Two books, two women, one famous friendship

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Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok on a 1934 trip to Puerto Rico. (National Archives and Records Administration [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Eleanor-Hick-Cover-Large-1-197x300When the trove of letters between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok came to light two or three decades ago, I wondered why the two hadn’t been more careful to keep their correspondence private. Both women had passed away years before, but still. They lived in a time when secrecy surrounded same-sex relationships, or even the possibility of such, and one of them was married. To the president. That’s some pretty intimate stuff to leave for someone to find and expose, I thought.

51B8ti2v7eL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Now, having read two 2016 books on the subject — Loving Eleanor by Susan Wittig Albert (Persevero Press) and Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady by Susan Quinn (Penguin Books) — I appreciate that a much bigger story is being told, even now. Perhaps especially now.

Loving Eleanor is fiction, though apparently extensively researched, told in first person from Hickok’s point of view. Eleanor and Hick is a nonfiction account of their lives and relationship. However, both works respectfully and with due diligence tell the story of the reluctant first lady and the pioneering journalist finding their way in 20th century America.

Lorena Hickok was a scrappy, dedicated Associated Press reporter who began covering Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then governor of New York, campaigned for president. Hick, as she was known, survived childhood poverty and abuse, but managed to get some education and on-the-job training in newspaper work. She was one of the first women to have a byline with her stories. Having written about sports, politics, and the Lindbergh trial, Hick wasn’t too excited about covering campaign-trail teas, but soon discovered a depth, integrity, and vulnerability about the woman she would fondly refer to as ER, or Madam. Hick, completely outside ER’s circle of class and privilege, became her lifeline.

ER, of course, had her own youthful unhappiness to overcome, along with her husband’s affair with Lucy Mercer and the endless interference of her mother-in-law. She had her own circle of friends, a small cottage, and even a furniture company. Being in the White House would not end all of that, but it sure did complicate the life she’d carved out for herself, especially as she and Hick grew closer and one term turned into four.

Hick’s first complication was a conflict of interest. You cannot get that close to a source and keep the required objectivity and the public’s trust. As a seasoned reporter, she knew this. Yet she continued down that slippery slope, even letting ER and FDR advisor Louis Howe review stories before publication, before finally leaving the AP in 1933. Like so many journalists before and after her, she was able to transfer her skills into other lines of work, but she would never return to the news business.

Apart from compromising her journalistic integrity and giving up a job she loved, Hick arranged her life around being available to ER, who fitted Hick in around other friends, children, grandchildren, FDR, and the “endless succession of things” in public life. Though ER trusted and valued Hick greatly, the relationship never quite seemed equal. Given their positions in life, perhaps it was as equal as it could have been. Though Hick accepts this to a degree as the years pass, she spends much of both books waiting and hoping for more.

This sadness permeates their story. Yet there’s no denying that because these two supported, challenged, and inspired each other over so many years, they were able to better themselves and society in ways they couldn’t have otherwise.

After leaving the AP, Hick became a field reporter for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, traveling to areas hit hardest by the Depression and reporting back to boss Harry Hopkins — and ER — on what was really happening in the nation. Having both a reporter’s eye and the ear of the first lady worked well here. She also helped ER with the writing of her books and “My Day” column. ER’s women-only press conferences helped open Washington’s political doors to women journalists, and encouraged them to look to one another for support and accountability.

ER and Hick lived in a time not unlike ours, with polarity and finger-pointing aplenty as the nation recovered from economic hardship and war. In the midst of that, two women from vastly different backgrounds came together, saw what they could do, and did it.

While writing this, I discovered that another novel about Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, White Houses by Amy Bloom (Penguin Random House, 2018) — also told in first person from Hick’s point of view — has recently been published. Obviously, this is a story that continues to resonate in an era of even less trust in both journalists and political figures.

While these books tell a bittersweet story of a love that didn’t happen the way either party may have wanted, they also give us in the 21st century a glimpse of what is possible when we are brave enough to transcend barriers and work together.

Saying it with flowers

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Does a peony mean “anger,” or does it mean “shame”? (Photo courtesy Foter.com)

It’s one thing for a modern young person to develop a knack for growing things under the direction of a parent, grandparent, teacher, or other important adult. It’s quite another to also become versed in the meanings of specific flowers — rhododendron (“beware”), white poplar (“time”), snapdragon (“presumption”), mistletoe (“I surmount all obstacles”), and more. This is the the language of flowers, which in Victorian times was used to convey a surprising range of sentiments.

1431616332717These are the gifts with which Victoria Jones goes forth in Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s novel, The Language of Flowers (Random House, 2011). On her eighteenth birthday, Victoria ages out of the foster care system and is turned loose in San Francisco to figure out the next step. Isolated and mistrustful, she does little to help herself — but she does plant a garden. She eventually finds work with florist Renata, who is quick to recognize the young woman’s gift for helping people choose flowers for the people and special occasions in their lives based on their meanings.

Her work in San Francisco’s floral world reconnects her with flower farmer/vendor Grant, the nephew of her former foster mother, Elizabeth. Vineyard owner Elizabeth had been Victoria’s mentor in horticulture and the language of flowers. She also wanted to become Victoria’s adoptive mother. This is where the chapters begin to alternate between Victoria’s present-day reality — her work with Renata and her developing relationship with Grant — and the 10-year-old Victoria’s time with Elizabeth. You know something drastic is coming, because Victoria ended up back in foster care; and plenty of changes are unfolding in the here and now that are going to bring those old chickens home to roost.

Such as: the annoying tendency of any language, even the language of flowers, to not remain static and free from contradictions. Victoria visits San Francisco’s Main Library more than once to pore over every volume she can find on flower meanings. She has either been presented with a flower whose meaning she cannot decipher or is looking for a precise botanical response to Grant, who is also flower-fluent. The books are old, crumbling, tucked in between the Victorian poets and gardening books, but it doesn’t take long before she is confused and frustrated anew by multiple, often contradictory definitions of a single flower. She had given her caseworker peony to convey “anger,” but now she finds the flower also means “shame.”

“If peony could be misinterpreted, how many times, to how many people, had I misspoken?” Victoria wonders. Soon, she and Grant begin working on a flower dictionary of their own (it’s included at the back of the book).

Though I was fascinated by the way this young, contemporary character employed the Victorian-era language of flowers to express herself and, ultimately, to help herself and others, some of her behavior is inscrutable, even considering her history in foster care. I also felt disappointed and angry with Elizabeth, who was supposed to be the grown-up. But maybe there’s a reason the foster care system is the setting for stories like this … the actual as well as the fictional.

 

 

A boy and his newspaper

IMG_2370While wandering through our local Hyde Brothers, Booksellers, I came across From Office Boy to Reporter, or the First Step in Journalism (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1907). It’s the first in an early 20th century children’s book series by Howard R. Garis, best known for the Uncle Wiggily books. This particular copy was inscribed “Edward Jackson — From father, Oct. 24, 1912.”

Perhaps Edward was a boy with a dream like 15-year-old Larry Dexter, the hero of this story, who is forced to find work in New York City to support his newly widowed mother and three younger siblings. While pounding the proverbial pavements, boyish curiosity sends him to the scene of a dramatic building fire caused by a lightning strike. There he meets Harvey Newton, a reporter from the Leader — one of several fiercely competing newspapers. In the pouring rain, Larry offers to hold the umbrella so Mr. Newton can take notes.

Impressed with the young man’s initiative, Mr. Newton helps Larry get a job as an office boy, or copy boy, at the newspaper. Larry becomes one of many boys newspapers employed (several for each department) to literally run copy and proofs within the building — reporter to editor, typesetter to composing. A copy boy would also accompany a reporter to a scene or to cover a trial, run copy back to the office, then run back to gather more from the reporter as the story unfolded. Most of the boys, if not all, are supporting themselves or their families; some attend night school, as Larry does when he decides to work toward becoming a reporter. This is a time and place when, for good or ill, teenage boys are expected to function as adults.

Garis, who himself worked for the Newark (New Jersey) Evening News, captures the hiss and thunk of the pneumatic tubes that carry proofs, the blue pencils, the clacking of the typesetting machines, the inky type, and the hustle of a turn-of-the-century city newspaper. He understood the nuances of getting a story on an evening paper’s news cycle and being able to provide details the morning papers would not. Breaking a story first mattered (a ton), but so did getting it right.

Larry, a too-good-to-be-true 15-year-old, is beset by one challenge or danger after another on the job. A jealous fellow office boy has it in for him. He gets kidnapped while helping Mr. Newton cover a strike. He takes it upon himself to keep an eye on suspected counterfeiters living in his apartment building. Always, his good nature, bravery, and dedication save the day. Finally, after a harrowing race against time, the elements, and the aforementioned nemesis to deliver copy while covering an epic flood, he is promoted to reporter.

“There have been written many good stories of newspaper life and experiences,” the author writes in the preface. “I trust I may have added one that will appeal especially to you boys. If I have, I will feel amply repaid for what I have done.”

It would be easy to dismiss this as formulaic juvenile fiction from journalism’s male-dominated dark ages. However, what sings through all the derring-do is an absolute love for news — finding out what’s happening, getting the facts, and delivering them in the most efficient, responsible, and helpful fashion to readers who want the truth. We need people who can and will do this now more than Garis could likely have imagined.

There are several more books in the Larry Dexter series, but these are just a few of the many books Garis authored, both under his own name and under several pseudonyms. He and his wife, Lilian Garis, who was also a reporter for the Newark Evening News, were considered two of the most prolific children’s authors of their time.