Imagine being able to have a conversation with Eleanor Roosevelt; being able to ask her questions and being treated to her warmth and hospitality in her beloved home Val Kill. That is precisely the experience enjoyed by a packed house when Carol Cohen gave her presentation at the Mattapoisett Public Library on May 4.
Titled “An Afternoon with Eleanor Roosevelt,” Cohen inhabited the woman who the world came to love during her many years as the First Lady and in subsequent years a prime mover in the creation of the United Nations.
Cohen’s Eleanor invited the group into her home as those in attendance played along, imagining they were visiting her and about to eat a meal and converse with a woman whose entire life was spent growing into being who she eventually became – a much loved advocate for human rights in all its many forms.
Cohen created the illusion by wearing an apron, a strand of pearls, and thick glasses, surrounded by a small set which included an unpacked suitcase, a table set for tea, and reading materials.
When she entered the room from the back, Cohen was already speaking to the crowd as if they were her neighbors, greeting them, asking them how they were doing, and inviting them into her parlor.
Clearly, Cohen has studied the former First Lady for many years. And while it was a dramatization, the interactive quality of Cohen’s routine was anything but routine – it was fresh, real, engaging, and downright funny at times. Cohen is an actress who knows her character like a family member, and her one-woman show is a tour de force.
Cohen is primarily an educator with a very long list of associations and positions she has held in academia. But it is her passion for all things Roosevelt that she enjoys sharing the most.
Cohen spent about 40 minutes portraying Eleanor, giving her audience glimpses into what her life was like after the passing of FDR and after her triumph in London where she held the position of the first United States representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. She shared many of Eleanor’s successes throughout her long life, including her time as chairman of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.
Eleanor never stopped pushing for the emergence of humankind’s better angels.
“Do what you think in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
As she went around the room welcoming neighbors and friends to Val Kill, Cohen would instruct her beleaguered housekeeper Marge – aka Library Director Susan Pizzolato – to make sure there was enough food for all.
We all suspended reality to enter Eleanor’s world as painted for us by Cohen.
Cohen made Eleanor come alive, made us feel as if we were truly in her presence, brought us close to tears, and then roaring with laughter. And this capacity to bring an audience into the script is not only the mark of an excellent actor, but one of an excellent teacher.
In the second half of her presentation, Cohen talked about Eleanor’s many roles in government, her writing, and her ever-present compassion for those whose lot in life was one of struggle.
“I use Eleanor’s thoughts and words to help me through my days,” Cohen confessed. “There are so many dimensions to this woman, so many avenues you can go down.”
Eleanor was from a well-heeled socio-economic background, but she suffered greatly early in life. She had to mature into her worth and value, and she was unsure of it for so many years. Yet she did so through faith and a superior intellect. She was approachable to the average person with her ever present knitting needles and quick wit that framed difficult concepts into quotes to live by: “Anger is only one letter away from danger,” and, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Cohen’s two-part presentation brought to light the significance of a person like Eleanor Roosevelt in our collective history and, probably even more importantly, how much the world needs her wisdom today – “You must do the things you think you cannot.”
Cohen gave her audience a glimpse of an iconic woman whose efforts helped to transform lives and whose willingness to take on difficult tasks stands as an example of what we can do, not what we can’t do.
“A woman is like a teabag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”
Cohen brings her talks to schools and community facilities and continues to teach at Lesley University. Her mantra is the importance of life-long learning, and to that end she has developed courses of study for a variety of groups, young and not so young alike. She believes, as Eleanor did, that as long as we are living, we should be learning, and, through that we find, “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.”
To learn more about Carol Cohen, visit www.carolcohen.com.
And one last message from Eleanor before we put the dishes in the sink: “I think that somehow we learn who we really are and then live with that decision.”
By Marilou Newell