The First Ladies

The First Ladies

The First Ladies

The First Ladies

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Overview

Notes From Your Bookseller

The author of The Personal Librarian is back, co-authoring a similarly moving story of unsung heroes, the power of allyship and the strength of women. Historically based, centering on Eleanor Roosevelt Mary McLeod Bethune, this novel is a journey through time and place with so much to say.

The Instant New York Times Bestseller! 

A novel about the extraordinary partnership between First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune—an unlikely friendship that changed the world, from the New York Times bestselling authors of the Good Morning America Book Club pick The Personal Librarian.


The daughter of formerly enslaved parents, Mary McLeod Bethune refuses to back down as white supremacists attempt to thwart her work. She marches on as an activist and an educator, and as her reputation grows she becomes a celebrity, revered by titans of business and recognized by U.S. Presidents. Eleanor Roosevelt herself is awestruck and eager to make her acquaintance. Initially drawn together because of their shared belief in women’s rights and the power of education, Mary and Eleanor become fast friends confiding their secrets, hopes and dreams—and holding each other’s hands through tragedy and triumph.
 
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt is elected president, the two women begin to collaborate more closely, particularly as Eleanor moves toward her own agenda separate from FDR, a consequence of the devastating discovery of her husband’s secret love affair. Eleanor becomes a controversial First Lady for her outspokenness, particularly on civil rights. And when she receives threats because of her strong ties to Mary, it only fuels the women’s desire to fight together for justice and equality.
 
This is the story of two different, yet equally formidable, passionate, and committed women, and the way in which their singular friendship helped form the foundation for the modern civil rights movement.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593440308
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/27/2023
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: eBook
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 2,445
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

About The Author
Marie Benedict is a lawyer with more than ten years of experience as a litigator. A graduate of Boston College and the Boston University School of Law, she is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Her Hidden Genius, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, The Only Woman in the Room, Carnegie's Maid, The Other Einstein, and Lady Clementine. She lives in Pittsburgh with her family. 

Victoria Christopher Murray is one of the country's top Black contemporary authors with more than one million books in print. She has written more than twenty novels, including the Seven Deadly Sins series and Stand Your Ground, a Library Journal Best Book of the Year. She holds an MBA from the NYU Stern School of Business.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Mary

New York, New York

October 14, 1927

Nearly fifty blocks whir past my cab window as I ride through the upper reaches of Manhattan from the Hotel Olga in Harlem. Traveling toward the Upper East Side, I feel as though, somewhere, I've crossed an invisible line. The shades of complexions fade from colored to white. Not that it matters to me. I have never been hindered by the views and prejudices of others, not even the Ku Klux Klan.

My cab stops in front of a limestone town house amidst the expanse of brick facades on East 65th Street. I exit the cab, then pause before I mount the few steps to the front door. The number 47 is on the left of the wrought iron gate, while 49 is on the opposite side. Yet there is only a single entrance.

Odd, I think, and a bit confusing to have one door for two residences. I certainly hope Mrs. Roosevelt gets along with her neighbor.

The door is opened by a young woman wearing a white-collared black uniform. For a moment, she stands still, her eyebrows raised and her blue eyes wide with astonishment.

"I am Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune, here for the luncheon," I say.

She recovers. "Yes, ma'am." As she gestures for me to enter, her face becomes, once again, the expressionless servant's mask.

Chatter and laughter float in from down the hall. "Ma'am?" she asks, reaching for my coat.

I shrug out of my black fur-collar wrap and pat my hat to make sure it hasn't tilted. The young lady leads me down a hallway darkened by mahogany panels. As we approach the sound of voices, I listen to the medley of tones, searching for the accents and intonations that will give me clues to who these women are and where they're from.

When I step into the drawing room, the gleaming chandeliers, the velvet burgundy drapes framing the large windows, the deep chintz sofas, and a crackling fire offer a warmer welcome than the women inside. Unfazed, I move to the walls covered with bookcases. Glorious leather-bound volumes line the shelves. How much my curious students at Bethune-Cookman College would enjoy and appreciate a library like this.

If I didn't know this was a luncheon for women leaders of national clubs and organizations-some of the most powerful women in America-I'd think I'd stepped into a fashion show. Each woman wears a different variation of the latest styles; there are skirts and sweater sets and drop-waist dresses, and all, of course, are wearing silk stockings. Quite the contrast with my ankle-length navy dress trimmed in velvet.

I peruse the bookshelves, noticing that the conversation dips to a whisper whenever I skirt close to a group. As I draw near women I recognize from my position as president of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, I smile and nod, but I only occasionally receive a nod in return. Most often, my acknowledgments are met with steel-cold glances. Funny how the same women who talk with me about the advancement of women in a formal meeting space open to whites and Negroes pretend not to even see me in this social setting. Instead of allowing this to smart, I read the titles as I survey the books: a biography here, a novel there, a historical study in between.

"Ah, Dr. Bethune. What a pleasure."

My smile widens as the officious-looking Mrs. Sara Delano Roosevelt approaches, surprisingly light on her feet for her seventy-something years. "It is good to see you again, Mrs. Roosevelt."

"You as well, Dr. Bethune."

I hesitate, then say, "I hope you'll pardon me for clarifying." I pause, and Mrs. Roosevelt's expression hardens; she's not used to correction. "I prefer to be called Mrs. Bethune. Although I am grateful for the recognition, my doctorate degree is an honorary one. I prefer that honorific be reserved for the men and women who worked hard to earn their doctorates."

"As you wish." Mrs. Roosevelt's voice softens at the benign nature of my clarification. "Please tell me-I understand you've just returned from Europe. How was your trip?"

"It was the most glorious eight weeks."

"Isn't Europe amazing? So full of history." Leaning closer, she whispers, "Did I hear you had an audience with the pope?" The astonishment in her tone matches the amazement I felt standing before Pope Pius XI and receiving his blessing. As we talk about the Vatican, I wonder how news of my travels spread so fast and so wide.

But of course I say nothing about that, and when Mrs. Roosevelt asks the purpose of my trip, I tell her I traveled to Europe with Dr. Wilberforce Williams, the noted public health care expert and writer. "He's a friend from Chicago who's been to Europe several times, and when he arranged a travel group, I knew it was time for me to get an understanding of life across the ocean."

We chat about our experiences in Europe, especially the beautiful gardens. "I love Kew Gardens in London in particular," Mrs. Roosevelt says. "They have the largest botanical collection in the world, you know."

"Ah, yes," I say. "I found it lovely as well, but I preferred the black roses in Switzerland."

"Black roses? Oh my," she says with a bit of surprise. "I don't think I've ever seen such a rarity." A butler approaches and whispers to her. "It seems I am needed for a matter crucial to the luncheon. Will you excuse me?"

I am left alone once again and find myself facing a cluster of three women. I can imagine their thoughts, wondering what on earth I have in common with the society matron, mother to former assistant secretary of the Navy and failed vice presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt. He'd been considered a promising politician on the rise until polio felled him six years ago. But I am not here because of him.

The women and I catch one another's gazes, and I smile. When I'm rewarded with cold shoulders once again, I resume my perambulation, letting my favorite walking stick lead the way.

I do wonder which of these women is Mrs. Roosevelt's daughter-in-law. Her name was on the invitation, and she is my host as well. I long to meet Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, who has become an advocate for the underrepresented and one of the most prominent women in politics, albeit for the Democratic Party. From what I've read, she, alone among the women in this room, shows promise.

CHAPTER 2

Eleanor

New York, New York

October 14, 1927

Move, I tell myself. Walk across the room and offer your hand in welcome. But as I watch Mary McLeod Bethune stroll around the drawing room alone, I don't break away from the conversation I'm having with the head of the American Association of University Women. The sight of the only colored woman in the room unnerves me, and I wonder about the wisdom of including the renowned educator in this national luncheon of women's club heads. Were my mother-in-law and I naive to invite her?

Dr. Bethune is a sturdy, rather short, smartly dressed colored woman. She moves confidently, seemingly impervious to the women's slights, like that of Mrs. Moreau, a leader of the Daughters of the American Revolution, who stares at her with mouth agape. Oh, how I wish my mother-in-law would return. No matter how easily she can irritate me, this is the sort of situation she would handle with command and grace.

How does Dr. Bethune maintain her poise? Even in the face of this inhospitable crowd, she doesn't cower. Not like I would have.

You look like a granny, the constant refrain of my mother's words to me-an insult conveying the ugliness and joylessness she saw in me as a child-comes back now. Those words haunt me from time to time, returning me momentarily to the darkness of my childhood. My long days were spent alone in the children's attic nursery with only a governess and my brother Hall for company, trotted out at mealtimes for my mother's inspection and inevitable criticism. It didn't matter that I'd been raised in wealthy homes or that I had the elite Dutch ancestry of the Roosevelt and Hall families. I grew up believing that I had to apologize for the unpleasantness of my existence, that somehow, someway, I must find a way to prove my worthiness.

That the hateful insult of "granny" came from the lovely, delicate lips of my beautiful, slender, fair-haired mother, Anna Hall Roosevelt-the leading debutante of her season-made it especially hurtful. I knew I was everything my stunning mother was not. Still, part of me wondered what society would think if they could hear a daughter and wife from two of the most esteemed families in America speak to her child in such a way. Not that I'd ever divulge it; I was better bred, and anyway, I was only eight years old when she spoke those words for the last time. Still, they remain.

Our house steward announces luncheon, snapping me back to the present and jolting me into action. I make my excuses to the woman to whom I've been speaking I rush after Dr. Bethune, who has started toward the dining room, marching proudly with a walking stick in hand. It is then I feel a firm tug on my arm.

"Mrs. Roosevelt, what were you thinking?" It is Mrs. Moreau, with a gaggle of women in tow. "How can we sit down to lunch with her?"

I flinch. Mrs. Moreau is speaking loudly. It's as if she isn't aware that Dr. Bethune can hear her, or perhaps she just doesn't care.

A woman with a Southern drawl chimes in. "I am astonished that you and your mother-in-law thought it appropriate to include a colored woman."

The six women encircle me. "Ladies," I say, my voice sounding even more high-pitched than usual, "Dr. Bethune is one of the most respected women in her field-in the nation, even-and the head of a national club. Her presence here is perfectly appropriate."

"We know who she is. And she might be respected," that same woman says, her arms now crossed over her chest, "but she's still a Negro, and you cannot possibly expect us to sit down to lunch with her."

Embarrassed and ashamed, but also boiling mad, I cross my arms, too. No more apologizing or explaining. "My mother-in-law and I wanted to bring together women who run clubs across this nation. I expect us to find common ground so that we may bring change and opportunities for women and girls of all kinds."

My eyes take in these supposed leaders. They are a representation of America, old and young, some from the South, others from the North, and I'd assumed their altruism would extend to all people. "Ladies, Dr. Bethune is my guest, and we shall treat her as such, in keeping with our missions to support the women of America."

But my tone and intractability do not make them back away.

"Do you know what's not acceptable?" the woman with the Southern drawl practically yells. "Being labeled a woman who loves nig-"

I gasp before she can finish spewing out her venom.

"Dr. Bethune has as much, if not more of, a right as any of you to be here. And I will not allow you to speak about my guest this way." My heart is racing as I pivot away from them.

Following Dr. Bethune, I wonder if I am partly to blame for the behavior of these women. If I had rushed to her side as soon as she entered, would they have dared? Maybe I am as bad as they are for not greeting her upon arrival, for allowing her difference to make me hesitate. Every time I think I've made progress, think I've become more like my dear, forward-thinking friends Marion Dickerman and Nan Cook-the principal of the progressive Todhunter School for girls we recently acquired and the secretary of the Women's Division of the New York State Democratic Committee, respectively-I realize how much further I have to go.

When I enter the dining room, I see that Dr. Bethune sits by herself at the central table, around which the other tables stem like petals of a flower. It is a chair where she can see and be seen. As the other guests move into the room, many join the crowd forming at the periphery with Mrs. Moreau, who refuses to select a chair. With utter aplomb, Dr. Bethune accepts a bowl of soup from a maid. She dips her silver spoon into it as if all this strangeness is nothing. As if all is proceeding as normal, which perhaps it is for her.

I race to her side, sputtering, "It-it is nice to finally meet you, Dr. Bethune. I am Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt. When my mother-in-law mentioned that you'd accepted our invitation, I was thrilled I'd have the opportunity to meet the woman who serves not only as the president of the National Association of Colored Women but also as the president of Bethune-Cookman College."

Dr. Bethune carefully places her spoon down next to her bowl and replies, "It's a pleasure, Mrs. Roosevelt, and please call me Mrs. Bethune. I thought you'd forgotten about me."

Her words, spoken bluntly but without acrimony, cut through me. How could I have allowed her to flounder in the face of this disrespect? What I've done is unforgivable, and my cheeks flush with heat.

"I cannot apologize enough for putting you in this awkward position, Mrs. Bethune. My mother-in-law and I did not anticipate that the ladies would behave in this way. After all, these women have pledged to lift up other women in their work," I say, feeling that I must give her a complete explanation for what she's had to endure.

She smiles and asks, "How did you think this luncheon would go?"

I am silent. What can I say?

"Mrs. Roosevelt," she continues, the smile never leaving her lips, "you need only to have asked me. While many will sit in a meeting or a conference with me, there aren't too many white folks in this country who care to break bread with colored people, no matter their station in life." She gives a rueful chuckle.

"Mrs. Bethune, I'm so sorry for what you may have heard."

"Oh, there is no may. I definitely heard them."

"I don't know what to say. I have never-"

"You may have never, but I have. Women and men like this pass through my life every day." Her voice holds no anger or even frustration.

"It's unacceptable, and I want to apologize."

"You must never apologize for a sin someone else has committed," she says with a shake of her head.

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