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Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World

Heroes

Rethinking Eleanor Roosevelt

An upcoming documentary by Ken Burns digs into one of America’s most famous families, with some surprisingly intimate details. The filmmaker previewed his movie at the Women in the World Summit.

The documentary filmmaker Ken Burns previewed his new film, The Roosevelts, An Intimate History, in a panel sponsored by Bank of America at the fifth annual Women in the World Summit in New York today.

The film, which will air on PBS next fall, chronicles the lives of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt. The seven-part, fourteen-hour documentary follows the Roosevelts for more than a century, from Theodore’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962.

At the summit, Burns told Kathleen Parker, a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post, that the film paints a complex picture of Eleanor Roosevelt and her marriage to Franklin.

“In large ways, Eleanor is formed out of adversity, like a lot of us,’’ Burns said. Orphaned early, she was deeply insecure. “She learned that if you can be of use to someone else, that will make you lovable. “

Her marriage was troubled, marked by Franklin’s infidelities. “They had a very bad marriage, he betrayed her,” Burns said. “But it made her an equal, in interesting ways … Her hurt caused her to blossom.”

Even before becoming First Lady, Eleanor served as Franklin’s eyes and ears, Burns said. “They had an intensely passionate relationship—not sexual.”

Eleanor’s most substantial achievement may well have been as delegate to the United Nations, appointed by President Harry S Truman. There, she led the drafting and passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. “It was after Franklin’s death that she became the person we inherited,” Burns said.

Her legacy remains substantial. “Eleanor was, with the exception of prohibition, right on every single issue and they are the issues of today,” Burns said. “They are the role of government, the nature of leadership, how is character formed.”

With a nod to his Woman In the World host, Burns declared that Eleanor “would find a sister in Tina Brown.”

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