The Eleanors


150px-Eleonora_Duse_2Eleonora Duse (1858-1924) was, by any account, an international superstar, rivaled as an actress and a box office draw only by Sarah Bernhardt.  The two divas had almost diametrically opposed techniques.  Bernhardt was known for “points,” poses, and inflections that today would be regarded as quintessentially melodramatic.  Duse, by contrast, sought a spiritual connection with her roles, as she aimed to find the quiet, interior truth in the lives of the women she portrayed. Until very late in her life she eschewed stage make-up, even as she continued to play the young, tragic roles for which she was best known—roles in which illegitimate children, abandonment by husbands, and suicide were staples.

Duse was the daughter and granddaughter of itinerant Italian actors and she was put on the stage as a small child. Her mother died when Eleonora was fourteen.  By the time Duse was in her twenties she was running companies of her own.  She was known for her tempestuous love affairs and obsessive letter-writing offstage and for her consummate discipline onstage. Perhaps her most famous affair was with Gabriele d’Annunzio, the one-time fair-haired boy of Italian letters whose second-rate plays Duse loyally supported.  Always dependent on women friends and servants, Duse was restless and rarely lived in any one place for more than a few months at a time. She was plagued by pulmonary and gynecological illnesses. Her relationship with her daughter, Enrichetta, was loving, but distant.  Determined that her daughter should be kept away from the stage, Duse sent the girl to expensive boarding schools.  Enrichetta eventually married a Cambridge professor; their son and daughter became a priest and a nun. In 1909 Duse quit the stage, but after her investments—handled by a German banker friend—evaporated in World War I, she returned to acting.  Her work is visible to us today in just a single silent film, Cenere (“Ashes”) made in 1916.

CLICK HERE TO SEE Duse on silent film, 1916

The United States embraced Duse.  She made several American tours and died in Pittsburgh while on the road, yet again, at age 64.  She was the first woman to grace the cover of Time Magazine (1923).  This is a New York Times report following her opening at the Metropolitan Opera House in October, 1923:

“Every seat and all the standing-room at the Metropolitan Opera House was filled last night by the crowd that went to see Eleanora Duse in her first appearance on the American stage for twenty years.  People stood three and four deep in the space at the rear of the orchestra seats. . . . More than one-hundred-and-fifty extra seats in the musicians’ pit helped take care of the crowd.”

“The box-office for general-admission tickets did not open until 7:30 P.M. but a line began to form in the front of the window at 8 o’clock in the morning.  The line grew in length until it wound past the front of the Opera House on Broadway, through 39th St. and Seventh Avenue and almost entirely around the building.  When the ticket window opened, every one of the general-admission tickets was sold in ten minutes and hundreds of disappointed drama lovers were left outside.  They waited patiently until after the curtain went up before they began to drift away.”

“Morris Gest [the producer] announced that the sale of tickets brought in more than $30,000 ‘The largest receipts in history for a regular dramatic performance.’ . . . At the end of the performance Madame Duse received a remarkable ovation.  She was called before the curtain again and again.  The audience surged toward the stage, and many tried to speak to her.”

If Eleonora Duse is no longer widely known outside of theatre history circles  her name still lingers in the phrase “it’s a doozy,” supposedly coined in response to her larger-than-life, over-the-top presence, as her name is pronounced DOO-zay.



Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) is identified by biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook as “the most controversial First Lady in United States history.”  She started life in the elite world of New York high society—the hothouse world of manners immortalized by Edith Wharton.  She would eventually become not only First Lady, but a delegate to the United Nations, after years of liberal activism on behalf of women, minorities, children, the sick, and the disadvantaged.  So widely known—and often reviled—was she for her convictions and work, that in the 1940s, when American blacks were still subject to Jim Crow laws, poor wages, and little respect in most workplaces, there were rumors in the south of “Eleanor Clubs,” named, according historian Jacqueline Jones “for the notorious busybody of a First Lady” and comprising “groups of black women who colluded to withhold their labor from the job market in order to demand unprecedented wage concessions.”

ER’s early years were lonely and unhappy.  Her beloved father was an alcoholic who died young; her beautiful mother also died young, although not before impressing on little Eleanor the idea that she was a very dowdy girl.  “Granny” was the nickname Eleanor’s mother had for her.  Eleanor was largely raised by a socialite grandmother with strong class prejudices but came into her own as a teenager at boarding school in England where she was at an advantage for already knowing French (courtesy of her first nurse in early childhood) and had the chance to travel widely on the continent when the headmistress took her under her wing.  Eleanor also did well at sports and realized she enjoyed competition.  Back in New York she had the obligatory coming out party for a girl of her class.   

ER’s courtship and marriage to her distant cousin Franklin were romantic and anything but “arranged.”  Indeed, Franklin’s mother—who would micromanage much of Eleanor’s early married life—rather disapproved of Eleanor.  For the first decade of marriage, Eleanor’s life was largely about being the wife of a rising politician and giving birth to six children.  Two events led to her independent life.  First, after Franklin was stricken with polio, Eleanor often served as his “eyes,” visiting all kinds of locales to return with first-hand reports.  In the case of mines and hospitals, among others, these were often highly critical.  But once it was clear to her that Franklin was regularly sleeping with other women, Eleanor reacted not as a woman scorned, but as a woman who would serve her country not as an activist’s wife, but as an activist in her own right.

In the 1920s ER co-founded a furniture factory with women friends.  She began teaching in a private girls’ school and took students to New York City courts in order to show them how the law operated.  She started the learning curve of First Ladyship when Franklin was governor of New York (1928-1932).  In her White House years, she began writing a daily newspaper column called “My Day,” which was published for just under twenty-six years.  Her plain prose style and information about her trips to visit ordinary Americans won her fans and readers across the nation.  She was famous for her press conferences open only to women reporters.  Her decades-long relationship with one of these—Lorena Hickok—remains the subject of speculation, since their travels together and frankly erotic letters might either indicate nineteenth-century habits between close women friends or a twentieth-century evidence of a full-blown love affair.

Eleanor Roosevelt was not without quirks and contradictions.  She resigned from New York’s fashionable Colony Club because it refused to consider a Jewish friend for membership.  She also returned from a function for Wall Street financier Bernard Baruch and complained that “the Jew party was appalling.  I never wish to hear money, jewels and sables mentioned again.”  She entertained royalty but was notorious for the bland, unsophisticated, and some would say parsimonious menus that characterized her White House years.  Food historian Laura Shapiro writes that the meals turned out under ER’s directives were “so gray, so drooping, and so spectacularly inept that they became a Washington legend.”

Old age did not stop Eleanor Roosevelt from keeping actively engaged in her world—the world.  After leaving the United Nations, she supported Adlai Stevenson’s candidacies for president and backed JFK in 1960.  Her autobiography was published in 1961, a year before her death.  Her voice—spoken and political—are unforgettable.

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aquataine 3Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) is almost in a historio-legendary class of her own.  Perhaps only Cleopatra is her equal for glamour, power, self-assurance, importance on the world stage, and lack of direct remaining evidence about her personal life.  Indeed, only a single object known to have been connected with Eleanor exists today—a rock crystal vase she gave to Louis, prince and soon-to-be king of France, probably on the occasion of their marriage. No portraits exist, although Eleanor was, according to written accounts, beautiful.

Eleanor was born the daughter of a Duke and Duchess when feudalism, the papacy, and a great deal of violence and dirt were the orders of the day.  Her parents died when she was quite young, and she found herself Duchess of Aquitaine at the age of fifteen.  In short order she married the sixteen-year-old Louis, heir to the throne of France.  In a plot twist that might have seemed too much in a Hollywood movie, Louis’ father died within days of the marriage, leaving the two teenagers king and queen of France.

Eleanor was headstrong, smart, and spoiled.  Louis was religious and impractical, although loyal and physically strong.  During their marriage, Eleanor gave birth to two daughters, accompanied her husband Constantinople and Jerusalem on the Second Crusade, was rumored to have had adulterous affairs, and cultivated her love of music, poetry, and beautiful objects.  She also lost patience with and interest in her ascetic, temperamental husband. He, in turn, was disappointed that his wife failed to give him a son.  In 1152, the marriage was annulled.  Shortly thereafter, Eleanor proposed to and married Henry of Anjou, eleven years her junior and the future King Henry II of England.  Fortunately, she found him attractive, but she also knew the danger of being arguably the most available unmarried royal in Europe.  Kidnapping or even murder were possibilities and a husband was her best insurance policy.

If Eleanor indulged her whims in her first marriage, she developed her political skills in her second. She spent many years traveling between England and Aquitaine, as she was queen of one and still duchess of the other. Of the eight children she bore Henry, the best known are Henry, Richard, and John, all of whom aspired to the throne, and all of whom wore the crown (or a crown) for a while.  The rivalries and treacheries among the siblings figure in The Lion in Winter, the well-known 1968 film starting Katharine Hepburn, Peter O’Toole, and Anthony Hopkins.  The film was based on the play by James Goldman, and its Broadway incarnation yielded a Best Actress Tony Award for Rosemary Harris.

Political savvy enabled Eleanor to support whichever of her male relatives she most favored and to get both money and military support for them.  Arguably it was this very savvy that caused her King Henry to have her imprisoned when she decided in 1173 to assist two of her sons in a rebellion against their father.  By that time, Henry’s infidelities were a large bone of contention between him and Eleanor.  Upon Henry’s death in 1189, Eleanor was finally released from prison and was active in the political doings of her son Richard (the Lionheart), who became king.  Richard was reputedly her favorite son; upon his death, his brother John—supposedly her least favorite—became king of England.  Eleanor would outlive all but two of her children, dying in 1204 at the age of 82—utterly ancient by medieval standards.

Although she never learned to write, Eleanor spoke several dialects and languages, and she clearly possessed great skills of reasoning and scheming.  She wrote to the pope, begging for clemency for a son (which was granted, but much later).  She was pious and gave generously to her favorite religious orders.  Biographer Alison Weir notes that Eleanor is said to have drawn up a code of laws governing maritime trade that is regarded as the basis of all French sea laws.  Eleanor retired to the abbey at Fontevrault, where she became a nun at age 80, two years before her death.  She is sometimes called the “grandmother of Europe,” as her descendants ruled Sicily, Castile, France, and England.  Queen Elizabeth II shares Eleanor’s bloodline.