Go back in time, join FDR, Eleanor at the White House

February 5, 1995
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us
[ "No Ordinary Time" is on Elisabeth Sherwin's List of Best Books, the 1997 compilation ]

In 1940, when Franklin Roosevelt was president, he clipped out and sent the White House cook a newspaper ad for corn flakes (a 13-ounce package was selling for 19 cents) in a vain attempt to convince her to serve anything but oatmeal for breakfast.

It didn't work. FDR, one of the most powerful men in the world, could not get what he wanted for breakfast.

This is one of the many details that Doris Kearns Goodwin uses to bring her 600-page history book, ``No Ordinary Time'' (Simon & Schuster, 1994), to life.

Goodwin has written a riveting, best-selling account of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt on the home front during World War II.

In 1940 the United States was a country still suffering from the Great Depression, with strong isolationist tendencies, made up of a largely uneducated, class-ridden populace. This country was in no way prepared to fight, much less win, a war.

But in the course of only five years, under the leadership of FDR, united by a common enemy, the United States became the most powerful nation in the world. The United States acted as a true force for justice, and became, through the war years, a much more democratic society.

While FDR and Winston Churchill were determined to win World War II at all costs, Eleanor felt the war would not be worth winning if the old social and domestic order prevailed at home.

Eleanor Roosevelt was an extraordinary woman, a woman so committed and active in promoting civil rights, housing and welfare programs that she frequently irritated and displeased her husband, who would at times instruct his staff not to put her calls through.

No other first lady in this century has been able to equal her in terms of influence and at the same time no other first lady has been quite so unpopular. Hillary Clinton, take heart.

Goodwin tells us about the big things and the little things that made up the Roosevelts' lives. She tells us that FDR loved quail, pheasant, oyster crabs, rare cheeses and peach cobbler. He got ``plain foods, plainly prepared'' by Henrietta Nesbitt, including tongue, sweetbreads, roast beef, boiled beef - and oatmeal.

``The word was out that the White House cuisine was impossibly drab, dull and overcooked,'' wrote Goodwin. You could be sure a chicken salad at the White House would contain a lot of celery and very little meat.

Goodwin also writes beautifully about the complex relationship between Eleanor and FDR. He was a womanizer, she was plain. He was unfaithful to her. He had a notorious love affair with Lucy Rutherford, but there were other women, too, with whom he had intense relationships, if not affairs.

Those women included Missy LeHand, his longtime secretary, and Princess Martha of Norway, who lived in the White House with her children for a time during the war.

The story of LeHand's near-fatal stroke and forced retirement from the White House is as tragic as it is little-known.

Goodwin doesn't believe Eleanor had an affair with her young friend Joe Lash (who later became the family biographer) or any of her close female friends, including the former Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickock who quit her job to live at the White House.

Hickock lived there for four years, yet she told her acquaintances she lived at the Mayflower Hotel. She would have her friends drop her off at the hotel after parties and then she'd take a cab to the White House. It was her idea to have Eleanor write a syndicated newspaper column called ``My Day,'' which was read by millions of Americans daily.

Eleanor Roosevelt's work promoting civil rights - her work in public and her work behind the scenes - cannot be overlooked in terms of forcing change, by her personal example, in the way the nation treated its black citizens.

But Goodwin can be critical, too. She explores two large blots on FDR's presidency: his forced relocation of Japanese-American citizens at the outbreak of the war and his later failure to provide safe haven for large numbers of European refugees, particularly Jews.

Finally, though, reading this compelling book is like watching a long and affectionate home movie about the Roosevelts and the country they lived in between 1940 and 1945.

Goodwin established her reputation as a skilled historian/biographer with her first book, ``Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream,'' and followed that with ``The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedy.''

[Author Menu] [Date Menu] [Printed Matter Home]
The Davis Virtual Market