EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 16, 2009

Eleanor Roosevelt and the weight of her world


WASHINGTON (AP) — By any measure, it was a big scoop. Hours after becoming first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt opened up to Associated Press reporter Lorena A. Hickok about the weight the nation had placed on the shoulders of her husband and herself.

"One has a feeling of going in blindly, because we're in a tremendous stream, and none of us knows where we're going to land," Roosevelt said.

Hickok's story landed on front pages dominated by the towering developments surrounding the inauguration of a new president in the midst of a bank crisis and the Great Depression.

Hickok was taking on a weight of her own.

The night before, Roosevelt had read at least parts of her husband's inaugural speech to Hickok as the two women had dinner alone in a Mayflower Hotel room.

"It did not even occur to me at the time, but I could have slipped out to a telephone after she read the inaugural address to me and could have given the AP the gist of it, with a few quotations," Hickok wrote years later. "If I had, it would have been a scoop — the biggest scoop of my career."

Instead, the AP waited with the rest of the nation to hear FDR's famous words: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."

Roosevelt and Hickok had an intimate, tumultuous relationship that ultimately compromised the AP reporter's journalism and drove her from a career that had made her the highest paid woman in the business. Hickok had covered Roosevelt in New York, where her husband was governor, befriended her there and followed her professionally to the White House.

The story she wrote on March 4, 1933, became something of a coda for a woman who found her loyalties terribly divided.

"My suffering, my sense of guilt, came later," she said, recalling the evening of the missed scoop. "But while I did not realize it at the time and remained with the AP several months longer, that night Lorena Hickok ceased to be a newspaper reporter."

Still, on Inauguration Day, Hickok's singular access to the first lady proved valuable, as she wrote a story for which AP obtained a specific copyright, the sign of a major exclusive.

Roosevelt would become known for more substantial matters than White House menus in the years ahead. But on this day, she was most concerned about making the White House a place that Americans, in frugal, dispiriting times, could truly call their own.

Hickok's story, as it appeared in the Sunday Avalanche-Journal in Lubbock, Texas, March 5, 1933:

New 'First Lady', Made Solemn By Inaugural, Lays Plans To Simplify White House Life; To Cut Expense

By LORENA A. HICKOK

(Copyright, 1933, The Associated Press)

WASHINGTON, March 4 — In the big high-ceilinged sitting room in the southwest corner of the White House that is to be her home for the next four years, Eleanor Roosevelt stood this afternoon, gazing soberly out the window as she drew off her gloves.

"It was very, very solemn," she said, "a little terrifying."

She glanced about the room, which looked huge and cold and impersonal, stripped as it had been in the morning of the belongings of its previous occupant, already on her way to private life and freedom at her home in California.

"The crowds were so tremendous," Mrs. Roosevelt added softly. "And you felt that they would do anything — if only someone would tell them what to do.

"I felt that particularly, because when Franklin got to that part of his speech in which he said it might become necessary for him to assume powers ordinarily granted to a President in war time, he received his biggest demonstration."

Mrs. Roosevelt moved over to one of the wide windows and stared thoughtfully out across the White House grounds at the Virginia hills, softly outlined against a grey afternoon sky.

"No one," she said, "at all close to people in public life today can fail to realize that we are all of us facing extremely critical times.

"No woman entering the White House, if she accepts the fact that it belongs to the people and therefore must be representative of whatever conditions the people are facing, can light-heartedly take up her residence here.

"One has a feeling of going in blindly, because we're in a tremendous stream, and none of us knows where we're going to land.

"The important thing, it seems to me, is our attitude toward whatever may happen. It must be willingness to accept and share with others whatever may come and to meet the future courageously, with a cheerful spirit.

"We women have to go about our daily task of home making, no matter what may happen, and we needn't feel that ours is an unimportant part, for our courage and our willingness to sacrifice may well be the spring-board from which recovery may come."

The woman of many interests who became today by virtue of her husband's position the nation's "first lady" will be herself chiefly occupied the next few weeks, she said today, with housekeeping.

"There will be, of course, all the settling to do," she said.

"And there will be necessary some figuring to cut down expenses at least 25 per cent in accordance with my husband's policy.

"I am going to try out a few things which I think may be interesting. I want to try out here some of these new foods that Flora Rose and the others are developing at Cornell university."

"Another thing I want to do because I think it will be interesting," Mrs. Roosevelt added, "is to develop a number of entirely American menus that can be served at the White House.

"It seems to me that it would be highly appropriate to serve purely American dishes at the White House. I want to work out some meals that consist entirely of American food, prepared in the American manner, from American products. I think it will be an interesting thing to try.

"Neither Franklin nor I would want to do anything that would detract from the White House dignity, which we both love," she said. "But I believe things can be made a good deal simpler without that.

"It should be done, I think, to save the time and the strength of a man as busy as a president must be. And now, of all times, there is no occasion for display.

"Some people probably won't like some of the things I'm going to do. I shall, for instance, greet my guests myself when they arrive and see them to the door when they leave. Naturally I don't expect my husband to do this. He is going to be too busy. He should be spared as much as possible. But there's no reason why I shouldn't.

"My feeling about the White House is that it belongs to the people. Their taxes support it. It is really theirs. And as far as possible they should be made to feel welcome here. They shouldn't have the feeling that they are shut out.

"I realize, of course, that there are limitations. There are times when one can't receive visitors. There are times when a family has got to have privacy. After all, we're living here, you see.

"But the lower floors, away from our living quarters, will be open to the public even more, if I can manage it, than they have been in the past. And I want the visitors to be given every courtesy."

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Hickok left AP in 1933 and became an investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. She toured the country chronicling the ravages and revival of the times.