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Made at the Library: “Rediscovering Eleanor Roosevelt” on March 18

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The following post was written by Guy Lamolinara, communications officer in Literary Initiatives.

On Thursday, March 18, at 7 p.m. ET, David Michaelis discusses his new biography of Eleanor Roosevelt (“Eleanor”) with Colleen Shogan, senior vice president and director of the David M. Rubenstein Center at the White House Historical Association, and Library of Congress Manuscript Division staff. 

Many Americans would say that she was our most influential first lady. And she was most definitely the longest-serving. That could be none other than Eleanor Roosevelt—activist, diplomat and “First Lady of the World,” according to her husband’s successor, Harry S. Truman.

The wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor (1884-1962) was his fifth cousin once removed. They married in 1905, but by 1918, Franklin was having an affair, which Eleanor discovered. So Eleanor made her own way, becoming the first presidential spouse to write a daily newspaper column (“My Day”), have a weekly radio program, speak at a national party convention and hold her own news conferences. She trod where no other presidential spouse had dared tread before. Her life and a new book are the focus of  “Rediscovering Eleanor Roosevelt,” a virtual program premiering this Thursday, March 18, at 7 p.m. ET, on the Library’s Facebook page and its YouTube site. The event will be available for viewing afterward on the Library’s website.

Marie Arana, the Library’s literary director, opens this first in a new book series called Made at the Library. When we say “Made at the Library,” we are referring to the books that relied heavily on research done in the Library of Congress’s extraordinary collections of materials, such as manuscripts, that frequently exist at no other research institution. As Arana says in her introduction, the Library’s materials—not just books and manuscripts, but also motion pictures, maps, prints, photographs, music—any media on which information is recorded—can find their way into newly published books.

One such case is a major new biography of the path-breaking Roosevelt. Author David Michaelis did much of his research for “Eleanor” (Simon and Schuster) in our Manuscript Division, working with Jeff Flannery, who spent 35 years at the Library and was head of the Manuscript Reading Room.

Colleen Shogan, director of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History at the White House Historical Association and a former Library senior staffer, interviews Michaelis, who tells her that, for him, the Library of Congress is his “touchstone.” In fact, the institution’s materials as well as the staff who advise on their use have played a major role in all his books.

Michaelis says to Shogan that he decided to write this biography, despite their being many Eleanor Roosevelt bios, including a seminal three-volume work, because he wanted to tell “more of her story.” He believes those bios don’t get us close to who Eleanor Roosevelt really was.

Two Library reference specialists are featured in this program. Elizabeth Novara, women’s history specialist in our Manuscript Division, follows Arana’s introduction with an overview of the division and its strong holdings in women’s history. Later in the conversation, Flannery joins Shogan and Michaelis. Flannery worked extensively with the biographer, helping him navigate through the Library’s seemingly insurmountable volume of resources relating to Roosevelt. Flannery notes that the Library has extensive holdings in 20th century history, and that “Eleanor Roosevelt permeates the collections.”

“It can be overwhelming,” says Flannery. “What really has to occur is a conversation” to narrow the focus of research. Such a conversation is where the expertise of Library staff plays a crucial role.

And just who was Eleanor, according to Michaelis?

“Eleanor is the person you hope you might become if you transcend your fears, if you transcend what life gave you to begin with and become who you would most like to be. Eleanor really understood people’s lives in democracy, about treating each other well. … Every single place she went and every single thing she did was about the person she was with.”

Tune in on Thursday to learn more about this amazing American and how the Library’s collections supported Michaelis’ major new Eleanor Roosevelt biography.