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

March of the Algorithms: Who’s at the wheel in the age of the machine?
102434 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Tech

March of the Algorithms: Who’s at the wheel in the…

by Jenny Nicholls

Complacently relying on algorithms can lead us over a cliff – literally, in the case of car navigation systems.

Read more
IBM’s new quantum computer: The future of computing
102458 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Tech

IBM’s new quantum computer: The future of computin…

by Peter Griffin

The Q System One, as IBM calls it, doesn’t look like any conventional computer and it certainly doesn’t act like one.

Read more
James Shaw: Capital gains tax key to fixing wealth gap
102456 2019-02-15 14:54:45Z Politics

James Shaw: Capital gains tax key to fixing wealth…

by RNZ

The week before a major tax report is released, Green Party co-leader James Shaw has again challenged his government partners to back the tax.

Read more
Jealousy, murder and lies: The killing of Arishma Chand
102448 2019-02-15 10:28:12Z Crime

Jealousy, murder and lies: The killing of Arishma…

by Anneke Smith

Arishma Chand was just 24 when she was murdered.

Read more
Top wine picks from Central Otago
102233 2019-02-15 00:00:00Z Wine

Top wine picks from Central Otago

by Michael Cooper

Tucked into small corners, Central Otago vineyards offer nuggets worth digging for. Wine critic Michael Coopers offers his top picks.

Read more
Ivanka and her tower of crumbs
102404 2019-02-14 10:33:12Z Arts

Ivanka and her tower of crumbs

by Preminda Jacob

For two hours each evening, an Ivanka Trump lookalike has been vacuuming a hot pink carpet at the Flashpoint Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Read more
Youth mental health is in crisis and NZ is failing to keep up
102393 2019-02-14 09:52:16Z Social issues

Youth mental health is in crisis and NZ is failing…

by The Listener

The introduction of a free youth mental-health pilot for Porirua, and later the wider region, is welcome news, but it's far too little, far too late.

Read more
Guyon Espiner: Year of delivery begins in defensive crouch
102387 2019-02-14 09:21:07Z Politics

Guyon Espiner: Year of delivery begins in defensiv…

by Guyon Espiner

For a government promising 'a year of delivery' it has begun in something of a defensive crouch.

Read more