In President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s time, it was still possible to maintain a private life within the public eye. After all, something as plainly visible as the extent of his polio-induced paralysis was largely kept quiet—a scenario all but unthinkable in this age of hyper media scrutiny. While a wheelchair-bound wartime leader would certainly have caused a stir, it was his wife, Eleanor, who was sitting on a potentially explosive—and at that time, illegal—truth: the iconic, trailblazing first lady had a lover, and that lover lived with her in the White House, and that lover was a woman named Lorena Hickok. In Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair that Shaped a First Lady, biographer and historian Susan Quinn explores the remarkable relationship between the two women with deftness and compassion, shedding vivid light on a story that for too long was forced to remain in the dark.
The first attempt to tell the story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok was undertaken by the author Doris Faber as soon as the decadelong embargo on their many letters, stipulated by Hickok in her will, expired in 1978. The love the two so plainly expressed for one another, and the honesty with which Roosevelt wrote of her marital disappointments and troubled family life, so shocked Faber, Quinn explains in the introduction of her book, that she glossed over the details.
But when Quinn began reading the letters six years ago at the Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, she was easily able to reveal what had once been so salacious. “I have a gay daughter,” Quinn explains. “Well, she says ‘queer’; I say ‘gay’ because I'm of an older generation. But watching her and her relationships, which have been so rich and wonderful, I think it gave me a lot more empathy for this story. And I was able to write it at a time when we're a lot more open to the possibility of women loving women and of it being a very positive thing. As soon as I started, I knew that this was my story—this was what I wanted to write about. Here was this really poignant story, and it hadn't been told well before.”
Eleanor and Hick tells of the incredible love between the two women and the many and profound ways it affected them both. “They were such an interesting pair,” Quinn says, “because they were so different. Hick was this cigarette-smoking, tough-talking Associated Press journalist who was…we would say ‘butch’ now. She struggled with that, and she had already had one woman lover in her life, while Eleanor was very much a lady. But the thing that united them was that they both suffered so much as children, and then they connected with each other in this critical moment, 1932, when Eleanor was about to become first lady.”
In fact, Hick moved into the White House with Roosevelt and would remain living there off and on for the 13 years of the F.D.R. presidency—sometimes, Quinn notes, the three of them would even eat their meals privately together. “After about five or six years,” Quinn says, “the flame kind of died, at least for Eleanor. Eleanor continued to be very fond of Hick, but for Hick it was the love of her life. They remained friends for the rest of their lives, and their correspondence, all of these letters, was so vital for both of them. It was really Hick who encouraged Eleanor to write her daily column from when she became first lady. With her help, Eleanor became a very visible voice, and until then, first ladies had not done that.”
The role of women in the public eye was one that struck a particular chord with Quinn as she was researching and writing the book.“There are a lot of parallels between Eleanor and Hillary Clinton,” she says. “I’ve been really disheartened to see the way Hillary has been treated—I think we still are not comfortable with really strong women and also not particularly accepting of a range of styles of women. With this book, I wanted to give these two very different women and their love the celebration it’s due. You know, Hick was this tough lesbian….People love Eleanor, she’s really a beloved character already, but I hope readers fall in love with Hick too.”
James McDonald is a British-trained historian and a New York–based writer.