Malvina Thompson, nicknamed "Tommy" by a young Anna Roosevelt, was ER's trusted assistant, secretary, traveling companion, gatekeeper, and dear friend. As ER recalled in her autobiography, "she wanted to be useful and in many, many ways she not only made my life easier but gave me a reason for living."
Born in New York City in 1893, Thompson graduated high school and taught herself secretarial skills. In 1922, after five years with the wartime American Red Cross, Thompson joined the staff of the New York State Democratic Committee, where she helped ER generate a solid women's turnout for Al Smith's 1928 presidential campaign. They developed such an easy working relationship that once the Smith campaign ended and Thompson began working for Louis Howe full-time, she continued to work for ER part-time.
By the time they moved to the White House, the two women had built an amazing partnership and friendship. A shrewd judge of character, she counterbalanced ER's soft heart, often challenging ER to reject a suspicious appeal or refusing to take dictation when ER responded in a way that would leave her vulnerable to those who sought to exploit her generosity. Utterly devoted to ER, Thompson organized her life around her boss.
As ER's key aide, Thompson traveled with ER (often averaging 40,000 miles a year during the early White House years), helped organize her correspondence, typed countless "My Day" columns - often juggling her portable typewriter on the knees as she traveled by car, plane, boat, or train, and managed ER's frenetic schedule. She monitored ER's press conferences, critiqued her responses, and recorded key points ER made when she delivered an extemporaneous speech. Her efficient, no-nonsense approach to her work drew praise from FDR's staff, who frequently sent messages through Thompson they were afraid to deliver in person. In 1939, when ER had the Val-Kill furniture factory converted into her home, she had two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and a screened-in porch designed for Thompson's use.
In their twenty-five year friendship, they shared holidays, family celebrations, private moments of elation and exhaustion, and trust.
"Tommy" Thompson died April 12, 1953, eight years to the day after FDR, from a brain hemorrhage (like FDR), after a twelve- day hospitalization.
Sources: Bernard Asbell, Mother and Daughter: The Letters of Eleanor and Anna Roosevelt (New York: Fromm International Publishing, 1982), pp. 298-299; Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (New York: Signet, 1971), pp. 315, 480; Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor: The Years Alone (New York: Norton, 1972), p. 237; Eleanor Roosevelt, "My Day," 13 April 1953; Eleanor Roosevelt, On My Own: The Years Since the White House (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), p. 107; Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn By Living (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), p. 85.
Recommended citation: Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the Election of 1960: A Project of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, ed. by Allida Black, June Hopkins, John Sears, Christopher Alhambra, Mary Jo Binker, Christopher Brick, John S. Emrich, Eugenia Gusev, Kristen E. Gwinn, and Bryan D. Peery (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2003). Electronic version based on unpublished letters. .
For more information, visit The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers home page at https://erpapers.columbian.gwu.edu/.
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