If You Ask Me
In May 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt (ER) launched a monthly magazine column called “If You Ask Me” in the Ladies’ Home Journal, then the leading women’s periodical in the US. The column, based on a similar column she had written for the Democratic Digest, consisted of reader questions and Roosevelt's responses. Originally conceived as a way for her to counter “the more than usual rumors, innuendoes and backstairs gossip about the inhabitants of the White House,” the column quickly expanded to include questions of war, peace, politics, civil liberties, health, education and family life.
The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project has assembled this digital, comprehensive edition of the monthly column.
Reader reaction was intense but not always positive. The Journal received many “vituperative” letters about the column and the magazine’s editors, Bruce Gould and Beatrice Blackmar Gould, were often asked, “When are you going to get rid of Eleanor?” Still, the column was popular enough that in 1946 Roosevelt published a selection of questions and answers from the column along with her answers to questions from more than 40 well-known Americans in government, the arts, media, science and medicine in book form.
Roosevelt came to the Journal as both First Lady and a nationally recognized media figure. Her six-day-a-week syndicated newspaper column, “My Day,” was then running in newspapers around the country. Besides her column, she hosted a series of radio programs and she continued to write for such general interest publications as Liberty and Collier’s.
Roosevelt had a long history with the Journal going back to the publication of her 1923 article on the Bok Peace Prize, a national competition for the best plan to preserve world peace in the aftermath of World War I. More recently, the magazine had published two of her articles, one on her activities and the other on White House history. The magazine had also successfully serialized her first memoir, This Is My Story, in 1937. Moreover, Roosevelt had a warm relationship with the Goulds, who shared her concern for civil engagement and citizen involvement, particularly among women. Their friendship may have contributed to the fact that Roosevelt never had a written contract with the Journal. Instead, the Goulds ran the column on a month-to-month basis, paying her $2,500 per column. They also agreed to handle all the mail associated with the column.
“If You Ask Me” Moves to McCall’s
“If You Ask Me” continued to run in the Ladies’ Home Journal until mid-1949, when Roosevelt and the Goulds disagreed over the publication of her second memoir, This I Remember. The Goulds felt the story lacked drama (Bruce Gould told her it read “as though you were composing it on a bicycle while pedaling your way to a fire”). They wanted her to spend three months working with a collaborator on the manuscript. Fearing that such a process would yield a book that would “no longer be mine,” Roosevelt, with the advice of her son and agent, Elliott, refused.
Since Roosevelt had never had a formal contract with the Journal, Elliott quickly took the manuscript to the magazine’s arch competitor, McCall’s. Otis Wiese, McCall’s editor-in-chief, bought the memoir without reading it and also took “If You Ask Me,” giving Roosevelt a five-year contract that would pay her $3,000 per column. McCall’s also assumed responsibility for the column’s mail. Both the memoir and “If You Ask Me” began running in the June 1949 issue. Roosevelt would remain with McCall’s until her death in November 1962. McCall’s posthumously published a “Christmas Sampler” consisting of Roosevelt's favorite holiday traditions, and an article entitled “I Remember Hyde Park.”
How “If You Ask Me” Was Written
The editors of Ladies’ Home Journal and McCall’s followed similar procedures in creating the columns. Working several months in advance, staff members chose the questions from signed queries sent to their respective magazines. (Although “If You Ask Me” was targeted to a middle class female audience, men and young people wrote in as well). The staff members grouped related questions together and sometimes rewrote them before sending them to Eleanor Roosevelt' Journal and McCall’s staff often sent more questions than could be used in any single month’s column. Roosevelt answered the questions and returned her copy. The resulting inventory of questions and answers created a nucleus which the editors used as the basis for upcoming columns. Staff members edited Roosevelt's text adding or deleting sentences, inserting phrases, or choosing different words. They also selected the questions and answers that would ultimately be published each month.
Particularly during her tenure as First Lady, Roosevelt would sometimes send specific questions on government policy to the relevant department or agency to be researched and then incorporate the information and sometimes the exact wording in her reply. Occasionally the editors of both publications would ask that certain timely questions be included. For example, when Collier’s magazine published the memoirs of one of FDR’s political associates, Jim Farley, in 1947, the Ladies’ Home Journal received letters asking Eleanor Roosevelt to comment in her column on Farley’s assertion that she had told him that FDR found it difficult to relax with his social inferiors. On another occasion, the American Red Cross asked the Journal to insert an already written question and answer about the organization’s need for social workers into the column.
The size of the final column varied. Many of the early Ladies’ Home Journal columns were more than a page long and contained up to 19 questions. The McCall’s version routinely consisted of eight to ten questions and answers. All the columns included a cartoon or a photograph and an address to which readers could send questions. The Journal columns also included a disclaimer that Roosevelt's opinions were her own and not necessarily those of the editors. During her tenure as First Lady, the disclaimer also noted that Roosevelt's opinions were not necessarily those of the Roosevelt Administration either. McCall’s only began running a disclaimer after former Republican congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce began writing a column for the magazine in November 1960.
Readers’ questions varied over the years. When the column first appeared in 1941, many questions dealt with the coming of World War II. In this period, Roosevelt functioned almost as a government ombudsman, providing information about the draft, rationing, military leave, allotments and dispelling rumors. Once she left the White House in the spring of 1945, the questions became more general. Many were political queries about the Roosevelt administration and later the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. Many readers asked about the United Nations, the Cold War, racial discrimination in the United States, the merits of various politicians and the need for bomb shelters. In 1953 at the height of the McCarthy era, Roosevelt devoted an entire column to questions about communism and civil liberties. Some questions, particularly those relating to her faith and her views on religion in general, she answered multiple times over the twenty-one-year life of the column.
Other questions were personal. Readers wanted to know how often Roosevelt shopped for food, how much she spent on clothes and how she kept her temper. Some readers asked for advice regarding social situations, such as entertaining at home, dating, or how to get along with relatives. She even answered a question about why she didn’t answer a reader’s questions.
Although she responded to many personal questions, Roosevelt always retained the right to refuse a question she deemed too intrusive. For example, in 1951 she told the McCall’s editors she did “not care” to answer a question which asked which of her five children had the most “normal” life. When a reader wanted to know what Franklin Roosevelt said when he proposed to her, Eleanor replied, “That is a question I do not think I have any obligation to answer.” Some questions, such as which of the armed services sustained the most fatalities during World War II, she could not answer because the information was classified.
The length of Roosevelt’s responses varied depending on the query. A question about her sons’ presumed preferential ability to get military leave to see her during World War II yielded a six-paragraph answer. When one reader asked if it was true that FDR served a group of new congressmen beer in the White House, she simply replied, “Yes.” Her answers occasionally revealed her sense of humor. Asked about the “increasing tendency of novelists to use so ‘many four-letter words’ not spoken in polite society,” she replied, “I did not know there were any words left that were not spoken in polite society.”
The 246 columns that comprise “If You Ask Me” reflect the interests and concerns of Ladies’ Home Journal and McCall’s readers from the beginning of World War II through the early years of the Cold War. For Roosevelt, the column served as a vehicle to gauge public opinion and advocate for the ideas and issues she espoused. “If You Ask Me” allowed Roosevelt to connect with her readers, allay their concerns, stimulate their interest and prod their consciences. No question genuinely posed was too trivial or too awkward to answer as long as it kept the conversation going.
Sources: Maurine H. Beasley, Holly C. Shulman, and Henry R. Beasley, Eds. The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001); Mary Ellen Zuckerman, A History of Popular Women’s Magazines in the United States, 1792-1995 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998); Maurine Beasley, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Media: A Public Quest for Self-Fulfillment (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987); Bruce Gould and Beatrice Blackmar Gould, American Story: Memories and Reflections of Bruce Gould and Beatrice Blackmar Gould (New York: Harper & Row, 1968); Eleanor Roosevelt, If You Ask Me (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., Inc., 1946); John A. Edens, Eleanor Roosevelt: A Comprehensive Bibliography (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994); Eleanor Roosevelt to Charl Ormond Williams, 21 June 1949, AERP, FDRL; Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor: The Years Alone (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1972); IYAM, June 1949, McCall’s; Herbert R. Mayes, The Magazine Maze: A Prejudiced Perspective (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980); Laura Lou Brookman, 11 November 1946, AERP, FDRL; Barbara Lawrence to Malvina Thompson, 25 January 1951, AERP, FDRL; IYAM, April 1957, McCall’s; IYAM, August 1945 and August 1946, LHJ; Laura Lou Brookman to ER, 12 September 1946, AERP, FDRL; Bruce Gould to ER, 28 March 1945, AERP, FDRL; Questions and Answers, Ladies’ Home Journal, January 1948, AERP, FDRL; IYAM, January 1948, LHJ; If You Ask Me, October 1953, AERP, FDRL; IYAM, October 1953, McCall’s; Malvina Thompson to Walter G. Campbell, 7 February 1945, P.B. Dunbar to Malvina Thompson, 14 February 1945, AERP, FDRL; IYAM, June 1945, LHJ; Bruce Gould to ER, 27 June 1947, AERP, FDRL; IYAM, September 1947, LHJ; Laura Lou Brookman to ER, 31 July 1945, AERP, FDRL; IYAM, October 1945, LHJ; IYAM, November 1960, McCall’s; IYAM, July and October 1943, LHJ; IYAM, July 1953, McCall’s; IYAM, March 1959, McCall’s; IYAM, January 1955, McCall’s; IYAM, May 1943, LHJ; IYAM, January 1960, McCall’s; IYAM, November 1955, McCall’s; Ladies’ Home Journal Questions and Answers, September 1947, AERP, FDRL; IYAM, September 1949, McCall’s; IYAM, August 1945, LHJ; If You Ask Me, February 1951 manuscript, AERP, FDRL; Questions and Answers, Ladies’ Home Journal, March and April 1946, AERP, FDRL; IYAM, July 1944, LHJ; Questions for Mrs. Roosevelt for June Issues, 28 March 1945, AERP, FDRL; Questions and Answers, Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1945, AERP, FDRL; IYAM, July 1943, LHJ; IYAM, June 1943, LHJ.