Despite her being born forty-five years before Jacqueline Kennedy, there is a similar pattern in the story of Eleanor Roosevelt‘s Irish immigrant heritage. It illustrates less the shame of humble origin than how the power of incredible wealth can lead people to override social dictum, even racial bigotry, on the condition that certain behavior is nonetheless accommodated. Unlike Jacqueline Kennedy’s Irish Catholic heritage, that of Eleanor Roosevelt was simply not mentioned or acknowledged when her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt first ran for President in 1932.
Even before 1901, when her father’s brother, her uncle Theodore Roosevelt, become President of the United States, Eleanor’s paternal family was familiar to many Americans, especially in New York where their philanthropy was legendary. Her Roosevelt ancestors had been among the earliest of Dutch immigrant families to prosper in what began as the New Amsterdam colony (it was several generations back that she shared any ancestors with the man she married with the same surname, Franklin D. Roosevelt).
When “Uncle Ted” became president, there was also public interest and media attention focused on his mother (Eleanor’s paternal grandmother) and her southern, slave-holding family, the Bullocks of Georgia.
By the time F.D.R. ran for President in 1932, however, it wasn’t her father’s Roosevelt family that the media focused on intently.
Instead, it was her maternal family, namely her mother’s mother, Mary Hall.
Mary Hall was a stern woman who partially raised Eleanor after the girl’s mother died early and her father died a dissipated life, soon after.
As an orphan the little girl split her time between her father’s siblings and formidable Mrs. Hall and her eccentric unmarried adult children (Eleanor’s uncle and aunts) who continued to live with her in the family mansion at Tivoli, in the Hudson River Valley.
None of the difficulties Eleanor faced in that household mattered much to those interested in genealogy, however; it was simply the fact that Mrs. Roosevelt’s grandmother was the great-granddaughter of Founding Father, justice Robert Livingston, who had famously sworn-in George Washington as the first President.
Although the view and setting of the Hall house in Tivoli was magnificent, young Eleanor Roosevelt’s memories of it are dark and grim. It was not just her grandmother’s strict rules which later gave the First Lady sad association with the place.
It seemed to her to be haunted by her memory of her mother, the beautiful socialite Anna Hall Roosevelt. A notoriously shallow and vain woman, she was forever marked in her daughter’s memory for telling her she was as ugly as an old lady. It was her mother who nicknamed her “Granny.”
Eleanor Roosevelt parsed her words, but was always honest about her childhood and there was an unusually high level of interest in presidential family genealogy during the long, one dozen years FDR was president.
That makes it all the more astonishing that not one journalist looked into the one grandparent of Mrs. Roosevelt’s that remained a mystery, the father of her mother, a man named Valentine Gill Hall, Jr.
Nor did the Roosevelt campaign and then, later, the Roosevelt White House release any information about him or clarify anything of his identity. It may be understandable, given the incidents of the 1928 election, four years earlier.
In that race, the Democratic Presidential candidate, New York Governor Al Smith, a Roosevelt friend and mentor, had been defeated in part, on the most virulent anti-Catholic smear campaign ever waged in American political history. Franklin D. Roosevelt even placed the name of Smith in nomination for the presidency, an adviser telling Smith he was a “Bowery mick,” and Roosevelt a “Protestant patrician,” a fact which would “take some of the curse off you.” Illustrated here are just two cartoons depicting the Irish Catholic Smith as being secretly beholden to the Pope in Rome and American cardinals.
For a wealthy family whose members had been photographed or had their portraits done several times during their lives, it is curious that not one image is extant of Eleanor Roosevelt’s great-grandparents who made the real family fortune, let alone her grandfather, a playboy who never had to work. A portrait of her grandfather Roosevelt, in contrast, hung proudly in the F.D.R. White House and the First Lady posed for her formal photograph in front of it.
The reasons are unknown, but it does not seem coincidental that one of the four grandparents of this old-school Hudson River Valley aristocrat of a First Lady with the famous Dutch name and British-American Founding Father in her family tree, was immigrant Irish Catholic.
Some sources claim that Valentine Hall, Jr. (1834-1880) was born in Ireland and brought to the U.S. as a child by his parents, but it is established that those parents, Valentine Gill Hall, Sr. (born 1797) and Susan Tonnelle (b. 1812) were Irish immigrants who settled in Brooklyn.
Yet so little documentation about Eleanor Roosevelt’s Irish Catholic grandfather remains that even the FDR President Library spells his mother’s maiden name as Tonrele, while another reliable source refers to it as Tannele and most references claim it was Tonnele.
All that seems to remain about her grandfather are two newspaper notices, one being his obituary.
Regarding Eleanor Roosevelt’s immigrant great-grandparents Valentine Hall, Sr. and Susan Tonnelle, the scant evidence includes mention of them in a legal clarification of property owned by her late father John Tonnelle (who died in 1865), They also owned considerable real estate in Northern New Jersey, and Tonnelle Avenue remains named the same today, a curious legacy of the mysterious family.
The name Tonnelle suggests French origin, but mention of another family member in the real estate matter by the name of “Longnotto,” or its derivation “Longinotto” is Italian in origin. Could the Tonnelle family have started out as the Tonnelli family, making Eleanor Roosevelt’s great-grandmother Italian?
It is known that Valentine Hall, Sr. went into business with his father-in-law to create one of the most successful mid-19th century mercantile trade houses in New York, Tonnelle & Hall. He then further amassed a fortune with vast real estate holdings in New York City.
The money was so great that it led Mary Livingston Ludlow (Eleanor’s grandmother) to marry outside of the closed Anglo-Saxon and Dutch society of old Hudson River Valley families – most of whom had Irish Catholics working for them as domestic servants.
Once she became Mrs. Hall, however, Mary dominated the household, including her daughter Anna Hall (who married Elliot Roosevelt) and granddaughter Eleanor, whom “Grandma Hall” raised for a time after Anna Roosevelt died.
Eleanor’s Irish grandfather died four years before she was born and he had no known influence on her personal identity. It was Grandmother Hall’s distinguished Livington ancestors who were emphasized in the family lore.
In fact, it was not until after Franklin Roosevelt had won his second term as President in 1936 (which at the time all presumed would be his last term), that any details emerged about the immigrant Halls. It was provided by the First Lady herself, written in the first of her three-volume autobiography, This is My Story (1937).
As she told it, when her grandfather needed more money to finish building his mansion in Tivoli, he approached his mother. She went to a wardrobe and rummaged around, returning with “a few thousand dollars” in cash. Mrs. Roosevelt attributed it to the woman’s immigrant story, “Because in Ireland it would be perfectly normal to keep your belongs in whatever was the most secret place in your little house. You would not deposit them in a bank, and this was what…my great-grandmother evidently had carried into the new world and proceeded to do.”
She added that since her own grandfather Hall and his brother “never added to the fortune but both of them seemed well provided for, I think, it is safe to say that the original immigrant great-grandfather must have made a considerable fortune.”
When once confronted by a reporter with the latest exploit of one of her teenage sons, Eleanor Roosevelt simply sighed and smiled, responding, “Oh, dear. Well, families have their own unique, often inexplicable course of nature.”
Outside of Mrs. Roosevelt’s honest little anecdote, all traces of her Irish (and Italian?) ancestors seems to have been obliterated.
- Keep Grandma Upstairs: Jackie Kennedy’s Family Secrets & The Lie Her Mother Told (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Michelle Obama’s Slave Ancestry, Ann Romney’s Atheist Immigrant Father & Presidential Identity Politics (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Eleanor Roosevelt (time.com)
- Blanche Weisen Cook on Eleanor Roosevelt (bookhampton.typepad.com)
- Campobello: FDR’s “beloved island” (cbsnews.com)
- Newstalgia Reference Room – Eleanor Roosevelt Addresses The 1956 Democratic Convention. (crooksandliars.com)