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Columnists on Parade: Eleanor Roosevelt
By Margaret Marshall
April 2, 1938
Vol. 146, No. 14, p. 386-387
Sinclair Lewis is reported to have said that he hoped Dorothy Thompson might be elected President so that he could write "My Day." Eleanor Roosevelt doesn't write that kind of diary, but she and her newspaper column could exist only in the land of Main Street. Queen Mary, her nearest counterpart, may chuck babies under the chin and hit battleships over the bow; she does not write a column every day relating what goes on in the British White House as if it were the most average household in the empireand file it at the nearest telegraph office.
Eleanor Roosevelt is the First Lady of Main Street, which runs through New York and Seattle, from Amarillo, Texas, to the very door of the White House. She travelsand how she travels *the U. S. 1 of middle-class psychology, and she combines in her person all those qualities that please and flatter it most. She writes as she travels, whether it be on a train or in a car in a Presidential procession. She occupies the highest social position in the land. Yet she makes friends on plane or train even as you and I. "Only one passenger came through all the way to Seattle. . . . She is Mrs. Hodges of Council Bluffs. . . . I soon felt she was almost an old friend." And don't think Mrs. Hodges and Council Bluffs are not pleased to be mentioned, Likewise "my country friend Mrs. Hamm, who has a marvelous roadside stand on the Albany post road." She entertains simple unknown people at the White Housebetween state functions at which foreign diplomats and domestic celebrities pass in review. She does everything that ordinary Americans do drives her own car, rides horseback, uses a typewriter, knits out of a bag, and hovers over grandchildren who catch coldsand talks about it all as simply and confidentially as Mrs. Jones of South Lincoln Street. "I imagine I might have been quite a good housewife," she wrote on January 24, "and done my work day by day and enjoyed it very much. I might have been a fairly adequate farmer's wife, . . ."
She has speed and energy, independence and adaptability, all dear to the hearts of Americans. One of her innumerable correspondents wrote her that he had named a clock after her because it was always on the go. She thinks nothing of suddenly picking up and leaving her White House dutiesthe dishes can waitand crossing the continent by plane and train to spend Christmas with a sick daughter. She comes back saying, "I think I know how Ulysses must have felt when he came back from his journeys." But she marvels less at Ulysses than Ulysses would have marveled at her.
The rich, the famous, or the brilliant who acts and talks like the average person has a sure-fire appeal, and Eleanor Roosevelt has a talent for platitudes, as well as a talent for wholehearted participation in the activities of Main Street. They have contributed not a little to the fortunes of her husband. She has assumed a good part of the baby-kissing function that devolves on any American President, and her perennial accounts of PWA and WPA projects in sixty-two papers (circulation 4,034,552) are not to be overlooked. Jim Farley may call more people in more towns by their first names than anyone else on earth, but Eleanor Roosevelt's ubiquitous and simple appearances at American neighborhood gatherings which she afterwards "writes up" in her column have their own effectiveness, and they lack the touch of sordidness that makes all politicians suspect. When Pippa passes who can criticize?
Some people are annoyed by the platitudes that Pippa passes, but even Westbrook Pegler, who doesn't like the Roosevelt tribe, came out for Eleanor in a recent column which indicated that her only rival for his unreserved admiration is Snow White. I suppose "My Day" might possibly be described as an opiate of the people, and it certainly has a touch of Dale Carnegie.
The Lady is undoubtedly an excellent politician in her own right. But all the darts glance off her unassuming armor, and the inveterate social worker interested in the under-dog shows so clearly through the guises of President's wife and newspaper columnist that the most suspicious is disarmed. Eleanor Roosevelt was a society girl before she became interested in public affairs, and her interest has that cast. She grew up in New York City's age of innocence, and there remains a touch of naivete which sometimes makes frankness look like boldness. In her book, "This Is My Story," she shows the self-confidence of the socially secure by talking more freely than another might of skeletons in the family closetalthough as the confessed "ugly duckling" in a handsome family she had great personal difficulties to overcome. She learned to be a politician's wife only through experience. Her interest in social problems was a matter of voluntary education. But her social conscience is genuine, as a long and vigorous participation in reform has shown. And now, while she conducts her readers through the intimacies of White House life, she gives them little pointed lectures on social problems.
I came across an article . . . which I wanted to applaud in various places. (The author) points out in a general way that we parents are responsible when our children grow up with racial or religious prejudices.
She has as many causes as a Nation editor. Rural arts, housing, country life, WPA libraries, public health, community centers for Negroes, flood control, the eight-hour day for nurses, safety campaigns, white and black cooperation, education. But they are all sugar-coated with accounts of the dinner for the Supreme Court justices and Cabinet receptions which delight the hearts of people who would scorn her social views if they were presented by a solemn social viewer. Still it is a wonder we have not heard more cries of "propaganda" from the guardians of American liberties and more debates about the propriety of the President's wife making money out of Presidential prerogatives.**
One reason is that "My Day" is so ingeniously constructed, Mrs. Roosevelt's good-will is unquestioned, but no one could have that much good-will. Her simplicity is taken for granted, but no one could be quite as simple as the lady who writes "My Day" and not commit blunders. No person of strong opinions could be so permanently unruffled. Yet in the last two months she has shown no single evidence of annoyance except on March 2 when she indulged at length the common man's resentment toward dramatic critics.
It was the opening night and all the critics were there [she wrote in her inimitable way]. In the Times and Herald Tribune yesterday morning the critics give credit to the actors for a good performance but . . . they seem to infer that because this play ["Save Me the Waltz"] does not teach a great lesson or pick any particular people to pieces it is worthless as a play. I am not a high-brow . . . I said in Washington this play was neither stirring nor uplifting, and I still think it gives one a pleasant, entertaining evening . . . it is rather rare that you can find out what kind of play you are going to see by reading any of the criticisms.
In the same column she rapped very gently the critics of her husband's recent literary projects. As column, "My Day" is unique. It is not the expression of a writer to whom material of any kind is a means to an end. It is a window on the actual day-by-day life of a busy and disinterested human being, and there is no obstruction either of style or motive. Because she is the President's wife Mrs. Roosevelt's activities are invested with glamor; because they are the activities of any ordinary woman with a family, a husband, and many outside interests the glamor is shared by the nameless and the unimportant. To the prisoners of newspapers, where the wars are always raging, "My Day" is like a sunny square where children and aunts and grandmothers go about their trivial but absorbing pursuits and security reigns. In the sense of security it generates lies the deepest appeal of "My Day."
A fan in Clarksdale, Mississippi, writes, "My own day is given a bit of color when I see it reflected in the little intimate, homey experiences of the White House. . . ." A humbler one in Ramer, Tennessee, dared to criticize, "If she were a Mrs. Hitler, Musulina, or Stalin, I'd not say a word of criticism. But she's one of us. I think she could make some improvement. She might advise us on housekeeping. How to make the most soap with the least amount of cracklineshow to cure sore-head on our chix and not kill the chix."
[Miss Marshall's article on Walter Lippmann will appear in the issue of April 16.]
*She covered 60,000 miles in two years.
**Mrs. Roosevelt makes as much as or more than the President's salary. It all goes to charitable purposes, and she pays expenses incurred and the income tax on it out of her own funds.