"I Want You to
Write to Me": The Papers of Anna Eleanor Roosevelt
In August 1933 Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote a short article for her page in Woman's Home Companion . It was titled simply: "I Want You to Write to Me." Explaining why she issued such an invitation, she said,
whatever happens to us in our lives, we find questions constantly recurring that we would gladly discuss with some friend. Yet it is hard to find just the friend we should like to talk to. Often it is easier to write to someone whom we do not expect ever to see. 1
So it was with Eleanor Roosevelt. She touched the American people, and they in turn touched her. Her invitation triggered an avalanche!
Mrs. Roosevelt once quoted the following statistics concerning the mail she received as first lady: "300,000 pieces in 1933, 90,000 in 1937, and about 150,000 in 1940." 2 She was quick to point out that this correspondence did not include the president's mail. Frequently, however, people did write the first lady and asked her to give their messages to the president. One correspondent wrote, "I know you can buttonhole him at breakfast and make him listen." Mrs. Roosevelt responded with good humor, "He would be at breakfast all day and far into the night if he even scanned my mail!" 3 But many citizens felt that she could make the president listen, and in some cases, if he sould not do something, she would. In 1941 a black mother wrote to the president complaining about racial discrimination against her son. She concluded with this postscript: "I expect to hear from you right away because if I don't, I'll write to Mrs. Roosevelt!" 4
The huge amount of mail Mrs. Roosevelt received in those early days prompted her staff to consult the records of previous administrations. To their astonishment they found no comparison between the number of letters Mrs. Roosevelt was receiving and the number addressed to her predecessors. Eleanor Roosevelt attributed the great volume of mail to the following reasons: first, radio made people more aware of issues and names and encouraged them to write letters; second, the conditions in 1932 and 1933 were such that people were desperate and turned to their government for help; and third, she said people wrote to her because to them she was a symbol. 5
When Eleanor Roosevelt moved into the White House, she tried to determine what had been the previous custom for answering mail addressed to the president's wife. A pile of form letters was brought to her that was intended to cover every contingency. Some of these letters dated as far back as the Cleveland administration. For example, if a woman wrote and said her child pined for an elephant and would Mrs.[ president's wife] provide one, the standard reply under the "form" system would automaticallly be: "Mrs. [president's wife] has had so many similar requests she deeply regrets she cannot comply with yours!" 6 Mrs. Roosevelt did not believe this form system was adequate to reply to the grave questions asked in the 1930s. She quickly discarded most of the old forms and immediately began to set a new system into motion, one that proved to be highly successful.
The papers of Anna Eleanor Roosevelt at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park constitute the second largest collections of materials there and number roughly two million pages. While the early materials are rather fragmented, the so-called, "White House" papers, about 490 cubic feet, fully document Mrs. Roosevelt's public and private life. The papers are arranged numerically by file number and thereunder chronologically and alphabetically. A list of major files precedes the inventory. From the researcher's standpoint, the two most important series, or files, from the White House years are "Series 70. Correspondence with Government Departments" and "Series 100. Personal Letters."
The files in Series 70 consist largely of correspondence from the general public. Tens of thousands of citizens wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt for assistance, intercession, or advice. The files of the 1930s reflect the plight of the many desperate persons hit by the depression: farmers whose properties were foreclosed; veterans of World War I seeking bonuses, medical help, or hospitalization; unemployed persons appealing for jobs or funds; and families in legal, social, or financial difficulties of every description. These requests led Mrs. Roosevelt to write in 1940, "I think I have been asked to do something about everything in the world except change the weather!" 7 She elaborated on this statement with the following: "A woman wrote and asked me to find a baby for her to adopt. Her second letter explained that if I found the baby, she would need a cow, and if she had the cow, she would need an electric icebox in which to keep the milk for the baby!" 8
Until the appropriate government agencies were established, Mrs. Roosevelt sent many of the heartrending letters she received to various friends who were in positions to be of help. Later she forwarded the letters to the agencies. She was critical, however, of the fact that so many of her correspondents were not aware of the existence of the agencies that were equipped to help them. "I do not think we have done a very good job in publicizing the various functions of the government agencies, because people write me, and we find the address of the nearest place for them to apply, and often it is practically around the corner from where they live." 9
Losing one's home was one of the great worries of the middle class in the 1930s. Incoming letters concerning this matter were turned over to the newly formed Home Owner's Loan Corporation (HOLC), and for many this agency was truly a savior as the following letter poignantly demonstrates.
Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Thank you very much for helping me to keep my house. If it wasn't for you I know I would have lost it.I would have killed myself if I would have lost my house. I will never forget you.I went to the Home Loan and they said everything would be all right. Forgive me if I caused you any trouble. 10
Many proud but frightened people were embarrassed by their situations and the fact that they needed help. They, too, wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt but asked that their pleas be kept confidential, and they were. "It is very humiliating for me to have to write you " wrote one, and another declared, " Please Mrs. Roosevelt, I do not want charity, only a chance somehow we will manage but without charity." The latter writer was a young mother with several children. She sent Mrs. Roosevelt two rings "my dearest possessions," she wrote, "to keep as security.If you will consider buying the baby clothes [she sent a list of items she needed], please keep them [ the rings] until I send you the money you spent." 11
Files from after 1940 reflect the general improvement of business conditions, and Mrs. Roosevelts correspondence begins to deal with aspects of selective service, conditions in military camps, and complaints about the treatment of draftees. As the war advanced, the correspondence reflects the pressures of wartime, appeals from parents for release of their sons from the armed forces, complaints about gas rationing, price controls, race riots, and shortages of goods and services.
A rather small but important series concerning wartime matters in Mrs. Roosevelts papers is called "Letters from Servicemen, 1942-1945." It contains approximately sixteen thousand pages. This group of letters is an excellent social and historical commentary on the lives of the men and women in the service and describes the effect of war not only on them but on their families.
Among the many problems faced by servicemen was racial discrimination. It not only disturbed Mrs. Roosevelt but frustrated her as well. She wrote to her friend Joe Lash in 1942,
Young Neil Vanderbilt (no longer so young) came to see me this p.m. and told me some shocking things about the attitude of officers towards the negro troops. I don't wonder they are resentful and will of course tell FDR but I wonder if he can do anything. 12
Discrimination against black soldiers was also common outside the service. A young black army private awaiting assignment visited Washington, D.C., in January 1943. His letter to Mrs. Roosevelt recounted his experience. Apparently, during his visit he had stopped at a People's Drug Store where at first he was refused service at the counter, but later was served his drink in a paper cup while a white man sitting next to him received his soda in a glass. For four pages he castigated Mrs. Roosevelt. He informed her that he had four brothers in the service,
but, as to what they are fighting for God only knows. I'm going to feel fine, fighting in a Jim Crow Army, for a Jim Crow Government and when I might see a white boy dying on a battlefield, I hope to God I won't remember People's Drug Store on January 11 th .This is just to let you know how one negro soldier feel [ sic ] going into the service.
In frustration and anger, he added a postscript to the letter: "Here is the cup, to [ sic ] bad some negro boy couldn't give a dying [white] boy a cooling drink on a battlefield." The paper cup is still attached to the correspondence.
Mrs. Roosevelt dictated this signed response several days later. It was sympathetic yet practical.
I can quite understand how what happened to you made you feel as bitterly as you do feel. There are many things of that kind which many of us in this country deeply regret. The only thing I can say to you is that under the Germans of the Japanese you would have very little freedom, and you certainly would not have the freedom to write to me as you have. You are free to go on working as a people for the betterment of your people and you are gradually gathering behind you a larger and larger group of white people who are conscious of the wrongs and who are helping to correct them. 13
Whenever possible, most incoming letters in Series 70 were referred to the appropriate governmental agencies for action. If they were not, the reply was drafted by members of Mrs. Roosevelt's staff, usually Malvina Thompson, her private secretary, or Mrs. James Helm, her social secretary. Mrs. Roosevelt replied to relatively few letters in this series, but she did carry on an extensive correspondence about matters brought to her attention by the public with department heads and federal officials, including all the members of the president's cabinet.
Series 100. Personal Letters, the second of the important files for researchers, may be considered Mrs. Roosevelt's personal file since she drafted and signed about 90 percent of the replies. The material contained in this file reflects and documents Eleanor Roosevelt's interest and service in the fields of labor, the youth movement, civil liberties, public welfare, education, refugee assistance, women's rights, and national defense. A statement in Mrs. Roosevelt's autobiography sheds light on the relationship her correspondence had with the choice of the causes and concerns she made her own.
my interest or sympathy or indignation is not aroused by an abstract cause but by the plight of a single person .Out of my response to an individual develops an awareness of a problem to the community, then to the country, and finally to the world. In each case my feeling of obligation to do something stemmed from one individual and then widened and became applied to a broader area. 14
In many of these so called "Personal Letters" Mrs. Roosevelt gave of herself emotionally even to distant correspondents who somehow sensed her willingness to listen to their needs. People wrote to her because they knew that she cared, and in this caring she found an outlet for her own powerful emotional needs. Over and over again Mrs. Roosevelt would answer pleas for help with a sympathetic letter, an admonition to a federal department to take some action, or even a personal check. 15 These personal letters are indispensable to prospective biographers as well as to general historians of the New Deal period because the correspondence demonstrates Eleanor Roosevelt's association with hundreds of experts and leaders in and out of government. Some of her correspondents included black educator Mary McLeod Buthune, novelist Pearl Buck, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Congresswoman and friend Helen Gahagan Douglas, philanthropist Mary Lasker, Seretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Congresswoman Caroline O'Day, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, Walter Reuther of the UAW, welfare expert Lillian Wald, and Walter White of the NAACP.
Extensive and enlightening exchanges took place between Mrs. Roosevelt and her family and old friends. On of the latter was Carola von Schaffer-Bernstein, a school chum from their Allenswood days in England. Carola was a Berliner, and her pro-Hitler stand in the early days of World War II prompted a sharp reply to on of her letters in 1939. Mrs. Roosevelt wrote:
Although we do not hate the German people, there is only an inability here to understand how people of spirit can be terrified by one man and his storm troops to the point of countenancing the kind of horrors which seem to have come on in Germany not only where the Jews are concerned, but in the case of the Catholics and some of the liberal German Protestants.
I hope that we are not facing another four years of struggle and I hope that our country will not have to go to war, but no country can exist free and unoppressed while a man like Hitler remains in power. 16
Eleanor Roosevelt has been described as the "first media first lady." 17 Mrs. Roosevelt was a friend of the press, especially the women of the press. She not only gave these women status and opportunities they had not been afforded in the past, but she also enlisted them in her causes. She encouraged these press women to pass on to her their impressions of who and what they saw, here and abroad. There is so much exciting material from news correspondents and reporters in this series including exchanges from Lorena Hickok on politics and relief activities across the country in the 1930s, correspondence from Ruby Black describing economic conditions and politics of Puerto Rico, letters from Martha Gellhorn Hemingway on the Spanish Civil War and the plight of refugees, reports from Anna Louise Strong during and after her visits to Russia and China, and material from war correspondent Doris Fleeson concerning Mrs. Roosevel's wartime trips to Australia and the Pacific. Much of their correspondence is located in Series 100. Personal Letters, but an unofficial organization of some of these women journalists became known as Mrs. Roosevelt's Press Conference Association. The papers of this group have been deposited at the Roosevelt Library.
One of Eleanor Roosevelt's enduring legacies to her successors in the White House was the life she built for herself when she was on her own after FDR's death. To reporters who met her at Pennsylvania Station in April 1945 when she returned to New York, she said simply, "The story is over." But of course, it was not over; it was just beginning. In the last seventeen years of her life, Mrs. Roosevelt finally came into her own. She emerged from the confusion of her widowhood and created a new career for herself. Instead of retreating into private life, she became a public figure in her own right and went on to become the acknowledged "First Lady of the World," a title bestowed on her by President Harry S. Truman.
A large portion of Mrs. Roosevelt's post-White House correspondence, 1945-62, consists of letters from the general public, although there are many letters from personal friends, acquaintances, relatives, and associates. The files reflect her myriad activities during these years. A considerable amount of correspondence for each year consists of tributes to and criticisms of President Roosevelt; requests for photographs, autographs, stamps, franked envelopes, material assistance, employment, interviews and advice, statements, endorsements, and contributions; invitations to speak and to attend dinners and meetings; and requests to write books and articles as well as prefaces and introductions for other authors. The material includes a large number of public reaction letters to Mrs. Roosevelt's "My Day" columns. In 1949 there were numerous letters (about six thousand) responding to her controversy with Cardinal Spellman of New York over public aid to parochial schools and, in 1957, on her trip to the Soviet Union.
Although much of the material is routine, it is interesting to discover that Mrs. Roosevelt at times wrote significant responses on both domestic and international issues to ordinary citizens. An example of this is at letter she wrote to Mrs. Hugh N. Marshall of Dayton, Oregon, in December 1950. At this time, Mrs. Roosevelt was the United States delegate to the United Nations. In her letter Mrs. Roosevelt defends FDR's Russian policy; denies being a Communist; denies FDR's was a protégé of Gerhart Eisler; denies Joe Lash is a protégé of hers; declares her support for Helen Gahagan Douglas; denies Melvyn Douglas is a Communist; defends Dean Acheson; says Alger Hiss was convicted or perjury on circumstantial evidence, not of being a Communist; and implies that Fulton Lewis, Westbrook Pegler, and John O'Donnell are not "decent" people! 18 All this is contained in a two-page dictated, but signed, letter.
Other topics she addressed during the post-White House years were those of public concern. For the years immediately after World War II, there is much correspondence relating to the problems of refugees and displaced persons, American relief efforts, the United Nations, and American foreign policy. There is also correspondence concerning domestic politics, communism, the McCarthy hearings, presidential campaigns, racial integration, and school desegregation. Minority rights is a recurring theme throughout the correspondence, and there are some letters from almost every year concerning the plight of blacks, American Indians, and women. Except for the years 1945-48, the material in Mrs. Roosevelt's papers is arranged chronologically by year and thereunder in very rough and sometimes unreliable alphabetical order by name of correspondent or organization. Material for 1945-48 has been merged into a single bloc and is arranged alphabetically.
Although Mrs. Roosevelt's post-White House papers consist principally of incoming and outgoing correspondence, they also include memorandums, reports, programs, drafts of speeches, articles, clippings, printed material, and copies of her famous "My Day" columns. These columns, which were begun on December 31, 1935, and continued until September 26, 1962, little more than a month before she died, represent the only consistent day-to-day diary Eleanor Roosevelt kept. Regrettably, only a very small portion of the collected columns is indexed.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Mrs. Roosevelt wrote monthly columns for such magazines as Woman's Home Companion , Ladies Home Journal , and McCall's . In these she replied to readers' questions and often revealed a side of herself not often seen elsewhere by stating her philosophy of life in a simple, homey way. Not a few questions, however, were obviously sent to the first lady by members of the administration in order to explain, advocate, or make public certain issues of points of view.
Several ancillary collections at the Roosevelt Library complement and complete Mrs. Roosevelt's own papers since they contain a fair amount of Eleanor Roosevelt's correspondence. The papers of Anna Roosevelt Halsted, the only daughter of the President and Mrs. Roosevelt, contain over eight hundred handwritten letters from her famous mother. The Lorena Hickok Papers; the papers of Marion Dickerman, Hilda Smith, and Molly Dewson; the Roosevelt Family Papers; and the papers of the Women's Division of the National Committee of the democratic Party all contain Eleanor Roosevelt correspondence that reveals the personality and multifaceted career of this first lady.
The post-White House years brought no respite to Eleanor Roosevelt. She immersed herself in the work of the United Nations and would later confess that her appointment to the U.N. was that part of her life's work of which she was most proud. Especially important to her was the role she played in the struggle for the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Her belief in the human rights of all individuals was the cornerstone of her philosophy of life and is almost thematic in her papers. Each individual mattered to the country and to the world. In a speech on human rights, delivered in 1958, Eleanor Roosevelt said:
Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual persons; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world. 19
Mrs. Roosevelt's vision was one of a better world, and this ideal is documented over and over again in her correspondence, speeches, and writings. It was the reason she was often at the heart of changes and more often, its source. She believed she could make a difference in this world, and the hundreds of thousands of individuals who wrote to her wanted to believe she could. Whatever the role or nonrole ascribed to Eleanor Roosevelt in twentieth-century American history, it is a fact that no other first lady was so much the center of controversy. No other first lady had her influence. No other so affected the lives of the women who followed her. 20
Frances M. Seeber [was] the chief archivist at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.
1 Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, "I Want You to Write Me,"
Woman's Home Companion
, (Aug. 1933): 4.
2 Eleanor Roosevelt, "Mail of a President's Wife,"
unpublished article, c. 1939, p. 1, Speech and Article File, 1939, Eleanor
Roosevelt Papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, NY.
3 "Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt's Own Radio Program," July 25,
1940, p. 4, Speech and Article File, 1940, ER Papers, FDR Library.
4 Dorothy I. Height, speech, Oct. 14, 1984, Eleanor Roosevelt
Centennial Conference, Vassar College.
5 Roosevelt, "Mail of a President's Wife," p. 1, Speech and
Article File, 1939, ER Papers, FDR Library.
6 Eleanor Roosevelt, "My Mail," unpublished article, c. 1940,
Speech and article File, 1940, ER Papers, FDR Library.
7 Roosevelt, "Mail of a President's Wife," p. 2, Speech and
Article File, 1939, ER Papers, FDR Library.
9 Ibid., p. 1.
10 J. Graziano to Eleanor Roosevelt, Aug. 28, 1934, 70. Correspondence
with Government Departments, 1934, Gl-Gu, ER Papers, FDR Library.
11 R. Trickel to Eleanor Roosevelt, Apr. 3, 1935, 150.1 Material
Assistance Requested, 1935, Ti-Wh, and H. Champine to Eleanor Roosevelt,
Jan. 2, 1935, 70. Correspondence with Government Departments, 1935, Ch-Co,
ER Papers, FDR Library.
12 Eleanor Roosevelt to Joseph P. Lash, May 1, 1942, Eleanor
Roosevelt-Joseph P. Lash Correspondence, May 1942, Joseph P. Lash Papers,
13 Pvt. Clifton Searles to Eleanor Roosevelt, Jan. 11, 1942 [
], and Eleanor Roosevelt to Searles, Jan. 23, 1943, 100.1 Letters from
Servicemen, 1943, P-S, ER Papers, FDR Library.
14 Eleanor Roosevelt,
(1961), p. 413.
15 William Chafe, "Biographical Sketch," in Joan Hoff-Wilson
and Marjorie Ligthman, eds.,
Without Precedent: The Life and Career of Eleanor Roosevelt
(1984), p. 18.
16 Eleanor Roosevelt to Carola von Schaffer-Bernstein, Sept. 6, 1939,
100. Personal Letters, 1939, Bem-Bi, ER Papers, FDR Library.
17 Abigail McCarthy, "Eleanor Roosevelt as First Lady," in
Hoff-Wilson and Lightman, eds
., Without Precedent
, p. 218.
18 Eleanor Roosevelt to Mrs. Hugh N. Marshall, Dec. 11, 1950, General
Correspondence, 1950, Mac-Mez, ER Papers, FDR Library.
19 Hoff-Wilson and Lightman, eds.,
, p. xix.
20 Ibid., p. 214.