When Eleanor Roosevelt almost charmed the nation

by Redmer Yska / 22 March, 2018
Eleanor Roosevelt with Guide Rangi in Rotorua in 1943. Photo/Getty Images

Eleanor Roosevelt with Guide Rangi in Rotorua in 1943. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Eleanor Roosevelt NZ

Despite a triumphant wartime visit to New Zealand, Eleanor Roosevelt remains the butt of unkind jokes.

US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt once confided to a friend: “How men hate women in a position of power.” Several recent biographies affirm “ER” as a political leader, human-rights activist and instinctive feminist.

When she visited wartime New Zealand as a stand-in for her husband, wheelchair-bound President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), she ran into some of the prejudice against her assertiveness and physical appearance that she complained of.

My mother – who danced with a few of the tens of thousands of American troops based here – used to trot out the parody of FDR’s famous 1936 “I hate war” speech, “I hate war. My wife, Eleanor, hates war. But most of all, I hate Eleanor.”

Aged 58, ER landed in New Zealand 75 years ago as war convulsed the Pacific. Her gruelling three-week itinerary took in this country, Australia and 17 Pacific islands, including the infamous battleground of Guadalcanal.

By the time she descended from a cramped, unheated bomber at Whenuapai air base in late August 1943, she’d already spent a week island-hopping through Hawaii, Fiji, Samoa, the Cook Islands, Bora Bora and New Caledonia, doing a frantic round of airports, hospitals, military camps and Red Cross facilities.

With FDR after his third inauguration. Photo/Getty

Her week in New Zealand, too, would be busy: state and civic public receptions, endless troop visits and a look at local women’s contribution to the war effort. After taking the overnight train to Wellington, she had her first decent sleep for days at Government House.

The next morning, she kept reporters waiting as she dried her hair, later posing for photographs on the terrace in a wicker armchair, flanked by Governor-General Sir Cyril Newall, his staff and four dogs.

Her Sunday in the capital began at Silverstream in Upper Hutt, at a hospital converted for US military use. After a church service in the grounds, ER tramped the polished corridors, visiting every ward, stopping off at every bed and speaking to every sick or wounded marine.

US naval chief William Halsey later wrote: “She walked for miles and she saw patients who were grievously and gruesomely wounded. But I marvelled most at the expressions as she leaned over them. It was a sight I will never forget.”

Eleanor Roosevelt with Guide Rangi in Rotorua in 1943. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library/

Eleanor Roosevelt with Guide Rangi in Rotorua in 1943. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library/

ER spent the Sunday afternoon visiting servicemen’s clubs, but it was her address that evening that made the day memorable. At 7.15pm, she convened a packed women-only meeting at the Majestic Theatre in central Wellington, serenaded by members of the Ngāti Pōneke urban marae.

The Prime Minister’s wife, Janet Fraser, introduced her by saying, “She has come to New Zealand to see what the women here are doing.” After a rapturous welcome, ER spoke to the crowd, interspersing her remarks with light-hearted films, including one starring Fala, the President’s famous scottish terrier.

ER couldn’t hide her keen interest in economic policy: “You in New Zealand have built up a social-security system under which abject poverty is impossible; we are trying to do the same in our country.” The Evening Post concluded that the meeting was “a brilliant idea”, generating “a warmth of feeling seldom experienced in Wellington”.

Dressed as a miner on a coal train in Ohio before going underground to learn about working conditions. Photo/Getty Images

Dressed as a miner on a coal train in Ohio before going underground to learn about working conditions. Photo/Getty Images

It was the high point of her stay, and diplomats purred at the success of the visit and at ER’s ability to win over Kiwis with her earnest goodwill. External Affairs boss Alister McIntosh quietly observed to a colleague how, in the “time-honoured fashion of royalty”, ER “captured all our hearts”.

One biographer says ER shed 13kg during the Pacific trip, in the course of which she talked to thousands of servicemen. In later life, after 12 years in the White House and later as a United Nations representative, she would become known as the world’s most-admired woman. But the cruel jokes, chiefly about her prominent teeth, never stopped.

As recently as last week, a 90-year-old aunt of mine with a formidable memory recalled a second wartime crack made in Wellington by a US Army officer: “Eleanor Roosevelt looks like she could eat an apple through a picket fence.”

Of course, when it comes to dealing with negative comments, Roosevelt is the woman attributed with the much-quoted saying, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

This article was first published in the March 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

The many miracles of Aretha Franklin movie Amazing Grace
108368 2019-07-15 00:00:00Z Movies

The many miracles of Aretha Franklin movie Amazing…

by Russell Baillie

A long-lost concert movie capturing Lady Soul in her prime is heading to the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Read more
The untold history of China's one child policy
108182 2019-07-14 00:00:00Z History

The untold history of China's one child policy

by RNZ

Nanfu Wang explains the story behind her film One Child Nation, which screens at the International Film Festival this July.

Read more
Is Vladimir Putin right about the death of liberal democracy?
108314 2019-07-14 00:00:00Z World

Is Vladimir Putin right about the death of liberal…

by Paul Thomas

Vladimir Putin reckons “the liberal idea has become obsolete”. As Mandy Rice-Davies said, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”

Read more
The psychology of psychopaths and social media users
108199 2019-07-14 00:00:00Z Psychology

The psychology of psychopaths and social media use…

by Marc Wilson

Psychologists are getting a picture of people who are big on social media. It's not always pretty.

Read more
Acclaimed writer Greg McGee on his family's stolen children
108138 2019-07-13 00:00:00Z History

Acclaimed writer Greg McGee on his family's stolen…

by Clare de Lore

Greg McGee always knew his great-grandfather had kidnapped his father and uncles as infants, but now for the first time he’s revealing that...

Read more
Video-streaming platforms are failing their impaired customers
108303 2019-07-13 00:00:00Z Tech

Video-streaming platforms are failing their impair…

by Peter Griffin

When it comes to video streaming, the hearing- and visually impaired can only dream about the technology that’s passing them by.

Read more
We like big vehicles and we cannot lie
108312 2019-07-12 00:00:00Z Politics

We like big vehicles and we cannot lie

by The Listener

It would take a psychologist to explain Kiwis’ love for utes and SUVs. But it’s not the only reason people are revved up over the attempt to reduce...

Read more
Booker winner Arundhati Roy on democracy in peril
108043 2019-07-12 00:00:00Z Profiles

Booker winner Arundhati Roy on democracy in peril

by Sally Blundell

Soon to speak in New Zealand, Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy discusses her complex relationship with her native India with Sally Blundell.

Read more