“The story of Elliott and Eleanor Roosevelt is essentially A Tree Grows in Brooklyn on the right side of the tracks,” says Geraldine Hawkins, author of Elliott and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Story of a Father and His Daughter in the Gilded Age (Black Dome Press, 2017). The characters in the 1943 book (and later movie), she explains, live in poverty, but other than that, the elements of the story are basically the same: a charismatic, alcoholic father and his sensitive, introspective young daughter who longs for her mother’s attention and ends up abandoned by her adored father’s early death.
The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park will present an author talk and book-signing with Hawkins on Thursday, March 9 at 7 p.m. in the Henry A. Wallace Center. Copies of Elliott and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Story of a Father and His Daughter in the Gilded Age will be available. The event is free and open to the public.
Hawkins’ book not only delves into the dynamics of Eleanor and Elliott’s father/daughter relationship and its place within the complex tapestry of the Roosevelt clan, but it also serves as the first full-length biography of Elliott Roosevelt (1860-1894), who until now has been a marginal figure in his famously high-achieving family.
Uniquely situated within the Roosevelts as the younger brother of Theodore, father of Eleanor and even godfather to FDR, Elliott should have had a wonderful life. All the components were there: wealth and privilege and a loving family who expressed their affection for one another openly and easily. He was intelligent, attractive and possessed a strong social conscience instilled in him by his father. He began life with every advantage; but, while Theodore’s ironclad willpower propelled him forward, Elliott fell apart.
Mysterious seizures and blinding headaches that developed in his youth (Eleanor said later that she thought he might have had an undiagnosed brain tumor) were compounded in adulthood by depression, a dependence on drugs after an injury, a penchant for pleasure-seeking and, most of all, alcoholism. (It probably didn’t help that he was conscious of being held up against the stellar reputations of his brother and father, and that he didn’t have to work, and could afford to indulge himself.) Elliott’s marriage to a beautiful socialite – Eleanor’s mother Anna – seems doomed from the start, with each needing something that the other didn’t have to give. He fathered an illegitimate child with a family servant, born within weeks of his legitimate third child with Anna. By the time he died at just age 34 after a fall from a window (that may or may not have been a suicide attempt), Elliot was a pariah within the Roosevelts, banished to live apart from them, his final years spent with a series of mistresses or in asylums, attempting to dry out but resorting to six or seven bottles of brandy and champagne a day at the end.
That summary of Elliott Roosevelt’s life is the stuff of melodrama. It would be easy to dismiss Elliott as a privileged individual who just threw away the advantages that life dealt him at the start. But he had better angels in his nature, too. In taking on the story of this celebrated American family, Hawkins avoids the high pitch, deftly prodding her subjects to discover the opposing forces that worked on them. In much of Elliott and Eleanor, she allows the Roosevelts to tell their story in their own words, using journal entries and correspondence written with that characteristic Victorian-era ardor to get across the essence of who these people were and how they interacted with each other.
In the book’s foreword, Pulitzer Prizewinning biographer John Matteson notes that while “Hawkins unflinchingly sets forth all the traits and deeds that would seem to damn [Elliott]… [she also understands] the warmth of spirit, the charm and grace of his persona, and above all the kindness and gentleness of his character – all of which combine to make him, if not particularly admirable, a distinctly forgivable instance of well-meaning but flawed humanity.”
Elliott paid little attention to class boundaries. “He inherited his father’s consideration for working men and servants,” writes Hawkins. “When he heard one of his servants tell another that Elliott had never called anyone a ‘damfool,’ he felt that he had passed ‘the great test.’” When the adult Eleanor “devoted her life to projects that, in her view, contributed to ‘the development of the world,’ she was acting on her father’s legacy.”
Father and daughter adored each other, each a port-in-the-storm to the other, a salve to each other’s bruised psyches. “He loved people for the fineness that was in them, and his friends might be newsboys or millionaires,” wrote Eleanor of her father. “Their occupations, their possessions, meant nothing to him, only they themselves counted.”
Her relationship with her mother was difficult; Anna openly disparaged her daughter in front of other people, calling her “Granny” because of her shy and solemn ways. Not long after Eleanor’s birth, Anna wrote to Elliott’s sister, “Baby has grown fatter and seems very stupid.” Eleanor remembered at one point being carefully scrutinized by her mother before being told that, since she didn’t have looks, she’d “better have manners.”
Her father, on the other hand, was “a very close and warm personality,” wrote Eleanor, “who would look upon my shortcomings with a much more forgiving eye.” He was the person who had loved her best in the world, she maintained, and years after his death, wrote, “He lived in my dreams and does so to this day.”
Anna died when Eleanor was eight years old. Elliott died when she was ten.
Elliott and Eleanor Roosevelt was 17 years in the making, says Hawkins, who worked on the book from 1994 to 2011 in her spare time while working as a journalist and public affairs officer in the US Navy Reserve and as a historic interpreter for the National Park Service. Her work for the latter has taken her to assignments at the FDR site, Eleanor Roosevelt’s Val-Kill and the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park; at the Statue of Liberty and the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York City; and at the JFK National Historic Site and Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Massachusetts. She volunteered at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace site on East 20th Street in New York City. Hawkins grew up in San Pedro, California – her father a career Navy man – and she’s currently based on Staten Island.
Hawkins says that she can’t remember a time when she wasn’t interested in US history in general and the Roosevelt family in particular. “I think the thing I love the most about all the Roosevelts, including some of the lesser-known ones – not so much Elliott, because he’s a special case – is just the joy and courage with which they faced the vicissitudes of life. Think of Theodore with his asthma and Franklin with polio, and even Eleanor with her debilitating shyness: They worked their tails off to overcome those things, and they did. It’s not so much that they succeeded in spite of that, but those things really became the irritant that produced the pearls.”
Author talk/book-signing, Elliott and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Story of a Father and His Daughter in the Gilded Age, Thursday, March 9, 7 p.m., free, FDR Presidential Library & Museum, 407 Albany Post Road, Hyde Park; (845) 486-7745, https://fdrlibrary.org.