The Roosevelts and the Royals by Will Swift
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Dr. Will Swift
PART II: ELEANOR AND ELIZABETH R: FIRST LADIES OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

BY WILL SWIFT

In December 1945, the new president, Harry Truman, appointed Eleanor as a delegate to the United Nations. Arriving in London on January 6, 1946, Eleanor wrote the queen that she came "on this mission with the great hope that my husband’s plans for peace may be realized." The queen was delighted to renew her friendship with Eleanor and wrote her, "So much has happened to this poor tattered world since those days when you visited us at Buckingham Palace & now so many hopes are centered on this great ‘getting together,’ which starts next week."

When the two women met, they reminisced about their crucial visits to each other’s countries, but the king and queen also sounded out Eleanor’s opinions on a British memorial for the late president. Politicians were already disagreeing about the setting and form of tribute. Eleanor said she would give the king and queen an inside view of the workings of the UN and share her reactions to being the only American woman in the delegation.

The British government decided to erect a public statue in honor of Franklin Roosevelt. After Eleanor agreed to officially unveil the statue, situated in London’s Grosvenor Square near the U.S. embassy, the king invited her to spend the weekend at Windsor Castle. Eleanor again responded with a jittery lack of confidence, writing later that "in some ways I rather dreaded the formality of a visit to a castle inhabited by a reigning monarch." The former First Lady focused her anxiety on her clothes, comparing herself unfavorably to Queen Elizabeth, who "always had such a wonderful wardrobe and always looked as if she had just a moment before been in the hands of a skillful maid and hairdresser, as, indeed, she usually had been."

When she arrived at Windsor on April 3, 1948, "The king and queen were kindness itself," she wrote in her autobiography. At the highly formal meals, held in the big dining room with a kilted Highland piper marching around the table playing bagpipes, Eleanor was impressed with Queen Elizabeth’s ability to create a relaxed, homey atmosphere in such an historic setting. One evening, Eleanor played The Game, a form of charades led by Queen Elizabeth. At times, the queen puzzled over words and sought help from a glum Winston Churchill, who chomped on his cigar and disdainfully boycotted the game.

The unveiling of FDR’s statue occurred on April 12, 1948--the third anniversary of the president’s death. Their Majesties, the two princesses, the Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Mary, the Gloucesters, the Athlones, and the Duchess of Kent and her three children joined Eleanor in honoring the late president. As marines presented arms, and Eleanor pulled a cord, the big Union Jacks covering the monument dropped away, and the statue of FDR emerged, standing twelve feet high in green-gray bronze, with one hand gripping a cane, his cape flowing back from his shoulders. Later, the king wrote Eleanor saying, "How much the queen & I admired your quiet & calm bearing at a moment when your heart must have been so full of thoughts & memories."

That spring the king had suffered quietly with cramps in both legs. By that fall, he was numb in both feet, in pain, and had difficulty sleeping at night. The king’s physicians diagnosed arteriosclerosis, and ordered him to curtail his official activities and rest. On July 11, Eleanor wrote to the queen to express her concern: "I have thought of you very often in your anxiety for him and hope that he is improving steadily." On July 21, the queen wrote back, saying, "I am glad to be able to tell you that he is really better and with care should be well in a year or so. It is always a slow business with a leg and the great thing is not to get overtired during convalescence--You can imagine how difficult it is to achieve with the world in its present state & worries & troubles piling up."

The king’s health, ruined by the strain of the war, declined further in 1951, and he died suddenly in his sleep on February 6, 1952 at Sandringham. Eleanor was stunned and sad when she heard the news in Paris, just as the sixth United Nations General Assembly ended. She would have loved to attend the king’s funeral, but she was scheduled to visit refugee camps in the Mideast. With her distinctive perspective as the widow of a great leader, she wrote to comfort Queen Elizabeth, but her letter has disappeared. The widowed queen replied to Eleanor, "It is impossible to believe that the king is no longer with us. He was so full of plans and ideas for the future, & zest for life, & it is hard to think of life without him."

Elizabeth, who had not established a separate identity from the king, felt completely lost. She retreated to Scotland to mourn with her friends the Vyners, at their house on the bleak coast of Caithness. One day they took her on a tour of the neighborhood and spotted a derelict castle, which the Queen Mother bought and refurbished. It was her version of Eleanor’s Val-Kill cottage, a place where she could begin living an independent life. She would visit every year for six weeks.

Following the king’s death, Eleanor and Elizabeth had more in common than ever before. As "First Ladies," they had had been married to men whose leadership had possessed great symbolic value in the most tumultuous era in memory. George VI had come to represent the civilization and courage of Britain, while FDR personified America’s confident vision and advocacy for the disadvantaged. Both men cast long shadows from which their widows would struggle to emerge. Interestingly, both widows gravitated beyond their own nations, where their husbands’ legacies were so strong, traveling abroad to work for international understanding and cooperation.

In May 1949 at the Women’s National Press Club, President Truman had presented Eleanor with an award and had dubbed her "the First Lady of the World"’ for her advocacy of international understanding and justice; it was a title which suited both Eleanor and Elizabeth. During the 1950s and 1960s, the former first ladies traveled extensively and became First Ladies of the world, exemplars of the fully realized woman who can reinvent her life and expand her role innovatively and productively. The Queen Mother served as a unifying link among the disparate peoples of the British Commonwealth. While the Queen Mother had a passively symbolic influence as a world figure, Eleanor maintained a direct and political role, debating world leaders and delivering her own speeches.

Eleanor and Elizabeth were two of the most energetic people of the twentieth century, and their vigor alone propelled them through the worst ordeals. Near the end of her life, as Elizabeth was recovering from a hip operation, her grandson Charles praised her in words that characterized both Eleanor and Elizabeth: "She is completely and utterly indomitable, absolutely unstoppable." In later years, Eleanor would shake off being hit by a taxi, limping her way straight to a speaking engagement, while Elizabeth, after she tripped in front of Westminster Abbey, would smile and wave her shoe at the crowds. Possessed of extraordinary stamina and a stoical philosophy, both women were impatient with illness.

When the Queen Mother visited the United States in the fall of 1954, she lunched with Eleanor in her cottage at Val-Kill. Eleanor served her an American Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. At this point Eleanor and Elizabeth were at their most relaxed with each other. Gone were the traumas of nursing their nations through a grueling war and their worn-out husbands through deteriorating health. It seems unfortunate that this cozy visit would be their last extended time together. Due to their busy schedules in future years, they would not be able to coordinate schedules.

In her last years, increasingly wise, Eleanor had turned her energies to encouraging younger people: "I think perhaps one of the things to be desired in old age is the power to acquire new interests and to meet whatever situation comes with a gallantry which makes people feel that you are conferring a privilege on them when you share a little of your life with them." She could have been speaking for the Queen Mother as well.

When Eleanor died on November 7, 1962 at Hyde Park, the present queen wrote to Eleanor’s oldest son, California Representative James Roosevelt, "The British people held her in deep respect and affection and mourn her passing. My husband and I and my family greatly valued her friendship and send you and your family our sincere sympathy."

The Queen Mother’s final tribute to Eleanor occurred on the morning of July 13, 1967 when she sailed into foggy Passamaquoddy Bay on the royal yacht Britannia, and stopped at the Roosevelt’s summer home, Campobello, on her way to a tour of Canada. She opened the new visitor’s center and joined Eleanor’s twenty-three-year-old grandson Christopher Roosevelt-who had been pressed into service as a tour guide when fog prevented older members of the family from attending- on a nerve-wracking tour. He nervously took the Queen Mother’s arm and directed her toward the cottage. He then leaned over and told her, "I have never been to the cottage before" and "I would hardly be an adequate guide." "Christopher," the Queen Mother assured him, "Isn’t that wonderful: we will be discovering this cottage together for the first time."

During that final visit with the Roosevelts, Elizabeth honored a friendship that had saved democracy at its time of greatest peril. These two First Ladies played a key role in cementing the Anglo-American alliance, which remains today a key foundation of global stability.

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The Roosevelts and the Royals
Franklin and Eleanor, The King and Queen of England, and the Friendship that Changed History

by Will Swift
John Wiley & Sons: June 2004; ISBN: 0-471-45962-3; Hardcover; 384 pages
Now available at Amazon, BN.com, or your local bookstore

 



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