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Someone to Watch Over Me: A Portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt and the Tortured Father Who Shaped Her Life

Review

Someone to Watch Over Me: A Portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt and the Tortured Father Who Shaped Her Life

A homely child with a long nose, unruly hair and an unconcealed overbite, too tall and too intelligent to garner many friends in girlhood, and too unlovely in appearance to win her mother's affection, Eleanor Roosevelt would become the most notable woman of her time, in part because of the unconditional love and praise of her father.

Little Eleanor's appearance was notably flawed even from birth, enough so that her socialite mother Anna, who lavished love on her brothers, simply shut out her daughter, coldly and openly referring to her as "funny," old-fashioned" and, most often, "plain." By contrast, her father Elliott called her his "Little Nell," his golden girl. Even while exiled from the family after disgraces with both women and alcohol, Elliott wrote letters to Eleanor that she carried with her everywhere she went.

"In this deep examination of the esteemed First Lady, we see her overcome her own culturally based prejudices...altering her language and then her politics to reach out, especially to blacks, as objects of special inclusion."

This bizarre and dysfunctional father-daughter relationship, according to social historian Eric Burns, spurred Eleanor to achieve perhaps more than she might have, cutting through challenges, fostering grand causes, even at times marshalling a sort of shadow governance when her husband Franklin was incapacitated with polio. In this deep examination of the esteemed First Lady, we see her overcome her own culturally based prejudices --- against Jews, against African Americans --- altering her language and then her politics to reach out, especially to blacks, as objects of special inclusion.

Eleanor was doubtless one of the first prominent Americans --- and one who had the microphone --- to champion rights for our black citizens, even criticizing President Eisenhower's landmark ruling that schools be desegregated with "all deliberate haste" as "meek." She traveled tirelessly, spoke out for women's rights and called herself a feminist at a time when such views were unpopular. She campaigned vigorously for a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, triumphing in its passage in 1948, even knowing that it would lack teeth. All these things she did in adulthood, but all, Burns believes, predicated on the watchful spirit of her dear father.

Written in episodes from Eleanor's storied career in social and political work, contrasted with the rather pitiful and at times despicable goings-on in the life of her father, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME has a disconnected feel at times, considering the time lapse between the two sets of events. After all, Elliott died in 1894 when Eleanor was only 10. Yet based on her private feelings, the many fantasies she wrought about the ugly duckling of a little girl and her magically kind and adoring father, it's clear that Eleanor herself felt connected to Elliott all her life.

Though no autopsy was done, there is little doubt that Elliott's demise was due to both drug and alcohol abuse that began early in his short life. Perhaps lost in the shadow of his far more outgoing and successful older brother Teddy, or simply lost to incurable addiction, Elliott would seem to have made little positive use of his time on earth --- except to encourage and inspire his daughter, whom he called "his little golden hair," somehow offering the reassurance that her mother withheld. Eleanor would write that "he told me...to grow up to be a woman he could be proud of." In that regard, if in little else, Elliott succeeded.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on March 10, 2017

Someone to Watch Over Me: A Portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt and the Tortured Father Who Shaped Her Life
by Eric Burns

  • Publication Date: March 7, 2017
  • Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Pegasus
  • ISBN-10: 1681773287
  • ISBN-13: 9781681773285