We happened to watch the opening two-hour film, “The Roosevelts” by Ken Burns on PBS last Sunday night. We were surprised to see the second two-hour segment last night. Come to find out, it’s featured every night the rest of this week, fourteen hours in all! The historical film footage is very impressive and it’s nice to have Peter Coyote narrating again; but the music is very tired from having been used for just about everything Burns has ever filmed (and that’s a lot!)
So far in its coverage of Teddy Roosevelt, he is described as an egomaniac propelled by what appears to be a manic-depressive personality, either over the top-top-top and madly killing wild animals (>11,000 of them in ten months) in Africa; or being inconsolable when his mother and his first wife die within 24 hours of each other. He banishes his firstborn daughter, Alice, after his wife’s death to a relative living in England. Alice Roosevelt Longsworth later becomes a Washington personage in her own right, outliving every one of Roosevelt’s five children from his second marriage to a childhood sweetheart. Teddy made it big and that’s what he liked to do, his rough-riding ego dominating everyone in his family circle, except poor Alice, of course.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s mother was a mean person who denigrated her daughter by calling her “Granny” as a child because of her homely countenance. After her mother died, she was rescued from a dismal adolescence by an Aunt who arranged for her go to a boarding school in England for three years. The education and support she received there provided an important platform for her, later in life.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s mother-in-law, Sara, was a very controlling person who doted on her only child, Franklin, to the extent that she tried to keep him from marrying Eleanor for a year and then arranged to live in adjoining households with them for the first ten years of their marriage. Sara maintained that she was more of a “mother” to Eleanor and Franklin’s children than her daughter-in-law. Eleanor bore six children, one of whom died as an infant, and lived in a house that was neither of her choosing nor to her liking. Franklin did not counter his mother’s wishes nor accede to his wife’s feelings.
I can’t wait to see how things turn out in the next few evenings and have also ordered a used copy of “No Ordinary Time” a historical biography of Franklin and Eleanor set against the backdrop of World War II. Doris Kearns Goodwin received a Pulitzer Prize for that book and has also been seen recently at the Oscars, her book on Lincoln having been a resource for Steven Spielberg’s movie on Lincoln starring Daniel Day Lewis. Lewis, as you might recall, blew everyone else out of the water to win the Oscar for his portrayal of Lincoln, the President of a suffering country divided by Civil War.
Throughout the hardships of Franklin’s contraction of polio, the love affairs and the disdain of her mother-in-law, Eleanor stayed true to herself and worked hard on causes that she believed in. One of her most famous quotes was:
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
I guess she should know.
Although I majored in history, I like to look forward rather than back because you can’t change the past, can you? However, this series on the Roosevelts is engaging due to the pathos of their personal lives. As we learn more about them each evening, it makes me wonder how deep their suffering was during such tumultuous times.
Even the rich and famous have mothers and fathers who ignore them, send them away, try to keep them from doing what they want to do and take up all the oxygen in the room. That two of them also happened to have been Presidents of the United States at sometimes dire times for the country, is truly remarkable.
That Eleanor, the niece of one and the wife of the other, became her own person despite being shunned by her mother and mother-in-law, betrayed by her husband, the mother of six children and remained loyal to a polio-ridden, handicapped man who hid it from the world is even more remarkable, it seems to me.
So, we’ll watch the rest of the Roosevelt saga this week and learn more about the guts it sometimes takes to live out one’s destiny.