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.

Animal Wise: Fit for a queen

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For a delightful tribute to Dash (and Tori, who plays him), visit the New Hampshire PBS site. (Photo courtesy New Hampshire PBS)

If you are a fan of the “Victoria” series and have not seen Season 2, Episodes 3 and 4, you may want to stop reading here. Even if you have seen it, it wouldn’t hurt to have a tissue handy.

How many twenty-somethings today could rule a nation? Before you answer that, let’s revise the question to: How many twenty-somethings of any era could rule a nation without the love, companionship, and guidance of a wise soul? I’m not talking about Prince Albert or Lord M, but Dash, Victoria’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, who was her constant companion from her isolated girlhood into the beginning of her life as a queen, wife, and mother.

Dash (played by Tori, who had the same role in the 2009 movie “The Young Victoria”) appears in many scenes with Victoria, usually in her lap, on her bed, or on a nearby chair. This is a dog who knows his place, and he observes everything that goes on and listens to all that is said (and unsaid) by his beloved human. There is nothing one would not do for the other — not for personal or political gain, but purely for love and perhaps the occasional treat. He was the one being in the world who did not care about her parentage or power. Dash cared simply and honestly for Victoria — not by doing, but by being.

Shouldn’t everyone with a country, corporation, or consciousness to run have that? Especially during the almost-adult to stuff-just-got-real-adult transition. Pepper, a miniature Schnauzer mix, saw me from eighth grade to my early journalism career and almost through graduate school. When I imagine those years without her, I see a lot more sadness and judgement and a lot less growth, acceptance, and fun. One little dog made a big difference for me and the people and animals around me to this day, and I’m no queen.

When it became apparent at the beginning of the episode that Dash may not be doing so well, I braced myself, but of course the tears flowed when he died. I love his epitaph:

His attachment was without selfishness,
His playfulness without malice,
His fidelity without deceit,
READER, if you would live beloved and die regretted, profit by the example of DASH.

A sweet, perceptive two-minute video about Dash can be seen on the New Hampshire PBS website.

The initially crusty, but increasingly insightful Duchess of Buccleuch becomes the conduit, in Episode 4, for a new puppy entering the queen’s orbit. An unauthorized leak in the royal bedchamber points to the need for a bit of training for the pup, but we are left assured that Victoria’s education will continue.

 

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.