This Mother’s Day we celebrate two of the mothers in FDR’s life – Sara and Eleanor.
Happy Mother’s Day – To FDR?
This role reversal was connected to the creation of the Roosevelt Library. In the Spring of 1940, the Library building was under construction and the President was looking forward to enjoying a spacious new private study on its main floor.
It appears his mother was also thinking about her son’s new study. Earlier that year, she made plans for a special Mother’s Day present for Franklin—a portrait of her that would be placed in the room.
Mrs. Roosevelt commissioned Douglas Chandor (1897-1953) to create the painting. Chandor was a prominent English portrait artist who painted many well-known mid-twentieth century figures, including Herbert Hoover, Winston Churchill, Edward, Duke of Windsor, and Queen Elizabeth. Chandor had created a portrait of FDR in 1935 (in 1945 he would produce a second portrait of the President). At his death, in 1953, the New York Times called him the “modern Joshua Reynolds.”
Sara visited Chandor’s Manhattan studio on East 57th Street to sit for her portrait—returning a total of five times. The April 29, 1940 issue of LIFE magazine featured a full-page photo of her posing for the artist. “When Mrs. Roosevelt ordered the painting,” LIFE told its readers, “she stipulated only that she must not look like ‘a grinning old lady.’”
On May 3, Chandor notified the White House that the painting was finished. It was delivered to Hyde Park in time for Mother’s Day. FDR was delighted with the portrait. When the Roosevelt Library opened on June 30, 1941 it was displayed—just as his mother wished— in a prominent location in his study. Sara Delano Roosevelt died just two months later, at age 86. The President found comfort in the portrait after her death.
In a February 7, 1942 letter to Chandor, he observed “this portrait of my dear mother is a possession which I shall always cherish. It hangs in the Library at Hyde Park where it has been much admired for its artistic merit and as a faithful portrait depicting my mother in a characteristic mood so familiar to those who knew her best.”
Visitors to the Roosevelt Library can enter FDR’s study, where they will find Sara’s portrait among the treasured items that the President chose to display there.
Eleanor Roosevelt as “Whistler’s Mother”
When Eleanor Roosevelt became First Lady in 1933, she expanded the White House social calendar to include events for women who often were excluded from traditionally “stag” Washington social occasions. She established a Gridiron Widows’ party for female newspaper reporters and the wives of political figures who could not attend the annual all-male press Gridiron Dinner
Like the Gridiron Dinner, the Gridiron Widows’ party also included satirical skits. In 1938, as part of that year’s entertainment, Eleanor Roosevelt dressed in costume and staged the scene of the famous painting, “Whistler’s Mother.”
The portrait of his mother by the artist James McNeill Whistler was well-known in American popular culture at the time, as it had appeared on a 1934 three-cent postage stamp dedicated “In Memory and in Honor of the Mothers of America.”
Mrs. Roosevelt’s appearance as Whistler’s Mother was such a hit that she had the scene photographed and gave framed copies to all of her children that year for Christmas. Copies of that photograph are in the audio-visual collections of the Roosevelt Library.