Perhaps the pivotal image of the twentieth century is that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on December 8, 1941. He is signing the declaration of war against Japan, having just talked to the nation and to the larger world about the events of December 7, a date that would live in infamy.
The president is wearing a black band of mourning on his left arm. The black band was not originally donned in honor of those lost at Pearl Harbor; he has been in mourning for his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, who died three months earlier.
The misinterpreted mourning band is symbolic of the unacknowledged role Sara Delano Roosevelt played in the lives of her son and her daughter-in-law, Eleanor. Though she was the couple's greatest influence, Sara's full story has never been told, despite the myriad books and best-selling biographies of Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
This seminal figure—Sara Delano Roosevelt—has been swept aside: ignored, dismissed, and criticized. We think we know Eleanor's story, the one about the shy, awkward colt who marries the good-looking, confident young man. She and her husband work tirelessly during the next decades—he leading the nation out of its most devastating depression and securing freedom during the world war, and she veering a little to his left by making civil rights, humanism, and world peace her mission.
However, this story needs an antagonist, and in the tale that its tellers have wrought, that role has been played for nearly half a century by Sara. She is the woman we think we know: the one who tightly holds the family's purse strings, the one who tells her son and his wife what to do and how to do it, the one who makes Eleanor weep in despair, the one who would have kept her son out of politics—he, who restored our nation to prosperity and kept it safe from the horrors in Europe. Moreover, as the folk tale goes, Sara would have kept Eleanor at home and away from the causes that drew her into the world, thus washing away many of the social justice gains of the past half-century.
Virtually all recent accounts of Sara Delano Roosevelt vilify her. It was not always so: during Sara's lifetime she was praised and admired to the point of being revered by an entire nation. From the 1920s, when her son became a public figure, through the 1940s—even past her death and that of her son—Sara was one of America's most beloved women. It was not until the 1950s that her image took a sharp turn. Then, as her great-granddaughter Eleanor Roosevelt (Ellie) Seagraves has said, "All she has been given in return for all she did is a reputation of an ogre. It is unfair."
Perhaps some of the disdain heaped on Sara has been due to a bias against women of her time and class. Her great-grandson Curtis Roosevelt pointed out that "unquestionably, Sara Delano Roosevelt did represent a class background. She had all those things in place. Eleanor Roosevelt was very much against the class system."
The two women's relationship spanned a rift in American social history: the old order versus the new, the changing role of women in family and society, the evolving treatment of religious and racial minorities, and the breaking down of class distinctions. Eleanor led the charge into the modern world, and contrary to what has been reported, Sara at times was right behind—or sometimes ahead of—her. Those differences that they did have mirrored the shifting tides in their world.
It was typically Eleanor who urged Franklin to be a catalyst for change. But it was Sara who had given Franklin the supreme self-confidence (that she, too, possessed in abundance) to guide and lead and to implement the ideas he thought important, no matter how loud the criticism. It was his and Sara's glorious courage that spread throughout the nation when optimism was what was needed. Sara's granddaughter Anna Roosevelt Halsted has bluntly said of her grandmother's position in the Depression-era nation: "She helped save it. I don't think anyone's given credit to Granny—the credit she really is due."
Sara played an additional part in this story: her solid values and firm grounding in tradition gave Americans—especially Franklin's greatest critics, those among the 40 percent who opposed him in his first presidential election—the reassurance that Franklin would not go too far. Why else did Franklin insist on having Sara at his side during his first Fireside Chat? Sara's constant presence in Franklin's life calmed fears and tempered upper- and middle-class opposition to Franklin's new programs. At the same time, she served as a cautionary brake on both Eleanor and Franklin as they raced ahead to fix what they felt was wrong.
The same strength and self-confidence that Sara had inculcated in Franklin, she imbued in Eleanor through example. Although Eleanor's determination was in large part forged through her own character, Eleanor was constantly in the presence of two strong personalities, her husband's and her mother-in-law's. Sara was Eleanor's greatest female influence from her marriage at age twenty to her emergence as a public figure when she became First Lady at forty-nine. With Sara as a nearly constant presence, Eleanor became more tenacious as she grew older. By middle age, Eleanor was no longer the shy wallflower she had been when she first entered Sara's world; rather, she persisted in spite of the most voracious criticism faced by any First Lady, displaying the same resolve as her husband did regardless of national faultfinding.
This is the story that no one knows. What lingers in our minds is the image of an overbearing and dominating mother-in-law who reduced the nation's beloved Eleanor to tears. What we remember are the sanctioned histories such as the biased film shown at Sara's own Campobello Island that refers to her governing her son with "smothering dictatorial love." Nor did it help that Eleanor reinterpreted her own life after Sara's and Franklin's deaths, presenting a picture of her early marriage that her own letters and diaries do not substantiate. In fact, Eleanor's early writings firmly contradict her later portrait of the daughter-and-mother-in-law relationship.
Still, any statements of Eleanor's that are critical of Sara have been picked up, copied, reiterated, and regurgitated by Eleanor's writer friends and biographers. As Eleanor's son Elliott Roosevelt stated, "Joe Lash and most of the other biographers whom I have read missed the boat completely on Mother. Completely." Although these writers give a quick nod to Sara's foundational role in shaping Franklin's character, they ignore Sara's unwavering support of Eleanor in her critical years as a young wife and mother. Rather than criticizing Franklin's inability to brace up his shaky wife—and perhaps his lack of interest in doing so—it is Sara who gets the heat. In this period, Eleanor treasured Sara as her surrogate mother and drew strength from her strength that Eleanor eventually used to surpass her mother-in-law's accomplishments and, indeed, the achievements of all other American women of her generation. Here is the real story of the relationship between Sara Delano Roosevelt and her daughter-in-law, Eleanor Roosevelt.
© Copyright 2004 by Jan Pottker