Since yesterday was Human Rights Day, I thought I’d do another short post about Eleanor Roosevelt. A few months ago I wrote about her 1943 visit to New Zealand at the height of the Pacific war and republished several of her “My Day” columns as part of our celebration of the 70th anniversary of that iconic and important trip.
In addition to writing her daily newspaper columns, Eleanor kept an extensive diary of her thoughts, activities, and travels. I am very grateful to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum for making available to the Embassy portions of the diary that talked about her time in New Zealand.
Even more than her columns, the diary reflects how deeply Eleanor’s time in New Zealand impressed and intrigued her. She wrote fondly of the people she met and was particularly beguiled and fascinated by Maori culture. She greatly enjoyed her visit to Rotorua, where famous guide Rangitiara (Rangi) Dennan escorted her around the mud pools and geysers of Whakarewarewa.
I reprint below a few short, light extracts from Eleanor‘s diary, starting with a couple of entries made while she was in Rotorua:
“Rotorua was an interesting experience. The leading citizen, Princess Te Puea, met us. The head guide Rangi was at hand to escort us around the Maori area. She wanted to greet me in accordance with their custom and asked my permission which of course I gave. The meaning of this greeting is that you touch foreheads and intellect speaks to intellect. … [Rangi] is really quite a brilliant woman and really quite witty and said some things that interested me very much and made us all laugh. The park is somewhat like our Yellowstone in miniature and has geysers and hot and cold springs.”
Mrs. Roosevelt wrote warmly and casually about customs, practices, and parts of conversations that impressed her or otherwise caught her attention. For example:
“One area [of Whakarewarewa] is used by the people for their cooking. They have their own ‘holes’ in which they put their pots, and I remarked that they were very trusting and I wondered of no one ever stole from any else. Whereupon Rangi looked at me and said, ‘Our children are taught never to steal,’ which make me feel there was something we could learn from the Maori. She gave me an interesting mask and a skirt made out of flax and took me to her home which was quite delightful and modern in every way.”
The First Lady expressed gratitude for the care and friendship that the people of New Zealand were showing U.S. servicemen and women stationed here during the war:
“In the evening they put on a dance for us and sang some of the Maori songs. It was very colorful occasion and I can quite well understand how much our troops have enjoyed being entertained by them. The Maoris invited them in groups of 300 or more, fed them, gave them a place to rest in the council hall, and entertained them on Sundays from the first landing in New Zealand. I am sure that they are a great many of our boys who will go home with a real sense of gratitude for the hospitality these people have shown.”
Finally for today, Mrs. Roosevelt wrote about the important role Maori women played in the war effort and their central role in communities in New Zealand:
“Many of the Maori women work in factories and on farms throughout New Zealand, and they are strong and healthy. They have little charms which they give their men when they go off to war, and the [belief] is that they will return as long as they keep this charm. I obtained several of these little charms, and they will be pretty trinkets to give to people whom one hopes very much to see again.”
Located in Hyde Park, New York, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum was America’s first Presidential library, and it retains the distinction of being the only one actually used by a President while still in office. Conceived and built under the President’s direction and opened to the public in 1941, the Library sits on an estate called Springwood, which was President Roosevelt’s birthplace and lifelong home.
In accordance with the wishes of both the President and First Lady, Mrs. Roosevelt’s enormous collection of papers was added to the holdings of the Library after she died in 1962. The result is a vast treasure trove that fosters, as the Library’s website suggests in understated fashion, “research and education on the life and times of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and their continuing impact on contemporary life.”
Now commonly established by former Presidents, Presidential Libraries preserve the leader’s personal and family papers, other archival documents, and career-related artifacts to give the public a deeper sense of the person, his or her actions, and the times in which he or she lived. The Libraries are an important part of the American legacy, which is why they are open to the public.
When you are next in New York, please consider a day trip up to Hyde Park to visit beautiful Springwood and its historic home, important library and museum, and moving memorial to the towering and profoundly relevant lives of Franklin and Eleanor. The site is about a 90-minute drive north of New York City, or you can take the train to Poughkeepsie and then avail yourself of the free National Park Service shuttle from the station.