The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project is a university-chartered research center associated with the Department of History of The George Washington University

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The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project
Questions and Answers about Eleanor Roosevelt

Question: How did Eleanor Roosevelt handle her mail?

Answer:

In 1933, FDR's first year in the White House, ER received 300,000 pieces of mail, in 1937, 90,000, and in 1940, 150,000. Even after she left the White House, ER continued to receive an enormous number of letters. She reported that in the late 1950s she was averaging 100 letters per day. During her controversy with Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman in 1949 about aid to parochial schools, she received 6,000 letters just on that one subject. How did ER manage this avalanche of mail? In the White House years, Malvina Scheider Thompson (known as "Tommy"), her personal secretary, selected personal letters, communications from government departments, senators and congressmen, and other letters that seemed important from each morning's mail. The rest of the mail was sent to the White House Social Bureau where a staff of over twenty people classified it. Letters asking for information were sent directly on to appropriate government departments. Much of the mail, now organized into categories, was sent back to Tommy. Tommy answered them herself when possible or dictated an answer for ER to sign. Tommy placed about fifty letters a day in ER's basket for her to read herself. These included appeals for help and other letters Tommy felt she could not answer, along with letters she thought were of special interest. She tried to provide ER with a cross-section of the correspondence that was coming in. ER would read these letters when she found time during the day (often late at night) and jot responses on the letter or dictate a reply. After she left the White House in 1945, ER followed a similar practice. Tommy and her successor, Maureen Corr, now did all the sorting, sometimes with help from other secretaries, and drafted most of the replies. By the late 1950s, ER was reading and answering about twelve to fifteen letters a day herself, in addition to those her secretary handled for her.

Although she could only respond personally to a small number of correspondents, it is remarkable how often ER did so and how often she offered concrete assistance to those appealing for help. When she was moved to provide material assistance to someone, she would ask a friend or associate living near the person seeking help to investigate to make sure that the circumstances were really as her correspondent described them. Occasionally, she would discover that the person had invented a hard luck story. More often, the details of the situation were confirmed and she would do her best to help, sometimes even sending some of her own money. ER admired "the courage of the average human being who keeps on with the struggle of life in spite of sorrow and hardship and disappointment," and, when possible, she wanted to reward that courage by making the person's road a little easier.

In responding to people who wrote to her regarding domestic or international issues, ER often wrote at much greater length to people she did not know than to associates she knew in the world of government, politics, and social activism. She particularly liked to answer people who disagreed with her, and occasionally her response would lead to an exchange of several letters.

In addition to the opportunities it gave her to communicate with individual people or to assist them directly, ER's mail played another important role in her work. It provided her with concrete examples of the conditions under which people were living and of their views on the significant issues of the day. She used this material in her "My Day" column, in articles she wrote, and in her numerous speeches. Because of the kind of mail she got and the attention she gave it, as well as the personal connections she made during her frequent travels, no politician of her day was more immediately and viscerally in touch with the concerns of ordinary people.
 


Sources:

Roosevelt, Eleanor. "How I Handle My Mail." Unpublished article, AER Papers. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, Hyde Park, New York.