July 6, 2019. Martha, Will, Beny, and I visited the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidential library in Hyde Park, N.Y. this weekend.
The artifact I wanted most to see again was Eleanor Roosevelt’s personal typewriter, now protected in a Plexiglas case to protect it from dust, temperature, and curious fingers.
The first time I saw her typewriter, about twenty years ago, it was mounted unobtrusively on a four-foot high wooden pedestal. Visitors to library could have touched it if they wished, and I did. If no one was looking, you could have slipped a piece of paper into the roller and started typing. I didn’t.
It is an ordinary looking Smith (Corona still hiding in the logo) typewriter of the style my father, a typing teacher, might have admired and collected. It looked a lot like the old typewriter Dad allowed me to use in my room in Morrisville, and I used it to type scores of letters to political notables in the early 1960s. Mostly I wanted to elicit a return letter from them, or an autographed picture, or some sage advice about making a career out of politics.
Most of these notables handed letters like mine to their office typists for boilerplate replies. I’m quite sure the only correspondent who typed her own responses was Eleanor Roosevelt. Thus, meeting her Smith (Corona) became as close to actually meeting her as I could manage.
I would have been in my teens when I wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt and I had only the vaguest idea who she really was. I knew she had been the wife of the 32nd President of the United States and that she was a prominent New York Democrat who supported (reluctantly, as it turned out) my idol, John F. Kennedy. If I had gauged her true greatness, I might not have dared send my typed missives to her. I didn’t fully realize her prominence in the Civil and Human Rights movements, or her prestige in international affairs. I didn’t understand that a lot of people regarded her as the greatest woman of the 20th century. I mailed typed letters to her with no sense of the awe I should have felt that she might hold my crude epistles in her hand.
I addressed my envelopes to Hyde Park, N.Y., but she evidently received them in her apartment at 55 East 74th Street in Manhattan. And it was there that she slipped her stationery between the rollers of the Smith Corona and typed replies.
I wrote to her at least four times and she always wrote back. Her replies were thoughtful and direct responses to the questions I asked: Could she advise me as to whether politics was a good profession? Did she favor lowering the voting age to 21? Should I seek an appointment to become a Congressional page?
Several months before she died, I decided to interview her for Smoke Signals, the mimeographed student newspaper of Morrisville-Eaton Central School high school in Morrisville, N.Y.
Banging away on my own Smith Corona, I sent her seven questions.
Within days, she sent back seven carefully typed answers on two light-bond sheets of paper, once editing with her pen and once inserting a word with the typewriter.
I printed the answers in the student newspaper, using a manual typewriter to cut the mimeograph master. I don’t recall that the interview made a big impact on the student readers, most of who were stalwart Republicans and didn’t fully appreciate whom Eleanor Roosevelt was.
Naturally, I sent copies to the great lady. And, naturally, she wrote back to express her appreciation.
Eleanor Roosevelt died November 7, 1962. I wonder how many admirers and school children wrote to her as her health declined. How many hundreds of scrapbooks and attics contain her modest responses, “Very Sincerely Yours, Eleanor Roosevelt”?
For me, the typewritten letters she sent to me are valuable beyond price.
And the fact that she took time in her old age to read and respond to the letters of 15-year-olds leaves little question that what historians have said about her is true:
She was a woman of the people.
1: My first letter from Eleanor Roosevelt, offering advice about entering politics as a profession and advocating lowering the voting age to 18.
2. The second letter, encouraging my pursuit of an appointment to become a Congressional page (a quest quickly abandoned when I realized candidates had to have passing grades in high school mathematics).
3. The third letter, thanking me for sending copies of our high school newspaper, Smoke Signals, which included my interview with her.
4., 5. Eleanor Roosevelt’s personally typed responses to my interview questions.