Friday, 8 June 2012

Eleanor Roosevelt and the new French 'first lady'

The recently-published biography, in French, of Eleanor Roosevelt (Claude-Catherine Kiejman, Eleanor Roosevelt,First Lady et Rebelle, Éditions Tallendier), is stirring much interest in France because the new President’s partner is herself a career journalist. Some have suggested that she retire temporarily because of the possibility of ‘conflict of interest’.
Valérie Trierweiler has herself pointed to Eleanor Roosevelt as an example of a ‘first lady’ who maintains her own public career as a writer. For many years, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote an almost daily column, called My Day. It was a kind of diary that described her most fascinating life. It is all available on line.
I’ve recently pored over the entries for 1946, 1947 and 1948 as part of my research on the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here is the entry for 11 May 1946, when Eleanor Roosevelt and a handful of pioneers meeting as the ‘Nuclear Commission on Human Rights’ began the process of drafting the Declaration:
NEW YORK, Friday—It seems to me that perhaps I ought to catch up a little on my usual diary! Last Saturday, I had the great pleasure of having Miss Gabriela Mistral, the well-known Chilean poetess, and Mr. and Mrs. Andrei Gromyko drive up to Hyde Park to lunch with me.
I had met all of them before but I had had merely a casual introduction to Miss Mistral. As I have great admiration for this winner of the 1945 Nobel Prize for Literature, I was delighted to have a chance to really talk to her.
She is one of Chile's permanent consuls in San Diego, but her interests are far from being political. As she is a humanitarian, she wishes to see changed anything which is unjust either for men or women. But her real interest is in literature and the arts, and not in whether a vote will be needed in order to obtain some of the things people are entitled to. She had a most interesting face, and I hope the day will come when I will have the opportunity to talk with her in leisurely fashion about the many things in which we both are interested.
After Miss Mistral had gone back to New York City to fill a radio engagement, I drove Mr. and Mrs. Gromyko around to see my husband's hilltop cottage, his trees, and finally the library and the big house. Mr. Gromyko was long-suffering and endured having Fala practically sit in his lap during most of the time we were driving!
* * *
On Sunday, the members of the United Nations Human Rights Commission and the members of the Subcommission on the Status of Women all came up for a picnic lunch before visiting the big house and library. They got started from New York City rather late and, I think, had the usual difficulty finding exactly where they were supposed to arrive, so lunch was a bit late. But I enjoyed having them and hoped they did not find my hospitality too informal.
Monday saw us all back at work in New York but, that afternoon, a case of shingles which I had been fighting for over a week got a little the better of me. I left Prof. Rene Cassin to preside at the afternoon session of the Human Rights Commission. And all day Tuesday, I deserted the Subcommission on the Status of Women. But by Wednesday, I was able to start out again at 9:30, stay at Hunter College all day, and even keep my speaking engagement for the evening.
The subcommission is having a rather hard time finishing its report on schedule, but they are due to hand it to the Human Rights Commission on Monday so that we may go over it on Tuesday. Our own work is progressing fairly well. Today we will take up the consideration of what our recommendations should be on freedom of information. Certainly freedom of information, whether it means freedom of the press or of any other avenue of information, is one of the very important factors in the future peace of the world.
Last night, I spoke for a few minutes for the Jewish Welfare Fund, and today I shall speak for a very brief time at the opening of the new Medical Rehabilitation Clinic which the Veterans Administration has established here in New York City.
Mary Ann Glendon, in her biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, reports on a session of the nuclear Commission on Human Rights where René Cassin spoke for fifteen or twenty minutes without a pause for translation. Apparently “the interpreter broke down in tears and fled the room, leaving Mrs. Roosevelt, who fortunately was fluent in French, to summarize his remarks as best she could.” (Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, New York: Random House, 2001, p. 31.)
Two years later, Eleanor Roosevelt spent the autumn in Paris negotiating the final text of the Declaration.  Together with Cassin, she visited the Sorbonne and wrote in her column of 1 October 1948:
PARIS, Thursday—I must own up to the fact that speaking at the Sorbonne seemed to me altogether too great an honor for a woman who never even had earned a degree after four years' work in college.
I was nervous and apprehensive, but there is something in the atmosphere of an old building like that and its beautiful hall that has an invigorating effect on speakers. Of course, the French language lends itself to oratory, and long before I spoke I was lost in the admiration of the way this language provides the words to say things that one would find it difficult to say in almost any other language.
The president of the university and Professor Rene Cassin spoke before I did. And when they speak of the Sorbonne one can tell by the feeling and emotion they put into their words that they are not merely talking of an institution of learning. This is a building they love, in which traditions have been built and which mean a great deal in the intellectual life of the French people.
Our students at home and our universities who have sent help to the Sorbonne and to the students here would be gratified by the remarks made by the president of the university in his speech. He told how much it has meant to them to receive tons of dried milk, for example, just before examinations so that they could give the students more nourishment at that particular time. He emphasized his gratitude not just for the material things, much as they have needed them, but for the spirit of generosity and affection which has come to them here from the institutions of learning in their sister republic of the United States.
The Sorbonne president also made mention of Benjamin Franklin and how he first came to speak for the United States in this capital city of Paris. And this reminded me of the fact that John Golden, who was here for a few days, made me walk to the end of the block of buildings in which our hotel stands to show me a bronze table that commemorates the fact that in this building Benjamin Franklin and other American statesmen signed the treaty that brought us help from France in the days when we needed it more than France needs our help today.
Our two republics have a long history of friendship and it is good now, when they need a lift to their spirits, that we are able to help them through these arduous years. I was only too glad to be able to thank them not only for what they did for us years ago, but for what they have done in the fields of literature and the fine arts for us and for the world over in all the years of their history.

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