The First Lady of Radio: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Historic Broadcasts
edited by Stephen Drury Smith, The New Press
WERE ELEANOR ROOSEVELT alive today and active in public life, there is no doubt she’d be making ample use of social media to convey her progressive social and political viewpoints. But she lived before our digital breakthroughs and so had to settle for writing newspaper columns and books, while her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was president.
The first lady also made some 300 radio broadcasts during her years in the White House, from 1932 to 1945. They are the subject of The First Lady of Radio: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Historic Broadcasts. Stephen Drury Smith, editor and host of American Public Media’s documentary series American RadioWorks, thoughtfully selected this anthology of 38 addresses ranging from Roosevelt’s first days as the president-elect’s wife to her final message on V-J Day in August 1945, four months after FDR died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the start of his fourth term.
Eleanor Roosevelt was every bit her husband’s ambitious political partner, writes historian and ER biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook in a foreword. The first lady’s radio broadcasts “sought to enhance her husband’s efforts, and build support for his best visions,” says Cook. But Roosevelt also pushed her own agenda. She matter-of-factly tackled issues of race and poverty, government housing, women and the workplace, education and labor strikes.
Her broadcasts, usually about 15 minutes long, were classic news commentary sprinkled with her views on lighter topics such as horse races and tennis championships. And she occasionally told listeners about her daily life in the White House. She mentioned, for example, her habit of driving herself after breakfast from the White House to nearby horse stables for a brisk ride along the Potomac. Refreshingly, Roosevelt was forthright and unapologetic, even examining her own shortcomings as a mother in a program called “Education of a Daughter for the Twentieth Century,” a 1937 interview with her daughter Anna Roosevelt Boettiger from Seattle, Wash. “If only our companionship could have developed as freely when you were little as it did later on,” said Eleanor to Anna. “I would have probably understood a great deal more. You are doing a better job with your child.”
Roosevelt more than once dwelled on the lingering tragedy of World War I, and she expressed her own and the nation’s anxieties about getting into another global war. When it happened, it was Mrs. Roosevelt who, on December 7, 1941, first addressed the nation after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, directing her commentary from NBC’s studios in Washington to the “women of the country” who had husbands and sons in service, while gently, and characteristically, acknowledging the nation’s shock: “You have friends and families in what has suddenly become a danger zone. You cannot escape anxiety. You cannot escape a clutch of fear at your heart. And yet I hope that the certainty of what we have to meet will make you rise above these fears.”
Drury describes Roosevelt as “a first lady of firsts”—first to fly in an airplane, first to testify before Congress and first to address a national political convention. Historians have praised Roosevelt’s famously exhaustive schedule, her boundless energy and her great achievements. Curiously, the texts of these revealing and quite intimate radio broadcasts have never been collected in a book until now, and they offer a means for visiting anew the lifework of an extraordinary American woman.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.