How to give the right gifts, like Eleanor Roosevelt

How to give the right gifts, like Eleanor Roosevelt

By Carleton Varney

Special to the Daily News

Among her many notable characteristics, Eleanor Roosevelt was an around-the-year buyer of birthday and Christmas gifts, although she didn’t necessarily shop for any one person in particular.

The late first lady had in her home a cupboard divided by a panel of mahogany wood. One side was filled with gifts for women and the other with gifts for men, ready for any occasion.

Her son, Franklin Jr., once told me his mom was very conscious of giving just the right gift on family birthdays.

When I joined the staff of Dorothy Draper & Co., my mentor Dorothy Draper consulted with her friend, Mrs. Roosevelt, on the decoration of an apartment on East 53rd Street in New York City. I was with Dorothy when the former first lady discussed her likes and decorating preferences. I do recall Mrs. Roosevelt mentioning two things in particular: No. 1 was that she always added a touch or two of vanilla extract to her apple pies. No. 2 was that she enjoyed sharing her holidays with friends at Hyde Park and in the city.

Mrs. Roosevelt often gave picture frames to both male and female friends — some of silver, others of stone such as lapis or malachite. While the frames were not always filled with photographs, they were gifts happily accepted universally by men and women.

In her era, framed black-paper silhouettes were found in many homes. In fact, many a silhouette of Mrs. Roosevelt was cut by a master of the art. Some of us still collect these once-upon-a-time silhouettes.

As for me, I used a childhood silhouette of a young Carleton on the spine of my book Houses in my Heart. I also used a silhouette of Dorothy Draper on the spine of In the Pink.

Where are the silhouette master crafters of today? If any reader knows of one, do send me an email. I would be appreciative and will even gift you a copy of one of my decorating books.

When I was in grade school, students in my class created silhouettes of friends by shining a spotlight on the side of their faces, tracing the resulting shadow onto black craft paper. Parents or grandparents who would like a silhouette of their children or grandchildren might follow this simple technique. Walls decorated with silhouettes would be charming in a family room or master bedroom.

I remember that Mrs. Roosevelt’s gift closet contained handsome address books as well as guest books. I like the idea of giving a guest book, which over the years would be filled with names, dates and remarks to recall memorable meetings and joyful gatherings.

I can think of a few other home-furnishing items to consider if you’re stocking your own birthday-gift closet. Put on your list small cushions with fun sayings. Sherry Frankel’s Melangerie in the Via Amore off Worth Avenue always has a terrific selection.

Think also about lovely throws for the family room or bedroom. They come in many beautiful colors — navy blue, melon, raspberry, golden yellow, and yes, black and white.

Never wait for the last minute to begin collecting birthday gifts!


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