I just love when someone comes up to me after a performance and says, “I forgot it was you up there; I really thought it was Eleanor!” Bless you, my dear, what an affirmation!
I’ve been performing Eleanor Roosevelt, off and on, for some five years now, and I never get tired of her. She was a complex woman who made great strides in the advancement of civil rights and women’s rights, and she was a champion of the poor and downtrodden. Eleanor demanded much in her relationships, but nothing more than she would expect of herself. A consummate politician with sharp instincts, Eleanor was respected for her integrity and dignity that she extended to all. She also liked to downplay her influence by often referring to herself as “just my husband’s helpmate.”
The Eleanor of “Tea with Mrs. Roosevelt” shows a more tender, vulnerable side of her than you might find in the history books. She learned to become self-reliant from a young age, and I think some of that could be attributed to her personal relationships. Those she loved, especially in her youth, rejected her. Her mother thought she was ugly and told her so many times; her father, whom she adored, ignored her; she had friends who manipulated her; and, her husband betrayed her. Who wouldn’t hold their heart at bay?
Franklin’s secret affair profoundly changed their relationship. I think a tiny part of her was relieved that she didn’t have to share the bedroom with anyone any longer. “He wanted a wife who could be less critical, more carefree,” Eleanor tells her friend Lorena. “I couldn’t be that for him, but I was just what he needed.”
Eleanor had many admirers; indeed, she was the most admired woman of the 20th century. She also had her detractors. You’d hear some say Eleanor Roosevelt was the best president we ever had (!), but 1940 Republican Campaign buttons sported the slogan: “We don’t want Eleanor either!”
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was a politician, diplomat, and activist. Untiring, she needed only four hours of sleep a night and used those extra hours to write a daily column, refine her policy positions, sharpen her intellect, and handwrite a note to most everyone she met or who wrote to her. She maintained that Franklin often didn’t listen to her, but in reality, he did. One wonders what the presidency would have looked like if she had just kept to her teas. (Franklin, at one point, asked her to limit her memos to him to just three a night.)
One of the challenges, for me, was to accurately voice her unique voice. At times I’ve been told to tone it down—that to truly reveal her voice would drive some out the door! (Younger audiences wonder why I speak in higher octaves.) She did take elocution lessons to lower her voice, and when called upon could stay in a pleasing range—some call it East Coast Aristocracy. However, let her passion get the best of her, and the pitch ascended and the warbling warbled.
I wonder what Eleanor Roosevelt would make of our political parties today? Would she even recognize them? Whatever your politics, I think you might agree that that “tough and salty old lady” would interject a welcome measure of needed civility in today’s impersonal social-media-driven world.
I am thrilled that Connie Cragel Le Pere will be joining me in the upcoming performance of “Tea with Mrs. Roosevelt,” written by Sherri Colbourn, at the Women’s History Museum of California (September 16 and 17, 2017). Performing as the famous journalist Lorena Hickok, Connie wonderfully portrays the no-holds-barred-reporter with just the right amount of attitude: irreverent but totally devoted to her good friend Eleanor. Come listen as Lorena interviews her about her family, life as the First Lady, and how the incredible partnership of Eleanor and Franklin shaped the presidency.
Annette Hubbell stars as Eleanor Roosevelt in “Tea with Mrs. Roosevelt.” Learn more about the other characters she plays and her recently released book at: www.annettehubbell.com. You can also reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.