The longest-serving American First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11, 1884—November 7, 1962) endures as one of the most remarkable luminaries in modern history — a relentless champion of human rights, an advocate for working women, and a tireless supporter of underprivileged youth.
At the age of seventy-six, Roosevelt collected her life’s wisdom in You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life — an elegant and timeless manual of personal exploration emanating universal insight, which went on to inspire generations and influence entire genres, from political memoirs to spiritual life-guides. Above all, however, the book was and remains a testament to Roosevelt’s extraordinary generosity of spirit, her clarity of purpose, and her unflinching integrity. She writes:Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product. Paradoxically, the one sure way not to be happy is deliberately to map out a way of life in which one would please oneself completely and exclusively. After a short time, a very short time, there would be little that one really enjoyed. For what keeps our interest in life and makes us look forward to tomorrow is giving pleasure to other people.
While a beloved and celebrated public figure, however, Roosevelt was also undeniably controversial, both politically and personally. She was unafraid to publicly disagree with some of her husband’s politics, pushing for improving women’s rights in the workplace and civil rights for African American and Asian American families. In 1928, she met journalist Lorena “Hick” Hickok, with whom the first lady embarked on a thirty-year relationship peppered with some extraordinarily intimate letters. In one, Roosevelt writes:Hick, darlingAh, how good it was to hear your voice. It was so inadequate to try and tell you what it meant. Funny was that I couldn’t say je t’aime and je t’adore as I longed to do, but always remember that I am saying it, that I go to sleep thinking of you.
And in another:I wish I could lie down beside you tonight & take you in my arms.
That Roosevelt chose to life as she did — a life of enormous public good and service to others, and yet one undeterred by other people’s standards — is the ultimate embodiment of one of her most poignant points in You Learn by Living:The standards by which you live must be your own standards, your own values, your own convictions in regard to what is right and wrong, what is true and false, what is important and what is trivial. When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else or a community or a pressure group, you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.
And what a monumental human being Roosevelt was.
I must add her book to my reading list.