Eleanor Roosevelt's Indefatigable Biographer
Distinguished Professor Blanche Wiesen Cook is known for her three-volume biography of Roosevelt. Here, she shares her own story.
She has been called the authority on Eleanor Roosevelt, but Professor Blanche Wiesen Cook (GC/John Jay, History), author of a renowned three-volume biography of the former first lady, didn’t set out to write that story.
“I always say my life was an accident,” Cook says.
Her life as a historian began with an actual accident. Cook was a gymnast in high school. A boy left a barbell at the end of a mat and when Cook came out of a triple flip, she sustained serious injuries to her back. It was the end of her gymnastics career and she thought, the end of her life. So she entered Hunter College looking for a different focus. She took courses in anthropology, political science, and history, which led to a fellowship to do graduate work at Johns Hopkins University, where she specialized in military history — and peace.
As a doctoral student opposed to the Vietnam War, she helped to found the Conference on Peace Research in History, compiled the Bibliography on Peace Research in History, and served as senior editor of the Garland Library of War and Peace.
Before Eleanor came Ike, although Cook’s biography of President Dwight Eisenhower almost didn’t happen.
“Everything I wanted to know about was classified, secret,” she says.
Cook was especially interested in finding out about the American-backed overthrows of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran and of the democratic government of Guatemala during Eisenhower’s presidency. So she convened a group of journalists, historians, and attorneys and, with the Center for Constitutional Rights, organized the Fund for Open Information and Accountability and successfully had documents declassified.
When her book, The Declassified Eisenhower: A Divided Legacy of Peace and Political Warfare, was published, “It was a very big deal and people didn’t like it,” Cook says.
As she was finishing the Eisenhower biography, Cook was asked to review a new book about Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickock. An earlier reviewer was shocked by the suggestion of a relationship between the two women. Cook says that most authors tended to describe the first lady “as a mermaid and a saint.” When Joseph Lash, a friend and biographer of Roosevelt urged Cook to write her own book, she told him it was ridiculous.
“I’m a military historian. I do hard history — goddess forgive me,” she recalls saying. She went up to Hyde Park with Lash and says, “I knew I had a story, and I thought the story was about power.”
So, she made the leap from military to women’s history.
“Once we start looking at women and looking at women with power and vision, we have a whole other dimension to our history,” she says. “It’s like looking at international relations without looking at the peace movement.”
Cook and Roosevelt had actually crossed paths years earlier when Cook was student body president at Hunter and invited Roosevelt to speak. It was 1961, during the civil rights movement, and Cook recalls that Roosevelt urged the students to “go South for freedom.” Students followed her call and went to North Carolina and took part in the sit-ins. Cook cites Roosevelt’s great contribution “to all of us who are activists: ‘You must go door to door, block by block and build movements.’”
Roosevelt’s activism is one of the things that Cook shares and finds so compelling.
“Roosevelt is really a visionary and she’s a visionary for peace and justice. ... She really understood how we were all connected and her entire life was dedicated to ending segregation and bigotry,” Cook says.
Cook sees parallels with powerful women today, like the “wonderful generation of millennials in Congress.” She wants to write an article about Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who, she says, like Roosevelt is attacked in the press because she is “a woman with power who is enjoying her power.”
While her interest in Eisenhower centered on his political secrets, Cook says she wanted to know more about Roosevelt personally.
“We’ve had a limited, impoverished Eleanor Roosevelt without ardor and without romance,” Cook says, adding, “So, I thought it was important to say, hey, who is she? And here is who she is. A very complicated woman with vision and romance and passion and understanding and love.”
Cook says there is still much more to know about Roosevelt. Quoting Lash, she says of the woman she has written about for more than 30 years, “Eleanor Roosevelt is infinite — and she really is.”
Cook is also considering writing a memoir with her partner of 50 years, playwright and activist Claire Coss.
Asked what advice Cook gives to students interested in writing women’s history, she offers experience from her own life, “Do the research. Unpack your heart. And be bold.”
Photo credit: Alex Irklievski