Just recently I watched the movie, Pride of the Yankees and was touched by the wonderful love story of baseball great Lou Gehrig and his wife Eleanor.
Lou and his wife were married for nine years. They met in Chicago. Eleanor was from a well to do family, She met Lou in Comiskey Park and married him after a long-distance courtship. They lived in New Rochelle and then later in Riverdale. They travelled a lot but their life was centred on Yankee Stadium where Lou teamed with Babe Ruth, Lefty Gomez, Tony Lazzeri, Bill Dickey and later Joe DiMaggio.
The Gehrigs’ lives were turned upside down when Lou was forced to retire in 1939 with the disease that later came to be known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease”. I remember the scene in the movie when Lou was in the locker room, untying his shoe laces and he toppled right over. Eleanor Gehrig later said that she never told her husband that he was suffering from a fatal illness. In the movie, he knew that it was fatal but he tried to hide the truth from his wife.
Eleanor cheered him up at home with gatherings, parties and impromptu performances. He died two years later at the young age of 37. Eleanor said that she never intended to play the role of a professional widow to a celebrity although for years, she and Mrs. Ruth were greeted as “the great ladies” of the Yankees.
In the movie, Pride of the Yankees, I saw the love that these two people shared for each other just jump off the screen. It was heartbreaking to see their happiness ripped away by a disease that claimed his life at such a young age. My favourite scene was when Lou gave Eleanor a bracelet, which was among the items, Mrs. Gehrig had lent to be used in the film, to add realism. And I liked how she kept a gigantic scrapbook of Lou.
I felt that Gary Cooper was the perfect choice to play Lou Gehrig and it seemed like Eleanor felt the same. Of Cooper, she remarked, “Gary studied every picture of Lou’s. He had every one of his mannerisms down to a science and he is so like my husband in the picture that there were times when I felt I couldn’t bear it.”
Eleanor felt that Teresa Wright was too young to play her. Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Arthur or another actress with more experience would have been preferable. Eleanor later said, “But now I know that no one could do better, or even as well as little Teresa. Of course she’s prettier and younger but then no woman could object to that, could they?” Of course, the movie was a success and grossed over $3 million and was one of the top ten films of 1942. It earned eleven Oscar nominations, including ones for Gary Cooper’s and Teresa Wright’s performances.
Eleanor sold war bonds during World War II, raising over $6 million by auctioning off Lou’s memorabilia. She joined the local Red Cross, chauffeuring the disabled for which she received Presidential recognition. She worked for the All American Football Conference as a secretary-treasurer and then was promoted to Vice President after she resigned due to the fact that she couldn’t even balance her own bank account.
Eleanor’s greatest achievement was her tireless efforts to promote ALS research. She partnered with the Muscular Dystrophy Association, testifying before Congress to fund research in various debilitating paralytic diseases. She eventually will most of her estate to the cause.
Sadly, Eleanor’s relationship with her in-laws never improved. In the past, she never felt comfortable in their home. They would converse in German which she didn’t understand. And as portrayed in the movie, Lou’s mother, Christina was frequently clashing with Eleanor. The elder Mrs. Gehrig’s relationship with her son was a bit overbearing, smothering. She was one of those mothers who wouldn’t have approved of any woman her son showed an interest in. Not surprisingly, she had broken up his previous relationships. I remember in the movie, how she reacted when Lou first brought Eleanor home. Eleanor quickly picked up on her coldness toward her. I resented her interference in their lives. She tried to impose her decorating tastes on Eleanor, even going as far as putting up her own wall paper and moving in a chest of drawers much like the one Lou had in his old room. Lou had to step in and make it clear to his mother that Eleanor was the mistress of their home, not her.
The Gehrigs never had children. Eleanor may have had trouble conceiving. They considered adoption but according to Lou, his mother, “wouldn’t have any of that. She said she didn’t want a grandson if it wasn’t a Gehrig.”
After Lou died, the relationship was forever marred when there was a dispute over the division of Lou’s estate. He had left his entire assets to his wife but he bequeathed the interest he got from stock investments and monthly payments from a $20,000 life insurance to his parents. His parents believed that Eleanor was withholding these payments from them and they sued her. The matter was privately settled but the discord between the two parties was never resolved.
Eleanor died on her eightieth birthday, leaving no survivors behind. Surprisingly, the turnout to her funeral was not as large as the few mourners gathered expected. Her body was cremated according to her wishes and her ashes placed with her husbands. According to George Steinbrenner, chief owner of the Yankees, Eleanor Gehrig was, “a great woman, and the Yankees have lost a dear friend.”
Notes to Women remembers this remarkable woman who loved her husband and stood by him and was a advocate for ALS, raising awareness and pushing for the funding of research.
I had the best of it. I would not have traded two minutes of my life with that man for 40 years with another.