Saturday, June 6, 2009

More ER: Visiting Val-Kill

Yesterday I went to Val-Kill, in Hyde Park, New York, which was Eleanor Roosevelt’s primary home. A few notes:

1. When Eleanor died in 1962, the people at the FDR mansion a few miles away came over to take pictures of everything in the house. Then the kids took what they wanted. They sold the rest.

The son who lived in the adjacent house rented out his mother’s house as four small rental units. When he was ready to leave the houses and property (which is extensive and gorgeous) entirely, he asked if the federal government (under the Nixon administration) if it was interested in the place. It was not.

Later, the whole place was to be sold to a developer and subdivided—but a bunch of people got together and began to protest. Jean Stapleton, who played Eleanor on stage and in film, is among the people we have to thank for making Val-Kill a historic site (Jimmy Carter signed the legislation in 1977). Thank you, Jean.

2. The Val-Kill cottage is intimate and cozy. The furniture reclaimed or reacquired or approximated from the posthumous photos. The shelves restocked with books named on the auction lists.

There’s a small dining room—a table probably big enough for eight or ten with lots of Roosevelt family silver out on it. The silver’s incongruous because everything else is so homey. My vague memory of people who ate at that table or sat in the couches in that house include Winston Churchill, JFK, Haile Selassie, Krushchev, the Queen Mother.

Upstairs, Eleanor slept in beds that seem so modest—each is bigger than a twin, smaller than a full. There’s one in the bedroom, another on the windowed sleeping porch. In my new life as a hapless fan, I was thrilled to open the door between the two rooms. If that door hasn’t replaced, perhaps ER and I touched the same knob!

I am moved by something about this—she brought the personal into the political. The house conveys such a strong sense of an individual woman moving through her day, and yet what incredible, world-changing days.

3. There are eight people in my tour group—three heterosexual couples, a man with a big camera he’s forbidden to use, and me. The couples are old enough to laugh together about being riveted by the test patterns on old black-and-white TVs. They’re all quite knowledgeable about ER.

Partly because of its size, which discourages large groups, Val-Kill isn’t that heavily visited. The guide says, however, that most of the people who come are Eleanor “partisans.” There are only a few exceptions, he said, and he can always tell who they were—they bring up Lorena Hickok and the “seamy” side of things.

I’d brought up Lorena Hickok myself, wondering if her picture was among the many photographs of Eleanor's friends that line the walls of the house. Yes—she's in a fairly prominent position on a mantel in the living room.

The guide allowed awkwardly that there were some people who thought that Hick and ER had had a “physical relationship,” and he also praised the Blanche Wiesen Cook biography that suggests this is true.

I didn’t think the guide, who was both knowledgeable and generous with his time, meant any harm, and neither did the woman who said that ER was great no matter her personal life. I didn’t feel like disrupting the collective harmony by mentioning how wounded that “seamy” comment made me feel.

Seconds after the tour ended, I was kicking myself for letting the moment pass. Would they refer to FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer as “seamy”?

4. Val-Kill features two lovely trails—one winds through the woods to FDR’s cottage on the hill, and the other is a nearly mile-long loop where Eleanor walked her dogs (Scotties, I believe).

I wandered both, still brooding on my silence about the seamy side. I was thinking that if ER were here today she would have set him straight, as it were.

A comment didn’t have to be hostile—surely there was some graceful and courageous way to register an objection. But I hadn’t done that. I was walking on her path, it seemed, but not in her footsteps.

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