Eleanor Roosevelt Describes White House Life


This audio is part of the larger project The First Family of Radio: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s Historic Broadcasts. You can download the entire radio hour from our podcast feed (iTunes).

June 4, 1940

In 1940, the makers of Sweetheart Soap signed Eleanor Roosevelt to broadcast twice a week in the afternoon. For this broadcast she returned to an audience favorite: daily life in the White House. As she sometimes did, ER invited a female newspaper reporter on the show to ask questions mailed in from listeners. -Stephen Smith


ER: Good day, ladies and gentlemen. I have received a great many interesting letters since we started these radio talks. I want to thank you for writing to me, and I would like to tell you how much I appreciate your comments and specific suggestions. As I promised you before, I hope to answer as many of your questions as possible. But because they are of such a varied nature, it is necessary to group them and select a number of related questions for each broadcast. So, if your question has not yet been answered, I hope you will bear with me.

Your most frequent requests are for information about the White House, how it runs, how the many tasks are divided, and a host of other details. So today, I have invited Mrs. Genevieve Forbes Herrick to come to the studio with me and, by acting as your spokesman, to help me answer your many questions. Being interviewed by Mrs. Herrick is not a novelty for me. For some time, Mrs. Herrick has been a regular member of the group of correspondents with whom I have regular press conferences in Washington. So I want you to meet Mrs. Herrick now.

GH: Thank you, Mrs. Roosevelt. It’s indeed a pleasure to act as spokesman for your many radio friends. Having looked through some of their many letters, it seems that almost everyone is interested in the White House. And I suppose that is only natural because the White House is the symbolic home of the nation. Just how many people would you say visit the White House every year?

ER: Last year we had some 1,320,300 visitors. Of that number, 4,729 had meals—either lunch, dinner, or tea—23,267 came in groups to be received, and 264,060 were sightseers. And 323 were houseguests. You can see, Mrs. Herrick, that the White House is a sort of Mecca for patriotic pilgrims.

GH: And what would you say, Mrs. Roosevelt, is the one thing that most White House visitors want to see?

ER: I believe they are most anxious to see the portraits of George and Martha Washington in the East Room. But almost every individual or group has something about which they are most curious. This varies of course. Some want to see the new Lincoln portrait, others the White House china, and so on and on.

GH: Now, do the children who visit the White House have some particular favorite, Mrs. Roosevelt?

ER: I think of late the children like best the room where the president exhibits the collection of things which are sent to him personally. This exhibit, which is constantly changed, includes ship models and many other curios. Some of them are really beautiful.

GH: What about yourself, Mrs. Roosevelt? Is there some feature of the White House which you find most interesting?

ER: That is hard to decide, Mrs. Herrick, because the entire house is so fascinating. Perhaps it is the atmosphere of the second floor that I like best. This part of the house seems somehow to be charged with the personalities of all the great people who have lived there in the past.

GH: I think I know what you mean. I’ve had the feeling, while visiting some historic places, that the greatness of past deeds and men still lingers. And while we’re on the subject, which of the symbols of patriotism in Washington seems to you most representative of our American democracy?

ER: I think perhaps the Washington Monument is the one that most people would mention, because you see it from so many different places when you come to Washington. But the monument from which I get the most inspiration is the Lincoln Memorial. The statue of Lincoln is in itself so beautiful, and his words carved on the wall always deepen my belief in democracy.

GH: Well, it seems like a big jump from the Lincoln Memorial to the problems of housekeeping for the White House, but if I’m to be spokesman for your listeners, I must get back to their questions. Who does all the shopping and marketing for the White House, Mrs. Roosevelt?

ER: Well, Mrs. Herrick, in housekeeping for the White House, there’s more than just shopping and marketing. You have to keep the accounts, and those are the most complicated kind of bookkeeping. Everything has to be kept in detail so that you know just what every meal costs per person and you know just where to charge it, because of course, as you know, there is a division between the personal expenses of the president and his family, and state expenses. These are the duties of Mrs. [Henrietta] Nesbitt, the housekeeper.

GH: Now, another of your radio friends wants to know who does all the laundry and the mending required for such a large house, with so many guests.

ER: Many of my own friends have asked me that same question. The White House laundry is done by two women in their own homes. They are regularly employed by the week. One woman takes all the flat wash and the other takes the body clothes. It is a very large wash, and the mending takes a great deal of time. All the housemaids in the White House work on putting the laundry away, and mending it in their spare time, after the work of looking after the rooms and guests is done. I see you have some more questions, Mrs. Herrick.

GH: Well, we’ve covered shopping, marketing, laundering, and mending. Now we have a question from a woman who wants to know if all the historic china, which visitors see in the White House, is actually used.

ER: No, not all of it. Much of the historic china, of which you see samples in the china room, has long been out of use because there is not much of it left, and the few remaining pieces are highly prized. There are certain times when some of these pieces are used. For instance, it has been the custom at state receptions to use the beautiful punch bowls which were bought during Mr. Lincoln’s administration for lemonade and fruit punch. But for regular White House service, china of recent days is used. Certain portions of the older sets are used when there is enough for the number of guests. Some of the china bought in Mr. Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, and some of the salad plates bought in Mr. Cleveland’s administration, have been used on such occasions.

GH: That is most interesting to me, Mrs. Roosevelt, because it illustrates so vividly the great historic value of everything in the White House, even to the dishes. I believe it was Dolly Madison who once called Washington “the nation’s drawing room.” Thanks in part to you, that narrowly social definition has been greatly expanded. Won’t you give us your definition of Washington today?

ER: Washington—or the District of Columbia, as I have been urged to call it—today really represents the center of governmental authority. There was a time when financial authority was more important than governmental authority, but today that is no longer so. One is conscious, in Washington, of being near the really supreme authority of the country.

GH: You just mentioned something that has changed in Washington. Isn’t it true, Mrs. Roosevelt, that much remains unchanged? I have often heard people in Washington talk about precedence. Perhaps your radio friends would like to know just what precedence means, and how the problems of precedence at the White House are handled.

ER: I suppose I could refer you to the State Department, Mrs. Herrick, because they are the authority on all rules of precedence. But perhaps I can answer your question. Simply stated, the rules of precedence are traditions handed down which govern the procedure at state ceremonies. Precedence exists in Washington as it exists in no other part of the United States. It is important, first, because the people representing foreign governments are accustomed to a rule of precedence, either because of position or because of birth. Second, because official positions in Washington are also governed by certain rules of precedence.

The State Department handles all of these questions. They seat the people at state dinners, and they advise us just how we should deal with certain problems when important visitors come from other lands. This is a great help, and I have always been grateful that decisions in the very complicated matters of precedence did not lie with me.

GH: While you’re discussing the subject of entertaining in the White House, I’m sure you can answer a question that everyone must wonder about. You meet so many people, Mrs. Roosevelt, shake so many hands, don’t they all seem alike to you by the time an affair is almost over?

ER: No, indeed, Mrs. Herrick. I make it a point to look at every face, and it’s astonishing how interesting the faces are. Of course, after I have shaken hands with several hundred people, I begin to get tired. Sometimes, people blur before my eyes and I can only hope that the smile on my face still expresses my pleasure in seeing them. I think the story which I have repeated many times rather expresses what many of my guests are thinking as they are received. One lady wrote to me, after I had shaken hands with several hundred people: “Mrs. Roosevelt, do you shake and think, or do you just stand and shake?”

GH: Well, Mrs. Roosevelt, I’ve finished all the questions I can ask today, but I promise I won’t shake hands. I’ll just say good-bye and thank you so much for inviting me here today.

ER: You’ve been a great help, Mrs. Herrick. In fact, it was such a pleasure to have you that I wish you would return on Thursday and continue with the interview. Will you?

GH: Oh, gladly.

ANNOUNCER: Thank you very much, Mrs. Roosevelt and Mrs. Herrick.