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Eleanor Butler Roosevelt (1889-1960)

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Biographical Essay


Photographer Eleanor Butler Roosevelt with a camera
Eleanor B. Roosevelt with camera, 1932
http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010651241/

Raised in New York society, Eleanor Butler Roosevelt learned at an early age to shape her own public image. After marrying Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., the son of President Teddy Roosevelt, she worked both sides of the camera and kept her husband's name in the headlines by reporting on traditionally female topics--family, patriotism, needlework, food, and fashion. She provided surprisingly intimate views (for the times) given their celebrity status.

Eleanor's "strict law-and-order"1 upbringing shaped her many roles as a wife, mother, and distaff diplomat; wartime YMCA and Red Cross worker; and accomplished author, artist, and photographer. She documented her family's history and life in 25 photograph album scrapbooks, which her daughter gave to the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, in 1986. (See LOT 13455, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/00650023) The first two volumes portray ancestors, while the other volumes provide a remarkable account of her own life, primarily from the 1920s to the 1950s. These hand-crafted albums are packed with both original letters and copies of letters from family members, Presidents, and international dignitaries; newspaper clippings; documents from her travels and work during both world wars; and an estimated 5,000 of her own photographs. Some of the candid photos and cartoons clipped from magazines show Eleanor's homey sense of humor. Her personal papers are part of the Theodore Roosevelt papers, 1780-1962 (bulk 1920-1944) in the Library's Manuscript Division. (See the description, http://lccn.loc.gov/mm78038281) The Library of Congress also has hundreds of magazines, books, and movies in the General Collections that could shed additional light on Eleanor's achievements through the study of her peers in both photography and society.

Early Life

Eleanor Butler Alexander was born in 1889 to prominent society personalities Henry Addison Alexander and his wife Grace Green in New York City. Her parents divorced when Eleanor was three, remarried when she was five, and divorced again when she was twelve. In 1900, her mother settled with Eleanor in New York City where her father=s family, the Alexanders, made a public show of support for the divorcée. This support provided respectability in an era when divorce cast women into socially unorthodox roles.

Eleanor lived with her mother at the homes of family members in New York, California, Rome, and Paris and in Scotland with the family of her nursemaid. Her mother recorded Eleanor's childhood with a large camera that produced 5 x 7 glass plates. In her 1959 autobiography Day Before Yesterday: The Reminiscences of Mrs. Theodore, Roosevelt, Jr., Eleanor included idealized accounts of amusing adventures with well-born children and well-mannered adults. In stark contrast, she also recalled that, as an adolescent, she had so little self-confidence she could hardly carry on conversations.2 Her mother's household ran with great efficiency, as would Eleanor's own future homes and social programs.

Eleanor graduated from the elite Miss Spence's School for Girls in 1907 and made her social debut. The young debutante met Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (Ted), at a house party. They married in 1910 in an elaborate ceremony with 1,500 guests.

Eleanor and Ted spent their early-married life in San Francisco where Ted worked at the Hartford Carpet Company, away from the shadow of his father's larger-than-life image. In letters to family on the East Coast, Eleanor presented herself as an independent person, but she cast herself as a mere helpmate in the opening lines of her autobiography:

"I am but a mirror
Having no virtue in myself.
It is my pride that he whom I reflect is distinguished."3

Taking Up Photography

Eleanor experienced frequent migraine headaches attributed to nervousness.4 She did needlework and took photographs to quiet her anxious nature. Articles about both her embroidery and the opportunities her husband's political life afforded her appeared in women's magazines every few months from the late 1920s through the mid-1940s, thereby extending the message of Ted's leadership talents to different audiences than those who read her husband's political and game hunting articles.

During the first years of her marriage, Eleanor used the camera to document her family, especially after the birth of daughter Grace in 1911. The Roosevelts moved back to New York in 1912, where Theodore, III, was born in June 1914 and Cornelius in October 1915. Son Quentin was born in 1919. Eleanor's domestic photos resemble those made by aristocratic women in England and the socially prominent in America. Photography provided women a new way to shape their own portraits; they were no longer dependent on painters. It "gave these women the opportunity both to identify a personal history of their own families and to place those families precisely within a certain schema."5

World War I

The United States entry into World War I excited broad waves of patriotic support across social classes and gender. In 1916, Eleanor led a group of 1,200 prominent women, including Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., in an enormous Preparedness Parade up Fifth Avenue in New York City. When Ted went to France in 1917 on active duty under command of General John Pershing, Eleanor decided to be a patriot in Europe, too.

In Paris, Eleanor operated a Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) canteen during the day and taught French to soldiers at night. Asked to design a uniform for the women in the YMCA, she fashioned a sensible gray jacket and skirt, with a long cape and blue hat that set YMCA women apart from civilians and minimized class differences.

The extremely capable Eleanor was also assigned to organize the volunteers at the Hotel Richmond in Paris, which served as an officers' club during the war. She set up canteens throughout France as part of the progressive social engineering effort of the Commission on Training Camp Activities to "make men moral" by instilling them with etiquette."6 After 18 months of war work abroad, the Army awarded Eleanor a citation for her YMCA activities. She returned to New York in December 1918. The Library has digitized a Mutual Film clip that shows Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. attending the Women in War Work Congress in Paris, (Link only to, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mbrsmi/trmp.4088)

Using Her Camera Professionally

After former President Theodore Roosevelt died on January 6, 1919, Ted ran for and won a seat in the New York State Assembly. During his campaign, Eleanor breeched the taboo against women speaking in public and gave stump speeches for her husband. She also performed such publicity stunts as participating in a mule race at a county fair.7 This event generated so much goodwill that the local assemblyman assured Ted he would carry the county in his next run for office.

Eleanor kept the family in the public eye by writing chatty articles, including the 1921 "Furniture Hunting In New England." Her approach to publicity matches the observation of historians who have noted that from the abolitionist era until the women's movement of the 1960s "women only had the right to be outspoken on public matters when the questions at hand involved families."8 Republican Party leaders groomed Ted for the presidency by encouraging him to serve as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and run for governor of New York, an election he lost by a narrow margin.

Early in her marriage, Eleanor assumed primary responsibility for raising the family and running the household. She was so successful that on July 19, 1921, Ted wrote to formally give her all his money to manage for expenditures.

"Dearest Eleanor, I have decided to give you all my money. You have handled all our money affairs as far as spending is concerned ever since we were married. If I died or if there was another war and I was lost it would make it much simpler for you to have it all of your own right. You are the person who is primarily responsible for the most important [word missing] that we have got or will have, the children. It will therefore make me more comfortable to have our affairs arranged in this manner. I therefore give you all the moneys, stocks and securities that stand in my name at Montgomery & Co., and will notify them to this effect. With much love, (signed) Theodore Roosevelt."9

In 1925, political backers tried to continue the legacy of President Theodore Roosevelt by sending his sons Ted and Kermit to lead well-publicized hunting expeditions for big game. Eleanor took her camera and typewriter to Kashmir, where she joined the party gathering specimens for Chicago's Field Museum and in 1927 published "We Go Hunting in Kashmir" in the Pictorial Review. She also provided "a delightful series of reminiscences" about her family for The Evening World newspaper in 1928; wrote "The Traveling Circus" about the travails of traveling with children for The Delineator in 1932; and assisted Ted with articles including one featuring a photographic tour of their home for Liberty magazine. From the late 1920s, articles about her needlework ran frequently in the Delineator: A Journal of Fashion, Culture, and Fine Arts and the premier women's fashion magazine at the time.

In 1929, President Herbert Hoover appointed Ted as governor of Puerto Rico. In 1930, Muna Lee lauded the Roosevelts' efforts to help the protectorate of Puerto Rico become economically self-sufficient, mentioning in particular measures to keep the bulk of the payment for needlework for the seamstresses instead of the middlemen. In the July 1931 issue of World's Work, Lee's husband, Luís Muñoz Marín, future elected governor of Puerto Rico wrote: "Sewing and embroidery, for which there exists a traditional aptitude, now have commercial value in addition, as the sale of fine handiwork is growing to be one of Puerto Rico's chief industries." In September 1931, feminist writer Frances Parkinson Keyes reported in The Delineator on the Roosevelt family's time in Puerto Rico and credited needlewoman Eleanor with focusing much of the media attention on the needle workers. In April 1932, Keyes wrote that Eleanor's initiative in starting the Needlework Relief Fund and bringing it under the Bureau of Commerce and Industry was in large measure responsible for Puerto Rican needlewomen making a living wage and producing their best work.10

In January 1932, President Hoover appointed Ted as Governor General of the Philippines. Eleanor and her daughter Grace aided Ted enormously by providing gracious hospitality at the Embassy residence. Mrs. Roosevelt thought on her feet, handled impromptu dinner parties with aplomb, and relied on her ever-present camera to ease some socially awkward moments by making portrait photos of diplomats to take home as keepsakes of their visits.

A Republican, Ted resigned his ambassadorial appointment when his fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, was elected President in 1932. Ted and Eleanor's return to the United States began in March 1933 with a multi-year journey that took them home by way of Bali, India, Afghanistan, the Dutch Indies, Persia, Iraq, Jerusalem, Turkey, Italy, France, and England, ending in September 1935 in New York. On that trip Eleanor had access to people and places that became the subjects for many photographs and provided contacts, insights and experiences to mine for public presentations for years to come.

Eleanor continued to do needlework to calm her nerves. Her mastery of the art resulted in museum-quality pieces that women's publications and also Life magazine covered extensively. Although most of her works were decorative, she expressed her opinion about New Deal programs in a 1940 caricature showing a monstrous animal with a skull head, spotted spider's legs, and a striped tail.

Eleanor embraced the opportunities of her public life. Over the decades, she proved herself an effective income provider and media celebrity. Explaining that she was sharing the extraordinary opportunities her marriage provided, she published articles in mainstream newspapers and magazines about her activities, and often accompanied them with speaking tours. A demure shot of her by Cecil Beaton opened a 1935 Vogue magazine article about glamorous grandmothers.11

In the summer of 1937, Eleanor went to China with her son Quentin. When war broke out between China and Japan, they narrowly escaped injury several times. Eleanor wrote about their adventures for The Saturday Evening Post and lectured widely about their trip. She also opened an art gallery in New York City to sell Chinese jewelry and antiques supplied by Madame Chiang Kai-Shek in order to raise money for starving Chinese people. Eleanor and Ted called on columnists Elsa Maxwell and Dorothy Thompson, actresses Carmen Miranda and Mary Martin, novelists Emilie Loring and Dorothy Walker, as well as Ted's famous sister Alice Roosevelt Longworth to appear at events to attract newspaper and magazine coverage of their efforts. They also hosted well-publicized "bowl of rice" dinners to raise funds to support the Chinese.

In early 1941, Ted applied for active duty at the age of 54 and received command of his former World War I regiment. Eleanor rented a nearby house in New Jersey. While the men in the family were in boot camp, she spent much of her time photographing old homes in the area. Life, the major photo magazine in the United States, paid Eleanor to publish five pages of her photos of these homes.12

In June 1942, when Ted went overseas, Eleanor followed as a volunteer with the American Red Cross. She established and ran a Red Cross club in Tidworth, England. The stories Life published about her activities in August 1943 are among the many clippings in her albums.13

Eleanor was at the family's home in Oyster Bay when she received word that Ted, while stationed at the front in France, had died of a heart attack in his sleep on the night of July 12, 1944. She professed gratitude that he had died with his men. She did not reveal her private grief even in her scrapbooks. She made appeals to women in magazines and on radio and in a film to join The General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., WAC Company, named for her late husband. She continued her prizewinning needlework and the scrapbooks, and, in 1946, toured the United States lecturing about the life she and Ted led together. Those lectures served as first drafts for her autobiography.

Photography in Later Life

Eleanor and her daughter Grace Roosevelt McMillan studied with pictorialist photographer J. Ghislain Lootens. Very quickly Eleanor was producing complex compositions. She developed her own film and printed her own pictures. Her camera was a 2-1/4 x 2-1/4 Voigtlander Superb with 7.5 cm f3.5 lens in a Compur shutter that she had bought in 1935. She preferred Superpan Supreme [black-and-white] film and F2 Kodabromide glossy paper. She opted for glossy prints because they were the most exacting to print and because they stood out in exhibitions, factors that may have contributed to the several prizes her photographs won. Popular Photography featured Eleanor as a photographer in a 1940s article.

Roosevelt traveled extensively in the late 1940s until the mid-1950s. Her photographs from her home and from Europe, Mexico, and Asia rival any of those published in popular travel magazines of the day. She continued to combine her personal interests and her civic roles. For example, in May 1950, Eleanor lent her photos and sketches and the resources of the Theodore Roosevelt House in New York City to the cause of fund-raising for the Volunteer Service Photographers, Inc. The volunteers in this nonprofit organization taught photography and darkroom skills to veterans temporarily or permanently confined to military and civilian hospitals.

In her final decade, Roosevelt continued work on her scrapbooks and needlework. She died in 1960 at the age of seventy-one.

Conclusion

Eleanor's scrapbooks document an extraordinary life. Although a part-time amateur, the professional quality of her work and her large circle of national contacts resulted in many photographically illustrated articles.

Eleanor's photographs and their uses demonstrate that she understood herself and the complexity of her situation as both a private and public personality. By providing magazines and newspapers with extensive images and documentation of her own family's living quarters and daily activities, she participated in the trend in the 1920s and 1930s that "radically transformed the distribution and content of photographic images" and helped lower privacy expectations for prominent families. Her involvement with photojournalism also seems to have helped elevate the respectability of magazine photography as an occupation for women.

NOTES

1 Most of the biographical information in this essay comes from the autobiography: Eleanor Butler Roosevelt, Day Before Yesterday: The Reminiscences of Mrs. Theodore, Roosevelt, Jr. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959):18-34. Also, her obituary, "Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., Widow of General, Dead at 71," New York Times, May 30, 1960. And, clippings found in LOT 13455, "Scrapbooks documenting the families of Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., and Eleanor Butler Alexander Roosevelt."

2 Ibid, 35, 47-48, 37.

3 Elizabeth Coatsworth, as quoted in Day Before Yesterday, p. [7].

4 Ibid, 399. And, Steven Spencer, "Vitamin Cured Her 32-Year Headache," Philadelphia Bulletin, ca. 1940 (LOT 13455, v. 16, p. 42).

5 Val Williams. The Other Observers: Women Photographers in Britain 1900 to the Present (London: Virago Press, 1986): 14-23.

6 Nancy K. Bristow, Making Men Moral: Social Engineering during the Great War (New York: New York University Press, 1996).

7 "Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Roosevelt Race Mules Mile to a Tie," New York Tribune, Sept. 19, 1921 (LOT 13455, v. 5, p. 65).

8 Gail Collins, Foreword to Patricia Bradley. Women and the Press: The Struggle for Equality. (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2005).

9 LOT 13455, v. 5, p. 54.

10 Muna Lee, "The Winning of San Juan Hill," ca. 1930 (LOT 13455, v. 8, p. 36); Luis Muñoz-Marin, "T.R.--P.R." World's Work (July 1931): 21-24 (LOT 13455, v. 8, p. 59-62); Frances Parkinson Keyes, "The Golden Chain," The Delineator (Sept. 1931) (LOT 13455, v. 9, p. 10-12); Keyes, "Giver of Bread," The Delineator (Jan. 1932) (LOT 13455, v. 9, p. 14-16).

11 Anne Tiffany. "Grandmothers." Vogue (July 1, 1935): 54-56. Clipping in LOT 13455, v. 14, p. 2

12 "Speaking of Pictures," Life 12 (May 11, 1942): 8-12.

13 "Red Cross Fun: What American Organization does for U.S. Servicemen in England," Life 14 (Aug. 1943): 85-93


Prepared by: Beverly W. Brannan, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division, 2010. Last revised: September 2010.


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