Fueled by 11 years of research, the new biography of Eleanor Roosevelt by David Michaelis, New York Times bestselling author of N. C. Wyeth, is both compelling and comprehensive, making use of previously untapped archival sources and interviews. It seems no accident that Michaelis chooses as his leading epithet this quote from the nation’s most formidable and longest serving first lady: “I felt obliged to notice everything.” In the same way, her biographer, who actually met Roosevelt when he was just 4 years old, trains his careful attention on virtually all aspects of her incredible life and times to craft a fast-moving, engrossing narrative.
Eleanor follows its subject from birth to her death in 1962. Michaelis sets the stage by providing a list of principal characters, then presents Roosevelt’s life in seven parts designed to reflect the myriad roles she played in her transformation from an awkward child into a force of nature. Roosevelt’s life journey took her from a shy, often ignored child, whose mother shamed her with the nickname “Granny,” to a dynamic first lady and then a “world maker” when, as one of the country’s first delegates to the United Nations, she spearheaded the adoption of the first Universal Declaration of Human Rights in history.
Of course, Eleanor Roosevelt’s life was entwined with that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Eleanor was so intrinsically linked with the New Deal and World War II, it’s sometimes easy to forget that she was born in 1884 and was almost 36 years old when the 19th Amendment passed in 1920. That was one year before the summer when FDR contracted polio, altering both their lives in profound ways.
Michaelis never neglects the politics and history that marked the life of this remarkable, fascinating woman. At the same time, his impeccable storytelling and seamless integration of dialogue and quotations allow him to create an intimate, lively and emotional portrait that unfolds like a good novel. The book is also meticulously sourced, with nearly 100 pages of notes and a 30-page bibliography that’s of interest to historians as well as general readers.
One of the pleasures of this biography is Michaelis’ firm grasp of the material and his ability to sprinkle the text with anecdotes and tidbits that capture Roosevelt’s personality, complex private relationships and public accomplishments. We learn, for instance, that as first lady she traveled 38,000 miles in 1933 and kept up this grueling pace, logging 43,000 miles in 1937. He writes, “Never before had a president’s wife set out on her own to assess social and economic conditions or . . . visited a foreign country unaccompanied by the President.”
Roosevelt once reflected, “You have to accept whatever comes, and the only important thing is that you meet it with courage and with the best you have to give.” As America faces another challenging period in its history, there may be no better time for readers to turn to the life of one of our nation’s truly great leaders for inspiration.