Pierce Allman was one of about 200 attendees at an art exhibition and panel discussion on Thursday, March 21, at Fair Park’s Hall of State that focused on First Lady Eleanor and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But Pierce may have been one of the few guests there who recalled listening to FDR’s voice in real time.
“I remember hearing him speak on the radio when I was growing up in the 1940s,” said Pierce, whose Allie Beth Allman and Associates real estate firm was presenting sponsor of the event, called “From Hyde Park to Fair Park.” The title referred to the Roosevelt family home in New York’s Dutchess County, and to the Roosevelts’ appearance in June 1936 at the Texas Centennial Exposition at Fair Park, where FDR addressed a crowd of 50,000 in the Cotton Bowl.
The unique evening presented by the Dallas Historical Society began with a reception, where guests including Harry Hunsicker, Sharon McCullough, Julie Morris, Nick Gibson, David Dunnigan, and Jennifer and Stewart Elliott milled about a collection of 38 artworks titled Historic American Pop. The pieces, which combine iconic historical photographs with textured, abstract backgrounds, were created by Laura Roosevelt, a great-granddaughter of Eleanor and Franklin who was born in Fort Worth and grew up in Dallas. (Her free exhibition at the Hall of State runs through April 14.)
Laura, an abstract painter, said the idea for the exhibit grew out of conversations she had with Dallas Historical Society chairman Mary Suhm, who lives in the same building where Laura has her art studio. Each of the works, which depict members of Laura’s family including President Theodore Roosevelt — he was Eleanor’s uncle — as well as famous figures ranging from Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is accompanied by a quotation from FDR or Eleanor. The quotes were selected by Laura’s sister Elizabeth Roosevelt Kelly and their late aunt, Chandler Roosevelt-Lindsley.
After the reception, guests walked downstairs to the Margaret and Al Hill Lecture Hall for the discussion portion of the evening. Following a welcome by Karl Chiao, the historical society’s executive director, Laura introduced the panel, which consisted of three grandchildren of Eleanor and Franklin and moderator Paul Sparrow, director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York. One of the panelists was Laura’s father, Elliott “Tony” Roosevelt Jr., the son of Eleanor and FDR’s second son, Elliott Roosevelt. Tony was joined by Anna Eleanor “Anne” Roosevelt, the daughter of James “Jimmy” Roosevelt, Eleanor and Franklin’s first son; and Nina Roosevelt Gibson, the daughter of John Roosevelt, the president and First Lady’s youngest child.
Paul began the discussion on a lighthearted note, joking that three of the Roosevelts’ five children who survived to adulthood were represented on the panel: “As FDR said, the only thing we have to fear is … family reunions.” Then each grandchild recounted their most vivid memories of visiting or staying with their grandparents at Hyde Park in New York’s Hudson Valley—including at Val-Kill, a separate retreat on the estate which became Eleanor’s cottage. (The name Val-Kill refers to a nearby Hudson Valley stream called Fall Kill, which in Dutch means “valley stream.”)
Nina said she moved with her family in 1950 to Val-Kill, “the only place that [Eleanor] felt at home. It was simple and welcoming and open, with mismatched furniture.” It was, Nina added, a perfect environment for her grandmother, who was “one of the kindest, gentlest, most down-to-earth women I’ve ever known.” Tony, who was born and grew up in Fort Worth, recalled spending summers at Hyde Park from 1945 to 1950, and having lunch or dinner most days there with Eleanor. Anne too recalled time spent at the Hudson Valley home as “peaceful … hearing the bull frogs.”
Most of the grandchildren’s recollections involved Eleanor, who lived until 1962—17 years after FDR’s death in 1945. Anne, who grew up in Southern California, recalled children in her second-grade class referring to Eleanor as “pink” — short for “pinko” — because of her liberal political views. Nina, who said she was not allowed to enter one childhood friend’s home because of her controversial last name, added that she really didn’t know how famous Eleanor was until they took a trip to Iran in 1956.
“We were on our way to Persopolis when we stopped to say hello to a blind beggar,” Nina recalled. “He was kneeling in front of a hut. My grandmother said, ‘We have a picnic, and we’d like to share it with you.’ [The beggar] had tears in his eyes and said, ‘Mrs. Roosevelt, you’ve come to visit me!’ And remember, this was in 1956, when they had no radio or TV. That’s when I realized my grandmother was a famous person.”
Asked by Paul to sum up their grandparents’ legacies, Tony cited how FDR and Winston Churchill were “certainly the saviors of Europe, and perhaps the United States.” Said Anne: “It was their total commitment to democracy—the theory and the practice.” Added Nina: “It was Eleanor’s ability to listen and try to empathize with what the other person is trying to say. … As a country,” she concluded, “I hope we can continue that kind of interaction.”
* Photo credit: John Strange