She was taking an incredibly rare moment of rest at her Val-Kill retreat in Hyde Park, New York on the Hudson, simply relaxing as she listened to the radio and knitting.
Resting for Eleanor Roosevelt in July of 1940 also meant that she was dictating rapid-fire responses to her secretary Malvina “Tommy” Thompson and stenographer Dorothy Dow, keeping on top of the hundreds of letters she received each week. She was also finally taking diving lessons in her pool.
Nearby, an ill friend who needed help found that none other than the First Lady of the United States was barging into her home, cleaning the rooms and cooking the woman’s lunch and dinner.
Days earlier, there had also been a summer afternoon tea she hosted for a few friends who dropped by – some eight hundred of them.
The radio was tuned to a live broadcast of the National Democratic Convention in its opening day, being held in Chicago.
If Eleanor Roosevelt was known as the First Lady who had a habit of shattering precedents, now it was the turn of her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Elected in the midst of the Great Depression in 1932, and then to a traditional second term in 1936, he was now mortifying political traditionalists by seeking a third presidential term.
“Washington Wouldn’t, Lincoln Couldn’t, Roosevelt Shouldn’t!” declared one of the plethora of anti-third term buttons hitting the marketplace that year.
As she listened in, Mrs. Roosevelt got her first inkling of serious trouble. The majority of delegates were protesting the President’s choice of a running mate, a new vice presidential candidate Henry Wallace.
With his socialist sympathies, the new potential nominee was a radical departure from James Garner, the conservative Texas Democrat who had served with FDR during his first two terms.
The delegate revolt could not only create chaos where the Roosevelts and the Democratic National Committee chairman had planned for a smooth re-nomination but it could split and throw the party into disarray at a particularly delicate time in American life.
As Hitler began exercising his reign of tyranny and the rise of the Third Reich began to shadow the stability of Europe, the United States was slowly converting to a pre-war economy as a means of extending the economic recovery that FDR’s “New Deal” government programs had begun in the effort to reverse the depression.
Ostensibly, the wartime buildup was in support of the closest American ally, Great Britain, the primary target of Germany, but the First Lady had also led up the Civilian Defense Corps, an effort to begin getting the American people prepared for the changes that the world war would bring.
As she knitted away, the phone rang. It was the President. Eleanor Roosevelt’s rest would prove not only rare but brief. The delegates needed unification. He wanted her to do the unifying.
Soon a second call came in, this one directly from the convention floor, It was her friend, the Labor Secretary Frances Perkins practically begging her to save the day.
In a flash, Mrs. Roosevelt jumped up to dress, dashed out of the house, into a waiting car. She was joined by her son Franklin, Jr.
She also, apparently, brought the banged-up but trusty typewriter that the ever-reliable Tommy usually pecked out letters and memos on. Without Tommy, Mrs. Roosevelt was capable of doing her own typing, however. They boarded a small private plane, and were soon headed for Chicago.
It was, apparently, during the flight that Mrs. Roosevelt formed a general idea of what needed to be said, and a single page of loose notes were typed out.
Before landing, the First Lady was given a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream of taking control of an airplane. Her hand on the
Eleanor Roosevelt had been to a Democratic National Convention before. She had joined Franklin at the one held in New York in 1924, when he placed the name of his friend, New York Governor Al Smith up for the presidential nomination.
It was FDR’s very first political appearance since he had contracted infantile paralysis and he appeared on crutches.
Eleanor had accompanied him to ensure he was able to carry off the new ritual he had developed that gave the appearance of briefly walking when, in fact, it was a system whereby he swung his lifeless legs, encased in iron braces.
When FDR had broken precedent by flying to Chicago in 1932 to accept his nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate, Mrs. Roosevelt had also been with him.
It may well have inspired her to become the first spouse of a presidential candidate to address a national convention, but also the first incumbent First Lady to do so.
However, while Eleanor Roosevelt would become the first incumbent First Lady to address a national convention, she was not the first among First Ladies to do so.
Already seated in her front-row box seat in the Chicago Stadium was one of her predecessors and a friend dating back to World War I, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson.
Mrs. Wilson was a living legend, famous for the whisper that she had in fact served as the nation’s “first woman president” because she managed the presidency following the stroke of her husband Woodrow Wilson while he was the incumbent president
Following the former president’s death in February of 1924, Edith Wilson began a career as “Mrs. Woodrow Wilson,” traveling the world to represent his legacy, be it at a statue dedication, an international conference upholding his vision of a League of Nations, or an important Democratic Party function.
Although still in mourning at the time of the 1924 Democratic Convention, Mrs. Wilson went to the one held in Houston, Texas four years later as the guest of wealthy businessman Jesse H. Jones, who
While Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had been wildly adamant supporters of their friend, Bronx native and New York Governor Al Smith, the aristocratic segregationist Edith Wilson held him and his working-class wife Mary Smith in genteel contempt.
Conscious of her status as a party symbol, she finally acquiesced to pressure to pose stiffly alongside the would-be First Lady Mrs. Smith in front of an outside chain-link fencing where news photographers finally cornered her. “Poor Mrs. Smith,” mused author Gore Vidal many decades later. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Mrs. Wilson voted for Hoover that year, on class alone.”
She paused, shifting away slightly to leave a decided space between them.
Generous in praise of his fellow southerner, the late President Wilson, whose administration he’d served, Jesse Jones won the effusive support of his widow in the long-shot effort to draft him instead of Smith.
It was thus with appreciative enthusiasm that, at the opening session of the 1928 convention, Jesse Jones called Mrs. Wilson to the podium to be acknowledged by the delegates – and then gently pushed her towards the microphone, announcing to the convention that she would now address them.
Never having given a public speech and never having wishing to do so, Edith Wilson uttered a few sentences of thanks for their warm welcome, which she registered as a respectful tribute to “dear Mr. Wilson.”
Thus, however unwittingly, Edith Wilson technically became the first First Lady to address a national convention, albeit with the distinction of former First Lady. Her remarks nor any other voice recordings have thus far been located.
While she never again allowed herself to be brought to the podium, Mrs. Wilson found that she rather liked the fawning she got at conventions where she quite willingly assumed the role of a Queen Mother, as much as a democracy permitted.
From that point on, she never missed one.
Ritualistically, on the opening day of the conventions, the chairmen at the podium would beseech the entire auditorium to join him in welcoming “Mrs. Woodrow Wilson” as she insisted on being called.
Seated in a front-row VIP box seat, her face framed in the changing parade of hat fashions of the Thirties and Forties, Edith would elegantly rise and gently wave to the cheering crowds, giggling a bit.
Throughout the course of each convention, she held court daily from her viewing box, accepting gifts of candy, flowers, signing autographs and accepting kisses.
Reporters noted that she always came early and stayed to the bitter end, enduring the insufferable heat, candidate chantings and picketed demonstrations.
Mrs. Wilson always cultivated a relationship with each one of her successors regardless of political affiliation, but her friendship with Mrs. Roosevelt was the longest and most complex.
They had been together in Europe immediately after World War I and shared the experience of visiting a hospital ward to visit American doughboys had been permanently disfigured by war. It was a haunting experience neither woman forgot.
Mrs. Wilson often called on Mrs. Roosevelt to help her on projects involving the Wilsonian vision of a League of Nations; sharing the same vision, the latter almost always complied. When Mrs. Roosevelt asked Mrs. Wilson to simply loan her name to National Democratic Women’s Committee fundraising letters, the latter almost never complied.
When it came to gender and racial equality, they were utterly oppositional. In the 1940′s, for example, Mrs. Wilson sent around some witty but rather mean bits of anti-Roosevelt poetry.
The two First Ladies got on well personally, sharing the same sense of the ridiculous. On occasion, they could be even be spied enjoying an earthy laugh together. The patient Mrs. Roosevelt seemed to bring the best out in the prickly Mrs. Wilson.
Now, at the 1940 Democratic Convention, she was not at all welcoming to the Roosevelt choice of Wallace as vice president, staunch in her support of getting her friend Jones (then serving as FDR’s Commerce Secretary) on the ticket as FDR’s running mate.
One reporter noted that even the usually sedate former First Lady joined in the foot-stomping protest against the choice of Wallace as the party’s vice presidential choice.
By the time Eleanor Roosevelt finished her speech, however, even Edith Wilson joined in party unity to support the FDR-Wallace ticket.
By the time Inauguration Day came around, the reactionary Democrat had gotten so downright chummy with the leftist one that she requested he escort her to some of the festivities. She would accept nobody of lesser a status.
The new Vice President, of course, complied.
The very first glimpse of the distinctively tall and looming Eleanor purposefully striding into the coliseum and beelining straight up to the podium set off a deafening cheer and stampede of foot-stomping. The Democratic delegates might squawk and scream about who should be Vice President, but everyone loved Mrs. Roosevelt.
At the foot of the podium, she was greeted there by Chicago mayor Ed Kelly, eagerly waiting to greet her with a few words.
Mayor Kelly was as loyal an apostle of FDR as they came. In fact, to ensure that there wasn’t any trouble in seeing that the Roosevelt choice for vice president got the biggest and loudest demonstration, he ordered the police to block re-entrance into the hall of those delegates known to oppose him.
Always the courteous gent, Kelly was devoted to Mrs. Roosevelt and made his apologies to his special guest that day in his V.I.P. viewing box, local radio show actress Edie Davis.
Always beaming her sunny smile and instantly recognizable by her snow-white hair and suntan, Mrs. Davis also worked for the mayor as a vice-squad matron. She knew what was up in the Windy City.
Despite being married to an archly conservative Republican neurosurgeon, Edie was a rabid Democrat.
For this historic moment, she had brought along her teenage daughter, home on summer vacation from Smith College, where she had completed her first year of study, majoring in drama.
The young woman, who had only just turned nineteen years old two weeks earlier, later recalled with some embarrassment her singular lack of curiosity about politics at the time.
Especially close to her mother, however, Miss Ann Frances Davis was noted in a newspaper clipping about Chicago society folks at the convention, as practically sitting on Mrs. Davis’s lap as they anticipated the arrival of the First Lady.
Without fanfare, on that steamy July eighteenth, the First Lady spoke with conviction to the delegates, in a tone some thought scoldingly but all thought convincingly.
She did not mention Wallace by name but rather focused on why the President must have the right to break with the tradition of delegates choosing a vice president and hold that prerogative himself with the expectation of their unanimous support.
Topped in a flowered hat and wearing a pinned corsage as large as the hat, Mrs. Roosevelt only had her single sheet of paper with typed notes.
From this, as the transcript below illustrates, the First Lady spoke with extemporaneously eloquence:
Delegates to the convention, visitors, friends: It is a great pleasure for me to be here and to have an opportunity to say a word to you.
First of all, I think I want to say a word to our National Chairman, James A. Farley. For many years I have worked under Jim Farley and with Jim Farley, and I think nobody could appreciate more what he has done for the party, what he has given in work and loyalty. And I want to give him here my thanks and devotion.
And now, I think that I should say to you that I cannot possibly bring you a message from the President because he will give you his own message. But, as I am here, I want you to know that no one could not be conscious of the confidence which you have expressed in him.
You cannot treat it as you would treat an ordinary nomination in an ordinary time. We people in the United States have got to realize today that we face a grave and serious situation.
Therefore, this year the candidate who is the President of the United States cannot make a campaign in the usual sense of the word. He must be on his job.
So each and every one of you who give him this responsibility, in giving it to him assume for yourselves a very grave responsibility because you will make the campaign. You will have to rise above considerations which are narrow and partisan.
You must know that this is the time when all good men and women give every bit of service and strength to their country that they have to give. This is the time when it is the United States that we fight for, the domestic policies that we have established as a party that we must believe in, that we must carry forward, and in the world we have a position of great responsibility.
We cannot tell from day to day what may come. This is no ordinary time. No time for weighing anything except what we can do best for the country as a whole, and that responsibility rests on each and every one of us as individuals.
No man who is a candidate or who is President can carry this situation alone. This is only carried by a united people who love their country and who will live for it to the fullest of their ability, with the highest ideals, with a determination that their party shall be absolutley devoted to the good of the nation as a whole and to doing what this country can to bring the world to a safer and happier condition.
Whether it was the shock of a First Lady speaking at a convention or the power of her words, the entire convention fell into awed silence. The solemnity of imminent world war and its full impact seemed to have struck them all. There were no more floor fights or screaming or protests.
As one newspaper headline put it, “Mrs. Roosevelt Stills the Tumult of 50,000.”
Finally, after the silence, the convention hall erupted in deafening cheers and whistles. The First Lady couldn’t repress her famous toothy grin. Not unlike her “Uncle Ted,” the late President Theodore Roosevelt, she threw up her right arm in triumphant acknowledgement.
Then, she simply turned around and walked out, nodding her head and shaking hands in acknowledgement of those lining her exit path to glimpse her. Her waiting care drove her back to the airport. She flew home directly, to summertime at Hyde Park.
Within eighteen hours of having been interrupted by the call from her husband, Mrs. Roosevelt was back in the country, knitting away.
For Mrs. Wilson, the words of her successor that day must have echoed a sad, distant memory of another time, before another war. Despite her late husband’s 1916 re-election to a second term on the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War,” she was more aware than most of the inevitability he would have to lead the United States into the bloody conflict known then as “The Great War.”
Just seventeen months after the hot summer of the Chicago convention, at the start of the 1941 Christmas season, Edith Wilson would be seated in unity beside Eleanor Roosevelt, as they together listened to and fully absorbed the implication of the President’s declaration of war against the empire of Japan. From that point on, “The Great War” would be known as World War I, giving grave context to the new one, World War II.
The power of a First Lady’s symbolism at the Chicago convention long lingered in the memory of one witness to it that day.
Edie Davis’s daughter would pursue a professional acting career briefly on Broadway, then headed west to Hollywood. There, Miss Davis worked diligently at her craft for nearly a decade, building a credible record of a dozen films. Never able to break typecasting, she would then marry the Screen Actor’s Union president, managing to raise two children while taking television and commercial jobs. When he ran for governor and won, she adjusted her life to that of a political spouse.
By the time he won the presidency in 1980, she became a First Lady as influential as Eleanor Roosevelt, not through policy but personal influence.
And, in 1984, when her husband was nominated for a second term at the National Republican Convention, Nancy Reagan would address the delegates and the nation, just as did Eleanor Roosevelt.
A year later, shown a yellowed clipping that noted her presence at the 1940 Convention and asked if she remembered watching her predecessor’s historical speech, the eyes of the woman formally known as Ann Frances Davis widened excitedly as she piped up.
“How could anyone forget Mrs. Roosevelt?! There was nobody like her. Nobody.“