About “If Your Ask Me”
In May 1941, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (ER) launched a monthly magazine column called “If You Ask Me” in the Ladies’ Home Journal, then the leading women’s periodical in the US. The column, based on a similar column ER had written for the Democratic Digest, consisted of reader questions and the First Lady’s answers. Originally conceived as a way for ER to counter “the more than usual rumors, innuendoes and backstairs gossip about the inhabitants of the White House,” the column quickly expanded to include questions of war, peace, politics, civil liberties, health, education, and family life.
Reader reaction was intense but not always positive. The Journal received many “vituperative” letters about the column, and the magazine’s editors, Bruce Gould and Beatrice Blackmar Gould, were often asked, “When are you going to get rid of Eleanor?” Still the column was popular enough that in 1946 ER published a selection of questions and answers from the column, along with her answers to questions from more than forty well-known Americans in government, the arts, media, science and medicine in book form.
ER came to the Journal as both First Lady and a nationally recognized media figure. Her six-day-a-week syndicated newspaper column, “My Day,” was then running in newspapers around the country. Besides her column, ER also had a regularly scheduled program on NBC radio, and she continued to write for such general interest publications as Liberty and Collier’s.
ER had a long history with the Journal going back to the publication of her 1923 article on the Bok Peace Prize, a national competition for the best plan to preserve world peace in the aftermath of World War I. More recently, the magazine had published two of her articles, one on her activities and the other on White House history. The magazine had also successfully serialized her first memoir, This Is My Story, in 1937. Moreover, ER had a warm relationship with the Goulds, who shared her concern for civil engagement and citizen involvement, particularly among women. Their friendship may have contributed to the fact that ER never had a written contract with the Journal. Instead, the Goulds ran the column on a month-to-month basis, paying ER $2,500 per column. They also agreed to handle all the mail associated with the column.
“If You Ask Me” Moves to McCall’s
“If You Ask Me” continued to run in the Ladies’ Home Journal until mid-1949, when ER and the Goulds disagreed over the publication of her second memoir, This I Remember. The Goulds felt the story lacked drama (Bruce Gould told her it read “as though you were composing it on a bicycle while pedaling your way to a fire”). They wanted her to spend three months working with a collaborator on the manuscript. Fearing that such a process would yield a book that would “no longer be mine,” ER, with the advice of her son and agent, Elliott, refused. Since ER had never had a formal contract with the Journal, Elliott quickly took the manuscript to the magazine’s arch competitor, McCall’s. Otis Wiese, McCall’s editor-in-chief, bought the memoir without reading it and also took “If You Ask Me,” giving ER a five-year contract that would pay her $3,000 per column. McCall’s also assumed responsibility for the column’s mail. Both the memoir and “If You Ask Me” began running in the June 1949 issue. ER would remain with McCall’s until her death in November 1962. McCall’s also posthumously published a “Christmas Sampler” consisting of ER’s favorite holiday traditions and an article entitled “I Remember Hyde Park.”
How “If You Ask Me” Was Written
The editors of Ladies’ Home Journal and McCall’s followed similar procedures in creating the columns. Working several months in advance, staff members chose the questions from signed queries sent to their respective magazines. (Although “If You Ask Me” was targeted to a middle class female audience, men and young people wrote in as well). The staff members grouped related questions together and sometimes rewrote them before sending them to ER. Journal and McCall’s staff often sent more questions than could be used in any single month’s column. ER answered the questions and returned her copy. The resulting inventory of questions and answers created a nucleus which the editors used as the basis for upcoming columns. Staff members edited ER’s text adding or deleting sentences, inserting phrases, or choosing different words. They also selected the questions and answers that would ultimately be published each month.
Particularly during her tenure as First Lady, ER would sometimes send specific questions on government policy to the relevant department or agency to be researched and then incorporate the information and sometimes the exact wording in her reply. Occasionally the editors of both publications would ask that certain timely questions be included. For example, when Collier’s magazine published the memoirs of one of FDR’s political associates, Jim Farley, in 1947, the Ladies’ Home Journal received lettersasking ER to comment in her column on Farley’s assertion that she had told him that FDR found it difficult to relax with his social inferiors. On another occasion, the American Red Cross asked the Ladies’ Home Journal to insert an already written question and answer about the organization’s need for social workers into the column.
The size of the final column varied. Many of the early Ladies’ Home Journal columns were more than a page long and contained up to nineteen questions. The McCall’s version routinely consisted of eight to ten questions and answers. All the columns included a cartoon or a photograph and an address to which readers could send questions. The Ladies’ Home Journal columns also included a disclaimer that ER’s opinions were her own and not necessarily those of the editors. (During her tenure as First Lady, the disclaimer also noted that ER’s opinions were not necessarily those of the Roosevelt Administration either). McCall’s only began running a disclaimer after former Republican congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce began writing a column for the magazine in November 1960.
Readers’ questions varied over the years. When the column first appeared in 1941, many questions dealt with the coming of World War II. In this period, ER functioned almost as a government ombudsman, providing information about the draft, rationing, military leave, and allotments and dispelling rumors. Once ER left the White House in the spring of 1945, the questions became more general. Many were political queries about the Roosevelt administration and later the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy administrations. Many readers asked about the United Nations, the Cold War, racial discrimination in the United States, the merits of various politicians, and the need for bomb shelters. In 1953 at the height of the McCarthy era, ER devoted an entire column to questions about communism and civil liberties. Some questions, particularly those relating to her faith and her views on religion in general, she answered multiple times over the twenty-one-year life of the column.
Other questions were personal. Readers wanted to know how often ER shopped for food, how much she spent on clothes, and how she kept her temper. Some readers asked for advice regarding social situations, such as entertaining at home, dating, or how to get along with relatives. She even answered a question about why she didn’t answer a reader’s questions.
Although she responded to many personal questions, ER always retained the right to refuse a question she deemed too intrusive. For example, in 1951 she told the McCall’s editors she did “not care” to answer a question which asked which of her five children had the most “normal” life. When a reader wanted to know what FDR said when he proposed to her, ER replied, “That is a question I do not think I have any obligation to answer.” Some questions, such as which of the armed services sustained the most fatalities during World War II, she could not answer because the information was classified.
The length of ER’s responses varied depending on the query. A question about her sons’ presumed preferential ability to get military leave to see her during World War II yielded a six-paragraph answer. When one reader asked if it was true that FDR served a group of new congressmen beer in the White House, she simply replied, “Yes.” ER’s answers occasionally revealed her sense of humor. Asked about the “increasing tendency of novelists to use so ‘many four-letter words’ not spoken in polite society,” ER replied, “I did not know there were any words left that were not spoken in polite society.”
The 246 columns that comprise “If You Ask Me” reflect the interests and concerns of Ladies’ Home Journal and McCall’s readers from the beginning of World War II through the early years of the Cold War. For ER, the column served as a vehicle to gauge public opinion and advocate for the ideas and issues she espoused. “If You Ask Me” allowed ER to connect with her readers, allay their concerns, stimulate their interest, and prod their consciences. No question genuinely posed was too trivial or too awkward to answer as long as it kept the conversation going.
Maurine H. Beasley, Holly C. Shulman, and Henry R. Beasley, Eds. The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001); Mary Ellen Zuckerman, A History of Popular Women’s Magazines in the United States, 1792-1995 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998); Maurine Beasley, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Media: A Public Quest for Self-Fulfillment (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987); Bruce Gould and Beatrice Blackmar Gould, American Story: Memories and Reflections of Bruce Gould and Beatrice Blackmar Gould (New York: Harper & Row, 1968); Eleanor Roosevelt, If You Ask Me (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., Inc., 1946); John A. Edens, Eleanor Roosevelt: A Comprehensive Bibliography (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994); ER to Charl Ormond Williams, 21 June 1949, AERP, FDRL; Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor: The Years Alone (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1972); IYAM, June 1949, McCall’s; Herbert R. Mayes, The Magazine Maze: A Prejudiced Perspective (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980); Laura Lou Brookman, 11 November 1946, AERP, FDRL; Barbara Lawrence to Malvina Thompson, 25 January 1951, AERP, FDRL; IYAM, April 1957, McCall’s; IYAM, August 1945 and August 1946, LHJ; Laura Lou Brookman to ER, 12 September 1946, AERP, FDRL; Bruce Gould to ER, 28 March 1945, AERP, FDRL; Questions and Answers, Ladies’ Home Journal, January 1948, AERP, FDRL; IYAM, January 1948, LHJ; If You Ask Me, October 1953, AERP, FDRL; IYAM, October 1953, McCall’s; Malvina Thompson to Walter G. Campbell, 7 February 1945, P.B. Dunbar to Malvina Thompson, 14 February 1945, AERP, FDRL; IYAM, June 1945, LHJ; Bruce Gould to ER, 27 June 1947, AERP, FDRL; IYAM, September 1947, LHJ; Laura Lou Brookman to ER, 31 July 1945, AERP, FDRL; IYAM, October 1945, LHJ; IYAM, November 1960, McCall’s; IYAM, July and October 1943, LHJ; IYAM, July 1953, McCall’s; IYAM, March 1959, McCall’s; IYAM, January 1955, McCall’s; IYAM, May 1943, LHJ; IYAM, January 1960, McCall’s; IYAM, November 1955, McCall’s; Ladies’ Home Journal Questions and Answers, September 1947, AERP, FDRL; IYAM, September 1949, McCall’s; IYAM, August 1945, LHJ; If You Ask Me, February 1951 manuscript, AERP, FDRL; Questions and Answers, Ladies’ Home Journal, March and April 1946, AERP, FDRL; IYAM, July 1944, LHJ; Questions for Mrs. Roosevelt for June Issues, 28 March 1945, AERP, FDRL; Questions and Answers, Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1945, AERP, FDRL; IYAM, July 1943, LHJ; IYAM, June 1943, LHJ.
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Introduction: Mary Jo Binker
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