Baby Eleanor is born into the ostentatious display of upper class opulence known as the “Gilded Age.”
Eleanor’s mother, Anna Livingston Ludlow Hall, is the belle of the ball for New York City. Basking in self-assurance, she can thumb her nose at guest lists that include the Vanderbilts and Astors. Anna also knows that within her lineage is a signer of the Declaration of Independence. This gives her self-esteem a dash of superiority. Now she just needs a husband.
Eleanor’s future father, Elliott Roosevelt, has a checkered past that would land anyone else in a jail cell, rehab or the morgue. Elliott’s excuses include sibling rivalry with his over-achieving brother, the future President Theodore Roosevelt. Avoiding his brother’s shadow, Elliott enjoys adventurous hunting trips in India, China and Ceylon. Health problems are exacerbated in a struggle with sexual identity, alcohol and shame. His misery is exposed in his letters to home.
In 1881, Elliott returns from his latest trip. He is in New York City and meets Anna. Having these two characters in place, the stage is set for a tragic play of which Shakespeare would be proud.
With all the passion and commitment of a charming alcoholic, Elliott writes about Anna, “a Sweet Hearted, a true, loving Earnest Woman. … Womanly in all purity, holiness and beauty, an angel in tolerance, in forgiveness and in faith…” [sic] This list reflects Elliott’s romantic ideals, not Anna’s character. Anna, equally unrealistic, is flattered with the attention of the most eligible bachelor in New York City.
Like media coverage of movie stars, Anna and Elliott’s daily affairs are frequently featured in the newspapers. Anna marries Elliott and this couple has the smug security of knowing they ‘belong.’
Eleanor is born, and Anna is disappointed that her first born child is not a boy. Adding to this frustration, Anna describes her daughter as, “a more wrinkled and less attractive baby than the average.” As Eleanor grows, it is obvious that her character is as somber as her physical appearance is plain.
Eleanor’s habit of waiting quietly in the doorway, waiting and wanting to be acknowledged, and waiting to be asked in have been deemed ‘shy.’ Anna intensifies Eleanor’s insecurities by belittling her. Eleanor remembers her mother saying to any company in the room, “‘She’s such a funny child, so old-fashioned, that we always call her ‘Granny.’” Eleanor says of those times, “I wanted to sink through the floor in shame …”
“I would sit at the head of her bed and stroke her head. The feeling that I was useful was perhaps the greatest joy I had experienced.” Eleanor’s childhood memory of being with her mother.
Eleanor Roosevelt and her father Elliott in New York City It will be at least twenty five years until Eleanor learns to boldly walk in or walk out of any door she wants. But now a child, she is starving for attention and acceptance. One light in her life is her father. Here she is needed.
Elliott has not been successful in any of the lucrative jobs that are put in place for him. His life is a constant cycle of mishaps from foolish accidents, drugs, drinking, hostile episodes at home, and then, absence away from the family. When Elliott returns, he can withstand Anna’s harsh rebukes only by going to Eleanor for unquestioning acceptance. In exchange for this adulation, Elliott dotes on his ‘dear little Nell.’ Eleanor glories in the attention and it gives her some feeling of worth.
Anna has a second child and is pleased to have produced a son, but the good news doesn’t halt the gradual disintegration between her and Elliott. In an effort to stop the downward spiral, Anna decides to pack up the family and tour Europe. Any happy moments are distorted with the dread that Elliott will start drinking or is already drunk.
The visit to Paris coincides with Anna’s due date for a third child. Eleanor is shunted off to a convent to live until after the baby is born. Eleanor is not even six.
Alone in a foreign country, Eleanor feels cast aside by her family and could use some reassurance from the nuns. Seeing another little girl comforted because she swallowed a coin, Eleanor tells the nuns she too has swallowed a coin. The nuns are suspicious and discover Eleanor has lied.
Anna, disgraced by Eleanor’s actions, comes to retrieve her daughter. Eleanor recalls, “I remember the drive home as one of utter misery, for I could bear swift punishment far better than long scoldings.”
The strain of keeping the family intact is taking a toll on Anna. Elliot threatens suicide and is now living with a mistress in Paris. When his estate is signed over to Anna, he promises to get better. Not convinced, Anna packs up the children and heads back to New York. The worst of it, what is most unforgivable, is the family shame is made public. The headlines in the New York Herald declare:
ELLIOTT ROOSEVELT DEMENTED BY EXCESSES.
Wrecked by Liquor and Folly, He is now Confined
In an Asylum for the Insane near Paris
Proceedings to Save the Estate
Commissioners in Lunacy Appointed on Petition of his Brother
Theodore and His Sister Anna
With his Wife’s Approval
When Elliott finally returns to New York City he plays for Eleanor’s sympathy. When Anna learns that Elliott has an illegitimate child and that the mother is making a ploy to go public, she limits the contact he has with his children.
Eleanor and her father keep in touch by writing. During her growing years of seven to nine, Eleanor spends her days waiting for another letter. The arrivals are sporadic, but the empty promises that unfold from each envelop are constant. Elliott stokes the delusion that some day he will return, and they will live happily together.
Anna, as the sole guardian for the children, is busy ensuring their future. In the event anything should happen to her, Grandmother Hall, Anna’s mother, will have custody of Eleanor and her two brothers. In fact, Anna and the children move back to live with Anna’s mother. Extra bedrooms are not the problem, since Grandmother has two mansions, one on the Hudson River for the summer and one in New York City for the winter.
Tragic stories of Anna and Elliott continue. The family has so deteriorated that when Anna is dying of diphtheria, she refuses to let Elliott come to see her. Within months of this loss, Eleanor’s brother Ellie dies of scarlet fever. Eleanor remembers, “Death meant nothing to me, and one fact wiped out everything else – my father was back and I would see him very soon.”
Elliott’s brief visits to Eleanor and her brother Hall show that the ravages of this man’s self-absorption have warped any vestiges of kindness and doting. Elliot’s need to still appear cavalier is indulged when taking Eleanor on reckless horse cart rides. During these brash jaunts, Eleanor tries desperately to win his approval and not show her fear. When he comes by to take her for a walk with the dogs, Eleanor swallows any anger and disappointment as Elliott uses this opportunity to stop by his club and have a drink. Eleanor is left waiting. On one occasion she stands for six hours while holding the dogs. She sees her father carried out and it’s the doorman who takes Eleanor back to Grandmother Hall’s house.
Clinging to dreams of a home with her father, Eleanor is in denial of these disappointing episodes. Her indomitable spirit will someday win accolades from around the world, but right now it is pitifully misdirected.
Elliott continues to send endearing letters to Eleanor, but there won’t be many more. His brother Teddy writes, “Elliott is up and about again: and I hear is drinking heavily; if so he must break down soon.” Two days after Teddy’s declaration, this prediction will come true.
Elliott has been using ‘stimulants’ again, suffering from delusions, and at some point, jumps out a parlor window. He is knocked unconscious and dies. A newspaper article covering the story politely recalls the past. “There was a time when there were not many more popular young persons in society than Mr. and Mrs. Elliott Roosevelt.”
Members from Elliott’s side of the family want Eleanor to be sent to Allenswood, an all girl school in England. Family aunts had attended this school and Eleanor’s parents had previously met and been impressed with the head teacher. The idea is rejected by Grandmother Hall who claims she wants the grandchildren home to keep a close eye on them.
Grandmother Hall, a prior debutante herself, is only fifty-one and has her own problems. The trouble started when her husband passed away several years ago. Mr. Hall had always controlled the money and the children. While lavish parties and Parisian clothes for his family kept up public appearances, the private reality was a strict code of conduct for exuberant children.
When he dies, the monastic ambiance goes with him. Mrs. Hall, treated as a child herself, is ill-equipped to run the house full of their children. At the time of Eleanor’s stay their ages range from 16-25. With behaviors reflecting varying levels of self-indulgence, romantic flings and drinking, the mood of the mansion has ramped up to the raucous level of a frat house. To support these excesses, Mrs. Hall is using the trust funds of her grandchildren.
Eleanor and her younger brother Hall have a yearly income of $7,500 which equates to approximately $180,000 per year in today’s money. This wealth is not reflected in Eleanor’s wardrobe. She has two dresses. If one gets dirty in play, and the other hasn’t been washed yet, she must wear a dirty dress. Adding to this misfit appearance is her height. For years her dresses are short, shapeless and outdated because they are remade hand-me-downs from the aunts.
“Playing with children was difficult for me because play had not been an important part of my own childhood.” Eleanor reflecting back on her childhood.
This goes from bad to worse.
Friends for Eleanor are few and far between. They are afraid to come and visit. The uncles, too often intoxicated, have been known to start shooting a gun out of the second story window over the heads of approaching guests.
On top of that, there is Madeleine. She’s the governess who could easily be mistaken as Cinderella’s step mother. How cruel is it when someone who has been pulling your hair now cuts holes in the socks that you just darned? Madeleine compounds the torment by bestowing kindness to Eleanor’s brother Hall. Eleanor’s cousin recalls, “I remember Madeleine. She was a terrifying character. It was the grimmest childhood I have ever known. Who did she (Eleanor) have? Nobody.”
Grandmother does provide more structure to her granddaughter’s daily life. On occasion, Eleanor’s uncles teach her how to play tennis, ride a bike and jump with her pony. With her aunts, Eleanor recites poetry, enjoys music and goes rowing on the Hudson River. Eleanor’s education, which prior to this has been sketchy, is now filled in with literature, French, German and piano lessons.
These could be degrees of improvements for Eleanor’s life, but if sporadic afternoons of attention are compensation for outbursts from drunk uncles and drama queen aunts then the balance toward a healthy environment is in the red.
Often alone, Eleanor spends time escaping to a dream world in her books and grows even more remote. Eleanor’s cousin remembers the house, “I never wanted to go. The grim atmosphere of that house. There was no place to play games, unbroken gloom everywhere. We ate our suppers in silence. The general attitude was, ‘don’t do this.’”