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10 Things You May Not Know About The Roosevelts

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We’re all fairly acquainted with basic facts about America’s most well-known political family, but, there are some things we all probably missed in history class, too! Read through ten of the most surprising facts that we uncovered, and be sure to share what you learn during the broadcast of Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” Sept. 14-20 at 7 each night.

1.) Theodore Roosevelt won a Nobel Peace Prize. Though well known as a Rough Rider and imperialist who completed the American conquest of the Philippines, “Teddy” Theodore Roosevelt was also recognized as an accomplished arbitrator. When Teddy received the prize in 1906 for his role as a collaborator of various peace treaties — particularly for negotiating peace in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 and arbitrating a dispute with Mexico — he became the first statesman to earn the prize. (It also marked the first time that the award was controversial … the Norwegian Left argued that Teddy was a “military mad” imperialist and Swedish newspapers wrote that Alfred Nobel was turning in his grave.)

2.) Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t contract poliomyelitis until he was nearly 40. Most of us are well aware that FDR fought courageously to overcome polio, but never regained full use of his legs. It’s easy to forget that Franklin didn’t contract the virus until he was 39 years old, while vacationing at Campobello Island, New Brunswick, in the summer of 1921. After battling the disease, Eleanor and political confidant Louis Howe encouraged Franklin to resume his political career; he became governor of New York in 1928.

3.) Eleanor Roosevelt is tied as America's tallest first lady. We have instant recall of Eleanor Roosevelt’s distinctive appearance, but don’t always recognize her height. Among first ladies whose height is known, Eleanor Roosevelt and Michelle Obama are believed to be the tallest. Both are documented as being 5 feet, 11 inches.

4.) Teddy’s mother and first wife died on the same day — Valentine’s Day, 1884. Summoned home from his work in the New York state legislature, Teddy returned on February 14, 1884, to the news that his mother, Mittie, had died of typhoid fever. Just hours later, his first wife, Alice Lee, died of Bright’s Disease. Alice Lee had given birth to the couple’s daughter, Alice, just two days earlier. Teddy was so devastated by the double tragedy, that he ordered that his wife’s name wasn’t to be spoken, abandoned politics, left his daughter in the care of his sister, and moved to the Dakota territories to work as a rancher and sheriff for two years.

5.) Franklin’s mother didn’t approve of his marriage. Franklin and Eleanor became acquainted on a train ride while Franklin was attending Harvard, and began a secret courtship. When they were engaged, Sara Delano Roosevelt intervened, insisting they were to young to marry, in addition to other concerns. While she was successful in enforcing a separation, and took Franklin abroad in an attempt to change his mind, she eventually conceded to their marriage in 1905. 

6.) Eleanor was one of the early members of the Junior League. Well before her marriage, Eleanor was an advocate for social causes. Though she bent to her grandmother’s wishes to become a debutante and move within New York’s upper social circles, Eleanor joined friend Mary Harriman — founder of The Junior League International — in her efforts to promote voluntarism and civic leadership. During her time with the Junior League, Eleanor worked with immigrant children in the settlement houses of New York’s Lower East Side, which was then an environment of intense poverty. Years later, Franklin would credit her and The Junior League with showing him a side of New York that he had never seen before.

7.) Teddy Roosevelt was shot on his way to an election rally … and refused treatment until he finished his speech. While campaigning for reelection as the National Progressive Party (better known as the Bull Moose Party) candidate in 1912, Teddy was shot in the chest while on his way to deliver a campaign speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After determining he was not bleeding from the mouth, Teddy concluded that the bullet had not entered his lung, and refused to listen to his companions’ protests for treatment. When doctors examined Teddy backstage, they found that his 50-page manuscript and spectacle case slowed the bullet. After a more than an hour-long speech, Roosevelt agreed to go to the hospital, where X-rays determined that the bullet had lodged in a rib. It remained there for the rest of Teddy’s life.

8.) Franklin was an average student — and passed the bar exam without finishing his law degree. Generally more of a social stand-out than top student, Franklin entered Columbia Law School in 1905, but left in 1907 after passing the bar exam. He did, however, tap Columbia professors Rexford Tugwell, Raymond Moley and Adolf Berle Jr. as his “Brain trust” to devise policies that would stem Great Depression woes while serving as governor of New York State in 1928. While FDR retained ties with various Columbia professors throughout his presidency, his relations with Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler were less than cordial, not least because Butler never failed to remind Franklin of his unfinished law degree.

9.) Eleanor and Amelia Earhart were friends.  After meeting at a White House state dinner, Eleanor developed a friendship with Amelia Earhart. After Amelia offered Eleanor a chance to fly over the Capitol to Baltimore, the two left the dinner, still in their evening gowns, for an impromptu flight. When interviewed by the Baltimore Sun, Eleanor said, “I’d love to do it myself. I make no bones about it. It does mark an epoch, doesn’t, when a girl in an evening dress and slippers can pilot a plane at night?” While Amelia planned to teach Eleanor — who had recently earned her student permit — to fly,  Amelia was lost during her attempted around-the-world flight before she was able to fulfill her promise. The U.S. government spent $4 million searching for Earhart, which was the most costly and intensive air and sea search in history at the time. 

10.) Teddy Roosevelt gave Eleanor away at her wedding. Eleanor —  who was orphaned at age 9 after her mother’s decline (following her father’s first commitment) in 1892 and father’s death due to complications of his alcoholism and narcotics addiction in 1894 — was given away by her uncle Teddy on her wedding day. The wedding date, March 17, 1905, was chosen to accommodate the sitting president’s schedule (who was slated to be in New York for the St. Patrick’s Day parade). Unfortunately, although somewhat predictably, Teddy garnered virtually all of the attention in a media firestorm that made front-page news across the country.