Sunday, December 06, 2009

A Volume of Friendship: The Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Isabella Greenway 1904-1953

My review of
A Volume of Friendship: The Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Isabella Greenway 1904-1953
edited by Kristie Miller and Robert H. McGinnis
Preface by Blanche Wiesen Cook
Tucson, AZ: Arizona Historical Society, 2009, xvi, 325 pp.

has just been posted to SeniorWomen Web at
You can read it at that link or posted below my name.


The Private Lives of Two Public Women

Long after her death in 1962, readers remain fascinated by Eleanor Roosevelt – her life, her comments, her views. Isabella Greenway is barely known outside of Arizona – the state she represented in Congress from 1933 to 1937 – but her fifty-year friendship with ER was longer than that of any other of ERs many acquaintances.

Both came from privileged backgrounds, they met in New York as debutantes and stayed in close contact until Isabella's death in 1953. They both married in 1905; the couples spent part of their honeymoons together in Europe. Isabella was two years younger but in her 67 years she had the more challenging life, which Miller detailed in her 2004 biography. []

Isabella married three times, was widowed twice and had three children. ER was married once, widowed once, and had six children, of whom one died in infancy. Isabella moved to New Mexico with her older first husband in 1910 after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Expected to die in a few years, the family lived in a tent with their two children for four years before building a home. A year after Bob Ferguson died in 1922 Isabella married his best friend, John Greenway. A little over two years later her second husband died on an operating table in New York.

In the wilds of New Mexico Isabella had to nurse her husband and home school her kids. ER also had to nurse her husband after he contracted polio in 1921, but she had a broader support system and more ready access to medical assistance. Nonetheless, her life, like Isabella's, was punctuated repeatedly by illnesses, accidents and death.

Indeed, if these letters have a major theme, that is it. These privileged women and their families spent much of their lives – especially their early adulthood – coping with physical ailments. Presumably they had the best medical care money could buy, but to judge by their letters, major portions of their lives were spent coping with suffering, their own and that of their families and close friends. TB, whooping cough, polio and infections consumed a lot of their time and thoughts.

Illness also meant travel. I was struck by the number of times Isabella and her family took the train to New York to see doctors. She sent her children to California for high school, but there is no mention of seeing any doctors in L.A.

Except for the election of 1912 when both women supported the candidacy of ER's uncle Teddy, neither paid much attention to politics before 1920 (or if they did they didn't write about it). They weren't involved in woman suffrage or any of the other Progressive movements of the era.

ER plunged into political work in the twenties, initially to serve the career aspirations of her invalid husband. She and some of her New York friends organized women into the Democratic Party in upstate New York, the value of which became readily apparent when her husband ran for Governor in 1928.

John Greenway took his new bride to Arizona where he owned copper mines. He was planning to retire from business and go into politics when he died. In a sense Isabella fulfilled his ambitions, becoming a civic activist and Arizona's Democratic National Committeewoman. After ER's husband was elected President he brought Arizona's sole Member of Congress into his administration and Isabella easily won election to replace him.

During FDR's first term, ER and Isabella could see each other frequently because they were both in D.C. There are fewer letters, but enough to know that Isabella didn't always see eye-to-eye with FDR. Nor did she like being in Congress; she chose to not run for re-election in 1936.

Back in Arizona she pursued her civic and business interests. In 1940 she supported Wendell Wilkie for President, which caused a temporary breech in her friendship with ER. Nonetheless, their relationship survived and the two women worked together again during and after World War II.

While it might sound simple to compile a book of letters, especially of two women who were public figures, an enormous amount of work went into this book. Tracking down the letters, deciphering the handwriting, identifying the people, places and events and generally making sense of private communications is no small task.

One can see the dedication and the scholarship of Miller and McGinnis in the numerous explanatory paragraphs interspersed between the letters and in the extensive footnotes which are fortunately printed at the bottom of each page. There is as much authorship as editing in this book. We should be grateful to them for giving us this portrait of an enduring friendship and a peek into the private lives of two public women.

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