It’s time to meet the Eleanor Roosevelt you never knew.

Penguin Press
Sep 21, 2016 · 9 min read

The introduction to Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady by Susan Quinn

By the time Franklin Roosevelt was elected President in 1932, his wife Eleanor had succeeded in forging an independent life for herself — a life of teaching, writing, and political activism. Now she was about to become a First Lady, with all the duties that would entail. In the midst of the victory celebrations, Eleanor was filled with dread about her future.

Lorena Hickok, a top reporter assigned to cover the new First Lady for the Associated Press, was one of the few who noticed Eleanor’s unhappiness and took it seriously. Hickok — “Hick” to everyone who knew her — worked patiently to gain Eleanor’s trust. By the time she wrote her stories for the AP, Eleanor and Hick had fallen in love. Hick knew both the publishable and the unpublishable reasons for Eleanor’s unhappiness. She wrote a profile which was frank about Eleanor’s reluctance to become First Lady, but without revealing all the reasons why.

America was in the depths the Great Depression. Banks were running out of money, unemployment was spiraling upward, and there was a very real possibility that the country would erupt in violence. Americans were in desperate need of the leadership Franklin Roosevelt was promising to provide. Eleanor would become FDR’s most important partner in the great challenges he faced. She would often act as his conscience, reminding him of the human cost of his political decisions, and urging him to speak out courageously about racism and inequity. But more and more, as FDR waited to assume the presidency, Eleanor found excuses to spend her days and nights with Hick.

It would be hard to imagine a less likely pair than Eleanor and Hick. Eleanor had grown up in a mansion on the Hudson, with nannies and maids, and Hick had worked as a maid in other people’s houses, starting at age fourteen, in the bleak railroad towns of South Dakota. Yet despite vastly different circumstances, both Eleanor and Hick had lonely and loveless childhoods, and both needed the kind of deep caring they gave to each other.

Hick would have loved to settle down with Eleanor for life. It will never be clear if Eleanor could, or would, have agreed to such an arrangement.

Still, Eleanor loved Hick in a new and thrilling way. In other times and circumstances, she and Hick might have been able to make a life together, like the other women partners in their circle.

But Hick and Eleanor’s intimacy would have to fit in around not only Eleanor’s marriage, but also momentous national and world events. After FDR was elected, Hick quietly moved into the White House, where she stayed off and on for the entire thirteen years of the Roosevelt presidency. During those years, Eleanor and Hick managed to form a partnership that transformed their lives, and contributed in a major way to important initiatives of the New Deal.

When they weren’t together, Eleanor and Hick wrote tenderly of their longing for one another. “Oh! How I wanted to put my arms around you in reality instead of in spirit,” Eleanor wrote Hick during the first year of their relationship. “I went and kissed your photograph instead and tears were in my eyes.”

“There have been times,” Hick wrote from San Francisco after they vacationed together out west in the summer of 1934, “when I’ve missed you so much that it has been like a physical pain, and at those times I’ve hated San Francisco because you were not there.”

Eleanor loved Hick for many reasons, but it didn’t hurt that such a relationship was considered a subversive act within her well-born family. Hick was a woman, for one thing. She was also a reporter, a species that FDR’s Aunt Kassie proudly asserted she had never spoken to in her life.[iii] Aunt Kassie, like others in her circle, believed a lady’s name should only appear in print at the time of her coming out, her marriage and her death. Hick had a peaches and cream complexion and beautiful shapely legs, but weighed 200 pounds and dressed without frills, in a tailored style. She reveled in food and drink, and played a good game of poker, smoked a lot, including an occasional cigar, and was capable of swearing a blue streak.

Unlike Eleanor, who kept strong emotions under control, Hick let it all out. When she was typing out a “sob story,” tears would run down her cheeks; when she wrote a humorous piece, her laughter shook her entire body.

Hick was fun to be with, but she was also tempestuous — her letters to Eleanor were often written in a fury about one injustice or another, especially after she went on the road for New Deal relief boss Harry Hopkins to report on the desperate poverty of the Depression years. “This valley is the damnedest place I ever saw,” she wrote Eleanor from El Centro, California. “If you don’t agree with them, you are a Communist, of course.”And another time, when the Red Cross was withholding warm clothes for an emergency: “Good God, I wonder what constitutes an emergency in the eyes of the old ladies who run the Red Cross!”

Eleanor’s upbringing would never allow her to express herself so emphatically. But Hick’s embrace gave her the courage to open up, more than she ever had before, about her true feelings. “I’m back at my worst verge of tears condition which I hoped I could eliminate this summer,” she wrote Hick in August of 1935. “I only hope no one else realizes it and I don’t think they do for I look well.”

Eleanor and Hick’s epistolary relationship was a rare and remarkable thing. They poured out their longing in thousands of letters. But they also used the letters to tell the stories of their time. Hick’s journalistic training served her well as she reported on the terrible human cost of the Depression: she was good at gathering facts, good at getting people to talk, and good at vivid storytelling. Officially, she was reporting to Harry Hopkins. But she told Eleanor all the same stories — and some extra ones — in her long and detailed letters. Hick’s letters and reports added urgency to Eleanor’s advocacy for people in need, and sometimes even made it to the President’s desk. At other times, Hick described situations so harrowing that they sent Eleanor into action. One of Hick’s reports about coal-mining families in West Virginia impelled Eleanor to hop in her Roadster and drive down and see for herself. Not long after, Eleanor and others drew up plans for Arthurdale, a homestead community to house the mining families. Arthurdale was the first of the many resettlement projects for destitute families built by the Roosevelt Administration. It started with a report from Hick.

Eleanor’s letters to Hick are a kind of reportage themselves, chronicling her life in the fish bowl of the White House — more honest by far than her published accounts.

They came so frequently that Hick, out in the field reporting on the lives of poor people, asked Eleanor to use special plain stationery. The embossed gold letterhead of the White House was an embarrassment when it arrived at a post office in Bemidji, Minnesota or Jesup, Georgia. Eventually, Eleanor’s long and detailed descriptions of her days in the White House led Hick to suggest she take her story to the world. “My Day,” the daily column which brought Eleanor Roosevelt into the homes of America, grew directly out of the private diary reports that Eleanor first sent to Hick.

Eleanor became a word-producing marvel: she wrote her column six times a week from the nineteen thirties until the end of her life. She also wrote memoirs which purported to be the story of her life. These memoirs, it must be said, are more fiction than fact when it comes to Eleanor’s feelings about her marriage, her mother-in-law, her troubled children, and her life in general. The “My Day” column and the memoirs are useful as a record of events, but they paint an unreal picture of the emotional life of Eleanor Roosevelt. The letters between Eleanor and Hick tell a truer and more compelling story — not just of Eleanor but also of the lesser-known but brilliant journalist and chronicler of the Great Depression, Lorena Hickok.

Eleanor and Hick exchanged well over thirty-three hundred letters, starting when they fell in love, in 1932, and ending not long before Eleanor’s death, thirty years later.

Hick died in 1968, five and a half years after Eleanor. Entrusted by Eleanor with both sides of the correspondence, Hick debated with herself and others about their final disposition. Some of Eleanor’s loyal friends thought all the letters should be burned, to protect the First Lady’s reputation. Hick did destroy some of the most explicit ones. She tried retyping others, leaving out the passionate parts. Fortunately for posterity, she soon gave up that effort, which was draining the correspondence of all life. In the end, Hick chose to donate the letters to the Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York, with the stipulation that they could not be opened until ten years after her death.

On schedule, in 1978, a journalist named Doris Faber, a prolific writer of young adult books about prominent Americans, happened upon the letters. She was shocked and dismayed by what she found. “How could any reasonably perceptive adult deny that these were love letters?” she asked rhetorically. “And that a love affair, with at least some physical expression, had existed between this woman reporter and Eleanor Roosevelt. Unthinkable!” In “something like a classic state of shock,” Faber asked the Hyde Park librarian why the collection couldn’t be “locked up again, at least for another several decades.”

Faber faulted Lorena Hickok for donating the letters and allowing the world to see them. She suggested that Hick had been seduced, in lonely old age, by the library’s archivist. She claimed that Hick had acted out of “an uncontrollable craving for posthumous fame.” Finally, Faber was persuaded that the story was going to come out, in more sensational form, if she didn’t tell it.

The resulting book, The Life of Lorena Hickok: E.R.s Friend, was published in 1980. Doris Faber was a thorough researcher, and brought together valuable information from friends who have since died. But the “very mixed emotions” with which she undertook the project muffled a story that deserves to be fully told — and celebrated. Instead, she sought to reassure readers that “the Eleanor Roosevelt who emerges in the Hickok Papers does not, to any significant extent, differ from the First Lady of the World we already know.” By 1980, when the book came out, there were already some outspoken lesbian women who yearned for more. Kathy Riley lamented, in Big Mama Rag, that Doris Faber was the one who got to the letters first. It was “a crime,” she wrote, “akin to turning over Sappho’s poems to medieval Christian theologians.”

Yet there were others who criticized Faber for even suggesting that Eleanor Roosevelt might have had an intimate relationship with another woman. One of them was Helen Gahagan Douglas, the very progressive Democrat who spoke out against McCarthyism, and was accused by Richard Nixon of being “pink right down to her underwear.” She refused to cooperate with Faber once she learned that there might be even a hint of intimacy between Hick and Eleanor. In 1980, homosexuality aroused fear and hostility, even in a woman who had championed migrant workers and African American soldiers.

By the time I began reading the letters at Hyde Park six years ago, a great deal had changed. Blanche Wiesen Cook had presented the intimate relationship between Eleanor and Hick in a new and entirely sympathetic light in 1999, in the second volume of her groundbreaking biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. In our own time, love between two women seems neither shocking nor shameful — to me or to many others.

Yet I still encounter people who are reluctant to believe that Eleanor Roosevelt was passionately involved with another woman. “Eleanor Roosevelt?” they will say. “Really? A lesbian relationship? A physical lesbian relationship?”

I suspect that people react this way because they have a fixed idea of Eleanor Roosevelt, with her flowered hat and her purse and her sensible shoes, slightly bent forward as she marches off to make the world a better place. That Eleanor Roosevelt dwells in a world that transcends all the longings, hurts and excitements of passion. But that public persona masked the real Eleanor—as her letters to Hick make abundantly clear.

The letters between Eleanor and Hick are less remarkable now for their shock value than for the moving and poignant story they tell of two women who loved each other intensely and deeply. Women who loved women surrounded both of them, and showed the way to a freer life. For Eleanor Roosevelt especially, who was required to marry within narrow boundaries of class and wealth, the possibility of such love was liberating. When she found it, with Hick, it changed her life, and Hick’s, forever.

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