THE REMARKABLE life and times of Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and a tireless political campaigner in her own right, is vividly portrayed in Mrs Roosevelt Flies To London which comes to the Town Hall Theatre on Tuesday May 6.
The play is written and performed by the outstanding English actress Alison Skilbeck who delighted audiences here last September with her last play, Are There More of You?
“I had heard of Eleanor Roosevelt but when I discovered just what an extraordinary life she had, both privately and publicly, I became absolutely fascinated.” Skilbeck tells me, speaking from her London home. “What drew me to her was her social and political attitudes, she was well ahead of her time in terms of her stance on issues like racism and equality. She was often more radical than FDR. She was also chair of the commission which drew up the Declaration of Human Rights after the war.”
Eleanor Roosevelt was born in 1884. Though her family were immensely wealthy she had an unhappy childhood with both parents dying while she was young. In 1905 she married her fifth cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They had six children but in 1918 Eleanor learned Franklin had been having an affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Although she remained married to him, she concentrated more on political activities.
“I read many biographies to find out about the inner woman because there were some very shattering events in her life,” Skilbeck reveals. “Her marriage to FDR changed completely after she discovered his infidelity in 1918 and again when he got polio in 1921. They led separate lives in many ways but were very much together on the political front.
“One of the reasons FDR never divorced Eleanor was because Sara, his mother, held the family purse strings and said there would be no more money if he got a divorce. Also, his political career would have been at an end if they had separated.”
Skilbeck’s play centres on a wartime visit Eleanor made to England. While telling the story of that trip, it also moves back and forward in time to highlight other facets of her life.
“She came to London in 1942 to see the British women’s war effort and to visit the American troops. She stayed with the King and Queen and travelled all over the country. I learned she had written a diary about it so I went to America to the FDR library and they let me photocopy it. I got permission from her grand-daughter to use it in writing the show.
“In the show I don’t just play Eleanor, I play all the royal family, FDR, and most of the wartime population of Britain! I also talk about her childhood and schooldays. A very important part of her education was school in England where the headmistress was this extraordinary, radical, Frenchwoman who taught her about things like the plight of Afro-Americans, feminism, and so on.
“The play also takes in FDR’s death in 1945, her post-war work with the UN, and the Cuban Missile Crisis which occurred while she was dying. I manage to get in quite a lot while telling the story of her trip around London!”
Eleanor had close friendships with both men and women and people have often speculated just how close they may have been.
“The jury is still out which makes it much more interesting than if we knew for certain what actually went on in the bedroom,” Skilbeck suggests. “Her friendship with Lorena Hickok the journalist lasted all their lives from when they first met in 1932. They wrote an incredible amount of letters that only came to light in 1978, 10 years after Lorena died. A lot of them are very intimate, nonetheless a lot of people still pretend that’s how women wrote to each other back then.
“She had passionate friendships with lots of women and lots of younger men as well in her later years. Her biographer Joseph Lash, who was 30 years younger than her, she was incredibly keen on him. She and FDR retained an incredible affection despite the fact it was never the same after 1918; she nursed him through his polio for instance.”
Finally, does Skilbeck admire any particular trait of Eleanor’s? “She was very fearful as a child yet she once said ‘do one thing every day that scares you’. We all have fears and demons - an actor has terrible fears !- and the idea of confronting that and her achievement in doing things that made her afraid and getting through that, I admire her for that.”
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie