Gerald Koplan author of Etta

As she stood in the freezing foyer of the townhouse at 11 West 37th Street, Etta was less than sure she had arrived at the correct address. Could this gloomy cave really be home to the niece of the President of the United States?

Looking into the library, she could see that tthe furnishings were dark and worn, their cheap lace doilies soiled, the room's carpets stained and threadbare. The deep green velvet draperies covered far more of the windows than they should have on such a bright winter's day and the marble of the foyer floor, which would have been the pride of any such house, was softly cracked at its corners. Etta had difficulty imagining that such a dreary place could actually contain the living ray of light she had encountered in the settlement house or shelter any member of one of the country's oldest and most respected families.

Eleanor Roosevelt emerged from a side door into the foyer and held out both her hands.

"Oh, Mrs. Place," she said, beaming that crooked grin, "I'm so glad you've accepted my invitation to luncheon. I hope it wasn't too sudden."

"The pleasure is mine, Miss Roosevelt, " Etta replied. "I have so looked forward to this and it would have suited me to the ground had it been sooner still."

"I suppose neither of us is all that keen at the thought of eating yet another meal alone. Please, come this way."

Eleanor draped her arm through Etta's and led her through a small warren of narrow rooms and into the kitchen. There, in the far corner, close to a cheerful, blazing hearth, was the servant's table, elegantly set for two, with a nearby sideboard neatly prepared for tea. A young maid stood next to the huge, old cookstove.

"As you come from the West, Mrs. Place, I took the liberty of supposing that a certain lack of formality would not altogether offend you. And quite truthfully, I had to make a choice between whatever elegance the dining room might provide and your personal comfort. As you have no doubt already realized, this old barn is as cold as an Alaskan Christmas, as my father used to say...and I thought that you might enjoy our meal more if you did not have to shiver through it."

Etta's grin ignited Eleanor's own. "Who doesn't love the kitchen?" she said. "When I was a little girl, there was no place I would rather take my meals and that continues to this very day. My father, God rest him, often joined me there, and we ate and talked before a warm fireplace very like this one. Oh no, Miss Roosevelt. Your charming kitchen has put me right back in Chestnut Hill and I daresay, given me a wonderful appetite."

Eleanor politely dismissed the maid. She served the lunch herself, sweeping through the kitchen with the grace and aplomb of the finest French waiter. Etta couldn't help but think of the plentiful tips such skills would have earned her in a Harvey House.

"Will your aunt be joining us?" Etta asked.

Eleanor sighed. "I am afraid my aunt has decamped for the country with my grandmother. She has had a frightful time of it of late, as one of her beaux has...once again...flitted off for parts unknown."

"You are alone here then?

"Quite alone." Eleanor deposited half a steaming squab and a helping of rice onto Etta's plate and sitting down, turned to her guest.

"I hope you will not think I am prying Mrs. Place, but from what you have told me I believe that my situation is similar to yours, in that I suspect we are both orphans.

"Yes," Etta said. "My mother died giving me life and my father...well, let us just say that he died far too young."

"I can see that we already have much in common. My mother is gone these ten years and my father...well, let us also say that he was young as well."

"But who chaperones you," asked Etta. "Are you really here by yourself in New York at such a young age? After all, I have done a little detective work on you...and such a prominent clan as the Roosevelts must be concerned about the possibilty of one of their lambs going astray."

Eleanor's laughter was like the jangle of a silver chain. "Well, truth be told, Mrs. Place, the Roosevelt clan doesn't bother too much about me. My Uncle Theodore's wife doesn't invite me as she is afraid that our portion of the family is eugenically predisposed to all manner of unpleasantness. Drunkeness, mostly. She would rather that my presence not infect my cousin, Alice, who is my peer in age and, if I may say so, very little else, being both vivacious and beautiful. The rest of the family seems to have had quite enough of me, as I have been a serial guest in most of their homes since the age of fourteen. Oh, no, Mrs. Place. Believe me when I say that it is far preferable for me to have the freedom of the orphan than the pity of the poor relation."

Etta placed her hand over Eleanor's. She thought then of all the undeserved benefit she had received merely because of the way she looked. How teachers had endowed her with wisdom and morality she did not posess; how men would court and compliment, all the while ignorant if she had either heart or brain.

And then she imagined what the world was like for this extraordinary creature. Even her own family had failed to discover her courage and generosity of spirit. And she could only imagine the cruel indifference of the men whom her circle would consider "suitable." Worst of all, she had taken these messages deeply to heart, where daily they became a hundred small arrows, each taking its turn at wounding her.

"Well then," Etta said, "I am a respectable married woman. If you will allow it, I shall be your chaperone and accompany you on all your many interesting journeys. And before you know it, your settlement girls will enjoy a supporting wage and you and I will sign the ballots together to elect a woman president!"

The two laughed heartily. As Eleanor poured tea, Etta cheerfully lied about her life. About her Harry's cattle interests, about the ranch they were building in Wyoming. But even in the interest of self-protection she could not manage to disguise her beginnings in Philadelphia or anything relating to her father save his name which she now conjured as Mr. G. W. Cassidy. Somehow, Etta sensed that if this friendship were to grow there must be at least some common ground untainted by her shield of untruths. So she would cling to the one truth that was unassailable. The tale of two orphans, young and virtually alone, their mothers dead, their fathers destroyed by the same demon.

By the time four o'clock came, Etta and Eleanor had both laughed and cried. They lingered into four-thirty and then five o'clock before Etta insisted that she must go. Eleanor reluctantly led Etta to the big hall cupboard, helped her into her coat and then spun her gently around. Eleanor took Etta's hands in hers.

"Mrs. Place, I cannot tell you how enjoyable this afternoon has been for me. I hope that you will come and see me again. That is, if you can stand the abject worship of a little sister."

"And would my little sister refer to me by my married name? From now on I must be Etta for you, and only Etta."

"And I, Eleanor to you...or even..."

Eleanor's face darkened and then the huge smile spread shyly across it.

"Yes?" said Etta. "Come now. No secrets between sisters."

Eleanor paused and cast down her eyes in embarrassment. "In his letters, Father used to address me as his 'Little Nell.' He was the only one who ever called me that. No one else has ever even known it was his name for me. I loved him more than anyone else in my life. If someone would call me that again it would be of great comfort to me"

Etta enfolded her companion in her arms and held her, brief and tight.

"I shall be honored," Etta whispered."I shall be your sister and your friend. And you shall always be Little Nell to me."

Eleanor called for her aunt's carriage. As it rolled up to the curb, its canvas top battened down against the wind, Eleanor again took Etta's hand.

"George will take you back to your hotel. And anytime you wish to see me, you need only send word and he shall be there quick as Mercury."

With that, Etta was down the front steps and into the carriage. As she waved from the window and looked back down 37th Street, she could see her new friend raise her arm only once and then with a gesture graceful as a swan, bring her hand lightly to her throat.