account of the family internment camp featured in the novel Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner.

4 thoughts on “Review: Eleanor in the Village: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Search For Freedom…In Greenwich Village by Jan Jarboe Russell

  1. Sorry this book was a disappointment. When we start reading a book, we just never know how happy we will be with it. It’s happened to me so many times.

    Liked by 1 person

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