The opening line of chapter eight in Eleanor in the Village: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Search for Freedom and Identity in New York’s Greenwich Village by San Antonio author Jan Jarboe Russell plainly states the reason for the book: “It was in Greenwich Village that Eleanor [Roosevelt] became the strong woman that we now know.”
Though this aspect of Roosevelt’s life is lesser-known, Eleanor’s longtime association with the bohemian artists, writers, and eccentrics of Greenwich Village helped shape her worldviews and, in turn, those of her husband.
The aristocratic Roosevelts are more commonly associated with Hyde Park, the smaller town in upstate New York where she and husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) periodically lived, or Washington, D.C., where she served as her husband’s First Lady during his record four terms as U.S. President.
Either unacknowledged or mentioned as an afterthought in popular accounts of her life, her first visit to the old neighborhood on the southwest side of Manhattan would gain her lifetime friendships and become a touchstone for her feminism, anti-racism, and advocacy for labor and those in poverty.
“She had a rough time until she got to the village. And she took it all over,” Russell said approvingly, noting that the self-described “shy, solemn child” became a leader amongst the popular personalities around her.
Russell said she has enjoyed many books about Eleanor Roosevelt, but in researching this lesser-known aspect of the famous First Lady’s life, “I came to know her a lot better than what I had read in other books.”
Growing up in what was already a famous family with cousin Teddy as the 26th U.S. President, Eleanor suffered the disapproval of her mother Anna, and while Eleanor was doted on by her father Elliott, his alcoholism would estrange him from the family. Sent to boarding school in England, Eleanor would learn self-confidence and glimpse the possibilities of an independent spirit through her headmistress, Marie Souvestre, a noted advocate for feminine equality.
Throughout her own life, Russell had been drawn to Greenwich Village, which had been home to many luminaries including authors James Baldwin, Willa Cather, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, women’s rights activist Emma Goldman, Communist journalist John Reed, Beatrice Hinkle, the first Jungian psychoanalyst in the U.S., and many artists, including Ellen “Bay” Emmet Rand, who would go on to paint FDR’s official presidential portrait.
Homosexuality was common at the time in Greenwich Village, and Roosevelt made many lesbian friends. Such activity, along with open sympathies to communist and leftist thought and activism, drew the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, later director of the Federal Bureau of Intelligence. His files on Roosevelt would grow to more than 3,000 pages.
Roosevelt was undaunted by negative attention and retained her fervor for feminism, advocacy for the rights of people of color, and support for her husband’s policies favoring Americans in poverty and the working class.
After FDR was struck by polio and left unable to walk, Roosevelt traveled throughout the country to promote his policies and presidency. For 30 years she drove without Secret Service protection, Russell writes, and documented 15 attempts on her life.
“When she went to African American churches in the South to speak, dynamite was found wrapped around the tires on her car. In 1950, the Ku Klux Klan put a $25,000 bounty on Mrs. Roosevelt [equal to $270,000 today],” Russell writes on page 165, concluding with a decidedly current political phrase, “Yet she persisted.”
Russell unabashedly celebrates Roosevelt as a world-changing personality, who “by November 1960 … was the most admired woman in the world.”
And the author admits that she may have been influenced by her own mother Laverne’s admiration for Roosevelt. Both women were schoolteachers, Russell noted.
“My mother loved Eleanor Roosevelt,” Russell said, noting that often, Laverne’s group of schoolteacher friends “would go out for a drink and talk about Eleanor and what she had done. My mother knew more about Eleanor than I ever will know.”
Thanks to Russell’s new biography, readers can have a share of that knowledge.
Russell will participate in the 2021 San Antonio Book Festival online edition, Apr. 9 at 2 p.m. The virtual event is free, with registration required.