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Jane VanBoskirk plays lauded First Lady on March 12

This week, the death of former First Lady Nancy Reagan reminded the nation that sometimes the spouses of presidents can become household names to the same degree as the chief executives to whom they’re married.

Such is the story of Eleanor Roosevelt, President Franklin Roosevelt’s fifth cousin and wife, who bore him seven children, endured his straying, promoted his New Deal policies and went on after his death to become a key figure in international politics.

Among her many achievements was overseeing the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and serving as John F. Kennedy's first chairwoman of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.

Long before former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton became a U.S. senator and then ran for president, Roosevelt was a popular although controversial First Lady courted by the politicians of her day who wanted her to run for high office, a path she declined, notes actor Jane VanBoskirk.

"She really did not think of herself in that way," VanBoskirk says. "She was much more a behind-the-scenes type of person."

VanBoskirk will perform “Eleanor Roosevelt: Across a Barrier of Fear” at 7:15 p.m. Saturday, March 12, in Gresham Memorial Chapel and Event Center, 257 S.E. Roberts Ave. The show is sponsored by the Gresham Center for the Arts Foundation.

Doors open at 6 p.m. for a Cheryl’s on 12th canapé buffet, music and silent auction. Tickets are $25, and can be purchased at

Solo act

VanBoskirk specializes in one-woman shows and has portrayed many different female characters over the decades, from Oregon pioneers to union activists. A co-founder of the Oregon Repertory Theater, Van Boskirk says one-woman shows allow her to connect with an audience in a way doing a show with a full cast does not. She adds that the Roosevelt show includes a question-and-answer period with the audicence.

"What Eleanor is doing in my play is talking to her audience about her life," Van Boskirk says. "Instead of having the other actors to bounce off of, I have the audience to bounce off of."


“For all the wealth she had, she had kind of a shabby childhood,” VanBoskirk says of Roosevelt, born in 1884. Roosevelt's mother called her child “homely” and "granny," although her alcoholic father “adored her,” VanBoskirk says, adding Eleanor was often fitted in “the hand-me-downs of hand-me-downs” and felt somewhat unloved as a child.

Her parents both died before she turned 11, and Roosevelt was then raised by her maternal grandmother, and the child’s extended family sent her to a finishing school near London. Despite her trials, Roosevelt was not prone to self-pity, Von Boskirk says.

“With Eleanor, I think it’s more of the ‘buck-up’ type of person we’re dealing with,” she says, noting that’s a quality that served her well through her marriage to a powerful man who would lead the nation through the Great Depression as well as the Second World War. Her marriage to FDR may have evolved to one of convenience rather than romance over the years, but the chief executive never lost respect for his wife's intellect, VanBoskirk says.

"I think he viewed her as a valued confidant," VanBoskirk says. "He may not always have did what she wanted, but he listened to her."

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