Retired RIT Dean Explores Letters Americans Wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt
Dec. 2, 2004
by Susan Gawlowicz
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Ordinary Americans struggling during the Great Depression wrote letters by the thousands to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, seeking money, job leads and second-hand clothing.
In his recently published Letters to Eleanor: Voices of the Great Depression (AuthorHouse), Paul Bernstein, retired dean of Rochester Institute of Technology's College of Liberal Arts and Graduate Studies, explores the relationship between Roosevelt and the American public.
A sampling of 14,000 letters gave Bernstein a glimpse of the beloved first lady and humanitarian, and the country's struggle during the Depression. According to Bernstein, Roosevelt and her three personal secretaries answered nearly 50 letters a day to manage the volume of mail she received.
“The overwhelming number of people who wrote to Eleanor were women,” Bernstein says. “The men were too ashamed to write because they were expected to be breadwinners; it was left to the wives and the daughters. Some of the letters just break you up when you read them.”
A 12-year-old girl named Lillian Cugowski, for instance, wrote Roosevelt a poem about her family's poverty. In their ragged clothes, she wrote, they looked “like hoboes.”
“I could feel for the people who wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt,” says Bernstein, who was a boy during the Great Depression. “Growing up there were pictures of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt in our living room. In our house, they were saints.”
While the letters reflected the public's despair, they also revealed the first lady as a woman who loved people, but who had an unhappy personal life; and as a traditional wife who became a reformist, championing women's rights, civil liberties and pension reforms.
Copies of Letters to Eleanor can be purchased at RIT's Campus Connections bookstore or online at www.letterstoeleanor.com.The author served as RIT Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, then called the College of General Studies, from 1966 to 1976 and Dean of Graduate Studies from 1976 to 1992.