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[Article]

Mrs. Roosevelt Does a TV Commercial

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From November 1963: Thomas L. Stix is partner with J. G. Gude in the radio and television talent agency whose clients have been Elmer Davis, Howard K. Smith, Walter Cronkite, and others famous as news commentators. Mr. Stix has written short stories and books on topics ranging from banking to bridge.

An explanation, by her one-time agent, of an episode in her later life which puzzled many of her closest friends.

If you want a dispassionate appraisal of Eleanor Roosevelt, this personal reminiscence is not for you. For seven years I was her radio and television agent and she was our brightest star. She was special. And when you told people you represented Mrs. Roosevelt, you were special too.

Our relationship began in 1955. One day at lunch Colston Leigh, her lecture agent, was lamenting that he did a very poor job for his clients on radio and TV. He was overly modest, I said, and I admitted that I was a rank amateur on the lecture circuit. As a result of our mutual confessions, we decided to swap a few people–like a trade of baseball players. And I came away with Mrs. Roosevelt.

At our first meeting she asked me who our other clients were. I listed them and added that we had just acquired the New York Racing Association. “That will be a much more lucrative account than I will be,” she said. She was wrong. At that time she was very anxious to make money for her charities; among them were the Wiltwyck School, an institution for delinquent boys; the Citizens Committee for Children of New York; and the American Association for the United Nations. She was not earning much for them from television. That was the era of games and quiz shows and she wanted no part of them. She also had the habit of saying yes whenever she was asked to make a free guest appearance on radio or TV for some worthy cause. Generally I found out about these dates when I read the announcement in the papers. I remonstrated, but Mrs. Roosevelt said she didn’t think I should be bothered with unimportant details.

I explained that her chances of getting a good regular program were not too bright if she accepted all such invitations. She understood this, so I began to hope that from here on in everything would be simple. Well, it wasn’t.

She was planning a trip to Israel and I tried to arrange two appearances for her on the Ed Sullivan Show–one before and one after the trip. She liked the idea and so did Sullivan and we tentatively agreed on the fee. But the whole project fell through when she insisted on doing two propaganda appeals for Israel on the show.

“Of course you don’t understand it,” she said, “but I am probably the best Jew in the United States.”

She was quite objective about her prospects. “You are going to have a bad time trying to sell me because I’m so controversial,” she said. This was all too true. In the first four years I doubt that I averaged more than $2,000 a year for her. Many lesser lights make that much a week on TV. Mrs. Roosevelt believed that a majority of advertisers were Republicans and that they thought her “poison.” She was a Democrat and bore a well-hated name.

I have tried to figure out just when the “Hate Eleanor” period ended. I can’t fix a date or a definite reason. It just happened. Suddenly most people admired and then came to love her. One day out of the blue Hank Booraem, then head of radio and TV at a large advertising agency, phoned me to discuss what he called a cockeyed idea. Would Mrs. Roosevelt do a straight commercial for a margarine account for quite a lot of money? I didn’t think so, but I listened. The sponsor was to be Lever Brothers, a well-known, reputable organization. Possibly, I thought, other conservative companies would follow their lead if she agreed to do it–a big if.

Booraem and I worked out the details, including Mrs. Roosevelt’s right to approve the text of the commercials. Two days later I presented the proposition to her. I had by now convinced myself that it was a fine idea. But I told her that she would probably be severely criticized for doing anything so undignified.

She asked for a day to think it over. I know that she consulted her confidential secretary, Maureen Corr, and two close friends, Joe and Trude Lash. All of them were very much against the idea. On the other hand, I had told Mrs. Roosevelt that if the commercial was successful she would no longer be “poison” to sponsors.

When I called to learn her decision, she logically detailed all the pros and cons. Finally she said, “With the amount of money I am to be paid I can save over six thousand lives. I don’t value my dignity that highly. Go ahead and make the arrangements.” I don’t know just what lives she was thinking of but I am sure children somewhere received the money–perhaps in Africa, Greece, or West Virginia.

It was news when Mrs. Roosevelt did the first commercial–but not front-page news. I had promised Miss Corr extra secretarial help to handle the flood of protests we expected. But there were fewer than a hundred letters on the whole series, three-quarters of them objecting to her appearance.

Meanwhile advertisers had begun to feel differently about Mrs. Roosevelt. In a few weeks, Frank Sinatra asked her to appear on a “spectacular.” There was no argument about the high price I named.

I insisted on going to Hollywood with her to oversee her part in the production. This was my first experience of traveling with “royalty.” When there was a flight delay at Boston, the airport manager invited us to lunch in his office. Mrs. Roosevelt declined. The public dining room was good enough for her. I left her there for a few minutes and returned to find a strange woman in my seat earnestly asking or explaining something. I was embarrassed. “Don’t bother,” Mrs. Roosevelt said. “It happens all the time.”

We were ushered onto the plane before the gates opened. When passengers arrived, they stared at Mrs. Roosevelt but she was unconcerned. We chatted for ten minutes or so. Then she settled down with the New York Times and Herald Tribune, which she read for a full hour, After another brief chat, she took out her over-stuffed briefcase, read her mail, and made notes on the letters. Then she leaned back and went to sleep.

We arrived in Los Angeles in a cloudburst. An attendant handed me a big umbrella, saying, “Will you take care of the little lady?” Mrs. Roosevelt towered over most people, including me. We both burst out laughing.

Friends met her at the airport and I caught up with her that evening at the studio. She was finished in ten minutes. She had studied her part. One thing bothered her. She was to walk to a bench on the set on a magnificent white silk panel about twenty yards long. She was worried about soiling it. A production man assured her that it would be thrown away after the show. This offended her sense of thrift. Could she have it? Of course, he said, and it was sent to Hyde Park–for what purpose I couldn’t guess.

After the rehearsal we went to the home of my friends Jack and Joan Roche. He is a scriptwriter and she is a Dutch girl who fought in the Resistance against the Nazis. Mrs. Roosevelt had agreed to come, providing it was not a big party. The only other guests were Ralph and Alice Bellamy–he had played F.D.R. in “Sunrise at Campobello.”

We spent a memorable evening gossiping and arguing. Mrs. Roosevelt had a special routine in talking about her husband. Sometimes she referred to him as “my husband” or “the President.” When she was sure she was among friends it was “Franklin.” It was “Franklin” that evening.

Ralph Bellamy asked her whether it was true that her husband consulted her on all important decisions. She said this wasn’t quite the way it worked. As an example she told us about F.D.R.’s appointment of Robert Worth Bingham as Ambassador to Great Britain. He discussed with her the instructions he planned to give Bingham, and she made some detailed suggestions. The next day Bingham came to tea at the White House and, as she poured, she heard F.D.R. passing on virtually all her suggestions. Then he looked at Mrs. R., bade Bingham good-by, and left the room. It seemed to her that her husband wanted her to know he was taking her advice but didn’t care to say so directly.

After the Sinatra show, Mrs. Roosevelt’s next important TV job was “Prospects of Mankind,” an educational program which Henry Morgenthau III organized and ran for Brandeis University. Mrs. Roosevelt had the best address book in the world, and among her guests on the series were President Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, Bertrand Russell, Edward R. Murrow, Madam Pandit, and many other great men and women. The program had a small but devoted audience. At the time of her death we were working on plans for expansion.

My wife and I went to Waltham, Massachusetts, with her once to watch the program, which was filmed there before a live audience. Mrs. Roosevelt invited us to Hyde Park for the preceding weekend. Saturday morning she drove us herself to the Roosevelt Library, about five miles from her cottage, and left us there, saying she would call for us at noon. She came, as promised, in a heavy rainstorm.

We drove to Waltham Sunday morning, arriving in time for a luncheon where the panel participants met. To save time, each one left the table in turn and was made up for the camera at a make-up table in the same room. Thus the conversation could continue uninterrupted. Then came the telecast, a question period, a cocktail party, and a reception. I quit at this point. But Mrs. Roosevelt went on to a formal dinner and an outdoor art show on Boston Common. We met next morning on the nine o’clock plane for New York. If she was tired she never mentioned it.

I was always, I think, somewhat awed by Mrs. Roosevelt, even after I had come to know her quite well. A year or so before her death I asked her whether I might bring my daughter, who had just returned from a year in Europe, to visit her for five minutes. “You cannot,” said Mrs. Roosevelt with startling abruptness. “Bring her in for five minutes! The idea! Bring her for tea.”

At our last business meeting we discussed a new TV series which, because of her other commitments, could not be done before 1966 or 1967. “Talk this over with Jimmy,” she said. But I never did.

At her funeral, my wife and I stood in the Hyde Park rose garden with a small crowd. It was a cold, dreary fall day and, for some reason, the service was almost a half-hour late in starting. Next to me was Francis Biddle, who had been Attorney General under F.D.R. and was an old family friend. “This is the first time I’ve ever known Eleanor to be late,” he said.


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November 1963