Eleanor Roosevelt – My Day (1944)

January 25, 1944

New York – (Monday)
Last spring, I called to my readers’ attention a list of books which the National Conference of Christians and Jews published. Mr. Archibald MacLeish has written a foreword for this list, and I think many of the titles will be of interest to thoughtful people all over the country. The Midwest area office is at 203 North Wabash Ave., Chicago, Illinois, and I know that office will gladly distribute this list to anyone who writes in.

While I was having my hair done the other morning, I read through a little volume called The Return by Margaret Rhodes Peattie. On the jacket it says this book is “a vision, a prophecy, a hope. It is the story of a great day, the day that every American is waiting for.” There is joy and pathos in the book, but the delicate feeling for all people will be a help in understanding the changes that on that day, Victory Day, many of us will meet and will continue meeting long after it has come and gone.

The brief reference in one of the sketches to the old-time civilian occupations which have been curtailed or have entirely disappeared during the war, is a renewed warning to all of us that every community must plan now for that day, and must not leave to chance the future of its returning soldiers. We must move from war production to peace production smoothly, and with as little time as possible for idleness in between.

I have also just seen Mr. Nathan Straus’ book, The Seven Myths of Housing. It is a clear and courageous exposition of the problems and solutions confronting us in housing as he sees them. I hope it will be widely read throughout the country.

There will be differences of opinion not only among real estate interests and private building interests, but among public housing people. Basically, we know: one – that slums exist in rural and urban areas throughout the nation; two – that we have an expanding population, many of whom must have decent but inexpensive housing; three – that this can only be done for our lowest income groups by cutting all the normal costs which are included necessarily in private operations.

This war, like the last, has increased bad housing in spite of emergency defense building. There will be a demand for housing at the end of the war, and the field will be open for both public and private building. Public building can spur private industry to do a better job, and I do not think it needs to hamper in any way the development of legitimate real estate operations and legitimate private construction. Housing is of vital interest because bad housing is responsible for so many of our other social problems.

January 26, 1944

New York – (Tuesday)
Because of an unexpected visitor, I did not go to the country as I had expected to do on Saturday night after the Democratic National Committee dinner. So, Sunday was a quiet day in Washington, if you can call any household quiet where two small boys of three and a half and four and a half, charge down the central hall with a tablecloth over their heads, always playing they are some kind of war machine!

Mrs. Norman Mack of Buffalo, New York, who was staying with us, accepted the grandchildren with very good grace, considering the fact that one of them even visited her in her bedroom. She was a wonderful guest to have in the house, because she seemed to enjoy the family with its great variety of ages from one year to sixty odd, and she told us so many stories at lunch and at dinner, that the older children were fascinated.

On Sunday evening, The Voice of the Turtle, which has been a tremendous success in New York City, was giving what is called a command performance for the benefit of the infantile paralysis campaign in Washington. I had not expected to go, but since my plans were changed, we went. Commissioner Russell Young, who is in charge of the money-raising activities in the District of Columbia, told me that they cleared a good many thousand dollars. There are only three actors in the cast so they are constantly on the stage. It was very gracious of them to come down for just one night.

It is always remarkable to me how generous artists are with their time, their talents and their money, and this small cast gave an extremely good performance.

Early yesterday morning we came to New York City, and in the afternoon I was most interested to meet Miss Laura Margolis, who was working for refugees in Shanghai when the war broke out and was later interned there. She only returned to this country when the last exchange of prisoners was made. I shall never cease to marvel at the courage of people like Miss Margolis who, after having escaped from one dangerous situation, seem anxious to return to another. She wishes to go wherever she can continue to work to help alleviate the suffering with which she became so familiar among the refugees in Shanghai.

Later, Madame Ouspenskaya was brought to tea with me by Mr. Norman Cousins. What a vivacious and courageous person she is! She told me that her life had been filled with adventure. During the last war she was an actress in Russia and served a number of hours a day in a hospital as a sister of mercy. She nursed her own family through typhus, passed through a cholera district on one occasion, lived through the revolution and the famine, and she says that nothing holds any terrors for her now. Madame Ouspenskaya would like to go out to the remote places and entertain the men in the Army, but that, of course, will have to be passed on by the USO camp shows.

January 27, 1944

Detroit, Michigan – (Wednesday)
Today I want to tell you a story and reprint a poem.

The girl to whom the poem was written became engaged on November 13, 1942, to young Lt. S. J. Wright. He had majored in English at Dartmouth where his father is a professor of philosophy, and he wanted to make writing his career. Instead, the day after graduation in May 1942, he went into the Marine Corps, and, after training in Quantico, was on his way to the South Pacific. Early this past fall the poem arrived enclosed in a letter to his girl. This poem represents the one fulfillment of his life’s ambition. He was killed November 13, 1943, in action while attempting to knock out an enemy position so his men could advance.

To explain the last line of the poem, he wrote in his letter:

This is for you, as you can plainly see, and so I want you to like it and understand it. That won’t be difficult (the understanding) – until perhaps the last word which you may neither like nor understand. Selfishness in itself is not necessarily bad – it is too human for that. You would quickly say that our greatest want (or selfishness) is to be together again. Yet if you think, you’ll realize even that selfishness is subordinate to the reason for fighting this war. But we feel, and here we constantly do, that some great good must come from this. Which is why I am here and you’re there. Maybe you like it better this way; although our selfishness (yours and mine) is undeniably uppermost in our hearts, we make an effort to keep it secondary in our minds. Do you see that compared to the fight it is selfishness?

The poem, which I reprint by permission of The Ladies’ Home Journal:

“A Marine to His Girl”

From the damp of my foxhole, each night,
Up through the restless, worrying jungle
Into the heaven’s shimmering light,
I lean my weight to the emptiness,

And reach strong over the ocean’s arc,
Groping with care to where you are,
Into your windows where the dark
Cold wind swirls and cries your loneliness.

Tenderly, tenderly I hold your love,
Achingly kiss your sweet soft lips,
But briefly, I am torn apart and above
And back to this island’s positiveness.

These nights, as through that window
You pray for the moment when something
More than my spirit returns, deeply know:
Tomorrow must be greater than our selfishness.

A challenge to us that last line!

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January 28, 1944

Louisville, Kentucky – (Thursday)
On Tuesday noon I left New York City for Utica, New York. There I visited one of our military hospitals and spent some time talking to a number of boys, veterans of this war. They had written to ask me if I would come to a meeting for them and I was very glad to have the opportunity to talk to them and hear what was happening to them since their return and what their experiences had been since their discharge from the hospital. Some time I may tell you more about their impressions, but today I must hurriedly give an account of the various things which I have done in the past days.

At 11:30 Tuesday night I left Utica for Detroit, Michigan, arriving there early Wednesday morning. I started out at once with my sister-in-law, Mrs. Dorothy Roosevelt, on a day which took us to various war plants, childcare centers, a luncheon and finally a short rest and family dinner during which I saw my nieces before going to an interracial evening meeting. I took the night train to Louisville.

Here I was shown through the school where nurses, who are going to fly on hospital planes, are trained. Their training also includes actual flights with patients in this country before they go to combat zones. They wanted very much to have me with them on one of these flights earlier in the year, but unfortunately, that was not practicable.

Tomorrow I will tell you more of all the different things which I have seen, but on this trip, I have been forcibly reminded of a letter which came to me a few days ago and which some of you may enjoy as I did. A much-harassed woman who has evidently felt in the past that she must more or less follow the styles of the year, wrote me a wail saying that skirts are narrower and not as comfortable, that if only there could be a slogan which said: “Be patriotic, wear your old clothes,” one could wear last year’s dress and get around more easily, if somewhat less stylishly.

She adds like many other worried housewives:

How can people buy bonds, pay taxes, raise children, combat the high cost of living if they must discard their old clothes while they are still good?

I want to remind her that the most expensive dressmakers, both in Paris in the old days and in New York City today, make dresses for the individual, and sometimes they have no relation to what might be called the style as you see it in shop windows, or on pretty little youthful misses tripping down the street. During most of this journey I have worn a dress that is well made, but I think it is nearly three years old. I felt quite comfortable and as much in the fashion as an old lady like myself need ever be!