The Roosevelts and the Royals by Will Swift
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Dr. 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 June 1939.

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 Nazis.

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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Read Part II: "Eleanor and Elizabeth R: First Ladies of the Twentieth Century"
Download Prologue to The Roosevelts and The Royals
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The Roosevelts and the Royals
Franklin and Eleanor, The King and Queen of England, and the Friendship that Changed History

by Will Swift
John Wiley & Sons: June 2004; ISBN: 0-471-45962-3; Hardcover; 384 pages
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