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
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.