Eleanor Roosevelt on “What’s My Line” and other famous things

I stumbled across a reference to this while doing something else online and couldn’t resist watching. In October 1953 Eleanor Roosevelt appeared as a “mystery guest” on the stump-the-panel quiz show “What’s My Line?” This episode, posted in its entirety on YouTube, including ads for Remington electric shavers, was fun to see for a few reasons.

First, one of the panelists is Bennett Cerf, one of the founders of Random Hose and an author/speaker, as well. Plus, I discovered after reading the Wikipedia article about him, he was the founder of the Famous Writers School, which offered correspondence courses for aspiring writers supposedly taught by famous authors. The Famous Writers School was the subject of an equally famous 1970 exposé article in The Atlantic Monthly by Jessica Mitford (who is even more famous for her funeral-industry exposé book, The American Way of Death). (Further aside: There certainly is a lot of “famous” stuff going on here. It’s about to get worse 😄)

One additional interesting thing about Bennett Cerf is that he was briefly married to actress Sylvia Sidney, whom many will recognize from Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (a role for which she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress) but who is most famous to me as the lead in Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage, which is the 1936 film in which Hitchcock famously (infamously) let a bomb carried by a child explode on a London bus. In a famous set of interviews that (the also-famous) filmmaker François Truffaut conducted with Alfred Hitchcock (so famous that he really doesn’t even need to be called “famous), Hitchcock discusses why that explosion was such a bad decision:

I made a serious mistake in having the little boy carry the bomb. A character who unknowingly carries a bomb around as if it were an ordinary package is bound to work up great suspense in the audience. The boy was involved in a situation that got him too much sympathy from the audience, so that when the bomb exploded and he was killed, the public was resentful.

The way to handle it would have been for Homolka to kill the boy deliberately, but without showing that on the screen, and then for the wife to avenge her young brother by killing Homolka.

To which Truffaut says

Even that solution, I think, might have been resented by the audience. Making a child die in a picture is a rather ticklish matter; it comes close to an abuse of cinematic power.

And to which Hitchcock concedes

I agree with that; it was a grave error on my part.

Here’s a link to the Google Books version of that interview.

Bennett Cerf was born and raised in New York City, so I’m not sure how to account for his accent (or speech impediment, maybe?) that glides over “r” sounds to resemble “w”s in a manner reminiscent of Elmer Fudd. In trying to find more information about this style of pronunciation, I discovered that the “w” sound is sometimes called the “Winchester ‘r’,” a reference to one of Britain’s famous “public” (private) schools and the aristocratic way of speaking referred to as “Received Pronunciation” (as in “acceptable,” in the way that only acceptable people are “received” in society), which in turn was adopted by broadcasters as the most easily understood pronunciation and became better known as BBC English. In America, especially following the introduction of “talkies” and the employment of diction instructors to teach Hollywood actors how to speak, this resulted in the strange psuedo-aristocratic, fake-British Mid-Atlantic accent of 1930s and ’40s stars like Katharine Hepburn and Tyrone Power. Apparently it was also an accent strived for by America’s upper classes during that same era. This passage from Wikipedia’s article on the Mid-Atlantic accent describes this unnatural way of speaking as a dialect called “World English,” invented by speech teachers to sound upper crust:

World English was a speech pattern that very specifically did not derive from any regional dialect pattern in England or America, although it clearly bears some resemblance to the speech patterns that were spoken in a few areas of New England, and a very considerable resemblance … to the pattern in England which was becoming defined in the 1920s as “RP” or “Received Pronunciation.” World English, then, was a creation of speech teachers, and boldly labeled as a class-based accent: the speech of persons variously described as “educated,” “cultivated,” or “cultured”; the speech of persons who moved in rarified social or intellectual circles and of those who might aspire to do so.

Hmm, according to Wikipedia, Bennett Cerf’s mother was heiress to a tobacco-distribution fortune. Maybe that “r” pronunciation was a reflection of Cerf’s social class? In any case, I’ve seen Bennett Cerf’s name here and there my whole life, so it was fun to see him in person on “What’s My Line?”

So on to Eleanor Roosevelt!

She appears halfway through the show, at the 14:25 minute mark (right after the commercial break). I was curious to know why they kept talking about the United Nations, like wondering if this mystery guest would be found in the neighborhood of the UN. A quick Google search revealed that Eleanor Roosevelt was appointed to the first U.S. delegation to the UN and served from December 31, 1945 till December 31, 1952. Additionally, Roosevelt was unanimously elected chair of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, which she led from 1947-1951. It was under her leadership that the United Nations’ famous “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” was drafted and published.

I only ever knew of Eleanor Roosevelt as she was in her older age, looking very much as she does in her appearance on this show. So I was surprised to discover photos of her a few years ago as a young woman. Somehow I’d grown up thinking of her as someone who had never been youthful, probably because there were SO many photos and film segments depicting her in those later years when she was such a prominant public figure. But check it out: ER was a girl and young adult once, too!


From the National Archives via Wikipedia
From the National Archives via Wikipedia


About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
This entry was posted in History, Popular culture, Television and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Eleanor Roosevelt on “What’s My Line” and other famous things

  1. Rose says:

    Yes, I loved that show when I was a kid watching them guess what the mystery person did.
    Also, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Greendale, one of three U.S. Greenbelt Communities in the 1930’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cool to know about ER visiting Greendale in the 1930s! I love driving through that area and seeing all the old houses and how some have been modified over time while others look exactly the same as in old photographs.


  2. Sally Cissna says:

    Loved this article and the show “What’s My Line.” Now that was reality TV. Bennet Cerf was a commonly known name in our household, probably because of that show. I don’t remember discussing him in any other context, however, so it was nice to have the backstory. I also remember Dorothy Kilgallen and Arlene Francis. During the late 40s, Woodstock, IL had a summer playhouse in their Opera House. My dad was part of the cast of a number of shows with some of these almost-greats and greats. Arlene Francis, Kitty Carlisle, Paul Newman, Tom Bosley, Betsy Palmer, Geraldine Page, Shelley Berman, etc. Kitty Carlisle was on the show “To Tell the Truth.” Do you remember that one?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do remember “To Tell the Truth”! And Kitty Carlisle, too! What a great story about your dad! How fun it must have been for him to be in those shows!

      Your dad’s involvement in those shows reminds me of the plays that used to come to the Civic Center in Dayton when I was a kid. We would make the trip there to see those exact same shows, at least I’ll bet they were. I know we saw Tom Bosley in something. “Hello Dolly,” I think. And we saw “1776” with Joel Grey.” Did Tommy Tune do those types of plays, too? I think maybe we saw him in “Pippin.” Thanks for jogging my memory. Those were happy experiences!


  3. Bennett Cerf had a lucky life, as he stated in his autobio that I’m reading.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.