'Grandmere' Is Julianna Roosevelt's Lifelong Inspiration—and Challenge

updated 11/16/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/16/1981 01:00AM

Her famous last name was a weighty burden to Julianna Roosevelt through most of her 29 years. "I wanted to be like everyone else," she says. "I hated the specialness, the richness, the exclusiveness that is associated with it. It was embarrassing." But five years ago, this shy and sensitive great-granddaughter of the 32nd U.S. President and Eleanor Roosevelt finally came to terms with her pedigree. She began working as an educational therapist helping youngsters with learning disabilities at two Los Angeles-area clinics. At last she felt that she was fulfilling the sense of social responsibility that was a hallmark of her "Grandmère," as she grew up calling Eleanor Roosevelt.

One oddity is that Julianna would not have had the Roosevelt name were it not for some complicated developments in her family genealogy. Her father, Curtis Dall, was the son of FDR's only daughter, Anna. After his parents divorced, Curtis dropped the surname Dall and went by his middle name, Roosevelt (he is now an administrator in the United Nations Secretariat). Thus Julianna grew up with the name.

Her parents also divorced, when Julianna was 2. Her mother, Robin, remarried (writer Marion Hargrove) and settled in California. Julianna had a troubled childhood largely because of her extreme shyness, which may have been caused by a perception impairment. "It wasn't as severe as dyslexia," she explains. "It was an example of what can happen because of anxiety. I'd try to spell a word and couldn't, so I'd pretend to get a bloody nose. Not until I myself began teaching did my anxiety leave. Then I could spell."

There was never anything wrong with her ability to read. Julianna earned a history degree from Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles and a master's degree in special education from Boston University, then applied for a job at the privately operated Westwood Center for Educational Therapy. "I ended up with more than a job," she says. Though wary of the altar as a result of a previous marriage that failed after only nine months, Julianna last year married Irving Bass, 43, the director of the Westwood Center. "We have the same values and commitments to society," she says. "It's enriching for us to work together."

In addition, Julianna devotes part of her working days to the Southern California Educational Center, a public clinic. "The combination of the two jobs makes my life terrific," she enthuses. "Many of the kids I see don't necessarily have learning disabilities. They need remedial work because they went to crummy inner-city-schools. It's incredible to see the potential they have, though they can't do well in standard IQ tests. They come to tutoring because they want to learn."

Some of the new confidence she now radiates, Julianna acknowledges, stems from a soul-searching visit she made a year ago to the Roosevelt family home at Hyde Park, N.Y. Some 60 descendants attended what was the second gathering of the clan in the 18 years since Eleanor Roosevelt's death. "The reunion made me think a lot about Grandmère," she says. "She wasn't remote or forbidding. She had planned so far ahead that I was still getting Christmas and birthday presents from her three years after she died. I did want to be someone like her when I grew up. She was a powerful image for me."

As for herself, Julianna now answers to the Roosevelt name proudly and uses it professionally. Yes, she concedes, "I still feel some special responsibilities, but it gives me an entrée, and I want to live up to it."

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