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History Lessons for Lucy and Ethel

October 24, 2016

After a scrumptious breakfast prepared by Giancarlo, we took to the windy back roads and set off for Hyde Park. Horse farms are abundant here, some modest, but most with enormous barns and stables, everywhere the distinctive dark brown fences outlining networks of pastures. Leaves were beginning to turn, but it was still a bit early for the glorious show of color to come.

The Roosevelts of Hyde Park were the wealthier branch of the family, the Oyster Bay Roosevelts (Teddy’s side) less so. Eleanor’s uncle Teddy, who was President at the time, gave his niece away to Franklin (her fifth cousin) in a ceremony in New York City on St. Patrick’s Day 1905. Springwood, their home in Hyde Park, is preserved as it was when FDR died in 1945.

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The house actually belonged to FDR’s mother, Sara, who made no secret of her view that her son could have married better. Eleanor had an unhappy childhood: both her parents died when she was a teenager. But schooling in London opened her eyes to feminism, and by the time she and Franklin married, she had the self-possession not to be intimidated by her indomitable mother-in-law. The bedrooms of the two women are strikingly different: Sara enjoyed a large, sunny corner room, while Eleanor’s could have been a cell in a nunnery.

In the late 1920s,Eleanor wanted to do something to help the local people get meaningful work to supplement their farming income, so she persuaded her husband to buy some land about four miles from Springwood, where she built a small factory called Val-Kill Industries, that operated for about ten years. After it closed she converted it into a private cottage — the only home she ever owned — which served as a retreat from the domineering Sara. After her husband’s death it became her full-time home.

The contrast between the two residences couldn’t be sharper. A quiet pond surrounded by cattails reflects the majestic trees at the front of the cottage, which sits on a small rise. The heavy dark furniture and formal atmosphere of the main house is replaced by cozy knotty pine walls and chintz-covered chairs, and walls are covered with photos meaningful to her. It was at Val-Kill that she met with JFK during his campaign for President, telling him she wouldn’t endorse him unless he took a stronger stand for integration. In the smallish dining room, a table for eight could expand to seat twenty, which often happened spontaneously as she ran into people in town and invited them over. Her cook quickly learned that when Eleanor told her she’d be having a few people to dinner she needed to plan for a crowd.

While FDR is generally recognized as one of our greatest Presidents, Eleanor had a profound influence on his policies, and traveled extensively to get a reading for the mood and condition of real people, something he could not easily do. After his death she continued as the Grand Dame of the Democratic Party, and Harry Truman called her America’s First Lady. The excellent introductory film at her cottage provides a great overview of her life and works.

All this history, of course, made us hungry, so we lunched at the Eveready Diner, a real find. Lots of chrome and Art Deco details, and good food to boot.

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After a little rest at the B&B, we enjoyed a nice dinner at Aurelia’s, a Mediterranean spot in town.

 

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