ELEANOR ROOSEVELT, VOLUME THREE: The War Years and After, 1939-1962, by Blanche Wiesen Cook. Viking, 670 pp., $40.
Pioneering first lady Eleanor Roosevelt got the fully fleshed portrait she deserved in the first volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography, which told the compelling story of a shy, lonely rich girl who found her self-esteem and her mission in a community of progressive women whose battles for social and political reform laid the groundwork for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Cook lost her focus in the second volume, which chronicled the first six years of FDR’s presidency in excessive detail that swamped some keen insights into the Roosevelt marriage and political partnership. Unfortunately, Volume Three, “The War Years and Beyond, 1939-1962,” is even more undisciplined. There’s no question that Cook admires ER — as she is called throughout — and shares her political convictions, but this account of her wartime efforts on behalf of liberal democracy would have had more impact in a better-proportioned book.
For example, Roosevelt’s resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution after the organization refused to allow black soprano Marian Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall merits more space than descriptions of a Florida vacation. Cook’s over-detailed coverage of ER’s involvement with the American Youth Congress, which advocated for an expanded jobs program and student aid, blunts the impact of four cogent paragraphs capturing her cool support of AYC members hauled in front of a subversive-hunting committee in Congress. Invited to join the committee table, Roosevelt declined and pointedly sat among those waiting to testify, remarking, “I just came to listen.”
Even Cook’s assessment of the Roosevelts’ fraught marriage seems tired here. We don’t need to be reminded every time Eleanor pushes FDR to broaden the New Deal that she was the agitator and he was the politician. We understand that she annoyed him with her persistence, while he disappointed her with his caution. Cook’s dislike of FDR as a person — glib, calculating, and secretive where his wife was sincere, honest and occasionally maladroit — is obvious.
Although she dutifully insists that he shared ER’s liberal values, Cook is more energetic in detailing FDR’s frustrating inaction on fair treatment for African-American soldiers and rescue for Jews desperately seeking to escape Nazi-dominated Europe. Eleanor’s prodding of her husband on these issues, Cook writes, “enable us to understand history’s slow, still ongoing movement toward international justice and human rights.” Contemporary parallels are evident: Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long’s callous assertion in 1940 that (in Cook’s paraphrase) “every refugee was a potential Nazi or Communist,” and therefore undeserving of asylum, uncomfortably forecasts one response to the current humanitarian crisis in Syria, where every refugee is seen as a potential terrorist.
Eleanor Roosevelt fought against such moral cowardice her whole life. She understood FDR’s need to test the political climate before he took the strong stands she urged, but that would never be her way. After his death in 1945, she was free to more openly advocate full civil rights for African-Americans in the United States and equality for women around the world. She served on the United States delegation to the United Nations’ first assembly and helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN in 1948. She worked tirelessly for the causes she believed in until her death in 1962.
Those final 17 years get exactly 30 pages in Cook’s text. It’s hard to resist the conclusion that she simply ran out of steam on this project. This bloated yet truncated volume brings to a disheartening close the work of groundbreaking scholarship launched with such promise in 1992, when the first volume of “Eleanor Roosevelt” was published.