~*~   Literary Essay ~*~

    Eleanor Roosevelt spent much of her time as First Lady being a sponsor of the arts.  She put her full support behind the creation of the Federal Project Number One programs.  Roosevelt also supported black artists by inviting them to perform at White House events and also championed Marian Anderson's Freedom Concert at the Lincoln Memorial, which ended with Roosevelt's resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution.  Eleanor Roosevelt made Val-Kill, New York, her home after her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, died on April 12, 1945, until an illness in September of 1962 forced her to return to New York City.  The time spent at Val-Kill was spent hosting various individuals, from civil rights activists to dignitaries such as John F. Kennedy, social organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and furnishing the home to her taste.

    Under the Roosevelt administrations, the White House was host to more than three-hundred musical concerts.  Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to bring a diverse group of performers to the White House and went to great lengths to invite black performers.  During the first administration of FDR, guests included the Sedalia Quartet, Lillian Evanti, a black lyric soprano, Dorothy Maynor, a black opera singer and educator, and Todd Duncan, also a black opera singer and actor.  Ballet, modern dance, children’s opera and concerts sponsored by women's musical organizations were also among the events held at the White House. 

    In 1935 Eleanor Roosevelt invited Marian Anderson to perform at the White House dinner party for Circuit Court of Appeals Judge William Denman and his wife.  Anderson sang three Schubert songs and two spirituals. Mrs. Roosevelt recorded her reaction in her “My Day” column for the United Feature Syndicate: “My husband and I had a rare treat last night in listening to Marion Anderson, a colored contralto, who has made a great success in Europe and this country.  She has sung before all crowned heads, and deserves her great success for I have rarely heard a more beautiful and moving voice, or a more finished artist.”1  Both women developed a friendship that would continue to grow during the Constitution Hall controversy.

    As Marian Anderson's popularity rose, locations that had been used for her previous concerts were no longer able to accommodate the size of the audience.  Her manager, Hurok, accepted a routine invitation from Howard University for a concert on April 9, 1939, and it was left to Charles Cohen, the chairman of the university’s concert series, to book a hall.  He applied to reserve Constitution Hall, which was owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Fred Hand, the manager of Constitution Hall, denied the request on January 9, 1939.  He cited two reasons for the denial: the hall was already booked for April 9, 1939, and the DAR had a long-standing clause that banned blacks from appearing.  A three-month battle between the DAR and Howard University officials ensued after the denial.  Walter White, a member of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People, sought to gain support from Anderson’s colleagues in the artistic community such as Lily Pons and Giovanni Martinelli by sending out telegrams informing them of the events that had occurred.  He also protested the actions of the DAR to President-General Robert, head of the DAR.  Mrs. Robert responded on February 13, saying that the DAR had acted in accordance with the policy of the District of Columbia.

    Throughout this time, Eleanor Roosevelt, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, sought to support Anderson in ways that would not be construed as politically disadvantageous to her or her husband.  In January, Eleanor Roosevelt (whom I shall refer to subsequently as ER) agreed to present the Spingarn Medal, a prestigious award in the black community, to Anderson on July 2, 1939.  She had also made plans to invite her to perform for the British King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in June.  However, in early February, ER refused the request of Howard University’s treasurer V.D. Johnston to publicly admonish the DAR for its stance on Anderson because of her concern that it would hurt her husband politically.  ER argued that the DAR already considered her too extreme and therefore any statement from her would be ineffective.  On February 26, 1939, Eleanor Roosevelt, without mentioning the DAR in her “My Day” column, resigned from the organization:

                                                  The question is, if you belong to an organization and disapprove of an action
                                                  which is typical of a policy, shall you resign or is it better to work for a changed
                                                  point of view within the organization? In the past when I was able to work
                                                  actively in any organization to which I belonged, I have usually stayed in until I
                                                  had at least made a fight and been defeated. Even then I have as a rule usually
                                                  accepted my defeat and decided either that I was wrong or that I was perhaps a
                                                  little too far ahead of the thinking of the majority of that time. I belong to an
                                                  organization in which I can do no active work. They have taken action which has
                                                  been widely talked on in the press. To remain a member implies approval of
                                                  action, and therefore I am resigning.2

    After approximately three months of conflict with the DAR, Marian Anderson’s manager changed the venue for the performance to an open air concert at the Lincoln Memorial.  The new location of the concert was announced on March 30; according to Allida Black, ER’s influence led to an expedient response from the Department of the Interior.  Anderson sang to an attentive audience of seventy-five thousand.  She sang the National Anthem in addition to: “America,” Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” “O mio Fernando,” and a group of spirituals including “Trampin,” “Gospel Train,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” and “My Soul’s Been Anchored in de Lord.”  Among the guests were Supreme Court Justices Black and Reed, from Roosevelt’s Cabinet Morgenthau, Ickes, and Chapman as well as Senators Clark (Missouri), Cappen (Kansas), Guggey (Pennsylvania), and Wagner (New York).

    Eleanor Roosevelt had rallied support for Anderson’s performance in Washington.  Her resignation from the DAR garnered her more popular support than any other issue she was involved with during her lifetime.  On July 2, 1939, ER presented the Spingarn Medal to Anderson, and in the speech ER told the crowd that Anderson “had the courage to meet many difficulties."3 

    For Franklin D. Roosevelt the arts were not a high priority; however, he did provide funding for the arts to employ people and to enrich the lives of Americans:  “Known as ‘Federal One’ for short, Federal Project Number One was created in 1935 as a subdivision of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that sought to extend the relief of the New Deal to artists, actors, writers, and musicians.”4 Although FDR was indifferent to Federal One, ER completely supported it, lobbied the President to sign the executive order that created it, praised the program in her column and even defended Federal One from congressional attacks.  ER was particularly fond of the Federal Theater Project.  However, conservative members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate united and pressured the White House to scale back funding for Federal One in the late 1930s.  The first program to go was the Federal Theater Project in June 1939, followed by budget cuts for the Federal Writer's Project, the Federal Music Project, and the Federal Art Project.  FDR’s political opponents continued to pressure the White House to eliminate the programs and “by the end of 1942 [they] had virtually been legislated away.”5 FDR did not want to use political capital to fight for these programs with WWII costs on the rise.  Despite ER’s strong support, the dissolution of these programs was a case where her influence had been restricted.

    In addition to being a sponsor of the arts, ER was also responsible for beautifying the cottage at Val-Kill, a 180-acre estate a few miles east of the Roosevelt’s Hyde Park estate.  However, the two-story building was first the home of Val-Kill Industries, which was established by ER, Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook.  Val-Kill Industries was to provide “income for men who could not make a living, or all of their living, from agriculture, and that would also provide interests for rural women.”6 It produced simple, well-made furniture and weavings that are highly valued today.  In 1936, ER remodeled the building into a residence consisting of twenty rooms of various sizes.  ER finally had her first real home; ER had lived her childhood in her “grandmother's homes and much of her adulthood in homes provided by, and ruled over, by Sara Delano Roosevelt, her mother-in-law.”7 Val-Kill was a place where ER was able to write and renew herself.

    According to the "Eleanor Roosevelt: American Visionary website", “Mrs. Roosevelt furnished the place modestly with many Val-Kill Industries pieces and comfortable sofas and chairs. The cottage was cluttered, in typical Roosevelt fashion, with family heirlooms, silver and paintings, photographs of family and friends, and gifts she had received throughout her life.”8 This home was in strong contrast to the stately style of Sara Delano Roosevelt’s house where FDR grew up and resided for most of his adulthood. Eleanor Roosevelt added two porches to the house: one adjacent to the living room looking out to the waterfall, Fall Kill, was designed for dining or sitting, and the second porch, upstairs, was accessible through her bedroom and outfitted for sleeping.  ER enjoyed sleeping on the second floor porch overlooking the pond, cutting flowers from her garden and placing them in her guests’ bedrooms.

    Val-Kill was a peaceful place where ER wrote many of her columns and books.  Val-Kill also served as a place of meetings for political associates, friends, students, and other guests to debate issues or plan political activities.  ER would invite her students from the Todhunter School and Brandeis for picnics, canoe rides and weekend retreats where debates would take place at meal times.  Val-Kill's evolution led to the expansion of the “facilities for relaxing and socializing were extended to include a pond for boating, a pool, tennis court, stables, outdoor fireplace, and flower gardens, as well as the surrounding meadows and forests owned by FDR.”9

    During the summers of 1943 and 1944, Ellie R. Seagraves, Eleanor Roosevelt’s grandson, while staying at Val-Kill observed his grandmother’s generosity.  One Saturday, Marion Anderson was a guest at Val-Kill.  ER, Seagraves and Anderson drove to the Wiltwyck School for delinquent boys; Anderson sang a cappella and greeted the staff.  Seagraves also remembered a similar weekend with Paul Robeson, a bass singer and actor: All three visited Wiltwyck where Robeson performed.  Seagraves recalled how his grandmother tried to interest public figures into the needs of the Wiltwyck School, which “provided educational programs and psychological assistance to children who were deemed extremely difficult and disturbed.”10 ER exposed the children of the Wiltwyck School to the arts, something that these children would not ordinarily see.  She believed that “artistic expression is something which is of concern to every community.”11

    ER’s niece, Eleanor Roosevelt II, saw the gracious and diligent side of ER during her one-month stays at Val-Kill in the summers of the late forties and fifties.  During the summers ER’s son, John and his family, would stay at Stone Cottage, near Val-Kill.  There would be a minimum of eight children between the ages of two and thirteen running around the cottage with ER not minding.  ER’s niece recalled ER spending the day reading newspapers before writing her column, responding to telephone messages and sending her own messages.  ER’s niece also remembered an occasion with Cardinal Spellman of the Roman Catholic Church and her aunt; His eminence had appeared without an appointment at Val-Kill to see ER.  The two had been engaged in a public and heated discussion about America’s belief in the separation of Church and state.  His visit was seen as a truce and a political victory for ER, who (her niece says) was not above celebrating.

    Today the work of Eleanor Roosevelt is carried out by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, the Eleanor Roosevelt Center, and other institutions.  The Val-Kill Medal given out by the Eleanor Roosevelt Center recognizes individual’s contributions to society in the fields of citizenship, the arts, education, philanthropy, community service and other humanitarian causes.  This year’s recipients include Arthur Schlesinger and Mike Wallace.  Past recipients have included Richard Gere, Christopher Reeve, H. Peter Stern, a promoter of the arts and international preservation, James Earl Jones, Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Fred Rogers, Edward Asner, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Helen Hayes MacArther, humanitarian, advocate of the elderly, author, and star of theater, films, television and radio, among many other individuals.12

    Eleanor Roosevelt was a woman dedicated to bringing the arts to the American people.  She championed governmental programs that supported the arts and artists.  ER also fought to make the arts a venue in which black and white artists were treated equally.  Her support of Marian Anderson and the Freedom Concert at the Lincoln Memorial brought the racial inequality to the forefront of national politics with senators in attendance that Easter Sunday.  However, ER was not always an active supporter of civil rights.  ER was a woman of her time and class, and did not concern herself with civil rights until FDR became president in 1933.  ER was also a politican an acted with caution when supporting blacks.  Her resignation from the DAR came nearly two months after the decision to deny the use of Constitution Hall to Anderson was given.  Her support of Anderson was largely confined to the background.  ER twisted arms of radio stations ti cover the concert.  Eleanor Roosevelt had adopted a civil rights agenda that included segregation and equal opportuinty (with special concern placed on the quality of education).

    ER remodeled the Val-Kill home to her more modest taste and placed herself closer to nature.  At Val-Kill, ER brought a variety of people together for discussions.  She invited her students to Val-Kill for various activities including debates at meal times.  The debates give conjour up an image of a family in the midst of a spirited conversation with ER at the head.  Val-Kill also served as a gathering place for the Roosevelt family.  ER entertained boys from the Wiltwyck School often reading to them Kipling as she had done with her own children.  ER made Val-Kill the center of activity for family, friends and colleagues.  Eleanor Roosevelt spent as much time as she could at Val-Kill until the fall of 1962 when illness forced her back to New York City. 



                               1. Allan Keiler, Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey. (New York: Scribner, 2000), p.167.
                                                                                                                                              (Back to referenced text)

                         2. Keiler, p. 202.                                                                                             (Back to referenced text)

                         3. Keiler, p. 216.                                                                                             (Back to referenced text)

             4. “Federal Project One,” The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers. 17 September 2002. 10 October 2003.

                 <www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/abouteleanor/q-and-a/glossary/index.html>.          (Back to referenced text)

      5. Ibid.                                                                                                             (Back to referenced text)

      6.“What is Val Kill?” Teaching Eleanor Roosevelt. 11 February 2003. 10 October 2003.

        <www.nps.gov/elro/what-is-vk/essays/index.htm>.                                           (Back to referenced text)

                        7.Ibid.                                                                                                               (Back to refernced text)

                        8. “Eleanor Roosevelt: Her Cottage.” Eleanor Roosevelt: American Visionary. 11 March 2003. 10 October 2003.

                          <www.cr.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/elro/hercott.html>.                                  (Back to referenced text)

“What is Val Kill?” Teaching Eleanor Roosevelt. 11 February 2003. 10 October 2003.

        <www.nps.gov/elro/what-is-vk/essays/index.htm>.                                            (Back to referenced text)

                             10.  Ibid.                                                                                                            (Back to referenced text)

                             11. Eleanor Roosevelt. “The New Governmental Interest in the Art.” The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers. 17 September
                                  2003. 17 October 2003.

                               <http://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/documents/articles/governmentandart.html>.   (Back to referenced text)

                       12. Other receipeints can be found at http://www.ervk.org/                                      (Back to referenced text)

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