When Eleanor Roosevelt almost charmed the nationby Redmer Yska
Despite a triumphant wartime visit to New Zealand, Eleanor Roosevelt remains the butt of unkind jokes.
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.
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.”
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”.
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.
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