PART I: ELEANOR AND ELIZABETH
R: UNLIKELY FRIENDS
BY WILL SWIFT
They were the most unlikely
of friends- America’s First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt,
and Elizabeth R., the Empress of India and the Queen Consort
of Great Britain. As a niece of U.S. President Theodore
Roosevelt, Eleanor was an American aristocrat, but one whose
populist principles, and personal insecurity made her cautious
and apprehensive about consorting with royalty. Once when
Eleanor visited a grand Long Island mansion, she wrote to
her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, "I’m
afraid I wasn’t born to be a high life lady."
Just before President Roosevelt’s mother Sara arrived
in England in June 1934, the First Lady wrote to a friend:
"Mama, … is going to stay with the king and
queen of England. Lord, how I would hate it & and how
she will love it." She knew her mother-in-law’s
grand manner well, but she underestimated herself.
Eleanor and Elizabeth could not have been raised more differently.
Like Franklin Roosevelt, Elizabeth was a captivating, golden
figure. The adored youngest daughter of the Earl and Countess
of Strathmore, she was raised with a sense of utter security
and love, which built the foundation for a strong sense
of self. By contrast, Eleanor, though born into a prominent
family, endured a troubled childhood and often experienced
life as a deficient outsider. Her beautiful mother, Anna,
who died when Eleanor was eight, called her "Granny"
and told her, "You have no looks, see to it that you
have manners." After her alcoholic father Elliott
died when she was ten years old, her dour grandmother sent
her to boarding school in London during her teenage years.
While there, she developed a life-long fondness for England.
Eleanor was thrilled to marry her handsome cousin Franklin
in 1905. However, by the time Elizabeth married Prince Albert
and became the Duchess of York in 1923, Eleanor and Franklin
had begun to live more separate lives. By 1937, when Elizabeth
was crowned as King George VI’s Queen Consort, Eleanor
was serving as America’s First Lady during her husband’s
second term as president.
In the late 1930s, as totalitarian governments were threatening
the future of democracy in Europe and Asia, Franklin Roosevelt
initiated an alliance with the British royal family, "believing,"
as Eleanor explained in her memoirs, "that we might
all soon be engaged in a life or death struggle in which
Great Britain would be our first line of defense."
He cannily hoped that a visit by King George VI and Queen
Elizabeth would soften the isolationism of a U.S. citizenry
that felt burned by the First World War and resistant to
further entrapment in European countries and conflicts.
It took a delicate year of planning, involving Canadian,
U.S. and British government officials, to arrange the king
and queen’s supposedly non-political, thirty-day,
ten-thousand-mile journey through North America in May and
Their Majesties arrived in Washington, D.C. on June 8, 1939,
just as congressional isolationists were about to debate
whether or not to repeal the Neutrality Act, which forbade
the United States from sending shipments of arms to Britain
and other countries - even if they were attacked by the
Dutiful Eleanor was apprehensive about meeting the charming
queen, who had scored such a sartorial triumph during her
state visit to Paris the previous year. After welcoming
the queen at Washington’s Union Station, the First
Lady rode with Elizabeth to the White House in an open car
on a humid ninety-four degree day before the biggest crowds
Eleanor had ever seen in Washington, D.C
Later, Eleanor began to relax with Elizabeth during a sightseeing
ride around Washington. The queen won her over by revealing
that they shared common values, and that she keenly appreciated
Eleanor’s controversial public role. She told Eleanor
how surprised she was to read that the First Lady had been
attacked in the press for attending a meeting with members
of the Works Progress Administration. "It is much
better to allow people with grievances to air them,"
the queen said," and it is particularly valuable if
they can do so to someone in whom they feel a sense of sympathy
and who may be able to reach the head of the government
with their grievances."
After a state dinner that night at the White House, Eleanor
entertained Their Majesties with a controversial celebration
of American folk arts, using the high profile evening to
make a powerful civil rights statement by having the great
contralto Marian Anderson be the first African American
person to perform at the White House.
Eleanor wrote to a friend that the queen’s dignity
and regal bearing reminded her of Queen Victoria. In her
memoirs she elaborated, "I was fascinated by the queen,
who never had a crease in her dress or a hair out of place.
I do not see how it is possible to remain so perfectly in
character all the time."
On June 10th and 11th Their Majesties joined the Roosevelts
at Hyde Park for a visit which not only cemented their friendship,
but included a famous hot dog picnic- the Roosevelts’
deliberate symbol of the convergence of two cultures, where
the values of the reuniting countries would be melded. Americans
had been up in arms for a month beforehand, worried that
the dignity of the country would be tarnished. They reacted
as if the serving of hot dogs was a crucial matter of foreign
policy, and, in a way, it was. FDR later told Winston Churchill
that the king and queen’s visit was "a beginning
of the coming together of the two English-speaking races,
which would go on after the war." One British commentator,
broadcaster Eric Knight, wrote that the queen had single-handedly
transformed U.S. public opinion, reversing American’s
negative view of Britain following Chamberlain’s appeasement
of Hitler at Munich the previous year.
Eleanor liked both Their Majesties. She felt more at home
with the king’s authentic and down-to-earth manner
than she initially did with the queen’s bubbly charm.
"They themselves were nice & I wish you could
have talked to him especially," Eleanor wrote a friend.
"She is a bit self-conscious, but who wouldn’t
be? Turning on graciousness like water is bound to affect
one in time!"
Shortly after the visit, the U.S. Congress failed to revise
the Neutrality legislation which sent the dictators a signal
that American foreign policy was gutless. That fall the
Nazis invaded Poland, and by the spring of 1940 the Luftwaffe
was bombing London. During the early years of the war, the
king and queen corresponded regularly with the Roosevelts
as part of a British campaign to win over American support
for the war effort. In one letter Elizabeth told the Roosevelts
that "sometimes one’s heart is near breaking
under the stress of so much sorrow and anxiety.
In spite of increasing U.S. assistance, the friendship between
Eleanor and Elizabeth hit a low point in the summer of 1941.
The queen was hurt that the First Lady did not respond to
her letters, and that the president was not providing strong
military support. But that December, after Japan’s
surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. joined Britain
in earnest in pursuing the two-fronted war.
In the fall of 1942, hoping Eleanor could counter lingering
American perceptions of the British as spoiled aristocrats,
Elizabeth invited the First Lady to England where she could
observe the British women’s contribution to the war
effort, and visit U.S. troops. In Buckingham Palace, Eleanor
stayed in the queen’s large and chilly suite, its
windows blown out by Nazi bombs, and fully absorbed the
paradox of being royal in wartime. The next day the king
and queen took Eleanor on a tour of what Eleanor called
the "wanton destruction" of London’s Old
City and its devastated East End. After a hectic and exhausting
tour doing wartime inspections, Eleanor returned to Windsor
Castle, suffering from a bad cold, to report to the king
and queen on her findings.
The unrelenting demands of the war years were exhausting
for both the king and the president. Roosevelt died first
on April 12, 1945. The British monarch ordered an unprecedented
week-long Court mourning for the U.S. president. He and
Elizabeth cabled Mrs. Roosevelt to express their own grief
and shock, and Britain’s deep sense of loss. A week
later Eleanor wrote to thank them: "It is a comfort
to know that your people, who have been united with the
people of this country in the great fight for freedom, are
mourning the loss of my husband."
April 17 was a day of mourning in London. At a memorial
service in St. Paul’s Cathedral, as the congregation
wept, the king and queen had tears in their eyes, remembering
how much their friend had meant to them and how bitterly
disappointed they were that he and Eleanor could not, instead,
join them in England for a service celebrating all their
wartime accomplishments. It would be nine months before
Elizabeth could comfort Eleanor in person as the former
First Lady arrived in England to start a new life.
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