Recently the Wall Street Journal ran a letter of mine about an encounter with the great and gracious lady in 1953. It was fun recalling that event, but even more fun was hearing from my friend Milt Moskowitz who shared a story of his own:
“In 1962 I was working at what was then the largest market research firm in the country, Alfred Politz Research, founded and run by an alcoholic German, Alfred Politz, who was a serial womanizer. Knowing my politics to be on the left side of the spectrum, he frequently berated me about liberals. And one of his prime examples was Eleanor Roosevelt, who had a syndicated column, My Day. She was a typical liberal, he said, afraid to come out for abortion rights for fear of irritating the Catholic church. “You don’t know that,” I said. I then wrote a letter to Eleanor, asking if she had the time for an interview. She replied that she did and soon I found myself having tea with her in her brownstone on the East Side of Manhattan. I told her what my boss had said, and then she said that she was a fervent supporter of abortion rights for women. When I returned to work, I relayed this information to Alfred, who scoffed, saying she would never go public with this support. Well, a week later, the “My Day” column carried Eleanor’s eloquent support for abortion rights. I bought a dozen copies of that edition and dumped them on Alfred’s desk. For one of the first times in his life, he was speechless. “I was delighted that he had brought it up since it enabled me to meet a gentle lady with a very strong spine.”
Mrs. Roosevelt’s “My Day” columns were among the first things I read in the morning papers; they were never timid. I don’t remember this one — having pushed the whole issue of abortion far down into the depths of my psyche — but I’m not surprised. Would that her calm, strong voice were here to speak today.
While the agonies of a too-long and too-bitter campaign were drawing to a happy — for a winning percentage of us at least — conclusion, another milestone slipped by: the 50th anniversary of the death of Eleanor Roosevelt. The great writer/ speaker/ activist and long-suffering (though few knew at the time) wife of New Deal President Franklin D. Roosevelt died on November 7, 1962. She and FDR moved into the White House a few months before I was born. When she moved out after his death nearly a dozen years later, she never skipped a beat in her own career of promoting justice for all. I remain a fan.
It’s heartening to find she has new generations of fans, including adventure/travel blogger Lesley Carter, who runs this ER quote across several pages: “The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experiences.” Eleanor’s experiences, which included riding elephants in India and exploring the mysteries of Africa, Asia and beyond, nearly always highlighted her passion for promoting peace and justice at home and abroad. At the time I met her, global peace seemed a far more attainable goal than it does today.
It was the fall of 1953. I had just turned 20, graduated from college, settled happily into an apartment in downtown Richmond, VA with my sister Mimi and college roommate Pat, and landed my first full-time job with a local public relations firm. Mimi was dating a dashing young reporter for radio station WRNL named Roger Mudd; I was dating a dashing young political cartoonist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch named Hugh Haynie. The world was our oyster.
My PR firm had landed the job of arranging for Mrs. Roosevelt’s speech in observance of United Nations Day, an event planned for Richmond’s Mosque Theater and made somewhat controversial by the fact that it would be open to anyone – since she did not speak to segregated audiences. This, among other things Rooseveltian, did not sit well with James Kilpatrick, the arch-conservative segregationist editor of the afternoon newspaper, The Richmond News Leader.
I snagged the plum assignment of meeting Mrs. Roosevelt at the Richmond Airport, which at the time consisted of a Quonset hut beside several runways, out in Henrico County farm country. There were several of us in the delegation; it did not hurt that my father was then chairman of the Virginia United Nations Association.
In the time it took Mrs. Roosevelt to travel from New York for the one-night visit, Kilpatrick had published a vitriolic editorial, condemning just about everything she stood for beyond motherhood and apple pie. We took a copy of the paper to the airport so she could read it on the way into town, since there would only be a few minutes to spare between her arrival at the hotel and the press conference scheduled just before dinner and the event. I remember being introduced to her, and subsequently being called by name every time she spoke to me, a small but extraordinary gift I think she conferred on everyone she met.
We had seen a draft outline of Mrs. Roosevelt’s speech. It was all about international friendship and cooperation, the importance of education, global health needs – essentially the same issues she would probably be addressing today. How, I wondered, would she possibly get to her significant national/international subjects in light of the unavoidable local hostility? The press conference was barely underway when hands went up all over the room, and questions were shouted, asking for a response to the News Leader editorial.
She smiled broadly at the writers and reporters who packed the room.“I understand,” Mrs. Roosevelt said, “that your new editor is very bright, very talented – and very young.” She paused. “Over the years, I have learned to have great patience with youth.” Then she smiled again and took the next question.
Ah, so. But Mrs. Roosevelt, I suspect, would approve of the youthful President just re-elected to the job her husband held eight decades ago.