The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, Digital Edition > Audio Materials

Eleanor Roosevelt Speeches

Inteview with Arnold Michaelis, Part 1

July 2, 1957


Arnold Michaelis speaks to Mrs. Roosevelt about fear in her life, her beloved father, the hunger for love, the Presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, her impression of world leaders, critical moments in her life, the government and its responsibilities to the citizens of the United States and the United Nations.

Print ColumnText Size: Small Text Normal Text Large Text Larger Text

[Arnold Michaelis:]  Mrs. Roosevelt, I'm glad that we have this chance to chat here this afternoon in this relaxed and unhurried way so that we can talk on a variety of things. For instance, it seems to me in your writing and talking about what is called the Cold War, you've often stressed the role of confidence and fear. Haven't you often used that word, that the two great nations facing each other today both have "fear"?

[ER:]  Yes, well I think we have. But I have no fear, if we had um if we had equal knowledge. We don't have it, so then I-I-I have fear of ignorance.

[Arnold Michaelis:]  Yes. I imagine uh people would like to know how you've met fear. And now I'm speaking to you at a personal level. In-in your life, important turning points or episodes, that where you recognized that fear was-was to be defeated for you to pass on--

[ER:]  Well, I think I began, when I was very young, to fight fear because physically, I'm a terrible coward. And I knew I was a coward, and I always had to overcome it. I was afraid of everything when I was a child. I was afraid of the dark um but um I wanted very much to be loved, and uh I adored my young aunts. I lived with my grandmother because my mother had died. My father was down in Vir-West Virginia, and so I lived with my grandmother with my two brothers at that time. I can remember when my-one of my aunts was ill and we lived in this old house on 37th street, 11 West 37th, with high ceilings and long flights of stairs, and you got down into the basement; you opened the door, and it shut behind you. And you were in a dark maze of laundry and front basement and kitchen, and you had to walk through all that, and sometimes you heard mice, rats even, scurrying. And you had to open the door into the backyard because that was where the icebox was. And you had to get ice, and come all the way up those three flights of stairs again. And I suffered tortures, but I did it because I was so happy to be allowed to do something for somebody that I really cared enormously about. Then my father was a great sportsman. He rode beautifully, played polo, he rode, he hunted. He couldn't understand that anybody was afraid of anything. And the first pony he gave me was the wickedest little thing in the world. It tried to rub me off under branches of trees. It did everything it could, it kicked, it did everything. I was frightened to death, and I rode it every day. He used to invite me to drive with him when he came up to New York. He had a hunter called Mohawk that he had taught to drive in a two-wheel car. But it didn't always behave too well. And one day we drove in the park, in those days, there were long lines of carriages driving through the park, and he turned and said to me, "You know if I said ‘Hoopla' to Mohawk, he would try to jump all these carriages." And I was frightened to death! I saw us sailing up, over the carriages. Never occurred to my father, and I would have never more shown my father that I was afraid because I adored him. And these were mixed joys and fears, you see. But the joys were greater than the fears. So, I began to fight being afraid when I was very young --


[Arnold Michaelis:]  This is the 1890's before automobiles?

[ER:]  Oh, oh yes. This is when I was only um uh oh, about eight-seven years old.

[Arnold Michaelis:]  Were you--

[ER:]  I'm now 72, so you see, it's a good many years ago.

[Arnold Michaelis:]  It was in--were you afraid of people, would you say, in those days?

[ER:]  Oh, frightened to death, of displeasure of any kind,

[Arnold Michaelis:]  Of dis--

[ER:]  much--

[Arnold Michaelis:]  Of displeasing someone?

[ER:]  Oh, much more afraid of-of words, than I was really of anything else. But displeasure oh frightened to death. And uh then I think as you grew older, you realize that all this fear, you cu-brought you nowhere and you uh had to get over it. Um and so gradually, I developed um--I can remember standing outside the door, after I was married, of my husband's library because I had torn one of the pages in one of his first editions, and I was afraid to tell him. And making myself go in to tell him, because I was afraid, and um gradually coming to the realization that I couldn't go through life like this. And by the time Franklin became Governor and then President um I remember very well him saying to me one day, "You know all this protection is nonsense because if anybody wants to kill you, they will kill you."

[Arnold Michaelis:]  You mean the Secret Service

[ER:]  Yes.

[Arnold Michaelis:]  people? Yes.

[ER:]  This is all nonsense, he says. "Look, every time I get out at uh at 49, I'm-anyone could have taken a room in the Mayflower opposite, and who-who's going to protect me? Nobody, if the man doesn't mind being caught."

[Arnold Michaelis:]  Yes.

[ER:]  Add I said, "Well, uh then we have to make up our minds that it doesn't matter, don't we? Because it can be either of us, we're together and-and it can be either of us. So we have to make our minds that it doesn't matter." And he said, "Yes." And I don't think either of us from then on ever thought about it again.

[Arnold Michaelis:]  And that way you conquered that fear?

[ER:]  And I think that from then on, I had no more any fear.


[Arnold Michaelis:]  Now, with that knowledge that you have to defeat fear in order to move forward and to live, still you're a sensitive, aware person, there must have been key moments where you felt a clutch of the old specter and had to push it

[ER:]  Oh it comes--

[Arnold Michaelis:]  away?

[ER:]  It comes back um now and then but it never has much strength anymore. It can-it can come from many dif-if you're suddenly aware of a danger, but-but it never stays with me anymore.

[Arnold Michaelis:]  Let me ask you a question that I think is related to the general things you said. If as a young girl and growing up you were eager for approval, and were hurt by harsh words, how do you explain then that all your life you have very simply and firmly, despite general public opinion in many areas, said what you said, and-and brooked harsh words from masses of people?

[ER:]  Well, I think that comes also with the realization, that um whatever happens, you have to live through it. And you soon discover that um bad times are lived through and forgotten. And that [coughs]harsh things don't really--they may be overwhelming for a time, but they don't last any more than the others do. Everything is ephemeral, more or less, just as no matter how much you are in the public eye today, if you dropped out for two months uh nobody would know the difference, you see? And um you come to know that. Therefore, if you know that you yourself or anybody else, can't hold this except by being there always, you-you also realize that the other doesn't hold. And if-if you can live with yourself, that's the important thing. If you know that you are not ashamed, then the other doesn't matter.

[Arnold Michaelis:]  As you look back on the exciting past decades, you spoke of your husband uh in the governorship and then the presidency. Without any narrow political or partisan uh designations, what would you say are the outstanding contributions that you think uh Mr. Roosevelt made in those years?

[ER:]  Well, I think the greatest contribution that he made, he always um seemed in whatever time he came to office, to be meeting a crisis. When he came into governorship, he came into a situation where the state had been well-governed because Al Smith was a very good governor. But very soon, the state began to feel the repercussions of the national unemployment situation. So that he began, in the state of New York, to meet the unemployment situation to the limit of our ability in this state. Really sooner than they began to meet it nationally because it was here that he got Harry Hopkins to start making plans for the state situation. And when we went to Washington, there was the crisis of unemployment. There was the crisis of the whole financial situation. And you'd hardly got over that and got to a fairly even keel when you had the preparation for the war and another crisis. And I would say that probably his greatest contribution was that he was able to speak to the people and wanted to. The fact that he could simplify in words, complicated situations and solutions of-on government lines and could talk to people so that they felt that he was talking to them individually, therefore they became almost a part of their government. And they cooperated in a way that I think has been hard for them to do um frequently in the past, or even in the present because that was a gift. It was a God-given gift to be able to be uh almost giving people a feeling you were talking to them individually in their own living rooms. People now say to me in taxis, in um street cars, in anywhere, in subways, and-and trains, "Oh, I miss your husband's voice in my living room. He told me about my government." And um that was, I think, a saving thing in the crises that we went through. And I have felt that that was perhaps his greatest contribution.


[Arnold Michaelis:]  That is a powerful grasp and a technique of communication.

[ER:]  Yes.

[Arnold Michaelis:]  At the same time, I'm sure you'll agree that your husband must, in facing these world crises, have had a central philosophy that he powerfully applied with this God-given gift--

[ER:]  Well his central philosophy, of course, was that no matter what your situation was, you might not know what the answer was, but somehow it could be found, and the people who could help you find it must be reachable. And he would try to find those people. And he would-was perfectly willing to try experiments, knowing that he might not have found the people yet, or he might not have found the solution, but it would help people to know that you were trying. And he had an assurance that if you tried hard enough um perhaps it was a confidence and a power greater than his own, that I've never known, but I think he had the feeling that if you tried hard enough, somehow the answer would be found.

[Arnold Michaelis:]  You spoke of a confidence; I think you mean that he had a tremendous optimism?

[ER:]  Well, it was optimism, but it was also uh you know, my husband did not often talk about religion. Uh once when we were very young married people and our children were very young, I asked him whether he believed all the things he had been taught as a child, and whether he thought had not changed some of his beliefs whether he thought the children should be taught in the same way. And he said, "Well, it did not hurt us. So I think we will let them have the same teaching and decide for themselves." And uh he was not an introspective person, in that way. He didn't want to talk about a great many inner things. He had a kind of uh a guard of his own inner feelings that very rarely broke down. Uh but I often have felt that people who carry tremendous responsibility, as all presidents have to carry uh, you will often in history find that they are accused of becoming more and more egotistical. They more often say "I" and seem to act with a sense of assurance of power and of uh being right. Now, I've never been sure that that was really the answer. I felt with my husband that as time went on, and he had more difficult questions, that he sometimes felt that it wasn't entirely his own power or his own wisdom, that somehow he would be given the answer. I don't know that it was always conscious, and I've often questioned whether that wasn't so of other leaders in the past, for instance, of Lincoln uh whether perhaps their assurance came from the fact that they were sure that if they wanted guidance enough, they would get some kind of guidance. Because otherwise, I don't see how people, we're all mortal, how we can bear the decisions and the responsibility that comes with cer-certain positions. Now, some people get away from it by seeming to learn more heavily on the advice of others. But in the presidency, if you accept it, some people don't, but if you accept it the final decision has to be your own. And that's a terrifically heavy responsibility. And I doubt whether many people could carry that day in and day out unless they rule in a sense that they had some guidance beyond their own wisdom and their own knowledge.

[Arnold Michaelis:]  That guidance might be uh some reaching to an inner

[ER:]  I think--

[Arnold Michaelis:]  intuitive level--?

[ER:]  I think it's a reaching for a divine guidance, whether you know it or not. It may be um just a subconscious thing. But I think it is um sometimes people think they don't believe in it-I've-I've known people tell me quite frankly that uh, they had no belief in a god, and they had no sense of any power greater than their own. They were acting as individuals. And yet, the strongest of them, I think, at certain supreme moments, when they act, even without knowing it, have a sense of guidance and that can be nothing else but an actual belief that there is something greater than yourself.


[Arnold Michaelis:]  Can you think of some particular critical moments in which your husband was most sorely tested and most deeply and searchingly pressured?

[ER:]  Yes. One very critical moment was uh the uh D-Day landing. He um--you-you felt the tension of that day from the moment almost before dawn that we were awakened by the first uh telephone message um right on until the landing was over. Uh there was such tension in the house uh that everybody felt it.

[Arnold Michaelis:]  The call was from-from, uh the Prime Minister I believe, that telephone call--

[ER:]  Yes.

[Arnold Michaelis:]  --from Mr. Churchill. Eh in these years, and with the White House, and in Albany, and in your travels, you have met the world's leaders. I wonder if you could give your impression of some of these notable people whom uh you've seen close up and some of their qualities that were particularly striking.

[ER:]  Well, I've met a great many, of course. Uh, there are some of the world's leaders whom I consider very great leaders that I don't-I have never met, and whom I would like to meet because uh they are in a realm of the um thinkers uh and I have not uh met some of them. I have, of course, met many of the political leaders. Um perhaps the one I've known best uh is Mr. Churchill. I felt that his great gift was his courage and his closeness to the British people so that he could express in words what they felt but could not say, and therefore gave them the courage to be sometimes greater than they might otherwise have been.

[Arnold Michaelis:]  Did you know Mr. Gandhi?

[ER:]  Oh, ye-no, I never knew Mr. Gandhi, but I knew Mr. Nehru. Um he is a very complex person. He has great personal courage, um he also is a highly emotional person, and in some ways, a very spiritual person. Um in other ways, he is sometimes too emotional um to really grasp the whole of the situation. He will be carried away by um one idea when he should be looking at a picture the whole way ‘round, and see it from every side. But he is a very great man. I I think all these men, of course, are influenced by the environment in which they are. Nehru is influenced by being in an Asiatic country. Um Mr.-Mr. Malik is influenced by being in an Arab country. Um I think, for instance, that uh Ben-Gurion is one of the great men that I have met, uh but again, um he is influenced at times by the great moment or the great feel he had of the greatness of his people at the time of liberation. And he would like to preserve that all the time, forgetting that um human beings rarely live at the very top level all the time. It's very difficult to preserve that sense of willingness to sacrifice, of willingness to give at the top level. But I think he has an extraordinary inspirational power.


[Arnold Michaelis:]  You've spoken of personalities overseas. Are there some personalities who, in the presidential years or before, probably from the other major party, if not from the Democratic Party?

[ER:]  Well, if I can go far back, I felt that my uncle, Theodore Roosevelt, uh was a very compelling personality. He was of the opposite political party. Um at that time however I did not have very much understanding of the difference in politics. But I realized that he was giving my husband a sense-or at that time, even we were not married, my husband was a young man, a sense of responsibility in civic life, which was great inspiration. I think he was a great inspirer. Uh--

[Arnold Michaelis:]  Teddy Roosevelt?

[ER:]  Yes. I wish I had known, uh Schweitzer, or did know Schweitzer and Toynbee, well. I would like I-I have never known them. I would like to know them because I think, from their writings, they are, both of them, interesting, very interesting human beings.

[Arnold Michaelis:]  Would you like to meet Picasso?

[ER:]  Picasso?

[Arnold Michaelis:]  Yes.

[ER:]  Oh, very much! I would like to very much! I think he's a most interesting person.

[Arnold Michaelis:]  You spoke of Schweitzer and Toynbee. What is the quality in-in those two men we spoke of?

[ER:]  Well Schweitzer's willingness to devote himself to developing health among the people in a-in a lost place, uh I mean a place far away from all his, is a quality of-of sacrifice, of devotion, to just humanity eh, which is very interesting. And um Toynbee, I think is-is interesting because of his um originality of-of thought and his willingness to explore new ideas.


[Arnold Michaelis:]  Toynbee envisions uh a grand sweep in history, as you know, which will deal not very kindly with us in three or four hundred years, here in the

[ER:]  That's--

[Arnold Michaelis:]  Western Hemisphere.

[ER:]  I know--

[Arnold Michaelis:]  And this doesn't dismay you?

[ER:]  No, because actually, I'm not sure that anybody can predict uh what will happen, but it's interesting to have a man like Toynbee paint what might be because it gives you the chance to change.


Program Participants

  • : Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962
    Michaelis, Arnold, 1916-1997   [ LC | VIAF | SNAC | NYTimes ]

About this document

Inteview with Arnold Michaelis, Part 1

July 2, 1957


Eleanor Roosevelt

Project Editors
  • National Endowment for the Humanities

Eleanor Roosevelt Speeches is a project and publication of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, The George Washington University, Academic Building, Post Hall, Room 312, 2100 Foxhall Road, NW, Washington, DC 20007

Transcript Editors

Transcribed and published by the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, 2019-11-27

Transcription created from holdings at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library