Eleanor Roosevelt’s Royal Picnic

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FDR (center foreground) is flanked by Queen Elizabeth and King George (left)

Eleanor Roosevelt’s early life was one of privilege. Nevertheless, she had a sense of down-to earth informality. This was true in 1939, when she met Britain’s king.

Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the great Americans of the twentieth century, a woman who transformed what it meant to be the wife of the president of the United States. An activist and social reformer, she campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the poor, racial minorities, and the downtrodden of American society. But in 1939 she found herself in the unaccustomed role of playing host to royalty.

Royal Visits to the White House

Mrs. Roosevelt’s odyssey began when it was learned that Britain’s King George VI and his consort Queen Elizabeth were going to visit Canada in the spring of 1939. The trip was supposed to strengthen ties between Canada and Great Britain at a time when war was on the horizon. In 1938, Britain and France had tried to appease Hitler with the infamous Munich Agreement, a pact that gave Germany the western fringe of Czechoslovakia. It was obvious the Nazi dictator was not content with these concessions, and it was only a matter of time before war would come again.

But it was soon decided that the King and Queen would extend their stay and visit the United States. President Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor’s husband, was eager to extend the nation’s hospitality to the royal pair. In fact, the White House was no stranger to royalty. Queen Victoria’s son, Albert, Prince of Wales, visited in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War. Albert, later King Edward VII, was King George’s grandfather.

In 1874 President Ulysses S. Grant welcomed Hawaii’s King Kalakaua, but there was something special about British royalty. After all, the United States had once been 13 British colonies.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Sara Delano Roosevelt

Sara Delano Roosevelt, the president’s mother, was a formidable lady, a matriarch who “ruled” from Hyde Park, the family’s estate on the Hudson River. Sara didn’t much care for her daughter in law, especially when Eleanor insisted on being her own person.

By 1939 Eleanor had pretty much liberated herself from Sara’s meddling, but the older woman continued to try and interfere. When Sara learned that British royalty was about to visit, she dashed off a letter to Eleanor expressing her concerns. According to Webb Garrison’s White House Ladies, Sara was firm as she could be. “You must follow protocol to the letter,” Sara insisted. “It will be a disgrace to the nation if you fail to treat them as though they were in Buckingham Palace.”

King George and Queen Elizabeth arrived in Washington on June 8, 1939. After a regal stay in Washington, they visited the New York World’s Fair. For the most part, the visit was indeed done along the lines of strict protocol. But Eleanor had other ideas. She invited the royal couple to visit Hyde Park. The offer was graciously accepted.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Royal Picnic

Eleanor told the King and Queen that “you’ll likely be surprised.” at what she was planning. “Instead of giving you another formal state dinner, I want you to see how ordinary Americans enjoy a leisurely evening.”

The picnic was held at Val-Kill, Eleanor’s own little hideaway cottage not far from Hyde Park. Neighbors and other area residents were invited to the affair, which was going to be strictly informal.

The food was typically American, including baked ham, smoked turkey, and and baked beans. But King George was puzzled by the frankfurters. “What is the name of this delicacy?” “Hot dogs” Eleanor replied. “It’s the only food I know how to cook!” That was not strictly true. Eleanor could also cook scrambled eggs—if the eggs were already beaten!

Eleanor’s picnic was a great success. When he left, King George remarked that “You have given us a delightful time. Until now, I had never tasted smoked turkey. I must also confess I shall never, never forget my first hot dog!”

The First Lady’s charm and informality made an impression on the British, strengthening the good will that continued when the United States entered World War II.

Sources:

  1. Webb Garrison. White House Ladies, (Nashville, Rutledge Hill Press, 1996)
  2. William A. DeGergorio. The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents (NY: Gramercy Books, 2005
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