Son of a pres­i­dent and the fa­ther of a first lady

SOME­ONE TO WATCH OVER ME: THE STORY OF EL­LIOTT AND ELEANOR ROO­SEVELT By Eric Burns Pe­ga­sus Books, $27.95, 304 pages, il­lus­trated

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Martin Rubin Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

As any­one who has read his “Golden Lad” knows, Eric Burns is an in­tu­itive bi­og­ra­pher finely at­tuned to the nu­ances of the var­i­ous mem­bers of the Roo­sevelt clan. In that study of a fond re­la­tion­ship be­tween Theodore Roo­sevelt and his fa­vorite son, who knew each other through­out the epony­mous lad’s life, he had an eas­ier task than he has set for him­self with this new book. For Theodore’s younger brother El­liott died when his daugh­ter Eleanor was only 10.

Draw­ing on his let­ters, which she kept all her life, Mr. Burns shows ev­i­dence of his fond­ness and love, qual­i­ties dis­tinctly lack­ing in her cold, mock­ing, dis­mis­sive mother. In ad­di­tion, he shows qual­i­ties of per­sonal as well as public char­i­ta­ble­ness in El­liott which would shape his daugh­ter’s most notable at­tributes.

Given El­liott’s close in­ter­ac­tions with his more fa­mous older brother and his brief but in­tense ones with his fu­ture first lady daugh­ter, it is as­ton­ish­ing that he has re­ceived so lit­tle at­ten­tion. As Mr. Burns points out, men­tions of him in bi­ogra­phies of those more fa­mous rel­a­tives tend to be fleet­ing and there has never been a book about him. Ref­er­ences to him tend to fo­cus on his weak­nesses, which are cer­tainly glar­ing, no­tably acute al­co­holism and ad­dic­tion to opi­ates.

Yet, so in­tense were her me­mories of the fa­ther whom she adored that Mr. Burns’ case for his be­ing the most important fig­ure through­out her long life is a con­vinc­ing one. In fact, the very brevity of their ac­tual con­tact al­lowed her con­stantly to build upon, en­large, ro­man­ti­cize, and oth­er­wise em­bel­lish any blank part of that all-important pa­ter­nal slate. Sim­ply erase from it any­thing in­con­ve­nient that did not fit into her ide­al­ized im­age, which had per­ma­nently taken root in her heart and soul.

Dig­ging deeper into El­liott than pre­vi­ous bi­og­ra­phers, Mr. Burns presents a com­pli­cated man, con­flicted in all sorts of ways, most no­tably with re­spect to the older brother whom he had once pro­tected from bul­lies but who be­came something of a bully to­ward him. And of course, a never-to-be-bet­tered man in any arena of life, way be­yond the box­ing ring and wrestling mat, which saw their ini­tial phys­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion. There seems lit­tle doubt that the lack of self-es­teem that was the main cause of El­liott’s prob­lems is in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to a sense of un­wor­thi­ness com­pared to the tow­er­ing in­tel­lec­tual, moral and phys­i­cal fig­ure of Theodore.

Mr. Burns delves deep into El­liott’s mis­ad­ven­tures, shin­ing a spot­light on his many af­fairs and even his fa­ther­ing an il­le­git­i­mate son, El­liott Roo­sevelt Mann, whose ex­is­tence Eleanor ig­nored, if she even knew he was her half-brother. Her full brother Hall, born not long be­fore his par­ents’ deaths, shared many of their fa­ther’s less ad­mirable traits and, through­out the 50 years of his life, must have re­minded her of them.

He and the fa­vorite son whom she named for her fa­ther and who was also something of a scape­grace, al­beit a much higher-achiev­ing one, elicited only a spe­cial fond­ness and propen­sity to for­give. She was not one of those whose char­i­ta­ble ac­tiv­i­ties were re­served for com­mit­tees and strangers, something which seems di­rectly re­lated to the fa­ther whom she idol­ized. It ex­tended to some if not all of those clos­est to her, es­pe­cially if they re­sem­bled El­liott.

This bi­og­ra­pher un­earths some amaz­ing trea­sures, in­clud­ing the as­ton­ish­ing fact that the Simon and Gar­funkel song “Mrs. Robinson” “might have been Mrs. Roo­sevelt, with lyrics orig­i­nally in­tended as a paean to Eleanor from the com­poser. Paul Simon ad­mired the former first lady, shar­ing her pol­i­tics, her hopes for the Amer­i­can fu­ture, her worldview, her long life de­voted to public ser­vice. He had not com­pleted the words for the tune when Mike Ni­chols asked for it. And quickly. So Simon rewrote a few lines. But not all of them. The re­sult is a clas­sic piece of pop­u­lar mu­sic that doesn’t make nearly as much sense lyri­cally as is sup­posed to.”

“So for those of us who won­dered how the lyrics with its bless­ings ap­ply to the un­sym­pa­thetic Mrs. Robinson in ‘The Grad­u­ate,’ now we know that they are re­ally for an­other Mrs. R. al­to­gether.” And not just the ref­er­ence to “go­ing to the can­di­dates’ de­bate.”

Per­haps El­liott’s en­dur­ing in­flu­ence on his daugh­ter are best en­cap­su­lated in some of the words Eleanor wrote “in a note­book — for her eyes only, and her emo­tional rea­sons, only:

“‘I knew a child once who adored her fa­ther. She was an ugly lit­tle thing, keenly con­scious of her de­fi­cien­cies, and her fa­ther, the only per­son who re­ally cared for her, was away much of the time; but he never crit­i­cized her or blamed her, in­stead he wrote her let­ters and sto­ries, telling her how he dreamed of her grow­ing up. … she must be truth­ful, loyal, brave, well-ed­u­cated … . The child was full of fears … and yet she made her­self as the years went on into a fairly good copy of the pic­ture he had painted.’ ”

Mr. Burns es­tab­lishes that the Eleanor Roo­sevelt whom the world knew, re­spected and ad­mired was shaped by the fa­ther of whom she saw so lit­tle but whose in­flu­ence was de­fin­i­tive.

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