In volume I of her three-volume biography of the late Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), Blanche Wiesen Cook explored the early life of the pioneering First Lady of the United States. We learned about her family history, both intriguing and tragic, upbringing by close relatives, her marriage to Franklin and his election of the presidency of the country. The book closes as the family assumes their role as the new occupants of the White House. In this second volume, their story continues with the new President finding himself embattled on several fronts as the depression rages, Adolf Hitler threatens world peace and domestic social tensions threaten to tear the nation apart. The First Lady also finds herself fully immersed in ongoing current events that cause concern for citizens across the country. And it is during this time period, 1933-1938 that she defines herself as she finds her calling as a champion of women’s rights and advocate of equality and well-being for Americans of all ethnic backgrounds.
Towards the end of the first volume, Lorena “Hick” Hickok (1893-1968) enters Roosevelt’s life and becomes a constant companion and according to the letters analyzed by the author, intimate of the First Lady. Hick would be one of several people to make up her close circle, and all of them are examined in detailed in this excellent continuation. Tragedy seems to stand out in this volume as several people close to the First Lady die bringing an end to long-term and mutually supportive relationships. Among these the late aviator, Amelia Earhart (1897-1937). Undeterred, she continues her quest for civil rights and a firm stance by the United States against German aggression. These stands would cause strain in her relationships with her relationship with Hick being tested on the issue of racial discrimination, a cause which consumed a large portion of the First Lady’s political life.
As war threatens to erupt in Europe and the old standing tradition of segregation and Jim Crow is challenged domestically, the First Lady continues her transformation into one of the finest women in American history. Her beliefs and crusades were not without opposition and the behind-the-scenes battles and power plays are exposed revealing the reluctance to act and sometimes treasonous actions of members of the State Department and of FDR’s own cabinet. The first couple’s personal lives would also be tested with three children in doomed marriages and emergency surgeries for various ailments. But throughout all of it, the pioneering First Lady never wavers in her campaigns cementing her legacy as one of a kind.
The aggression of Nazi Germany fueled by the maniacal Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), put the world on notice that a new empire was strengthening in Europe. The Nuremberg Laws combined with Kristallnacht, blatant discrimination and humiliation of Europe’s Jewish citizens, laid the foundation for the First Lady’s campaign for American intervention and support for refugees fleeing the Nazi menace. FDR and other leaders were not strong advocates of intervention and their sluggishness to fully act served as chord of discontent in the Roosevelt household. The cause for Jewish civil rights in Germany and other European nations, supplemented the strengthening civil rights movement here in the United States with regards to racial prejudice against African-Americans and other minorities through unconstitutional legislation and the violent practice of lynching, against which, the pioneering First Lady spearheaded a campaign. Her actions at the conference in Birmingham, then controlled the infamous Bull Conner and his police department, is one of the shining moments in the book for at the time she took a stand not just for herself but for all Americans. And today as we deal with social issues that serve to undermine the tremendous progress this nation has made, we can look back at her action and remind ourselves that regression and submission are not options.
A great biography has the ability to remain unbiased, delivering the facts whether they are positive or negative. Cook does a great job of showing the moments where Roosevelt’s actions were questionable. A native of the South, we see through the author’s words, the continuous effort on Roosevelt’s part to remove herself from her southern upbringing prone to deep-seated racial bigotry. And at several points in the book, ER herself makes strides to remind herself of the insensitivity that can accompany words.
The third volume of this excellent biography is slated for release on November 1, 2016 and can be ordered in advance on Amazon.com. Based off of what I have read so far, the best is yet to come as we see the outbreak of World War II, FDR’s untimely death and the later years of Anna Eleanor Roosevelt.