Seniors Here Remember the Roosevelts
To coincide with Ken Burns' documentary, "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History" in 2014, I asked local senior citizens to reflect on the Roosevelt legacy.
Fay Kaplan remembers the Great Depression.
She was a 16-year-old schoolgirl in Port Chester when Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932. She is now 97 and lives in White Plains.
"People today can't imagine what it was like," Kaplan said. "There were no jobs. None. People stood in bread lines for hours. When Roosevelt came in he had the Fireside Chats on the radio, and we never missed them. He sounded so upbeat and confident, and he gave us hope."
PBS will spend next week jogging memories, and introducing a new generation to the sweeping story of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, in Ken Burns' seven-part, 14-hour documentary, "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History." (Premieres 8 p.m., Sunday, WNET Thirteen.)
It is the work of Ken Burns, the man behind the PBS juggernaut, "The Civil War."
"In our media age, where we're all buried in an avalanche of information, we actually know less and less and we resort, in desperation, to conventional wisdoms about people," Burns said. "There has been tons written on Theodore, tons on Franklin, a little less on Franklin and Eleanor and less on Eleanor. But nothing has been done treating all three as family members."
Eleanor was Theodore's favorite niece; Franklin was Theodore's fifth cousin. Burns presents the two branches of the Roosevelt tree: the Oyster Bay Republicans and the Hyde Park Democrats. Theirs is an interrelated story, Burns said, "a braided narrative, a complicated Russian novel of interconnections."
The Roosevelts' legacy continues to this day, in Roosevelt dimes and protected park lands. Their progressive approach to government — reining in corporate excesses and creating a social safety net — remains the focus of contemporary political battles.
"If you don't want kids working 80 hours a week in coalmines, thank Theodore Roosevelt," Burns said. "If you think there should be a liveable wage and liveable hours, that's Theodore Roosevelt."
If you go to a state park or a national forest, that's the legacy of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Burns said.
"If you collect a Social Security check or went to school on the G.I. Bill or if you've flown out of LaGuardia Airport or taken the Lincoln Tunnel, you're talking about the legacy of the Roosevelts."
The legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt includes her work drafting the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
And it continues in a generation that grew up knowing no other president than FDR.
Talk with today's senior citizens and they recall his Alphabet Soup approach to job creation, his infectious confidence, his stoic wife.
"Those were very hard times," Kaplan remembered. "I remember when he started Social Security. We were so grateful. The things he did made you see that things would finally get better."
Kaplan called Eleanor "a wonderful, brilliant woman. She was a role model for us girls. She was way ahead of her time. I think today, she could have run for president herself."
Bea Conetta, a lifelong Port Chester resident who said she is proud to have made it to age 89, spent her childhood longing to vote for Franklin Roosevelt, but the voting age was 21.
"I turned 21 in November of 1945, and he had died in April," Conetta said softly. "I was so disappointed I never got to vote for him. He created the CCC and got things done. He created jobs.
"I always felt for Eleanor. I think people pitied her because of her husband's shenanigans with women. But she stood like an oak tree. She never bent. She went down into the mines with the people. She wasn't the most beautiful woman in the world, but beauty is only skin deep. Her character and integrity were beautiful."
Dorothy Winters, also 89, grew up in Buffalo before the family moved to just off Fordham Road in the Bronx when she was five.
When Winters was 11 or 12, she met Eleanor Roosevelt.
"She came to see us at a summer camp up in Red Hook, to see how the children were doing," Winters said. "You heard so much about her, you felt like you knew her."
Frank Bellantoni, 87, a lifelong Port Chester resident, remembered FDR's "date which will live in infamy" speech on Dec. 8, 1941, when he asked Congress to declare war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
"He did a lot of things. He started the CCC camps. I knew people that were in it. And the NRA, the National Recovery Act, was like an Army of workers."
The PBS series, which will dominate the dial this week, was written by longtime Burns collaborator Geoffrey C. Ward, an FDR biographer and fellow polio victim. In an emotional moment in Episode 4, Ward describes what it feels like to lose the power of one's legs, and explains the painful stares, the weight and impact of cumbersome leg braces.
When archival audio recordings are not available, the voices are provided by Paul Giamatti (Theodore), Edward Herrmann (Franklin), and Meryl Streep (Eleanor).
"It's an extraordinary story," said historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, one of the series' talking heads. "The drama of it is unmatched, probably, in our history."
Other speakers include historian David McCullough and commentator George Will, who declares "the best of the New Deal programs was Franklin Roosevelt's smile."
"The Roosevelts" winds through more than a century, from 1858 and the birth of an asthmatic, sickly Theodore, to Franklin's polio diagnosis in 1921, to Eleanor's 1962 death. There is a photo of a young 6-year-old Theodore at a second-story window of the family's Broadway mansion, looking down on the funeral procession of Abraham Lincoln. There is a photo of an aged Eleanor Roosevelt meeting with presidential nominee John F. Kennedy.
The thread Ward weaves through the narrative — through the political ascendency of both men, world wars, triumphs and setbacks — is that the Roosevelts were wounded, but they plowed through their pain to serve others, to be active, to change the world.
"They went into their fears and learned to master them," Burns said. "Whether it was asthma for TR, remaking his body, or being in constant motion to avoid the 'Black Care' that threatened to overtake him if he slowed down. Or Franklin facing the sheer terror of polio. And Eleanor going into the coalmines, going into asylums. This is extraordinary courage."
"The Roosevelts: An Intimate History"
What: Ken Burns' 14-hour documentary on the wounded, driven, inspirational and intertwined lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
When: Premieres at 8 p.m., Sept. 14. It will run on seven consecutive nights, with each episode available to stream at pbs.org/theroosevelts, and on ROKU, Apple TV and Xbox – through Sept. 29. PBS will have a daytime marathon Sept. 20 and 21.
Where: WNET Thirteen.