I Will Not Be Your Little China Doll:
Representations of Eleanor Roosevelt
in Film and Television

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2020, Volume 19, Issue 1


Angela Beauchamp
University of New Mexico

Considered by many to be the most important American woman of the twentieth century, Eleanor Roosevelt appears or is referenced in more than four hundred film and television programs both as a character or documentary subject, not including her own newsreel and television media. Docudrama, biographical film, and documentary appearances from Great Day (1945) through the fourteen-hour Ken Burns series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014) indicate her importance in public memory. More recently, she turns up in period piece comedy and historical creative nonfiction episodes of Another Period (2016), Drunk History (2016), Horrible Histories (2017), and a late night "Passive Aggressive History" sketch (2016), as well as continued documentary coverage. It is familiar territory to point out that biographical and historical films that seek to recreate the past do so in the context of present cultural discourses, and in the case of Mrs. Roosevelt, watching how her character changes over time is a fascinating exercise.

Early works like Sunrise at Campobello (1960) paint the picture of heteronormativity, framing her contributions in terms of marriage and family, and interpreting her motivations, ambitions, and accomplishments through the lenses of stereotypical gender roles. However, by 1976, the canonical Eleanor and Franklin queers Eleanor by seeking to explain her rather unconventional life outside of expected patterns of family and a woman's place within heteropatriarchal structures. The creation of a long-lasting public image of a sad and lonely woman, her existence outlined by her husband's rejection and a need to find fulfilment outside of a failed marriage, counters whispers about Eleanor's sexuality at the time. As a consequence, it actively disrupts a normative understanding of this woman's independent life, and thus Hyde Park on Hudson in 2012, in which the King and Queen of England are made aware that she lives not with her husband, but in another house with female friends ("the sort who like each other"), is not the first queering of the First Lady. Productions often rationalize her life, so different from most married women of her times, as a reaction to her husband's philandering, defining her as jilted wife who must find contentment outside the home. Other interpretations include her assumed frigidity as a "Victorian woman," thus excusing FDR's transgressions and allowing her to move into a saintly, chaste position in society.

For decades, Eleanor's contributions as an activist, humanitarian, and politician stood out as bold and unexpected for a woman. Her detractors, and there were many, also called attention to her intrusion into the world of men with cartoons and editorials. The "First Lady of Liberalism"; a civil rights, worker's rights, and women's rights advocate; champion of the poor, peace activist, and primary author of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a new model for what women could be in the 1920s through her death in 1962, before which she chaired the first U.S. Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. In an atmosphere that confined women largely to their homes, Eleanor Roosevelt entered with daily newspaper columns, political radio shows, and appearances in the newsreels as she sought and received unprecedented press coverage for women of the time.

The savvy Roosevelt political team preempted some of the criticism of an activist Eleanor by couching everything she did in terms of an extension of FDR and merely a wife and helpmate, not a woman with ambitions of her own. The staple story that Eleanor was FDR's "eyes and legs" or "eyes and ears" as a service to the nation when he could not easily travel served as an explanation for her busy schedule to a variety of locales. Clues found within her own writing reveal that this strategy was one way to avoid some of the scathing ridicule that other women, single or married, endured. For example, in the 1920s, the story often reported is that Eleanor became active with Democratic Party women in New York as a means to keep the Roosevelt name alive while Franklin recovered from polio. However, her autobiography notes that she began working with the League of Women Voters before Franklin's polio (112). Eleanor's writing also tells us, "When the last child went to boarding school, I began to want to do things on my own, to use my own mind and abilities for my own aims" (279). This time period coincides with FDR's years privately convalescing, but also reveals different interests and motivations behind the façade of devoted public servant who would have been at home had her husband not required her assistance in the public sphere. Although she was making money with her articles, columns, appearances, and radio shows, and her writing reveals that economic self-sufficiency was of paramount importance to ER (the initials she used to sign her letters), she pitched these efforts as a wife who was reluctant to burden her husband by asking for money for presents and charitable giving. Eleanor's activities carefully avoided "career" implications, couching it all in the traditional role of helpmate and do-gooder – despite the fact that she also presented a new model of a very independent woman, one who brought in more money than her husband did during the first year of his presidency (Cook, Vol. 2, 3).

The world now marvels that the ordinary person did not know that polio-stricken Franklin could not walk, but this was not the only illusion engineered by the Roosevelts. ER and FDR both characterized "the most liberated woman of this century," as noted historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called her in 1971 (xiii), in heteronormative terms, allowing her to participate in what was a man's world of public policy. The woman who did the bidding of a husband with limited mobility was a public relations invention in a time when women with ambition and drive of their own were not well accepted in the public sphere. This persona became so widely accepted that as film and television assumed the role of the dominant means of storytelling, biographical films, docudramas, and documentaries all replicated the image repeatedly without interrogation.

The earliest cinematic representations of Mrs. Roosevelt take an approach that aligns with the image she created: the wife who was her husband's eyes and ears. The British film Great Day (1945) revolves around preparations for her visit to observe women's contributions to the war effort: "She's not coming as the First Lady of America, but as one of yourselves, a woman with a husband and a family and a home of her own." The first major portrayal of Eleanor for American audiences came in Sunrise at Campobello, a Tony-winning Broadway play and then a 1960 biographical film centering on FDR's comeback from polio. The film's tagline reveals other themes: "Ralph Bellamy as the man who never forgot how to smile...Greer Garson as the woman who never forgot how to love." Franklin's disease and recovery challenge the big, happy Roosevelt family, but all come together with Eleanor as the loving wife who cries with him, shares intimate conversations about his loneliness, and sacrifices herself on his behalf. The film closely ties ER's public activities to FDR's condition, but there is no discussion of the kind of issues with which she is concerned or the people and groups she meets outside of the household. Sunrise at Campobello supports the 1950s American familial ideals by presenting ER as the perfect wife and mother who only leaves her home to support her husband and always comes back into the home to her happy family. One reviewer at the time points out its "particular brand of wholesomeness and sentimentality" (62). It was not until after Eleanor’s death that Jonathan Daniels wrote about FDR's affair with Lucy Mercer in The Time Between the Wars, published in 1966.

As the 1970s dawned and the feminist movement became more prominent in American popular culture, some of the most idealized heteronormative pictures of Eleanor Roosevelt (particularly conspicuous in the Oscar-winning The Eleanor Roosevelt Story and several documentary television programs) began to wane. However, the helpmate stereotypes continued, including the smash 1973 hit The Way We Were, which utilizes reverence for ER to differentiate liberal activist Katie (Barbra Streisand) from boyfriend Hubbell (Robert Redford) and his conservative, moneyed friends, and in the 1983 TV series Voyagers. In the episode "Destiny's Choice," characters go back in time "to help history along, give it a push when it's needed," and the "push" they give is not only to Franklin (Nicholas Pryor) to reach for his political dreams, but to Eleanor (Ellen Geer) to get behind him as a faithful wife, this time wearing ultra-feminine pink.

Twenty years after that, a throwback appeared in HBO's television movie Warm Springs from 2005. While this portrait of FDR's (Kenneth Branagh) recovery from polio shows him as complex and multi-dimensional, Eleanor (Cynthia Nixon) is once again the supportive wife who will do anything for her husband. This version retells the Sunrise at Campobello story, only this time, Franklin's affair with Lucy Mercer begins the tale, making ER's devotion even more remarkable. The script ignores the evidence of the last several decades about the very separate lives that these two people led and manufactures the ultimate wife with Eleanor's character reduced to a cardboard cutout and martyr. This characterization is puzzling for 2005 on HBO – until listening to the Blu-ray audio commentary from screenwriter Margaret Nagle, who herself views ER as the devoted wife. For Nagle, Eleanor and Franklin start over again by loving one another in ways they had not since the Mercer affair. Instead of what many see as the role of polio in freeing Eleanor as she went out into the political world, even if it was to keep Franklin's name in the political arena, this writer sees it as the important event to cement a model marriage. Historian Geoffrey Ward's commentary in The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014) effectively negates Nagle's view as a romantic myth of what polio did for the Roosevelt marriage, insisting that it drove them farther apart while FDR was away for long periods of time, ER beginning a career of her own.

Another biographical work relies on the recollections of people who knew ER and place her in the context of the stereotypical wife and mother. Lillian Rogers Parks, a maid at the White House for three decades, authored the book Backstairs at the White House, with added remembrances by her mother Maggie Rogers, also a White House employee. Although the book and 1979 television mini-series purport to show the personal lives of the presidents and their families, writers scrubbed the story clean of controversy or revelations of transgressions. From the moment she appears on screen, ER (Eileen Heckart) is a mother with a large family. This maternal status explains her down-to-earth appearance and manner, especially when contrasted with the formal Herbert and Lou Hoover family as predecessors. She soon enters the kitchen and says to the shocked African-American staff, "Oh my, you're so busy down here. You need help. I have raised five children. I've served a lot of meals," as she takes a plate to the dining room herself. A practical knowledge of work in a kitchen, arising from her presumed preparation of meals for a large family, symbolically reduces her motivations for political work to a woman's natural role. In reality, ER had servants all her life and admitted that she did not know how to cook anything but scrambled eggs. After the archival release of the loving letters between Lorena Hickok and Eleanor, Parks wrote The Roosevelts: A Family in Turmoil in 1981, a real "tell all" version of Backstairs. She talks about "Hicky" and how happy Parks was that Eleanor was in love, not lonely as some other authors had claimed, but none of this appeared in the normative, idealized Backstairs at the White House series or book.

Many feminists in the 1970s and 1980s rejected the portrayal of Eleanor as an extension of her husband and family, a wife and mother rather than her own person, and ER became an icon as an independent woman. Yet the feminist movement was not without its own normalizing forces and stereotypes. A new ideal of marriages that were equal partnerships between men and women became a part of popular culture, and the Roosevelt marriage was adapted to fit this model. A range of docudramas, biographies, and even a musical, portray a husband and wife who share power at the White House dinner table, crossing borders between personal and public relationships. Quintessential representations include three World War II era television mini-series from the 1980s, The Winds of War (1983) and War and Remembrance (1988), both Emmy winners adapted from Herman Wouk novels, and Crossings (1986), based on a Danielle Steele romance. In the sixth episode of The Winds of War, "The Changing of the Guard," FDR (Ralph Bellamy in a role reprise) and ER (Elizabeth Hoffman) host a dinner party with the two of them literally balancing the table at either end. Both are pleasantly entertaining, talking about the war and US strategy as equals in a political discussion. In an earlier episode, "Defiance," ER is like an intimate advisor involved in decision-making discussions between FDR and an admiral as she questions and supports Franklin with his concern to help the British. When the President makes martinis, he serves them to both Eleanor and the admiral, symbolically showing his wife's equal footing with the naval officer. Crossings copycats the balanced table scene in another dinner party, and even the musical Annie (1982) treats ER (Lois De Banzie) as a key component to the administration with the kindly FDR (Edward Herrmann). This feminist ER, not subsumed by her marriage, is an image that became a part of television documentaries in the late 1980s and the following decades.

Media critics recognize that hypersexualization often applies to female characters in ways that do not apply to men and male characters. Although Eleanor Roosevelt and her fictional personages are usually not subject to such objectification (perhaps because she is a revered figure, considered "ugly" by male standards, and usually an older woman, thus avoiding over-sexualization), some productions manage to contain ER by making her this kind of "everywoman" and thus inconsequential. One example of this characterizatioon appears in the revisionist historical spoof FDR: American Badass! (2012). After FDR returns as a great war hero from a successful European mission, masculine weapons substituting for his legs, she climbs into his lap and tells him, "I'm going to ride you like a free pony at the state fair tonight" (not a shocking line within the context of the movie). Badass! reduces ER to a woman who does not belong in male conversations with comments like, "Shhh, grown men conversing. Seen not heard, Eleanor." A surprise addition to a sexualized ER is FDR: That Man in the White House, the 1982 television version of the one-man monologue by Sunrise at Campobello writer Dore Schary, featuring Robert Vaughn as FDR. At one point, he speaks to Eleanor, who is offscreen: "That's a new dress, isn't it? Mmm, yes, I like that, a little more cleavage there than usual. No, I'm not criticizing. It's rather attractive." This causes laughter from the theater audience since it contradicts what one might expect from a serious play about the couple, and viewers even find it laughable in its suggestion that there was a sexual component to the presidential marriage. This very brief reference normalizes her as everywoman but in a different way from the wife, mother, or feminist role model. The comment makes the FDR/ER partnership an idealized marriage with a shared marital bed.

Although the word "queer" most often refers to gender identity and sexuality, queer theory has shaped how a variety of disciplines look at individuals and groups of people defined as different from the norm or what is considered by some the natural order of social and family life. The first section of this article briefly examined how film and television normalizes the figure of Eleanor Roosevelt, understanding her as a person who fits into accepted roles for women in American culture. However, an equal number of TV programs and movies queer ER by depicting her life as outside heteronormative models. The most canonical biographical mini-series, which was the first docudrama mini-series on television (Edgerton 160), is still widely referenced by today's viewers – Emmy winner Eleanor and Franklin (1976) – and its lauded sequel Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years (1977). Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book Eleanor and Franklin: The Story of Their Relationship by ER's friend Joseph Lash, this work shifted the paradigm from ER as the model wife and mother who lived to serve her husband and the world to one of the suffering saint, a woman who could not find fulfillment within a troubled marriage and thus lived a sad, lonely life brightened by giving to others outside of her family. Referring to the Mercer affair, Lash tells us, ER "was a woman of sorrow who had surmounted her own unhappiness and managed to carry on, stoical toward herself, understanding and tender towards others" (449). Eleanor is defined by her lack of a normative marriage, and this characterization seeks to explain her good works in a way that marks her as different from other women who aspire to romantic love in a marital context. The saint transcends earthly needs of love and desire, and the very first line of dialogue in the film expresses this theme of the importance of sacrifice. At a public event, a moderator praises ER (Jane Alexander): "We especially want to thank our gracious First Lady for her presence, for her wonderful speech, which meant delaying her visit to the President in Warm Springs in order to be with us, another instance of her always being ready to sacrifice her own interests in a good cause." Moments later, a note calls her to the White House, where she learns of FDR's death in Warm Springs, Georgia. After quickly traveling south, Cousin Laura Delano (Anna Lee) tells her that Franklin (Edward Herrmann) was with Lucy Mercer (Linda Kelsey) when he passed away. When she views the body and then accompanies him on the train back to Washington, DC, the program switches into flashback mode as she remembers his betrayal and affair with Lucy in 1918. It then moves into the story of her life as a child, the teenage years at Allenswood, the FDR/ER courtship, early marriage, children, and family life before the affair. The context of the affair frames Eleanor's early life in such a way that the betrayal shapes her entire adult life and serves as the motivation for her political work. In essence, it tells viewers that this rejected woman within a failed marriage had to find work outside the home to find meaning. In the book, Lash refers to her "desolating conviction that she had failed as a woman" (325). In the final moments of The White House Years sequel, ER speaks with her daughter Anna about "the suffering I went through all those years ago," putting in place the audience's final image of a woman who "suffered" and thus became such an important figure for the American public. The sad, jilted woman of Eleanor and Franklin endures with an image still valued by dissatisfied spectators of Hyde Park on Hudson in 2012 when, in online comments, they recommend the 1976 production instead.

 Another means of queering Eleanor Roosevelt is by representing her as a bad mother, a woman who is not a natural at motherhood with her own children, so she must extend her womanly need to nurture to the rest of the world. The Emmy winning CBS television movie Eleanor: First Lady of the World (1982) shames her in this manner. One might expect thisproduction to be a celebration of ER, and although its primary focus is on her accomplishments in the United Nations, it begins with her packing up to leave the White House after FDR's death. Well-known TV actor Jean Stapleton plays Eleanor as her daughter Anna (Gail Strickland) urges her to retire from public life, immediately undercutting the value placed on ER's life work. Anna says, "My God, do you have to be useful and saintly every minute?" After Eleanor's response, "I don't quite feel ready to be put out to pasture," Anna continues, "For the first time in your life, you have time. You certainly had no time when we were growing up. Between your politics and your causes, there was precious little of you for any of us.... It's not too late for your grandchildren. Some of them see you more as a national monument than as a grandmother." Eleanor's response is defensive, "Well, not having been a very good mother, I don't suppose I'd be much better as a grandmother." After a few moments, Anna criticizes her again. "You didn't even cry when Pa died.... I am your only daughter, and I have never seen you cry." Perhaps to show the audience that ER is not completely unlike other women, Anna is cruel and proceeds to make Eleanor cry. However, the script differentiates the saintly figure from Eleanor and Franklin as somehow unnatural. She later redeems herself by taking grandson Buzz (Jeffrey Marcus) to Paris with her to the next UN meeting, in this case making a compromise to include family with official duties, but the damage results from leading the whole production with the "bad mother" theme. This point is not unusual, as she herself noted in autobiographical material that she knew little about mothering and left much to nurses and her mother-in-law. Significantly, though, the emphasis on her disinclination to mother sets her apart from the standard familial narrative in ways that reflections about FDR's lack of fathering skills do not.

In his 1973 book review of Lash's Eleanor and Franklin, Roger Daniels ends with this observation: "For all her modernity, Eleanor was never, in the proper sense, liberated: she was, rather, the greatest of the Victorians" (137). In what way was Eleanor a Victorian? No one could argue that ER's political and social views were not progressive, that she acquiesced to FDR in matters of the home, or that she was not financially independent. What the writer likely means is that she was asexual, without an intimate life outside of marriage to a man, an assumption based on stereotypes placed on women of a certain age, especially one who was a widow and did not remarry. Joseph Lash's conversation with daughter Anna, in which she recounts that Eleanor told her "sex was an ordeal to be borne," became the basis for the idea that ER had no interest in sex or intimacy (211). Elliott talks about his mother as "repressed" (23) and states that after the birth of the youngest son, John, "My parents never again lived together as husband and wife" (81). He blames Franklin's affair on ER's "insistence on abstinence" (82) because of her lack of knowledge about birth control and tells readers that "the sexual side of her nature had never been aroused" (107).

Son James is kinder but still speculates based on stereotypes: "Mother was a product of a Victorian background and I have no doubt she dreaded the sexual side of marriage, if only because she knew nothing about it. She had been brought up so formally she was not able to give herself freely to a man" (97). In this way, ER becomes cold and unaffectionate, void of intimacy or passion in her life, queered in her lack of interest in "normal" relationships and sex with men. The ideal woman would not have left her husband's bedroom for all those years, and after his death, the expectation was to find another man to marry to complete a woman's life. ER biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook paints an entirely different picture and tells us that Eleanor was a lifelong member of the Birth Control League. She suggests that the children's understanding of their parents' bedroom arrangements has little to do with the goals of biographers and historians to uncover the real motivations and passions of women in the past (12).

This asexual spinster character is represented in diverse ways, some as simple as showing ER as cold and socially apart from others, as we see in Bertie and Elizabeth (2000). The PBS television drama includes the King and Queen of England's visit to Hyde Park prior to WWII, and in this brief scene, ER (Irene Richards) sits slightly off to the side, unsmiling, while Bertie (James Wilby) leans towards Sara Delano Roosevelt and chats with her. This staging misrepresents Eleanor. When viewing the actual archival footage of this very scene, a smiling ER leans toward the King, very much a part of the group with the gregarious FDR (see Royal Family at War).

NBC Emmy winner FDR: The Last Year (1980) illuminates Eleanor's difference by contrasting her presence to the hyperfemininity of Lucy Mercer (Kim Hunter), as well as placing her in the role of the angry feminist who hates men, the worst kind of spinster. In the teleplay, based on the book by Jim Bishop, Lucy plays a pivotal role with numerous visits during the year before Franklin's death. She comforts him, holding him to her bosom, kissing in the car and cuddling in bed together. This is a lover and a woman who fawns on FDR (Jason Robards), giggling at his jokes. She is the hegemonic picture of femininity, while Eleanor (Eileen Heckart) seems a bother, stopping in Franklin's bedroom only to make a list of issues she wishes him to address. The two have a tense relationship in which FDR does not really listen to her political suggestions, and he actively deceives her to meet Lucy on several occasions. ER is critical, not supportive, and they are not very friendly to one another. Lucy, on the other hand, kisses him on the check, touches his shoulder like an intimate, smiles at his jokes and looks on adoringly, not engaging in political discussion at all. When he mentions Stalin to her, she just smiles, indicating that this is how he likes his women. Near the end of the two-hour television movie, FDR changes the subject from politics with Eleanor to suggest that after this term, they go away together to work in the Arabian Desert to help make it bloom. He appears to be holding out an olive branch, but ER does not take it: "What are you talking about? I have my work." FDR makes a case that they go somewhere exotic and "get tan and run to fat." Her response is angry: "There’s one thing I will not be, Franklin, not ever. I will not be your little China doll." On the defensive, he tells her, "I never asked. I never wanted a doll of any sort, China, stuffed, carved, or ornamental. I dislike dolls." However, Lucy's presence contradicts this. She is, in fact, the doll he is now enjoying behind ER's back. The film queers Eleanor by placing her in opposition to Lucy, who appears somewhat mindless, beautiful, and adoring, even many years younger than FDR.

On the day of Franklin's death in Warm Springs, a reporter asks, "Mrs. Roosevelt, may I ask who designed the dress you're wearing?" She says, "Why, I haven't the slightest idea" and laughs, right before she is handed the note about FDR. Filmmakers set up this scene to show how different ER is from the coiffed, ultra-feminine Lucy, the two crosscut for contrast. Following a brief shot of ER with the note, the camera lingers on Lucy crying in the car after being asked to leave the presidential cottage. Then we never see Eleanor on screen again. The editing implies that Lucy is the true woman in grief, the real heterosexual partner here, while Eleanor is the cold, angry feminist who does not care about proper feminine fashion or supporting her husband in his last months of life. She certainly is not inclined to share his bed or loving kisses. While Eleanor and Franklin just a few years earlier had a sympathetic tone that favors ER over Franklin and his infidelities, this television movie portrays her in a more negative light, explaining Franklin's affairs by focusing on the feminine woman Eleanor is not.

The subject of Eleanor’s relationship with Lorena Hickok ("Hick") has been a contentious one, with the major ER biographers like Blanche Wiesen Cook and Allida Black interpreting the love letters between these two women as expressions of emotional and physical love. They view the letters in the context of Eleanor's life in a world of women in the 1920s, as her very closest friends were what we would now define as lesbian women, as was Hick. Closed to the public until ten years after Hickok's death, the first scholar to discover them in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library was Doris Faber, who quickly wrote The Life of Lorena Hickok: E.R.'s Friend. The book portrays the two women as both physically unattractive and without affection from others and claims that ER would never have crossed the line into a physical relationship with another woman. Cook wrote a scathing review of Faber's book, prompting her to begin work on what would become a three-volume Eleanor biography. In 1998, Rodger Streitmatter transcribed a selection of three hundred out of the thousands of letters in Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, making these available to the public for the first time.

If Joseph Lash and Eleanor and Franklin in 1976 shifted the paradigm from model wife and saint to suffering saint, Cook's biography fractures that paradigm. A radical revisiting of Eleanor’s life punctures the interpretation of a lonely woman without aspirations of her own. The discourse around the Hickok letters also points viewers to the effects of an intimate friendship, regardless of what else it might have been. Fictional narratives produced in the last several years after Warm Springs (2005), which was most interested in a story of a perfect marriage, appear to accept the queer Eleanor, the woman who lives a private life quite separate from her husband. There is a definite shift in the public's understanding of who Eleanor Roosevelt is and was in the world. This includes major theatrical releases Amelia (2009), J. Edgar (2011), and Hyde Park on Hudson (2012); independent films by women who appropriate ER in History Lessons (2000) and The Honeymoon Years of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok (2005); and more recently, television episodes of Another Period (2016) and webisodes of First Lady Problems (2018). 

The feature about Amelia Earhart shows Amelia (Hilary Swank) as a woman in charge of her marriage and open to heterosexual affairs, but it also subtly includes ER to hint at Amelia's attractiveness to other women. The historical occasion when Amelia took Eleanor for a ride up above Washington, DC one evening begins here with a dinner at which Amelia pays her a compliment: "The wrong Roosevelt got elected." ER (Cherry Jones) briefly pilots the plane over the dark sky and lights of the city, and when they have landed, she tells the flyer breathlessly, "I shall never, ever forget this night." Amelia's husband G.P. Putnam (Richard Gere) hears this comment and says, "She seems quite taken with you." Amelia adds, "And vice versa." This cinematically beautiful scene and the dialogue insert a subtext of attraction between the two, layered by the fact that actor Cherry Jones, who plays ER, identifies as a lesbian. Another clue exists in the character of a young Gore Vidal (William Cuddy), who appears as a boy in the film while his father Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor) has an affair with Amelia. Gay icon Gore wrote about the affair in his memoir, Point to Point Navigation, as well as speculating on his friend Eleanor's private life in other essays, and this plot includes a moment with Amelia lobbying with ER for Gene's position as the country's first Director of Air Commerce.

The personage of Eleanor does not appear as a physical character in Golden Globe nominated J. Edgar (2011), but her presence is critical to this film's interpretation of the life of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and to changing popular culture impressions of her private life. Hoover was a man historically understood to despise ER, compiling one of the largest FBI files on any individual, from her 1920s activities promoting the World Court, to "naïve" associations with communist sympathizing youth organizations and the anti-lynching and anti-racism work that dominates the bulk of the file up until her death. These documents, now available to the public, include his personal writing in the margins with comments like "this old hen" and "this old cow" ("Eleanor Roosevelt," Booknotes). The film recreates a scene in which Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) holds the transcript supposedly of an audio recording of ER in an "intimate moment" with a male communist in a hotel room. There are two shocking elements here – one that ER is having sex with a man who is not her husband, but the bigger impact comes from the fact that the Director of the FBI is bugging the hotel rooms of the First Lady and then using that information as leverage to force the president (David A. Cooper) to give him even wider powers. Conjecture after the Freedom of Information Act is that this was a tape of Joseph Lash and his then-girlfriend Trude using ER's hotel room for this "intimate moment." Within the context of the film, this scene establishes a very trusting relationship between Hoover and his new right-hand-man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) who would become his lifelong companion and, as some have suggested, lover. This is the first piece of confidential information from his secret files that he would then routinely share with Tolson, who wields an attraction that Hoover does not yet understand.

This plot point also sets up the next scene in which they discuss ER in a different light, connecting Eleanor to themes of sex, love, and hidden desires for the two men. Hoover holds a letter in his hand and reads it aloud to Tolson: "Only eight more days. Funny how even the dearest face will fade away in time. Most clearly I remember your eyes with a sort of teasing smile in them and the feeling of the soft spot just northeast of the corner of your mouth against my lips. It's a letter from Lorena Hickok, the White House reporter with the bad breath to Mrs. Roosevelt…. I accused her of having an affair with a man and old horse face is having an affair with Mrs. Bad Breath. Whoa. Can you believe it?" Tolson merely smiles but takes this comment as a sign that Hoover may be interested in intimacy of this kind with him. The quote comes from actual letters between ER and Hickok, and we can see the text used as an indexical device to strengthen the audience's acceptance of Hoover's sexuality. He is reading letters from this same time period that contain homoerotic elements, adding historical legitimacy to this portrayal. What the audience does not know at this point is the enormous impact of Hick and Eleanor's voices, expressing the hidden desires of these two men and the feelings that they are unable to share with one another in the open. The film ends with Tolson finding ER's confidential file in Hoover's bedroom on the day of J. Edgar's death, the camera zooming in on the cover page as a form of historical proof of its existence. After covering up the intimacy of Hoover's naked torso on the floor, Clyde silently reads that same letter while Hoover's voiceover does the same. Fade to black. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, best known for his Oscar winning feature on gay activist Harvey Milk (Milk, 2008), depicts Eleanor Roosevelt, whom the world assumed was a Hoover nemesis, as his model of a loving, alternative relationship. It is a radical revision of the historical record, taking the silences, gossip, and winks of the past to reconstruct a new vision of queer history.
Black humanizes J. Edgar Hoover, a man some consider a monster for his blackmail of presidents and other figures, but a different sort of humanizing drew outrage from many reviewers and audience members of the 2012 British film Hyde Park on Hudson. In this comedic biopic, the mythic image of Franklin Roosevelt (Bill Murray) is tarnished by the suggestion of sexual affairs with not only Lucy Mercer, but secretary Missy LeHand (Elizabeth Marvel), and distant cousin Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney) as they approach the weekend when the King (Samuel West) and Queen of England (Olivia Colman) will be visiting Hyde Park. However, it is not just the suggestion of FDR's many female companions, but also the lack of respect for the mountain of hagiography that usually accompanies depictions of FDR. This is Bill Murray, a comedian, rather than an esteemed dramatic actor, and early in the script, Franklin drives the adoring and pliable Daisy out to an isolated field where he persuades her to fondle him, the car bouncing along. One gets the impression that this is her first time performing the act, and she is in love, still ignorant of the other simultaneous mistresses. Director Roger Michell explains in the DVD audio commentary: "One of the radical things about this script was that this rather intimate event happens quite early in the movie and rather jolts everybody's expectation about what kind of film they’re watching." The whole of the film wraps around issues of the public and the private, the lives that the President, First Lady, King, and Queen all lead not only behind closed doors, but also out into plain view. The public did not know about FDR's inability to walk, and the press was complicit in keeping it a secret. There was also an agreement to keep the not-so-normative personal lives from the citizenry. As the King and Queen notice Franklin being carried from the front of the house after greeting the royals, around the side to be placed in his study, Daisy says, "And everyone pretended, as usual, not to notice anything." She refers not only to polio, but also to household arrangements that become apparent to visitors, who say nothing. Later Daisy, the sometimes narrator, talks about FDR's failing health during the war and how the press ignores this as well: "Everyone still looking to him, still seeing whatever it was they wanted to see. In a time, not so very long ago, when the world still allowed itself secrets, Franklin Roosevelt was mine." This film is about those secrets and makes the audience think about whether today"s ideal of transparency, combined with intense interest in the details of every aspect of the lives of public officials, is a good thing or a bad thing.
At the same time Franklin's portrayal is lecherous and misogynistic when it comes to how he treats Daisy and Missy, he is also kind and levelheaded. His superlative public self leads the nation and advises the King, while his private self is another matter. Eleanor's (Olivia Williams) representation is demanding, shrewd, not so kind. It is clear that Hick is the most important person in her life, not FDR, as ER mentions "Hick says" several times, driving home her significance to the audience. Daisy explains in voiceover, "Hick was short for Lorena Hickok, one of these friends of Eleanor's Franklin called 'she-men.'" Later, Missy tells Daisy, "It wasn't Eleanor who abandoned him. She caught him…. Eleanor is realistic." Thus, the onus is on FDR, without blame on ER for building this separate life. The film extends its arguments about what others knew and kept to themselves with a conversation as a royal aide (Andrew Havill) prepares Bertie and Elizabeth for their visit to Hyde Park:

Aide: You’ll be staying in the Roosevelt house, sir. In fact, it's the president's mother's house, and she will officially be your hostess.
Queen: Where is the president's house?
Aide: This is where he lives.
King: With his mother? He doesn't have a house?
Aide: He has a room.
Queen: And his wife?
Aide: She lives in another house, hers, which she shares with other women. They make furniture. The furniture...they make it. They're couples. They're the sort who like each other.

(During the Great Depression, Nancy Cook, Marion Dickerman, and ER started a furniture factory at Val-Kill next to the cottage to provide jobs for local men.)

Thus, the script again presents a queer Eleanor and respects this interpretation without making a spectacle of the possibility. The film portrays ER and FDR as a couple who comes together over politics, and although quite amiable with one another, they keep separate living arrangements. When Missy mentions that the King's brother had just met with Hitler, ER responds, "And this is the family we're having in our house for the weekend?" Franklin's next line makes the situation clear: "You don't even live here." ER responds, "I'm staying the night. At least that's what I told your mother." Thus, the film openly acknowledges the separate lives. Cinematically, the production never frames FDR and ER together, keeping them physically separated even in the same shot. Just as the filmmakers interpret the historical evidence about FDR's affairs, they also present an interpretation of ER's private life. Director Michell explains in commentary over a scene in which Eleanor is talking about Hick and puts her hand on Franklin's shoulder, as would an intimate: "Eleanor and FDR's marriage obviously has been much written about and probably still is a mystery to a certain extent. I think Richard's script at this moment gives that mystery some respect, but they were a partnership. It was an incredible union, wasn't it?" The presentation of Franklin's nonchalance about his women seems to have provoked much of the ire from critics and viewers while the implications for ER's life were much less of a focus. Michell continues, "Any of these things are fictions in a way. All historical drama is fiction. We don’t really know what these people really said to each other behind closed doors. It’s all surmise. It’s all a version." Thus he drives home the constructed nature of all historical films and characters based on real people. These are all interpretations that change with knowledge, with changes in popular culture, and with our understandings of the normative over time. Both historians and filmmakers interpret information in varying ways, sometimes making the evidence fit into the heteronormal, until a time when public understandings of these lives have reached a tipping point. FDR's affair with Lucy Mercer is now historical "fact." For many recent feminists and filmmakers, Eleanor Roosevelt led a very separate social life, quite queer, regardless of any sexual activity that we will likely never know about.
The recent trend in creative historical nonfiction and period piece comedy on television follows this shift. For example, the mockumentary historical sitcom Another Period follows the lives of the wealthy Bellacourt family and their servants in 1902 Newport, Rhode Island. In "Roosevelt," Franklin (Michael Welch), Eleanor (June Diane Raphael), and Teddy (Mike O'Connell) visit, and while we expect eldest daughter Hortense (Lauren Flans), suffragist and member of the Newport Association of Gal Spinsters (NAGS), to bond with ER, Hortense is shunned. Instead Eleanor seduces youngest daughter Beatrice (Riki Lindhome), a beauty with no opinions of her own. Web series First Lady Problems (2018) finds ER (Gilli Messer) time traveling into the present, where she becomes wonderfully comfortable with her sexuality after finding out about the publication of what she thought were private letters with Hick. She even figures out how to use a lesbian dating app on her smart phone. Other recent shows like Veep (2017, "Georgia"), Glee (2015, "What the World Needs Now"), The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family (2017, "Women of a Certain Age"), and Hollywood (2020, "Screen Tests") also make reference to ER's perceived status as lesbian or bisexual.
Historically, we know that many hated Eleanor because of her work on issues of race and racism, as well as her concerns for the poor and working class. She was a target and scapegoat over the years, even with a Ku Klux Klan bounty on her head in the 1950s. Her stands on the practice of lynching or against barriers to African Americans in the military in WWII placed her further outside of the normative matronly role, and some Southern quarters especially reviled her during her lifetime. A critique of "whiteness" is also a critique of the heteronormative, as it is the straight, white, middle-class, male ideal from which all other marginalized groups are measured. The stories of ER sitting in the middle of an aisle in the South when told that it was illegal to sit where she was on the Black side of the room, or her resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution after the organization denied Marian Anderson the right to sing in Constitution Hall, are repeated in a number of documentaries as inclusive moments. What is telling in terms of changes in American society is that in the late twentieth century and the post-millennium, these anti-racist actions are normalizing. ER is a civil rights leader largely revered for these activities rather than what happened in her own lifetime, with the extreme hatred and vulnerability she faced over these issues. ER is queered in historical context only by showing the extreme language used by opponents, as expressed in documentaries like 761st (2007), which focuses on the African American tank battalion in WWII. It openly refers to their other name, "Eleanor Roosevelt's N------s." HBO's television movie The Tuskegee Airmen (2005) does not go that far, showing Eleanor (Rosemary Murphy) dropping by the airfield to go for a ride with a "colored pilot" as a means to get press coverage that would allow them to serve overseas. In a modern context, she is a hero for this work, and the film does not successfully call out her difference from accepted attitudes of the time.

The on-screen moment that effectively queers her for modern audiences is from television special Eleanor: In Her Own Words (1987). ER (Lee Remick) reads from a letter she has received. "I don't need to be rude, but do you have colored blood in your family, as you seem to derive so much pleasure in associating with colored folk?" She answers simply: "I haven't as yet discovered any colored blood, but of course if any of us go back far enough, I suppose we can find the same beginnings." Marked as "colored" because of her associations, the non-white distinction defines ER as "Other." The assumption is that naturally, biologically there must be something different to place her in that non-normative category. The Ken Burns 2014 documentary series works towards a similar message to the audience by including a letter appearing in the Jackson, Mississippi Daily News: "It is blood on your hands, Mrs. Roosevelt. You have personally been proclaiming and practicing social equality at the White House and wherever you go." As the narrator goes on to discuss the hundreds of thousands of African Americans who moved north to work in factories during the war and subsequent race riots, viewers must pause to consider the words in the letter. The writer does not laud her for her activism. Instead, he blames her for advocating "social equality," considering it the work of a traitor to her race – one of the few such jarring moments in a mini-series that largely avoids contentious topics.
Both Roosevelts were also hated as "traitors to their class," wealthy patricians who expanded the role of government and its leaders to care for and connect with the "common man" in the United States. While we see indications of this treatment of FDR, film and television rarely address this fact for Eleanor on-screen in a meaningful way. Documentaries often cover her 1935 visit into an Ohio coal mine with archival footage to show the breadth of the kind of travel and connections she made. A famous New Yorker cartoon spoofing that visit appears as a positive memory as she takes on the interests of some of the most poverty-stricken areas of the county, but at the time, the cartoon was not necessarily a celebration of her work. The coal miners look to be in black face, an added "colored" interest, which is another of Eleanor's queered moments, differentiated from other white, upper-class women. Only one film deals with the cartoon's impact on ER, Eleanor Roosevelt: Close to Home, the fundraising DVD available in the gift shop in Val-Kill, produced by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Eleanor, voiced by Jane Alexander, the actor best known for portraying her in Eleanor and Franklin, talks about the topic: "I was doing things that had not been done before. It was indicated to me that I should feel somewhat ashamed of that cartoon and there certainly was something the matter with a woman who wanted to see so much and to know so much." Here we get an indication that in the 1930s, ER's activities drew much more cultural critique than is expressed in recent years. Airing this cartoon today without added discussion does not adequately express the shaming intended at the time, connected to both the black face and low economic status of the men pictured.

Few American women rival Eleanor Roosevelt either in her public, political presence or in her power to inspire. As a woman who manipulated the media in her own lifetime, this legacy long continues in on-screen representations of her life while new biographic investigations and feminist approaches to existing material substantially change the ways that she is presented over time to audiences. The "natural" ideals around marriage and motherhood dominate in early years, later joined by new feminist models that also seek to normalize her marriage, followed by a limited number of portrayals that treat her like any other woman, sexualized and infantilized. As early as the 1970s, other films queer ER by depicting her as unlike normative women: unhappy and unfulfilled within her marriage and thus driven to good works in the world; a bad mother who expresses nurturing to others outside her family; an asexual Victorian woman who is either cold with men or naïve in relationships with women; or more queer in the traditional sense, a woman with a life outside of home and family, sometimes with a very full personal life as well. Today's Eleanor is not merely an extension of her husband, the eyes and ears of the President of the United States, nor his jilted wife, or even a saint. Biographers and historians unearth new material and new interpretations with each new decade, resulting in a much richer understanding of the life of Eleanor Roosevelt on screen.



Works Cited

761st. Directed by Pete Chatmon, Maroma Productions, 2007.

Amelia. Directed by Mira Nair, performances by Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, and Ewan McGregor, Twentieth Century Fox, 2009.

Annie. Directed by John Huston, performances by Aileen Quinn, Albert Finney, and Carol Burnett, Columbia, 1982.

Backstairs at the White House. Directed by Michael O'Herlihy, performances by Olivia Cole, Leslie Uggams, and Louis Gossett Jr., NBC, 1979.

Bertie and Elizabeth. Directed by Giles Foster, performances by James Wilby, Alan Bates, and Eileen Atkins, PBS, 4 June 2002.

Bishop, Jim. FDR's Last Year: April 1944-April 1945. Simon & Schuster, 1975.

Cook, Blanche Wiesen. Eleanor Roosevelt: Vol. 1, 1884-1933. Viking, 1992.

---. Eleanor Roosevelt: Vol. 2, 1933-1938. Viking, 1999.

Crossings. Directed by Karen Arthur, performances by Cheryl Ladd, Lee Horsley, and Christopher Plummer, ABC, 1986.

Daniels, Jonathan. The Time Between the Wars; Armistice to Pearl Harbor. Doubleday, 1966.

Daniels, Roger. "Lash's Eleanor." Reviews in American History, vol. 1, no. 1, 1973, 133-137.

"Destiny's Choice." Voyagers, season 1, episode 17, NBC, 1983.

Edgerton, Gary. "The American Made-for-TV Movie." TV Genres: A Handbook and Reference Guide, edited by Brian Geoffrey Rose and Robert S. Alley, Greenwood, 1985, pp. 151-80.

Eleanor and Franklin. Directed by Daniel Petrie, performances by Jane Alexander, Edward Herrmann, and Rosemary Murphy, ABC, 11 January 1976.

Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years. Directed by Daniel Petrie, performances by Jane Alexander, Edward Herrmann, and Priscilla Pointer, ABC, 13 March 1977.

Eleanor: In Her Own Words. Directed by Mark Cullingham, performance by Lee Remick, PBS, 9 March 1987.

"Eleanor Roosevelt." Booknotes, C-Span, 12 Apr. 1993.

Eleanor Roosevelt: Close to Home. Directed by Anne Makepeace, performances by Eleanor Roosevelt and Jane Alexander, National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2006.

The Eleanor Roosevelt Story. Directed by Richard Kaplan, performances by Archibald Macleish, Eric Sevareid, and Corinne Alsop Cole, Kino Video, 1965.

Faber, Doris. The Life of Lorena Hickok: E.R.'s Friend. W. Morrow, 1980.

FDR: American Badass! Directed by Garrett Brawith, performances by Barry Bostwick, Lin Shaye, and Bruce McGill, Screen Media Films, 2012.

FDR: That Man in the White House. Directed by Anthony Page, performances by Robert Vaughn, Kultur Video, 1982.

FDR: The Last Year. Directed by Anthony Page, performances by Jason Robards, Laurinda Barrett, and Edward Binns, NBC, 15 April 1980.

First Lady Problems. Directed by Allison Begalman, et al., performances by Gilli Messer, Jenn An, and Kevin Phan, RevryTV, 2018.

"Georgia." Veep, season 6, episode 3, HBO, 21 Apr. 2016.

Great Day. Directed by Lance Comfort, performances by Eric Portman, Flora Robson, and Sheila Sim, RKO, 1946.

History Lessons. Directed by Barbara Hammer, performances by Ann Maguire, Jane Fine, and Cocoa Fusco, First Run Features, 2000.

The Honeymoon Years of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. One-woman show written and performed on stage by Marjorie Conn, 2005.

Hyde Park on Hudson. Directed by Roger Michell, performances by Bill Murray, Laura Linney, and Olivia Williams, Universal, 2012.

J. Edgar. Directed by Clint Eastwood, performances by Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, and Naomi Watts, Warner Bros., 2011.

Lash, Joseph P. Eleanor and Franklin: The Story of Their Relationship, Based on Eleanor Roosevelt's Private Papers. W.W. Norton & Co, 1971.

Parks, Lillian Rogers. My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House. Fleet, 1961.

Parks, Lillian Rogers, and Frances Spatz Leighton. The Roosevelts: A Family in Turmoil. Prentice-Hall, 1981.

"Passive Aggressive History: FDR." Rachel Drach's Late Night Snack, season 1, episode 7, truTV, 21 April 2016.

"Preposterous US Presidents." Horrible Histories, season 7, episode 7, BBC, 28 August 2017.

"Screen Tests." Hollywood, season 1, episode 4, Netflix, 1 May 2020.

"Roosevelt." Another Period, season 2, episode 5, Comedy Central, 13 July 2016.

Roosevelt, Eleanor. The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt. Harper & Brothers, 1961.

Roosevelt, Elliott, and James Brough. An Untold Story: The Roosevelts of Hyde Park. Putnam Sons, 1973.

Roosevelt, James, and Bill Libby. My Parents: A Differing View. Playboy, 1976.

"The Roosevelts." Drunk History, season 4, episode 4, Comedy Central, 18 Oct. 2016.

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. Directed by Ken Burns, performances by Paul Giamatti, Edward Herrmann, and Meryl Streep, PBS, 2014.

Royal Family at War. Directed by Andrew Barr and Paul Slater, performances by Peter Williams, Nick Curtis, and Sir Jeffrey Darell, MTM Enterprises, 1995.

Schlesinger Jr., Arthur. "Foreword." Eleanor and Franklin: The Story of Their Relationship, Based on Eleanor Roosevelt's Private Papers. W.W. Norton, 1971, pp. xi-xiv.

Sunrise at Campobello. Directed by Vincent J. Donehue, written by Dore Schary, performances by Ralph Bellamy, Greer Garson, Hume Cronyn, and Jean Hagen. Warner Bros., 1960.

"Sunrise at Campobello." Film Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 2, 1960, p. 62.

The Tuskegee Airmen. Directed by Robert Markowitz., performances by Laurence Fishburne, Allen Payne,and Malcolm-Jamal Warner, HBO, 1995.

Vidal, Gore. Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir, 1964 to 2006. Doubleday, 2006.

War and Remembrance. Directed by Dan Curtis, performances by Robert Mitchum, Jane Seymour, and Hart Bochner, ABC, 1988.

Warm Springs. Directed by Joseph Sargent, performances by Kenneth Branagh, Cynthia Nixon, and David Paymer, HBO, 2005.

The Way We Were. Directed by Sydney Pollack, performances by Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, and Bradford Dillman, Columbia, 1973.

"What the World Needs Now." Glee, season 6, episode 6, Fox, 6 Feb. 2015.

The Winds of War. Directed by Dan Curtis, performances by Robert Mitchum, Ali MacGraw, Jan-Michael Vincent, ABC, 1983.

"Women of a Certain Age." The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, part 3, BroadwayHD, 24 Mar. 2017.


Back to Top
Journal Home

© 2020 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture