Monday With Mildred: “Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady”

Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady book cover

Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady

It has been a long time since I read about Eleanor Roosevelt, first lady during The Great Depression, having at least one girlfriend. It was while I was reading everything I could get my hands on to learn about famous aviator Amelia Earhart for a paper I did in middle school back in the early seventies. So, the news of her sexuality is not recent or secret. Back then it was frowned upon to mention in polite society, which would then promptly smirk and roll its eyes at the idea of a married woman, especially a famous one, could ever be even a little queer. Like the written documents that form the basis for Gentleman Jack, the world is lucky the women’s letters survived prejudiced historians who at the very least denied anyone but a select few people access and I have no doubt made a case for their being destroyed to protect peoples’ delicate sensibilities.

And this did almost happen. Hick herself attempted to alter the letters between her and Eleanor, but was old and tired at the time so never finished. She did donate them to the Roosevelt Library, with the proviso that they not be released until well after her death. They were discovered by historian Doris Faber, who was scandalized and penned a watered down version of their relationship that one lesbian activist said was, “akin to turning over Sappho’s poems to medieval Christian theologians.”

Although I read this book a couple of months ago, I thought it would be a good idea to review it after discovering the makers of the Showtime series The First Lady were using this as the basis of the episode about Mrs. Roosevelt. The first thing I noticed on seeing the preview was that Gillian Anderson is way too good looking to play Roosevelt, and Lily Rabe is not rotund enough to portray Lorena Hickock (Hick). Somehow I will bring myself to overlook this.

Lorena Hickock (1893-1968) grew up in dire straits in the middle of the plains and began her journalism career in Minneapolis. “Hick could be relied on to find and tell the most vivid stories of hardship: long, detailed pieces about girls who came to Minneapolis from little farm towns and get into trouble, about an injured worker who decided to crawl under a bridge and starve to death, about an organ grinder whose monkey was stolen.” She had a real way with words, and published the kind of stories very few people worked on at the time. Invited to cover the Roosevelts on a presidential campaign tour, this rough and tumble woman was immediately taken by the high society woman who could not be more different than herself. Ironically, it was Mr. Roosevelt who first wooed the journalist. The consummate politician wanted her voice on his side, and over time she became a trusted inner circle voice during his presidency. Between that and a quid pro quo over his own extra marital relations, he overlooked Eleanor’s romance. Hick lived for years at the White House and shared Eleanor with the world. The two working together were a formidable force for good, with Hick reporting and Eleanor using what her uncle Teddy called “the bully pulpit” to get needed things done.

Author Susan Quinn used a recurring theme of showing how rare it was for the two women to get time alone and just be together. Eleanor didn’t even own a house of her own until late in her life. Hick having to share her with so many people put the relationship in peril time and again. One of many ironies is that it was Hick’s reporting that created the juggernaut of Eleanor Roosevelt that ended up steaming away.

It was also a fraught time politically, and this is where the author ultimately spends most of her time. This was a period of huge change in American history, with the Great Depression, World War Two and advances in technology driving transformations in culture that we’re still dealing with nearly a hundred years later. Yes, it’s fascinating and important to have at least some understanding of, but that’s not why I bought the book. I wanted to read about Eleanor and Hick and an oft rumored story that waited decades to be not only revealed in a skilled and qualified book by an acknowledged historian, but that could finally be taken in by a society that is accepting enough to understand how a such a thing could happen.

The first part of the book, mostly about the couple and how they coped with growing fame and the fact that Eleanor had thousands of other people clamoring for her attention was interesting and detailed. Queer history of that period needs more enlightened representation and this is well done. But when Quinn veers away the book slows to a crawl that even this historian had a difficult time continuing to read. Again, this is not why I bought the book and I became somewhat disillusioned well before the end, when the account returns to the very sad story of Hick’s final years.

If you’re interested in American history, especially an overdue look at the not so well kept secret of one its most famous and influential women, I recommend reading this book. I was especially interested in learning about Lorena Hickock and now know I would love to read more about her journalism career. Just be aware that the second half is a stultifying rehash of an already overworked period. Judging from the trailer for the upcoming Showtime episode, they won’t make the same mistake.


CFR: In Addition: Don’t Mess With Eleanor Roosevelt. Just. Don’t. She was revered in my house for caring about and campaigning for the rights of people period. Color, class, gender, she cared for all.

My mother had a political cartoon framed in her office about Eleanor Roosevelt. It was many angels on a cloud in front of the Pearly Gates, their eyes wide with awe and appreciation as one of them said “It’s her.”

Never forget.

Oh and Mildred was so right when she emailed me this review: I will totally love this book.

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