A “riveting and enlightening account” (Bookreporter) of a mostly unknown chapter in the life of Eleanor Roosevelt—when she moved to New York’s Greenwich Village, shed her high-born conformity, and became the progressive leader who pushed for change as America’s First Lady.
Hundreds of books have been written about FDR and Eleanor, both together and separately, but yet she remains a compelling and elusive figure. And, not much is known about why in 1920, Eleanor suddenly abandoned her duties as a mother of five and moved to Greenwich Village, then the symbol of all forms of transgressive freedom—communism, homosexuality, interracial relationships, and subversive political activity. Now, in this “immersive…original look at an iconic figure of American politics” (Publishers Weekly), Jan Russell pulls back the curtain on Eleanor’s life to reveal the motivations and desires that drew her to the Village and how her time there changed her political outlook.
A captivating blend of personal history detailing Eleanor’s struggle with issues of marriage, motherhood, financial independence, and femininity, and a vibrant portrait of one of the most famous neighborhoods in the world, this unique work examines the ways that the sensibility, mood, and various inhabitants of the neighborhood influenced the First Lady’s perception of herself and shaped her political views over four decades, up to her death in 1962.
When Eleanor moved there, the Village was a zone of Bohemians, misfits, and artists, but there was also freedom there, a miniature society where personal idiosyncrasy could flourish. Eleanor joined the cohort of what then was called “The New Women” in Greenwich Village. Unlike the flappers in the 1920s, the New Women had a much more serious agenda, organizing for social change—unions for workers, equal pay, protection for child workers—and they insisted on their own sexual freedom. These women often disagreed about politics—some, like Eleanor, were Democrats, others Republicans, Socialists, and Communists. Even after moving into the White House, Eleanor retained connections to the Village, ultimately purchasing an apartment in Washington Square where she lived during World War II and in the aftermath of Roosevelt’s death in 1945.
Including the major historical moments that served as a backdrop for Eleanor’s time in the Village, this remarkable work offers new insights into Eleanor’s transformation—emotionally, politically, and sexually—and provides us with the missing chapter in an extraordinary life.
Journalist Russell (The Train to Crystal City) analyzes the powerful influence of Greenwich Village on the life and politics of Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 1962) in this immersive history. Russell sketches Roosevelt's early life as the shy daughter of New York socialites (her mother called her "Granny") and niece of President Theodore Roosevelt, who gave Eleanor away at her 1905 wedding to her distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt. Upon finding love letters from her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, to her husband, Eleanor lived independently within her marriage and spent significant amounts of time in Greenwich Village, where she found "her authentic self," according to Russell. In the bohemian neighborhood, Roosevelt drew inspiration from progressive thinkers, many of whom were lesbians, including League of Women Voters cofounder Esther Lape; protested on behalf of garment workers; and frequented New York City's first integrated nightclub with Lillian Hellman, James Baldwin, and other friends. These and other "unorthodox activites" brought Roosevelt to the attention of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, whose "secret file" on Roosevelt ran to 3,900 pages. Russell has plenty of details to back up her argument that Greenwich Village was essential to forming Roosevelt's character, and laces the narrative with illuminating asides about New York City history. The result is an original look at an iconic figure of American politics.