PART II: ELEANOR AND ELIZABETH
R: FIRST LADIES OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
BY WILL SWIFT
In December 1945, the new president,
Harry Truman, appointed Eleanor as a delegate to the United
Nations. Arriving in London on January 6, 1946, Eleanor
wrote the queen that she came "on this mission with
the great hope that my husband’s plans for peace may
be realized." The queen was delighted to renew her
friendship with Eleanor and wrote her, "So much has
happened to this poor tattered world since those days when
you visited us at Buckingham Palace & now so many hopes
are centered on this great ‘getting together,’
which starts next week."
When the two women met, they reminisced about their crucial
visits to each other’s countries, but the king and
queen also sounded out Eleanor’s opinions on a British
memorial for the late president. Politicians were already
disagreeing about the setting and form of tribute. Eleanor
said she would give the king and queen an inside view of
the workings of the UN and share her reactions to being
the only American woman in the delegation.
The British government decided to erect a public statue
in honor of Franklin Roosevelt. After Eleanor agreed to
officially unveil the statue, situated in London’s
Grosvenor Square near the U.S. embassy, the king invited
her to spend the weekend at Windsor Castle. Eleanor again
responded with a jittery lack of confidence, writing later
that "in some ways I rather dreaded the formality
of a visit to a castle inhabited by a reigning monarch."
The former First Lady focused her anxiety on her clothes,
comparing herself unfavorably to Queen Elizabeth, who "always
had such a wonderful wardrobe and always looked as if she
had just a moment before been in the hands of a skillful
maid and hairdresser, as, indeed, she usually had been."
When she arrived at Windsor on April 3, 1948, "The
king and queen were kindness itself," she wrote in
her autobiography. At the highly formal meals, held in the
big dining room with a kilted Highland piper marching around
the table playing bagpipes, Eleanor was impressed with Queen
Elizabeth’s ability to create a relaxed, homey atmosphere
in such an historic setting. One evening, Eleanor played
The Game, a form of charades led by Queen Elizabeth. At
times, the queen puzzled over words and sought help from
a glum Winston Churchill, who chomped on his cigar and disdainfully
boycotted the game.
The unveiling of FDR’s statue occurred on April 12,
1948--the third anniversary of the president’s death.
Their Majesties, the two princesses, the Duke of Edinburgh,
Queen Mary, the Gloucesters, the Athlones, and the Duchess
of Kent and her three children joined Eleanor in honoring
the late president. As marines presented arms, and Eleanor
pulled a cord, the big Union Jacks covering the monument
dropped away, and the statue of FDR emerged, standing twelve
feet high in green-gray bronze, with one hand gripping a
cane, his cape flowing back from his shoulders. Later, the
king wrote Eleanor saying, "How much the queen &
I admired your quiet & calm bearing at a moment when
your heart must have been so full of thoughts & memories."
That spring the king had suffered quietly with cramps in
both legs. By that fall, he was numb in both feet, in pain,
and had difficulty sleeping at night. The king’s physicians
diagnosed arteriosclerosis, and ordered him to curtail his
official activities and rest. On July 11, Eleanor wrote
to the queen to express her concern: "I have thought
of you very often in your anxiety for him and hope that
he is improving steadily." On July 21, the queen wrote
back, saying, "I am glad to be able to tell you that
he is really better and with care should be well in a year
or so. It is always a slow business with a leg and the great
thing is not to get overtired during convalescence--You
can imagine how difficult it is to achieve with the world
in its present state & worries & troubles piling
The king’s health, ruined by the strain of the war,
declined further in 1951, and he died suddenly in his sleep
on February 6, 1952 at Sandringham. Eleanor was stunned
and sad when she heard the news in Paris, just as the sixth
United Nations General Assembly ended. She would have loved
to attend the king’s funeral, but she was scheduled
to visit refugee camps in the Mideast. With her distinctive
perspective as the widow of a great leader, she wrote to
comfort Queen Elizabeth, but her letter has disappeared.
The widowed queen replied to Eleanor, "It is impossible
to believe that the king is no longer with us. He was so
full of plans and ideas for the future, & zest for life,
& it is hard to think of life without him."
Elizabeth, who had not established a separate identity from
the king, felt completely lost. She retreated to Scotland
to mourn with her friends the Vyners, at their house on
the bleak coast of Caithness. One day they took her on a
tour of the neighborhood and spotted a derelict castle,
which the Queen Mother bought and refurbished. It was her
version of Eleanor’s Val-Kill cottage, a place where
she could begin living an independent life. She would visit
every year for six weeks.
Following the king’s death, Eleanor and Elizabeth
had more in common than ever before. As "First Ladies,"
they had had been married to men whose leadership had possessed
great symbolic value in the most tumultuous era in memory.
George VI had come to represent the civilization and courage
of Britain, while FDR personified America’s confident
vision and advocacy for the disadvantaged. Both men cast
long shadows from which their widows would struggle to emerge.
Interestingly, both widows gravitated beyond their own nations,
where their husbands’ legacies were so strong, traveling
abroad to work for international understanding and cooperation.
In May 1949 at the Women’s National Press Club, President
Truman had presented Eleanor with an award and had dubbed
her "the First Lady of the World"’ for
her advocacy of international understanding and justice;
it was a title which suited both Eleanor and Elizabeth.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the former first ladies traveled
extensively and became First Ladies of the world, exemplars
of the fully realized woman who can reinvent her life and
expand her role innovatively and productively. The Queen
Mother served as a unifying link among the disparate peoples
of the British Commonwealth. While the Queen Mother had
a passively symbolic influence as a world figure, Eleanor
maintained a direct and political role, debating world leaders
and delivering her own speeches.
Eleanor and Elizabeth were two of the most energetic people
of the twentieth century, and their vigor alone propelled
them through the worst ordeals. Near the end of her life,
as Elizabeth was recovering from a hip operation, her grandson
Charles praised her in words that characterized both Eleanor
and Elizabeth: "She is completely and utterly indomitable,
absolutely unstoppable." In later years, Eleanor would
shake off being hit by a taxi, limping her way straight
to a speaking engagement, while Elizabeth, after she tripped
in front of Westminster Abbey, would smile and wave her
shoe at the crowds. Possessed of extraordinary stamina and
a stoical philosophy, both women were impatient with illness.
When the Queen Mother visited the United States in the fall
of 1954, she lunched with Eleanor in her cottage at Val-Kill.
Eleanor served her an American Thanksgiving dinner with
all the trimmings. At this point Eleanor and Elizabeth were
at their most relaxed with each other. Gone were the traumas
of nursing their nations through a grueling war and their
worn-out husbands through deteriorating health. It seems
unfortunate that this cozy visit would be their last extended
time together. Due to their busy schedules in future years,
they would not be able to coordinate schedules.
In her last years, increasingly wise, Eleanor had turned
her energies to encouraging younger people: "I think
perhaps one of the things to be desired in old age is the
power to acquire new interests and to meet whatever situation
comes with a gallantry which makes people feel that you
are conferring a privilege on them when you share a little
of your life with them." She could have been speaking
for the Queen Mother as well.
When Eleanor died on November 7, 1962 at Hyde Park, the
present queen wrote to Eleanor’s oldest son, California
Representative James Roosevelt, "The British people
held her in deep respect and affection and mourn her passing.
My husband and I and my family greatly valued her friendship
and send you and your family our sincere sympathy."
The Queen Mother’s final tribute to Eleanor occurred
on the morning of July 13, 1967 when she sailed into foggy
Passamaquoddy Bay on the royal yacht Britannia, and stopped
at the Roosevelt’s summer home, Campobello, on her
way to a tour of Canada. She opened the new visitor’s
center and joined Eleanor’s twenty-three-year-old
grandson Christopher Roosevelt-who had been pressed into
service as a tour guide when fog prevented older members
of the family from attending- on a nerve-wracking tour.
He nervously took the Queen Mother’s arm and directed
her toward the cottage. He then leaned over and told her,
"I have never been to the cottage before" and
"I would hardly be an adequate guide." "Christopher,"
the Queen Mother assured him, "Isn’t that wonderful:
we will be discovering this cottage together for the first
During that final visit with the Roosevelts, Elizabeth honored
a friendship that had saved democracy at its time of greatest
peril. These two First Ladies played a key role in cementing
the Anglo-American alliance, which remains today a key foundation
of global stability.
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