When 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.
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.