The View from Val-Kill

Long before walking in Eleanor Roosevelt’s scholarly footsteps in Waltham, a Brandeis professor crossed paths with our most celebrated first lady in the New York countryside.

Val-Kill cottage, the country home of the Roosevelts in New York’s Hudson Valley.
Val-Kill cottage, the country home of the Roosevelts in New York’s Hudson Valley.

When I think of Nikita Khrushchev’s August 1959 arrival at Val-Kill, the country home of the Roosevelts in New York’s Hudson Valley, I think of borscht: that strange, red, beet soup served cold with a dollop of sour cream. My father made it for the first time for Khrushchev’s visit. The perfect high-stakes recipe for cold soup to accompany high-stakes discussions of the Cold War.

It was an exciting, fast-paced, kind of scary day. The preparations were elaborate and intense behind the scenes. I was by my father’s side as he briefed Secret Service agents and state troopers at one moment and instructed kitchen staff and put finishing touches on the borscht the next.

It was a paparazzi occasion, and we were all a little surprised when Eleanor Roosevelt asked to have me in the short receiving line with her. I was nervous and awkward as I was escorted to the front line; even at age 10, I had a sense this was more than a simple request. The press captured the event as photographers and filmmakers seized the moment to show Khrushchev’s “Pause for Affection.” The story was subsequently published in the book “Images of Peace: A Television Chronicle of a Turning Point in History.”

Unfortunately, the borscht moment didn’t go nearly as well. Time was short. The delegation made a quick pass through the kitchen and dining room, picked up a dinner roll, and moved out to the limos. Eleanor Roosevelt — ER — was furious about the hasty visit, and we all ate borscht for weeks.

Only later did I understand the gigantic impact of this visit. Indeed, in Khrushchev’s final statement made on American soil, only days after the Val-Kill visit, he said, “We were here at the kind invitation of President Eisenhower. We visited various cities in your country from the Atlantic to the Pacific. We had many pleasant meetings and talks with Americans, with the business people of America, with political and public men. … We are convinced that the American people also desire peace. … Let us join efforts to consolidate peace and to improve understanding between all the nations of the world.”

A Pioneering Place        

Being an eyewitness to history was the byproduct of my growing up at Val-Kill, whose name is Dutch for “valley stream.” Reflecting a spirit of freedom, curiosity and determination, and tucked away from the public eye, Val-Kill was the place Eleanor Roosevelt held closest to her heart. There, Eleanor Roosevelt’s intimate circle could play, work and gather friends and colleagues, approaching these activities with what became her distinctive informal style of diplomacy.

My family was part of the landscape there — the hidden infrastructure that kept the place going, kept Eleanor Roosevelt going. Now when I cross the old plank bridge to Val-Kill Cottage and walk on the grounds, as I did last summer, I reclaim two decades of social study and childhood memories. I hear the sounds of many voices and see the colorful, diverse images of people at work and play around the landscape. I remember Eleanor Roosevelt, her friends, family, adversaries, colleagues, and “the help” at Val-Kill. We were her “Kitchen Cabinet.”

Am I a Roosevelt? No. I am a Curnan, “the littlest Curnan,” as Eleanor Roosevelt was fond of saying when she complimented me on my “good seat in the saddle,” added me to her Christmas list, read to me on the porch, or invited me to lunch.

My father, Charlie Curnan, started the Curnan-Roosevelt connection in 1931 when, as he used to say, he “was just a young kid out to make a living.” Serving three generations of Roosevelts, my father made a living for himself and a life for all of us. He worked his way up from tending the gardens to superintending the Val-Kill estate. Early in my life, he purchased his own corner of the Val-Kill property for his family. Until that point, our growing family lived in and repaired farmhouses on the Roosevelt property, which spanned six miles from the Hudson River to FDR’s famous “top cottage.”

It was there I learned to swim, shoot, ride, fish, play tennis and play the piano. And it was there I learned about social class, social kindness, diversity, democracy, politics and people — rich and poor. Early on, I learned about racism and civil rights, homophobia, Jews and anti-Semitism, communism and socialism; I knew what it meant to be called Democrat, Republican or Independent; I met accomplished and adventurous women called lesbians, and I learned about the U.N. human rights agenda.

I also learned to work hard, play hard and be “useful,” and to craft an agenda not just for meetings but also for lunch and dinner gatherings. To this day, I never go to, or host, a dinner party (or even lunch) without at least three topics in my back pocket! Mrs. Roosevelt taught me that simplicity is elegance, casual is comfortable, and conversation is important work. Simply by observing life around me, I learned that social change is possible when you know who you are; when you act on what you know or think — even at personal cost; and when you are clear with others about what you are doing.

 I was 13 years old the summer Eleanor Roosevelt
 hosted her last party at Val-Kill — a surprise party for my father. In the Stella K. Hershan book “A Woman of Quality,” my mother told the story: “The only one who was completely unaware of what was going on was Charlie. He even helped prepare the food for the party. And then, when he appeared, everybody started singing, ‘He’s a jolly good fellow!’ and Charlie sang right along with them and he kept looking around to see for whom all this celebrating was.”

A Worldview Shaped at Val-Kill

Despite my father’s words, “never forget where you came from,” I did occasionally forget as I was busy climbing the ivy wall or building a career and balancing work and family life. Now, as part of my life’s spiritual journey, I find myself at once discovering and remembering that special time and place. I was approaching 50 when, rather suddenly, I realized that by virtue of growing up at Val-Kill, I had been given a “mantle to do justice” and had a responsibility to share lessons from those times with my children, my extended family and others.

Ultimately, each of us is influenced early in life by other people — in my case, people like Charlie 
Curnan and Eleanor Roosevelt — who inform what we do, why we do what we do, and where. They shape what we come to know, think and believe. I was fortunate that my worldview and values were born and nurtured at Val-Kill. It was a dynamic place where values were caught as much as taught.

“Go to Brandeis.” These were the last words my father spoke to me from his deathbed more than 32 years ago, shortly after my mother died. I had no idea what he was talking about. I leaned closer and he whispered it again. Still it eluded me. I was two years out of Yale graduate school then and happily launching a career with a private foundation. I told myself it was the illness, the drugs — they eased his pain and created confusion. I put the words out of my mind and got on with my career. I had no knowledge of the Eleanor Roosevelt connection to Brandeis at this time.

But a few years later, in fall 1983, I found myself on the Brandeis campus for an interview with 
Stuart Altman, then the dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. The school was restructuring its policy and research centers, and our interests overlapped in the area of youth and community development. The interview was intriguing. But still, I was unsure why I would make this change when I was very happy where I was. I said as much, and we agreed to think about it more. I left the dean’s office to tour the campus and a most amazing thing happened.

As I approached the library, I saw grand posters of Eleanor Roosevelt hanging from lampposts and buildings. And I remembered — in a flash — my father’s words: “Go to Brandeis.” At that moment, I realized he knew exactly what he was saying.

He knew that Brandeis was (and is) about “knowledge advancing social justice,” and he knew that was a mission shared with Eleanor Roosevelt. Of course, he also knew it was at Val-Kill that women’s roles and relationships were reconceptualized in the early 20th century — a story at the heart of Val-Kill. He saw the era as a time of great excitement, social change, opportunity, and adventure for women; he saw how the social context shaped the friendships among women. He knew his daughter before she knew herself.

I entered the library and witnessed the start of Brandeis’ centennial birthday celebration for 
Eleanor Roosevelt. There were photos of her speaking at the university’s first commencement in 1952, and tapes and photos from “Prospects of Mankind,” the popular public television talk show she hosted with famous guests at Brandeis during the last three years of her life — she launched the first program the week of her 75th birthday! She assembled panel discussions with Brandeis professors and guests like Margaret Mead, Archibald MacLeish, Martin Luther King Jr., Alfred Knopf and others.

There were photos of Brandeis students and American studies professor Larry Fuchs at Val-Kill, too; one, taken on the picnic grounds, shows me as a toddler in the background.

A Spiritual Journey   

In writing about opportunity and justice, the great social thinker Hannah Arendt put it this way: “We are free and fated, fated and free.” As much as I subscribe to ER’s notion that our choices ultimately make our life, I have come to believe that there may be some magic as well — maybe even spiritual intervention. As I celebrate more than 27 years at Brandeis and reflect on choices I have made, the roles of personal history and serendipity, bromides like “things happen for a reason” and “there are no coincidences,” come to mind as popularized versions of Arendt’s deep philosophical thought. Serendipity is my favorite term. Coined by English writer Horace Walpole in 1754, it refers to heroes of a fairy tale who “wandered freely and were forever making discoveries by accidents and sagacity of things they were not in quest of.” That’s how I feel about how I ended up at Brandeis — it’s part of a spiritual journey.

Recently, I sat down with a small group of Brandeis students known as the Eleanor Roosevelt Fellows to learn how these students think about their connection to ER. They spoke in highly energized tones about their “spirit of service.” They identified with what they called ER’s “bridge-builder” qualities, shown in how she addressed controversial social issues of her time such as race, class, religion and gender. “There is a weight that comes with being a Roosevelt Fellow. It becomes an identity and is much to live up to,” one said. “Her life shows us what democracy means,” offered another.

When I asked how they thought the peer mentoring aspect of their work reflected Eleanor Roosevelt’s values and character, they were quick to talk about things like how important one-to-one relationships are in personal development and academic success; about how creating a caring community is the heart of the matter; and about being down to earth and approachable, the way Eleanor Roosevelt was.

They perceived that she was perhaps the most influential woman of the 20th century because she established personal bonds and relationships with people from all walks of life and all corners of the globe. This, plus a mission of social justice and concern for each citizen, defines the fellows’ agenda. They call it the “Brandeisian-Rooseveltonian Way.”

Susan P. Curnan is associate professor and director of the Center for Youth and Communities at the Heller School. In 2007, the National Park Service completed the construction of the Eleanor 
Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill on the footprint of the Curnan family homestead at the National Historic Site in Hyde Park, New York.