Joan Nestler remembers not only her life during years before the Depression spread across America; she remembers the man who worked to help people through it—Franklin Roosevelt, and his wife, Eleanor.
Seated on a sofa in her snug, cheerful quarters in a senior apartment development in downtown Bangor, Joan, now 90, explained she was the daughter of George Carlin, the editor and publisher of United Features Syndicate, an enterprise that furnished regular comics, political columns and other features to newspapers throughout the country. “My father syndicated Mrs. Roosevelt’s daily column, ‘My Day,’ and they became friends, she said.
One day during the mid-1930s he returned from work to the family’s Long Island home and “told Mother that Mrs. Roosevelt had invited the family to come to the White House for a weekend. And my mother’s first reaction was excitement at the thought of going to the White House, then despair at the fact of taking four children to the White House.
“I was the oldest, and I was 14; my brothers were 12 and 10, and my sister was nine. I had a five-year-old brother, too, at home. So we (parents and four oldest children) went off and spent a weekend at the White House. That’s really where my memories of Franklin are, watching him there.
“To my mother’s horror, we had dinner with the Roosevelts every night. We sat at the end of the table with Mother watching every move we made. This was in the State Dining Room, with senators and members of the Supreme Court and ambassadors, and all kinds of important people coming for dinner. And here was my poor mother sitting with the four children, terrified that we would do something awful. We managed not to.”
She retains a special memory of the President. “He had a swimming pool at the White House. We swam there in the afternoons, and one afternoon he came down. We were told to go into the dressing room, that the President wanted to swim with us, but he didn’t want us to see him carried into the pool. So we went in and back out. We played ‘Keep-away’ with a ball, and it was fun.
The kids, she recalls, were a bit dumbstruck. “We were overwhelmed. Nobody else was there, just the two boys and me (my sister was taking a nap). We never expected to have the President come in, so we weren’t as exuberant as I think he had maybe hoped we would be. We were a little frightened, and a little shy.” The President, though, “was really fun,” she said.
A year or two later, the family was invited to Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt’s cottage near the Roosevelt mansion in Hyde Park, New York), where Mrs. Roosevelt hosted picnics all summer long.
“My brother was 13; we were the only two in the family who went that time,” Joan remembered of the first trip there.
“Val-kill has a little pond, and my brother told me that he’d take me out in a rowboat. All of these people were there; I remember the Morgenthaus were all there. There were important writers and people from all the different worlds that Mrs. Roosevelt connected with. We got out in the middle of the pond and he started pretending he was going to tip the boat; he rocked it back and forth. All of a sudden, we heard a whistle. And from all the woods surrounding the picnic area, came the Secret Service.
“There must have been 20 Secret Service people. And I have never been as mad at anybody as I was at him. They brought the boat back in and we had to get out of it while everybody was standing and watching. My mother’s worst fears had come to fruition,” she said, nevertheless smiling at the recollection. “Mrs. Roosevelt didn’t get mad at us, which was awfully nice of her… She was always very nice to us children. She wasn’t particularly interested in us, of course. She was entertaining important people, and we were sort of along, but she was always very nice.
“She was tall, and we were short then. I remember hearing her say to somebody, ‘Please sit on my right side. I’m deaf in my left ear, and I’ll be able to hear you better if you sit on my right.’ That interested me very much as a child—and even more now that I’ve lost the hearing in my left ear.”
The family happily returned to Val-kill several times in the years after that, she said.
At home, on Long Island, she said, her memories focused mainly on two kinds of people, those who were frightened of losing their jobs, and those who had, but who were helped by the Works Progress Administration programs that put them to work. And, like many her age, she recalls, there were those destitute men who came to the door, begging for food or selling mall items like sewing needles. The family always fed them, she said.
“One day when the banks had closed” Joan said, “Mother put us in the car and drove us down to the banks to see the people lined up outside. Most of them never got their money back. Mother pointed out particularly the old people standing there. She said all their money was gone; they won’t get it back. And we wondered what was going to happen to those people. It was a harrowing time.
Asked whether she receives Social Security now, the widowed mother of seven adult children said, “Oh, yes. Everybody who lives here does. Most of them would not be able to be here without it. Their own incomes would not be able to provide for them.”
Is it an important part of her income? “Absolutely. I don’t know what people would do without it. The people here can be so independent.”
Asked whether she had met Frances Perkins, Joan was emphatic. She had not, but…
“I think she was the most important woman,” she said. “And as an example for young women now she should get a great deal more publicity, because she is the kind of person they should be following. They should be aspiring to be the new Frances Perkins. Think about what she did: Social Security, child labor laws, workman’s compensation, the minimum wage, the 40-hour work week. This would be a totally different world if she had not lived. She changed the world!”