A packed house of readers and history-lovers attended Blanche Weisen Cook's discussion of the life of Eleanor Roosevelt at BookHampton, East Hampton Saturday afternoon. The timing was perfect, as March 17th was the 107th Anniversary of the complex partnership that was Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt's marriage.
Cook, Distinguished Professor at John Jay College in New York City, and Los Angeles Times Book Prize-winning author, was at BookHampton in honor of Women's History Month, and to announce the completion of the third and final volume of her biography of Eleanor Roosevelt.
How did Eleanor Roosevelt become one of Cook's great influences? After a terrible prank that left her a gymnast with a broken back, Cook realized her hopes of an athletic career were over. She changed majors and turned to history, politics and writing. After a column she wrote about Dwight D. Eisenhower was published, the then-publisher of Doubleday called and asked her to write a book on Eisenhower. While she at first demurred, Cook was convinced by her agent to take on the project, which became The Declassified Eisenhower: A Divided Legacy of Peace and Political Warfare. She then went on to begin what became a life's work: Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume One 1884-1933, and Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume 2 The Defining Years, 1933-1938.
Among her many great works, Eleanor Roosevelt supported the formation of the United Nations, served as a delegate to the UN General Assembly and chaired the United Nations committee that drafted and approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She was a great champion of civil rights, and while she opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, she chaired the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women during JFK's administration.
However, it is her personal life that has long been a fascination. Eleanor Roosevelt's relationships with FDR and others have been seen as controversial, but an intimate look through Cook's biographies helps remove the prurient from the personal, explaining all along what drove Eleanor Roosevelt.
"Is anybody going to be enough to fill your empty heart?" Eleanor Roosevelt wrote these words to a friend, at the same time revealing the great theme of her own life, according to Cook. Left an orphan at a young age, her heart ached for love that she would spend her life seeking, and she turned that need into a drive for social good. Eleanor was savvy and self knowing enough to recognize that her choices had left her wanting (she famously eschewed therapists and therapy, being a great believer that all true and real change must come from within); near the end of her life, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, "I once thought personal happiness didn't matter, but I think differently today."
Next week we are thrilled and privileged to welcome Sally Bedell Smith, whose biography of Queen Elizabeth II has been an international best seller since publication.