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 surveillance 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.


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.

Review: The Three Graces of Val-Kill by Emily Herring Wilson & Arthurdale by Nancy Hoffman for Nonfiction November


My Interest

While I’m not as liberal as Eleanor, I do admire her above almost all American women. I have read most everything on her and by her. The most interesting parts of her, to me, are her celebrated political partnership with the husband who both nearly destroyed her with his unfaithfulness and then set her free to live her own life. Her selflessness in nursing him through the early days of his polio is another example. She survived her #meetoo moments in her own home where her grandmother was forced to have multiple locks installed on Eleanor’s bedroom door to keep out the drunken out-of-control young uncles. She may have been groomed and used by her charismatic female headmistress–whom she adored all her life. That she carried her own suitcase, wrote the letters to G.I.’s mothers that she promised at their hospital bedsides, and that she grew as a person to leave behind the racism and antisemitism of her time and class make her worthy of my admiration. That she was a pretty awful mother (she bought one of those baby cages to hang outside a window for the baby to nap in) is evident in the 19 marriages between her four children. But, even in that she worked to improve and did improve. And, she became a truly beloved Grandmother. All while earning the title of great StatesWOMEN of our nation and the world.

The Story

This book purports to tell of one of the three great experiments in living Eleanor either helped to create or was a participant in (for the second see the second review; the third was her end-of-life living arrangement). In the late 1920s, while FDR was either on his houseboat in Florida or at Warm Springs, Eleanor and two friends (who were life partners or today would have married) set up housekeeping together in a cottage they had built, with FDR’s full approval, on his “Hyde Park” [really Springwood] Estate. They all slept in a dormitory-style bedroom, had their linens monogrammed with their joint initials, and fell happily into a sort of community home life that they enjoyed.

Nan Cook and Marion Dickerman became part of the Roosevelt family in many ways. Nan built the famous Vall-Kill furniture at a small woodshop near the cottage. Marion and Eleanor would buy and jointly run the Todhunter School for Girls in New York. The ladies accompanied Eleanor and her two youngest sons, Franklin, Jr. [the second son to bear that name–the first one having died in infancy] and John on camping trips, up to Campobello, and on a trip to Europe which FDR’s mother ruined by insisting that Eleanor and the boys have a chauffeur since Eleanor was First Lady of New York state.

But Eleanor kept evolving. She kept moving. She was still Franklin’s official wife, even if his secretary became his emotional wife. She was also still mother to five children who, for much of this time, were basically abandoned by FDR. She was a leading spokeswoman for Democratic Women in New York state. Nan and Marion were also involved in politics, but so too were Caroline O’Day and her partner and Elinor Morgantheau whose husband would serve FDR as Treasury Secretary.

In the White House, Eleanor had little time for the friends back in the little cottage. She famously took up with Lorena Hickok, “Hick,” whose career as one of the nation’s top female reporters was destroyed by Hick’s becoming too emotionally attached to Eleanor to keep the objectivity needed in those days to be a reporter.

The end had to come and it did. In a bad way. Eleanor could be like that. No spoilers.

My Thoughts

At times the writing of this book was very odd. Here are just a few examples.

Eleanor had never made a plan for what she wanted as a wife, mother, and daughter-in-law, and her life had been unexpectedly difficult” (p. 16). Did women do this at the turn of the 20th century?

…the unthinkable death of an infant” (p. 19)  An infant dying in 1909 was a regular occurrence, regardless of class!

She joined the newly formed Junior League for rich women but did volunteer work in settlement houses” (p. 20) what an awkward sentence. And, she was a rich woman!

The author also falls into two traps that I do not like in modern history writing. First, she “supposes” what Eleanor, Nan, and Marion “might” have done in the evening or in the course of their day. That is not helpful. It’s like the fictionalized scenes in t.v.’s The Crown–it is wrong to invent scenes in a real life. Second, she nearly lets FDR’s story take over in a few places–not nearly as often as in similar books, but it is there. In any biography of Eleanor, FDR will naturally play a large role. But this book was about a slice of her life. Finding insufficiently detailed information on her topic, I feel she padded the book to get it to a respectable page count. Had she instead have dealt more with Todhunter School or with Vall-Kil Industries and the furniture, the book would have been a more authentic account of this interesting relationship and experiment. Instead, while interesting, it fell short.  While Arthurdale (see second review below) did have a tie-in to the relationship, other chapters truly did not.

The Three Graces of Va-Kill: Eleanor Roosevelt, Marion Dickerman, and Nancy Cook and in the Place They Made Their Own by Emily Herring Wilson

Eleanor’s Other Experiment in Living


Eleanor also championed progressive causes like resettling coal miners into new, purpose-built communities like West Virginia’s Arthurdale–which became a pet cause of hers. In addition to brand new homes, settlers had subsistence farm plots for “homesteading” and were to have employment in factories or industries brought in to serve the area. The children were given Nursery School and progressive education through high school in a new, modern school building. They received hot, nutritious lunches and had an inspiring curriculum. Sadly, the necessary industry never developed, and settlers, while in much nicer homes, were saved mostly by World War II.

This book, written for upper-level elementary school students does an excellent job of presenting the purpose and reality of Arthurdale.  Another WPA Homestead Community (there were several), Dyes Colony in Arkansas, “gave birth” to a little boy named J.R. who grew up to be singer Johnny Cash.

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Arthurdale Experiment by Nancy Hoffman

Note: In the interest of fairness, I read this book in February but wanted to save the review to go with The Three Graces (above).

Both of these books were appropriate for both of these November reading challenges.

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑