We like our history in a straight line. Yet, time and again twists and turns throw us off.
Sue Quinn's remarkable new book Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady helps readers unravel the complicated, but loving, relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok, known as a lesbian during her professional years.
Quinn's account is based on the letters between Eleanor and Hick, as she was known, released 40 years ago10 years after her death, as called for by Eleanor's estate. Hickok covered Eleanor during the last months of FDR's 1932 presidential campaign, when, according to Doris Kearns Goodwin in No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II, she "fell madly in love with her." At the 1933 inauguration, Eleanor wore a sapphire ring Hickok had given her.
Herein is the significance of Quinn's contribution to the Roosevelt canon: She ably dismantles the first book written after release of the sumptuous letters.
In 1980 author Doris Faber, who was, Quinn says, "shocked" at the letters' content in her account of their relationship in The Life of Lorena Hickok: E.R.'s Friend. Faber denies any sexual dimension between the women. In fact, when their letters were released in 1977 and Faber began her manuscript work, she begged librarians to seal them back up. That two womena first ladymight have a passionate relationship was just too much for her. Researcher Leila J. Rupp criticized Faber's argument, calling her book "a case study in homophobia" and arguing that Faber unwittingly presented "page after page of evidence that delineates the growth and development of a love affair between the two women."
"Attitudes change. I re-examined their relationship. After all, they gave each other satisfaction and joy," Quinn said.
Hickok encouraged Eleanor to hold her own press conferences for women journalists. To turn her daily letters to her into Eleanor's famous "My Day" newspaper column. "Hick helped Eleanor find her voice," Quinn explained.
When their relationship flourished, many female activists in the Democratic Party of the 1930s were lesbian. "Women who loved women were all around Eleanor," Quinn says.
And Eleanor did have her challenging sorrows.
Hired in 1914, her social secretary Lucy Mercer and FDR kindled a relationship thought to have first sparked in 1916. In 1918, Franklin traveled to Europe to inspect naval facilities for World War I. He returned sick with pneumonia in both lungs. That's when Eleanor discovered a packet of love letters from Mercer in his suitcase. She offered him a divorce which he refused. FDR's mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, was adamantly against their divorcing, sure it would end his political career. She threatened to cut him off from the family fortune if he chose to do so.
Goodwin summarized their letters thus: Hick longed to kiss the soft spot at the corner of Eleanor's mouth; Eleanor yearned to hold Hick close; Hick despaired at being away from Eleanor; and Eleanor wished she could lie down beside Hick and take her in her arms. Day after day, month after month, the tone in the letters on both sides remains fervent and loving. She concluded, however, that "whether Hick and Eleanor went beyond kisses and hugs" cannot be known for certain, and that the important issue is the impact the close relationship had on both women's lives. In contrast, a 2011 essay by Russell Baker reviewing two new Roosevelt biographies in the New York Times Review of Books stated, "That the Hickok relationship was indeed erotic now seems beyond dispute considering what is known about the letters they exchanged."
Eleanor also had a known relationship with FDR's bodyguard, Earl Miller. They swam together, went horseback riding and had long drives. No one knows for sure if they were sexual.
"The relationship between Eleanor and Hick was very important to both of them," Quinn says. "It was a deep and loving relationship."
Readers can decide for themselves how to label Eleanor and Hick's love for each other. History is not a straight line.