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Roosevelt doc sidesteps Eleanor's sexuality
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2014-09-12

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Filmmaker Ken Burns unveiled his latest documentary, "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History" to a crowd of about 900 people at the Francis W. Parker School Sept. 9.

The 14-hour PBS documentary ( which began Sept. 14 on WTTW ) chronicles the lives of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt over the course of about 100 years—from Theodore's birth to Eleanor's death.

The interactive discussion featured remarks from Burns, selections from the documentary and an audience Q&A. Ahead of the public event, Burns fielded questions from members of Parker's upper school video documentary classes.

In his remarks, Burns spoke about his longtime collaboration with PBS, what drew him and his producing partner Geoffrey C. Ward to this subject matter, and his thoughts about the Roosevelt's and their impact on society.

During the Q&A, Burns reiterated what he told the Television Critics Association ( TCA ) members in July—that he didn't believe Eleanor had a sexual relationship with Lorena Hickok.

"I assume when you say a relationship you are assuming that there was a sexual relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok," said Burns. "We have no evidence whatsoever of that, and none of the historians and experts believe it. This is an intimate [look at the Roosevelts] not a tabloid and we just don't know. ... We have to be very careful because sometimes we want to read into things that aren't there."

To back up his assertions about Eleanor and Hickok, Burns compared the letters between those two to the letters that Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed wrote to each other. "The letters between them [Eleanor and Hickok] are incredibly intimate," said Burns.

Although Burns said that historians and experts don't believe that Eleanor and Hickok had a sexual relationship a number of scholars, researchers and authors say the opposite. They include Lillian Faderman, Blanche Wiesen Cook and Leila J. Rupp.

"If the documentary does deal with FDR's extramarital relationship with Lucy Mercer then it's inexcusable that he didn't deal with Eleanor's extramarital relationships particularly with Lorena Hickok," Faderman told Windy City Times. "If he doesn't deal with FDR's relationship with Lucy Mercer, then I suppose he simply didn't want to go there and his focus was on things outside of their extramarital relationships."


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