The young Eleanor Roosevelt could not wait to escape her perilous legal fight to move to Paris after World War II.
A widow of four years, she worked from home, taking care of her dog and pursuing — full-time — her law studies at Columbia University.
“There was no phone, no electricity,” Roosevelt wrote in a letter to a friend in 1948. “I had no books to study with except the books my roommate had with her. I had no dining room or kitchen.”
There were many frequent interruptions to her training.
Because a petition for FDR’s extradition to France had been turned down, Roosevelt faced an uncertain future. All it took was a request for a passport and, like Napoleon and St. Paul, Eleanor received a conditional command to march onto France on March 6, 1948. Her journey, as she experienced it, reads like a fairy tale.
In one sense, she was true to the spirit of the Continent.
“I have gone from being the slave of some Great President to the slave of none,” she wrote to her fiancé, who planned to join her in France. “I can manage. My greatest loss is solitude.”
For all that, Eleanor understood. “She had some knowledge of European culture,” the antiques dealer Rudolf W. Schaumberg later wrote, “and was able to draw allusions to European culture that only occasionally had appeared in her writings.”
She also knew to lean on her friends. “The chattering are particularly acute,” she wrote to Henry Kammerer, a New York lawyer who assisted with her French speaking and tax laws. “They are as irritating as gnats to my eyes.”
Her friend Elizabeth St. George was made honorary “la mère et monsieur” upon her arrival in Paris. Also here was her biographer, John Hersey, who was writing a book on Stalin’s scientists: “I want to pour a second swig of the damned cognac,” he wrote in his introduction to “The Life of Eleanor Roosevelt.”
The aristocrat Marcus Le Grange lost four of his five children and four of his five wives in the wars. Sometimes, she and Hersey shared his room in a hotel where he had a desk in the bathroom. They slept in opposite rooms — Eleanor was for three weeks a guest of one of Le Grange’s secretaries; Hersey had no place of his own.
“Each night,” Hersey wrote in “Eleanor,” “we took a pleasure walk. A mystery that kept the young writers awake.”