NYC Branch Team: Grace (“Jinx”) Roosevelt

Grace (“Jinx”) Roosevelt
Co-Founder of the NYC Chapter and Working Group Member

Born on Friday the 13th, Jinx Roosevelt prefers her nickname to her given name, but not because she thinks she’s unlucky. Spanning multiple roles as a teacher and professor, author and activist, wife and mother, she considers herself extremely lucky to have been granted the wide-ranging experiences life has offered her.

Her interest in the New Deal arrived late in life and by chance. Several years ago, she was browsing in the travel section of a local bookstore and came across a guidebook about Maine, where she and her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt III (“Frank”), spend their summers. As she leafed through the book, she discovered that the public library in Blue Hill, a town near the Roosevelts’ summer home, was built by the PWA. “How did I not know this?” she asked herself. “How could the wife of FDR III not know this!?”

That chance encounter with the New Deal triggered a cascade of events. She and Frank attended the Living New Deal’s launch of its NYC map at the Museum of the City of New York in 2017, and less than a year later, she teamed up with Peggy Crane to found LND’s New York City Chapter. The two women set out to rectify a longstanding wrong: the lack of signage identifying New Deal sites in the city. And they’ve continued to build the chapter ever since.

Born at the start of World War II in Montclair, New Jersey, Jinx grew up in West Norwalk, Connecticut. She was a timid girl with a tomboy streak, she says. But little by little, she became more diligent and, in today’s parlance, nerdy.

Before heading off to college, she spent a year in Paris, where she took that famous course at the Sorbonne, Cours de civilisation française. That intensive exposure to the language, history, and culture of France made a lifelong francophile out of her. Then, it was on to Smith College—and in her freshman year, she met, dated, and later married Frank Roosevelt. At the time, Frank was completing his senior year at Yale. “We’d travel back and forth between New Haven and Northampton on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle,” she says. “You’d never expect this now, but back then Frank wore a black leather jacket.”

In 1961, Frank was commissioned as a naval officer and stationed on a minesweeper in Sasebo, Japan. The newlyweds then spent a year in that country, where they got to know a wonderful group of young Japanese women and men, some of whom remain close friends today.

The couple returned to the States and settled in New York City. Jinx proceeded to finish college at Barnard—no mean feat, given the births of their three children in rapid succession.

In addition to marriage and motherhood, Jinx’s adult journey took her through a series of passionate interests, from antiwar and civil rights activism to photography, graduate school, and a career as a college professor.

If you ever have the pleasure of listening to Jinx’s labyrinthine stories about her life, you become aware of a recurrent pattern, one that combines elements of chance with her characteristic openness, curiosity, and idealism.

Here’s just one example. In 1965, she attended a New Year’s Eve party at a ski lodge in Vermont. There, she met a Peruvian woman who told her about a course at Columbia University’s Teachers College on Rousseau, Marx, and Freud. Jinx was intrigued, and she decided to take the class. “I was fascinated by the overlap between political theory and education,” she says, and doubly fascinated by Rousseau.

Soon thereafter, she started graduate school at Teachers College, taking a couple of courses per semester. But in the early 1980s, the nuclear arms race between the US and the USSR became a compelling issue, so Jinx decided to take a break from her studies to engage with the antiwar movement.

One day, however, as she was combing through the card catalog in Columbia’s Butler Library, she came across a mention of Rousseau’s having written an unpublished fragment on “The State of War” and a critique of a 17th-century tract titled “Project for Perpetual Peace.” She returned to Teachers College to complete her doctorate and published a book called Reading Rousseau in the Nuclear Age, which still gets cited by a small readership, especially in Europe.

Jinx taught for 20 years at New York University in its General Studies program, offering classes in prose composition and a “great books” sequence called “The Individual and Society.” An interdisciplinary mix of political theory, history, and philosophy from the 17th through 20th centuries, the program offered plenty of opportunities for students to get to know Rousseau, Marx, and Freud.

And for the next 20 years, she taught at the Metropolitan College of New York (MCNY), a unique institution that helps students learn by blending theory and real-world practice through the lens of social justice. In 2015, she published a history of the college: Creating a College That Works.

Jinx is retired now, but like many who share that designation, she’s almost as busy as she used to be. These days, her extended family, MCNY’s Board of Trustees, and the NYC Chapter of the Living New Deal occupy most of her time.

She continues to work with her fellow LND chapter members on New Deal signage in the city. At present, she has set her sights on marking one special location in Riverside Park: the soon-to-be renovated Rotunda at 79th Street, “a stellar example of New Deal design and ingenuity.”

“The idea and the enduring legacy of public works, built by the federal government and workers on relief,” she says, “moves me deeply.”

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