Authors: Joseph P. Lash
The Story of Their Relationship,
Based on Eleanor Roosevelt's Private Papers
JOSEPH P. LASH
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr.
W. W. NORTON & COMPANY
NEW YORK LONDON
To my wife Trude
BEGAN TO READ THE MANUSCRIPT OF THIS WORK WITH A CERTAIN
apprehension. I knew that no one was better qualified by close and sympathetic acquaintance to write the biography of Eleanor Roosevelt than Joseph P. Lash. But one also knew of Joe Lash's profound, almost filial, devotion to Mrs. Roosevelt and feared that affection might conflict with the austere obligations of the biographer. Moreover, his friendship with Mrs. Roosevelt covered only the last twenty-two years of a long and varied life, and one wondered how someone coming along at the verge, so to speak, of the last act could do justice to the earlier yearsâabove all, to an intense and crucial girlhood lived so many years before in what was not only another century but another world. Nor could one be certain that Mr. Lash, for all his experience as a newspaperman, would not be lost in the staggering mass of Mrs. Roosevelt's personal papers; even a professional historian might well have been daunted by this form of total immersion.
My apprehension was unjustified. Mr. Lash has written, I believe, a beautiful bookâbeautiful in its scholarship, insight, objectivity, and candor. He portrays Eleanor Roosevelt's anguished childhood with marvelous delicacy and understanding, and he skillfully evokes the social milieu in which she grew upâthe old New York of Edith Wharton, where rigid etiquette concealed private hells and neurosis lurked under the crinoline. He perceives and reconstructs the complex reciprocity of the partnership between Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt with immense subtlety, sensitivity, and honesty. He faithfully records the moving, often painful, process by which a tense and humorless girl overcame personal insecurity and private adversity and emerged as a powerful woman in her own right, spreading her influence not only across her own country but around much of the planet. As he does all this, he gives a story long familiar in its broad outline a fresh and compelling quality.
A word about the author. Mr. Lash, born in New York City in 1909, graduated from the City College of the City University of New York in 1931 in the depth of the Depression. In the next year he became an officer of the Student League for Industrial Democracy, a Socialist youth organization; and in 1935, when the Comintern Congress in Moscow gave the international Communist movement a more moderate party line, he overcame his earlier distrust of the American Communists and led the SLID into one of the first American experiments in a “united front” against fascismâthe American Student Union. American students were politically concerned as they would not be for another thirty years, and Joe Lash was one of their more conspicuous leaders. In the Popular Front enthusiasm after 1935, he moved closer to the Communists and was discussing a job with the
in August, 1939, when the news came through of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
For the idealistic fellow-travelers of the period, the pact was a stunning blow. It separated the democrats from the Stalinists; and Lash found himself in growing conflict with his Communist associates in the ASU. Then in November, 1939, three months after the pact, Lash, with other youth leaders, received a summons from the House Committee on Un-American Activities, already well embarked on its long career of saving the republic by hit-and-run investigations of the radical left. It was in this connection that he had his first serious encounter with Mrs. Roosevelt.
The president's wife had a conviction, hard to oppose but not widely shared, that the youth constituted the future of a nation; and, in this time before the young had quite become a distinct and impassioned constituency, she sought to find out on behalf of her husband what they believed and needed. She not only advised the student leaders of 1939 how they should conduct themselves before Congressman Dies's committee but attended the hearings herself and took half a dozen of the young firebrands back to the White House for dinner. Joe Lash, after Stalin's deal with Hitler, was both in inner turmoil and somewhat isolated within the ASU; his personal dilemma appealed to Mrs. Roosevelt. Moreover, she soon found she could rely a good deal more on his word and judgment than on that of his pro-Soviet colleagues.
Soon she invited him to Hyde Park. In spite of considerable disparities in age and background, a warm friendship developed. This continued when as a soldier he went to the South Pacific and in the years after the war when he wrote for the
New York Post
. Clearly he filled some need in her own lifeâin particular, perhaps the compelling
emotional need, so perceptively analyzed in the pages that follow, to offer help, attention, tenderness, and to receive unquestioning love in return. Mrs. Roosevelt may have made occasional mistakes in her desire to provide succor, but her trust in Joe Lash was not misplaced. He has now repaid this trust by writing a book which, because it sees Eleanor Roosevelt with love but without illusion or sentimentalism, makes her, in her fortitude and in her triumph, an even more remarkable figure than we had supposed before.
Americans over thirty, whether they admired or detested her, will not forget Mrs. Roosevelt. But for those under thirtyâand this was the group she cared about mostâshe can only in the 1970s, I imagine, strike faint chords of third-hand recollection, probably arousing faint memories of maternal benevolence. As the young read this book, they will discover that while the do-good thing was there all right, while an indestructible faith in human decency and possibility was the center of her life, all this was accompanied by an impressive capacity for salty realism and, on occasion, even for a kind of quasi-gentle mercilessness. She was, in fact, a tough old bird who saw earth as well as stars. People mixed with her at their peril, as even such tough citizens as Harry S. Truman, Cardinal Spellman, Carmine de Sapio, and Andre Vishinsky learned. Her air of artlessness was one of her most deadly weapons; no one could slice off a head with more benign innocence. But her toughness was tempered by tolerance and tied to a belief in humanity.