This guest post was written by Christy Regenhardt, Editor, The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, The George Washington University.
Almost everyone knows about Eleanor Roosevelt. As a historian working on “ER,” I never have to tell people who she is. However, her popular image doesn’t include one of the most important facets of her career. She was a journalist and was active across a wide range of media, writing a daily syndicated column, a monthly magazine column, twenty-seven books, and hundreds of magazine articles.The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project (ERPP) at George Washington University is working to bring attention to ER’s journalism, and the Library of Congress is pivotal to our efforts.
The project that brought us into the Library of Congress started as so many such projects do: out of our own frustration. The ERPP publishes both digital and print editions of Eleanor Roosevelt’s documentary record. Our print volumes are selective—we publish approximately 100 documents for each year, selecting those that are most historically significant or most representative of ER’s correspondence on a wide range of subjects. When we were working on volume II, which covers 1949 through 1952, we struggled to select some of Eleanor Roosevelt’s radio and television programs to transcribe. In 1950 and 1951 ER hosted 289 unique episodes of radio and television programs.
ER’s own papers, housed at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, had recordings of some of these programs, but not all. Those that it did have were often incomplete. ER had not retained full recordings of the final broadcast versions of her shows, but instead tended to retain clips as they were recorded. Copies of the television program were audio-only, and often were catalogued under the wrong program name. Two of our project’s graduate fellows, Ruby Johnson and Seth LaShier, began listening to these clips and trying to establish full metadata for every clip. By this time we had already sent volume II to the publisher, but still wanted to gain better intellectual control over the audio.
Around this time we discovered that the Library of Congress had a collection of ER’s radio and television programs that far exceeded what we had found at the FDR Library. In 1942, ER herself attended the donation of Over Our Coffee Cups recordings to the Library, a gift from her sponsor, the Pan-American Coffee Bureau. In 1978, NBC donated its radio collection to the Library of Congress, including 150,000 sixteen-inch lacquer discs. Most of ER’s radio programs and two of her three television programs were on NBC (the third television program, on National Educational Television, is also available at the Library). We created a list of programs for which either we or the Library had recordings and applied for a Preservation and Access grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. They generously funded our plan to transcribe those materials and make those transcriptions available online.
So we began our transcription work both in our own offices and at the Library. The Library digitized lacquer discs and film as we requested them for listening and viewing. Originally we thought this would be all that we gained from our visits to the Library, but as we worked and talked to the librarians on duty they began to point us to resources that we didn’t even know existed. The NBC Masterbooks, on microfilm in the Recorded Sound Research Center, contain production materials on many of ER’s programs and even occasional full scripts of her early shows for which recordings do not seem to exist. The NBC Log Books show which stations carried which programs on any given day, and sometimes include handwritten notes on the content of the day’s program. We were still struggling to assign metadata to much of the material we had in-house and to build episode lists for each program. We had used program listings from newspapers, but since they didn’t always include descriptions of the content of the programs, and didn’t always identify re-runs, we weren’t sure of the exact runs of many of ER’s shows. Without our even asking, the librarians pointed us toward these resources, which helped us create what we deem to be reliable episode lists for all of ER’s NBC programs, and helped us find scripts of shows that we did not have in another format. In comparison, we are still unable to create a full episode list for ER’s one ABC show, the Eleanor and Anna Roosevelt Program, and have put many materials online by catalog or recording date rather than air date.
In addition, the Library provided a very welcoming environment for both our senior staff and our student employees. The ERPP employs undergraduate and graduate students to do much of the work of the project. Each recording has to be transcribed and edited by two different students before a senior staff member edits it, meaning that the students spend far more time at the Library than do the senior staff. Most of our undergraduates had never been to the Library of Congress before, and many seemed intimidated at the prospect. The students found, however, that the Library is a welcoming place with a staff enthusiastic to help them in their work. Every student I’ve asked has said that they’ve begun using the Library for their own work now that they’re familiar with all that is available there.
The project to transcribe ER’s radio and television programs, though still in progress, has already made 398 transcripts available for free online. The programs provide a treasury of material not just for those interested in Eleanor Roosevelt but for anyone interested in United States culture, politics, and foreign policy between 1933 and 1962. Though ER’s early radio shows in the 1930s mostly had her delivering a prepared script, by the 1940s she moved toward an interview format. At the same time she moved from a focus on women and children toward a more general news focus.
The variety of guests is impressive. I was not at all surprised that ER interviewed US Ambassador to the United Nations Warren Austin or activist Adele Rosenwald Levy on The Eleanor Roosevelt Program. More surprising, however, is that in that same month her guests included actor and producer Helen Hayes, film producer Stanley Kramer, composer and pianist Skitch Henderson, actor and director Blanche Yurka, radio personalities Jinx Falkenburg and Tex McCrary, author John Steinbeck, and cartoonist Al Capp. Though ER was always able to lure notable guests, her pull within domestic and international political spheres was exceptional. Prospects of Mankind, which aired on National Educational Television between 1959 and 1962 and focused almost exclusively on political matters, includes episodes with guests appearances by John Kennedy (as both Senator and later as President), Nelson Rockefeller, Adlai Stevenson, Victor Reuther, Alan Dulles, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Edward R. Murrow, Sargent Shriver, Carlos Romulo, Ralph Bunche, Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, John Kenneth Galbraith, V. K. Krishna Menon, and Henry Kissinger.
One of the treasures in this collection is the episode of Over Our Coffee Cups from the evening of December 7, 1941, in which ER reacted to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. After giving an update on happenings in the White House, ER offered guidance on what the people of the United States would need to do to face the international crisis. She told Americans on the homefront both about her fear (especially for her sons in the military) and her faith:
“You have friends and families in what has suddenly become a danger zone. You cannot escape anxiety, you cannot escape the clutch of fear at your heart, and yet I hope that the certainty of what we have to meet will make you rise above these fears. We must go about our daily business, more determined than ever to do the ordinary things as well as we can, and when we find a way to do anything more in our communities to help others, to build morale, to give a feeling of security, we must do it. Whatever is asked of us, I’m sure we can accomplish it. We are the free and unconquerable people of the United States of America…I feel as though I was standing upon a rock, and that rock is my faith in my fellow citizens.”
For me, this recording brings to life the shock so many Americans must have felt on that day more than any other document or recording I’ve encountered.
The following year, Eleanor Roosevelt listened to some of the recordings held by the Library of Congress. After listening to “men of the farm, factory, the small town and the big city, voicing their opinions in a manner which will really make history seem alive in the future,” she hoped that “something can be done to get these records before the public now.”
I feel the same way now as she did then about the audio-visual materials available at the Library of Congress, and hope more people are able to listen to these old programs which do, indeed, make history seem alive.
Recordings by Eleanor Roosevelt are available for listening at the Recorded Sound Research Center and episodes of Mrs. Roosevelt’s television program are available for viewing at the Moving Image Research Center. For more information contact reference staff.