Image of a First Lady
Jean Stapleton Is a Natural for Playing Eleanor Roosevelt
The resemblance between the two women is notable. The same pleasing oval of a head. The same broad smile, extending past the edges of the eyes, showing off a gleaming picket fence of great white teeth. The same apple cheeks, plump beneath the same eyes, glittering with starlight and a compassion that encompasses the world. Based on her physical appearance alone, you can see why someone would think Jean Stapleton was a terrific choice to portray Eleanor Roosevelt on the stage or screen -- which she has done in the 1982 CBS movie Eleanor: First Lady of the World, and is doing currently in the one-woman stage play Eleanor: Her Secret Journey.
It turns out, though, that the qualities that make Jean Stapleton a natural to play Eleanor don't end with her physical likeness. They extend to the former first lady's sense of human rights, her commitment to realizing equity for women, and even her awakening to activism. Of course, matters of personal philosophy and individual history aren't things that strike you when you're simply looking at someone. Then, you notice those facial features, the look, the attitude. And that's the beginning of Jean Stapleton's connection to Eleanor Roosevelt.
"Two people, in quite disparate [circumstances], said to me the same week, 'You should play Eleanor Roosevelt,'" recalls the three-time Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning actress. "So that's how it all began." This was more than 25 years ago, when Stapleton was captivating the nation with her weekly performances as Edith Bunker in the pioneering Norman Lear series All in the Family. Intrigued by the idea, Stapleton visited the Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park with the idea of learning more about the first lady and maybe developing a play about her.
Rhoda Lerman, the author of Eleanor: Her Secret Journey, was there at the same time doing research for a book she was writing about Mrs. Roosevelt. She remembers Stapleton watching tapes and listening to recordings of Eleanor, and being approached by the people from the library to give a speech at the local high school. Val-Kill, a part of the Roosevelt estate and Eleanor's home for 17 years after FDR's death, was about to be sold by the family and turned into a nursing home and retirement community. Stapleton agreed to make the speech if someone could write it for her, and the people who asked her said, "Well, there's a writer here," and pressed Lerman into service.
That act proved crucial for both Lerman and Stapleton. Lerman wrote the speech, but in the first person, as if Eleanor herself were addressing the audience, and as she listened to Stapleton present it, she was inspired to change the book she was working on from nonfiction to fiction. "I realized that I had to write this book in first person," she says. "I had to make believe as she did, because that was the only way to achieve the depth of Eleanor's character." In 1979, she published Eleanor: A Novel. The experience also convinced Stapleton that Lerman was her ideal collaborator for the vehicle in which she could play Eleanor. And the two have worked together on two separate projects in that vein spanning a quarter of a century.
The first project came in the early Eighties, when Stapleton's contract to CBS stipulated that she make a TV movie. A film about Mrs. Roosevelt seemed a smart way to fulfill that clause, and Lerman provided the story that was the basis for Eleanor: First Lady of the World. If anyone needed confirmation that Stapleton was well-suited to play Eleanor, this was it; her performance was honored with both an Emmy and a Golden Globe nomination. But Stapleton still held onto the idea of doing Eleanor's story onstage -- and doing it with a script by Lerman. Years passed, but they eventually started in on it. Lerman began by adapting some chapters of her book, and the two developed the script while on a cruise together. "We just ... shared lines and dropped lines and tightened lines and went over it and over it and over it," Lerman says. Occasionally, Stapleton would tell her, 'I can act that; you don't have to use it.' And Lerman found "it was true; it was absolutely true; what she can do with a facial expression would take me a paragraph."
The play would take the opposite tack of the film. Eleanor: First Lady of the World told the story of Eleanor's life after the death of her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when she came into her own as an international advocate for human rights. Eleanor: Her Secret Journey would examine an earlier period in Eleanor's life, specifically the years in which she developed the sense of idealism, activism, and feminism with which she is strongly identified. The play begins in 1945, the 40th year of Eleanor's marriage to FDR, with a 63-year-old Eleanor Roosevelt in her living room at Val-Kill. Alone, she returns in her mind to 1918, when she was a restless young wife and mother of five. She is not fulfilled by her duties at home, and the knowledge that her husband has taken up with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, only fuels her yearning for meaning in her life. She volunteers at military canteens and, through Franklin's duties as secretary of the Navy, is able to tour some of the battle sites during World War I. Through these experiences, Eleanor comes to a personal understanding of the brutality and injustice at work in the world and of her potential for effecting change. She undergoes a striking metamorphosis, emerging from a cocoon of privilege and isolation as a person deeply committed to social action.
Lerman completed the play in 1998, roughly 25 years after she and Stapleton first met and worked together. Over the past two years, Stapleton has performed the work from coast to coast, earning the applause of audiences and acclaim for what has been called "a glowing portrait of this great lady."
What's intriguing about the long-time-in-coming stage play is how it opens up even more similarities between Jean Stapleton and Eleanor Roosevelt. The actress shares the first lady's humanitarian spirit and commitment to activism and came to it through her own secret journey. If it was not as dramatic as the one portrayed in Rhoda Lerman's script, it has nevertheless shaped the actress' work. "As a young woman -- not childhood, but those years when one is involved in school, in high school -- I was not a political animal," Stapleton says. "I was not involved in things like my dad, who was crazy about Eleanor, and he loved the 'My Day' column, and he would carry on about it every day, and we got very tired of that. Of course, as I became an adult, I began to be much more respectful, [but] I was still not very much involved in politics until I went to L.A. to start the series and I fell into a nest of very strong political, feminist activists. And it suddenly changed me."
Here it was, the early Seventies, the era of women's liberation and the birth of Ms. magazine and bra burning and the Equal Rights Amendment, and change for women was in the air. Although she was making a name for herself playing a very traditional housewife on a hit TV series, off the small screen Stapleton joined the vanguard of women who were breaking with tradition, working to better their place in society, to even the score where opportunities and recognition and pay for women were concerned. Energized by the dynamic feminists around her and across the country, Stapleton took an active role in the crusade to pass the ERA and make gender equality the law of the land.
It was a crusade that the women's movement didn't win, but that did not deter Stapleton from staying on the front lines of women's issues. In 1977, when the National Women's Conference was held in Houston, Jean Stapleton was there as a commissioner. In 1978, when a National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year was established, Jean Stapleton was among the 40 people that President Jimmy Carter appointed to serve on it, alongside such luminaries as Eleanor Smeal, Maya Angelou, Betty Ford, Coretta Scott King, Gloria Steinem, and Liz Carpenter. Her involvement continues today, with Stapleton currently serving as chair of Women's Research & Education Institute, an organization that identifies issues affecting women, helps shape public policy debate on these issues, and provides nonpartisan information about these issues.
Stapleton's activism also extended to the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt and was part of her life years before the first airing of the First Lady of the World film. In the mid-Seventies, Stapleton joined the campaign to save Val-Kill from being sold to private interests. Her efforts helped lead to the designation of the property as a national historic site, the only national historic site dedicated to a first lady. She was also one of the founders of the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill (ERVK), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to Eleanor Roosevelt's philosophy of service to society and to furthering action on issues of particular interest to Mrs. Roosevelt, such as human rights, race relations, and women's equity.
Stapleton's efforts have not gone unrecognized. In 1987, she was one of the first recipients of the Val-Kill Award, an honor given annually by the Eleanor Roosevelt Center to individuals who exemplify the First Lady's humanitarian spirit. And it has led to the actress being invited to take part in other projects which have honored the Roosevelt legacy. In June of 1998, Stapleton served as mistress of ceremonies for the gala dinner at the grand opening of the National First Ladies' Library in Canton, Ohio. In December 1998, she joined the Women's Philharmonic in San Francisco in a tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. She served as narrator for Aaron Copland's Preamble for a Solemn Occasion, written for the first anniversary of the rights declaration's adoption, and for the world premiere of Eleanor's Gift, a cello concerto by composer Chen Yi.
Stapleton treats this strong identification with such a monumental figure of the 20th century as an honor in itself. "I'm proud of having the opportunity to play her," she says. "I feel privileged to be living this real person instead of a fiction. And such a towering figure. I feel very privileged to be putting her forward." But in the same breath, she pulls back, diminishing the uniqueness of what she's doing and considering the role from the perspective of humble artist and craftswoman. She adds, "Beyond that, I'm just doing my work as an actor. Of course, I have a great advantage. I wasn't approaching a script with a fictional character who is unknown and who I had to find in my imagination as well as in the text. Here, I had this whole breadth of works, I mean, there are shelves of books about the Roosevelts, including Eleanor. And all that film -- I watched five hours of film on her. That's a wonderful feast for the actor, building something. Of course, it's demanding, because she is a public figure. All that is part of the process."
Perhaps this is just another good role for an accomplished actor. But perhaps it is a key role in another sense: keeping Eleanor Roosevelt's legacy alive for another generation, especially a generation of young women facing their own secret journeys. Jean Stapleton considers the idea. "I have found in the audiences we've played to that young people come and say that they were reading about Eleanor in school. In San Francisco, I met a young woman in school who had won a prize for an essay about Eleanor. Also, young people say, 'I'm going to read more about her.' [Eleanor's legacy] seems to be alive. I think the play brings it to the fore as well. It's meeting such a wonderful reception."
Eleanor: Her Secret Journey runs Nov. 17-26 at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. Call 472-5470.