Gina Mahalek talks to Emily Herring Wilson, author of The Three Graces of Val-Kill: Eleanor Roosevelt, Marion Dickerman, and Nancy Cook in the Place They Made Their Own.
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Q: How did you discover this story?
A: I wanted to understand Eleanor Roosevelt as a woman making her own private life—after a troubled marriage and children going away to school—and before she became famous as First Lady, and so I went to Hyde Park in search of her in the place she loved called Val-Kill. A tour of the “Big House,” named Springwood, Sara Delano Roosevelt’s and Franklin’s home, left me with the same lack of affection for it that Eleanor herself expressed. It was cold and formal, large enough to be the home of the President of the United States, as he intended. I went through the woods to Val-Kill, about two miles on the eastern edge of the estate, hoping to see the small cottage that I knew Eleanor and her close friends, Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook, had built for themselves, offering Eleanor freedom from her mother-in-law’s dominance. The National Park Service guide beckoned me to an oddly-shaped building called the Eleanor Roosevelt Historic Site, where I was given a tour. Even though inside was warm and inviting, with many small rooms for frequent guests and public rooms for famous guests like John F. Kennedy, it did not seem to me to be the refuge Eleanor, Marion, and Nan had built for themselves. And it was not. It was the official home Eleanor made when she moved out of the cottage and renovated what had been a small furniture factory nearby. I asked the NPS guide where the cottage was, and he motioned toward a nearby building, but explained that it was closed and there was nothing inside to see. I insisted that I wanted to see it, and reluctantly, he took out the key and let me enter. Even though it was empty, the high ceilings, the wooden beams, the rock fireplace, and the windows looking out toward a lake spelled “welcome.” “This is the place,” I said to myself. I wanted to know what communal life was lived here and how the friendship with Marion and Nan shaped Eleanor Roosevelt.
Q: Why did FDR refer to Eleanor Roosevelt, Marion Dickerman, and Nancy Cook as the “three graces”?
A: FDR had a natural gift for fanciful language (and for flattery), and in using this term from Greek mythology he symbolized the ways in which the three inseparable women represented beauty and creativity in their lives.
Q: Why do you believe this period in Eleanor Roosevelt’s life (1922-1936) was so transformative?
A: It was the first time she could live out from under her mother-in-law’s dominance and discover her own needs and strengths. At Val-Kill with Marion, Nan, and other women friends, she learned how to blend the personal (private time to talk) and the political (they embarked on a busy life as progressive Democratic leaders).
Q: Do you think your book will positively or negatively affect the public’s view of Eleanor Roosevelt? How so?
A: This is a very positive view of Eleanor Roosevelt, showing her determination to make her own life and her generosity to friends. Women especially will recognize the importance of friendship and working together, a female attribute many critics deny.
Q: Did your research alter your own perception of Eleanor Roosevelt? In what way(s)?
A: I always blamed FDR as the “bad” husband for having made her so unhappy when he had a romance with Lucy Mercer, but I discovered that he tried to make up for having hurt her by accepting her friends and suggesting that they build the cottage together and that he often tried to please her. I took away a more balanced view of the relationship and saw how essential she was to his public life and how essential he was to hers. I also saw that Eleanor had a tough side—she could be very unforgiving, though she tried.
A: Most authors think that her friendship with Marion and Nan ended when she went to the White House, but it did not—although the closeness changed, Eleanor continued to visit them almost up until the time of Nan’s death in 1962, when she herself was very ill and would die in the same year. Most authors also think that FDR gave the cottage to the women—he leased the land to them; they paid for everything themselves. And they hosted many picnics for him and his political friends at Val-Kill, which he loved. Nancy Cook really defined the Roosevelt picnics.
Q: What were some of the challenges that you encountered in telling this story? What evidence would you like to have found that might have enhanced this telling of this story?
A: It’s hard not to let FDR and politics dominate the story and hard to tell such a long story in a short book that focuses on a period that hasn’t been much written about. I had hoped to find a journal or daybook that Eleanor kept during their years at stone cottage, but I did not, and I had to try to reconstruct what kind of daily life the three women lived.
Q: What are some methods you used to conduct research for The Three Graces of Val-Kill?
A: I worked in the archives at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, interviewed two of her granddaughters, interviewed her secretary’s niece (“Tommy” Thompson was her secretary), talked with authors who had written about ER, and went on site visits to Hyde Park, New York City, and Campobello Island.
Q: How did the three women affect the network of progressive women in New York?
A: They kept the office of the Democratic women’s division open in New York City, published a newsletter, and organized Democratic women’s chapters around the state. Eleanor was a popular speaker and often traveled to meetings with Marion and Nancy and other friends. Marion and Nan were real work horses, and Eleanor set the pace herself, a relentless doer.
Q: What happened to Roosevelt’s cottage at Val-Kill?
A: It is being used for exhibits and occasional forums. But the National Park Service is much more open to telling the full story, and I think new ways will be found to animate it.
Q: The friendship of the “three graces” ultimately came to an end. What happened?
A: Eleanor spent more and more of her time as First Lady, making new friends, many of whom Marion and Nan did not like (especially Lorena Hickok), and jealousies flared up. I devote several chapters to trying to see how the friendship unraveled, which cannot easily be summarized. The three women exchanged “words” that hurt them all. Eleanor felt that they had used her to get to Franklin, which had never come up before. Women’s friendships sometimes don’t last past the time that some particular need brought them together, but Eleanor never really abandoned a friend—her friendship didn’t “come to an end.” It changed, but Eleanor always stayed in touch with them after they moved from the cottage to Connecticut, and I think they always loved one another.
Q: Do you have a favorite story about Eleanor, Nancy, and Marion? Please describe it.
A: In 1922, Eleanor made her first important public speech when Nancy asked her to give the keynote address for a fundraiser for the Democratic women’s division at a New York City hotel. They had only met over the phone, but Eleanor arrived with a bouquet of violets for Nancy, a recognized symbol of affection between women. Eleanor personalized their meeting, and soon she met Marion, and then invited them to be part of the family at Hyde Park. It’s lovely the way that all came together so spontaneously and generously.
Q: What advice would Eleanor give for forming strong friendships if she were alive today?
A: She thought the best way to make and keep friends was to work together on a public project they all cared about.
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Emily Herring Wilson resides in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The Three Graces of Val-Kill is now available at bookstores. Wilson is author of No One Gardens Alone: A Life of Elizabeth Lawrence> and coauthor of North Carolina Women: Making History.