I missed the first airing in January, 1976 of the TV miniseries ‘Eleanor and Franklin’, starring Jane Alexander and Edward Herrmann in the title roles of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. It wasn’t until December of 2014, during a vacation week between Christmas and New Year’s, that I saw the series, and it was thus with astonishment and disbelief that I heard the news one morning soon thereafter that Edward Herrmann had died. In my first-waking befuddlement I could think only that that was impossible, I had just seen him, and he had been totally fine. He and Ms. Alexander had caught lightening in a bottle with their depictions of two giants of the 20th Century, and it seemed impossible that, so soon after my discovery of it, half of the life force of that achievement had gone.
As with all great public figures, with both Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt we struggle to perceive the person behind the mystique. What were they really like? In the case of the Roosevelts our interest extends beyond them as individuals to the nature of their relationship with one another. Their time as President and First Lady, and Eleanor’s work until the time of her death in 1962, become our focus, and we see their relationship as a political partnership based on mutual respect and mutual advantage, but not on love, at least not intimate love. But was it always so? What was it like when they were young, becoming acquainted, and eventually deciding to marry? Were they always just business partners?
I like to think not, and the depiction of these two young people in ‘Eleanor and Franklin’ both warms the heart and makes perfect sense. You can see the entire miniseries on YouTube (http://tinyurl.com/hv2ob4z), but the relationship between the young Eleanor and the young Franklin is depicted in just an hour, beginning at the 29:45 mark. Watch it. It’s tender, and funny, and will make you happy, albeit with an Elmira Gulch moment at the end of the tenderest scene, with the voice of Sara, Franklin’s mother, swooping in to end the reverie. (Ah, Sara. Now there’s a spirit that visitors and guides struggle to find peace with. But that’s a topic for another post.)
As an added bonus, the 14- and 15-year-old Eleanor is played by Mackenzie Phillips, an actress with a troubled later life but a charmed career in the mid-1970s who brings a twinge of nostalgia to anyone old enough to remember a show called ‘One Day at a Time.’
Though we lost Edward Herrmann in December, 2014, Jane Alexander is still with us. Her capturing of Eleanor Roosevelt’s spirit is the standard against which all others are measured, outshining even that of Meryl Streep in the more recent Ken Burns documentary about the Roosevelts. And if you visit Val-Kill, it is Jane Alexander that you will hear giving voice to the thoughts of Eleanor Roosevelt in the introductory film.
And of course we have the miniseries that Herrmann and Alexander made together, that introduces us to two giants before they were great, and allows us to better understand and to believe in the love that brought them together.