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Outing Mrs. Roosevelt’

In response to:

Outing Mrs. Roosevelt from the September 24, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

Bottom line: Geoffrey Ward hates Eleanor Roosevelt [“Outing Mrs. Roosevelt,” NYR, September 24, 1992]. He told me so again, and again, during long interesting lunches, when we amazed each other with the power of our differences. Ward is devoted to his vision of Mrs. Roosevelt: Cold, remote, endlessly prodding; ugly, terminally insecure, dry-as-dust. I decided to write this biography in part because such views have dominated and limited all understanding of a great woman’s life. They have become stereotypes repeated over and over by the men who continue to pronounce themselves ER’s defenders, though their intent is to control her. To do so they choose to deny her life-long quest for personal happiness.

My book, unlike Geoffrey Ward’s review, is not about sex. It is about politics and passion, and the many significant relationships Eleanor Roosevelt enjoyed. I say repeatedly that I do not know what two people do when they are alone together. I use the evidence available, to consider the possibilities. But Ward is not really interested in evidence. He is wedded to a stereotype that I reject. It is true: I do not flinch from the possibilities of pleasure, satisfaction, and lust in Eleanor Roosevelt’s life. My interpretation has not been limited by a son’s queasiness about the Sin of Ham; nor controlled by the vagaries of the Virgin Mother in our cultural psyche; nor throttled by the limits of the traditional penile imagination.

But I leave all conclusions up to the reader. I invite speculation. Unlike Geoffrey Ward, I entertain mysteries in a woman’s life. There is always the realm of danger when we contemplate the erotic, and always uncertainty. But Geoffrey Ward is certain: Eleanor Roosevelt never had any fun; never was any fun. He says so repeatedly in this review, and in his books. He finds her dreary and dull; judgmental and cold; and dry, always dry. For all the waffling and jigging, for all the splitting of fine follicles about family and Victoria, ultimately it is the sex thing that undoes Geoffrey Ward:

To the end of [ER’s] life she was made physically ill by the sight of anyone who seemed drunk or otherwise out of control. And sex would imply just the sort of loss of control—by her as well as by her partner—which she feared the most. Her sense of her unattractiveness, her conviction that no one could ever love her for herself for long, her need to remain in control of herself and everything around her, her lifelong sense of guilt—all [Geoffrey Ward concludes] conspired against her enjoying sex.”

Imagine! He knows THAT. One is tempted to say: Poor Geoff, Get a Life. But his effort is so specific, one wants instead to wander around his construction. Specifically, then—as any woman might note: Sex is not necessarily about a loss of control. It is, when done well, about the arts of control—finely tuned, nuanced, delicate. Surely some men know that. If ER felt that sex with her young husband FDR was “an ordeal to be borne,” as her daughter noted and so many have been happy to repeat; and if, as Geoffrey Ward opines, FDR was a virgin at marriage, we can only imagine their honeymoon. If ten years (or six childred) later, it was still “an ordeal” for ER, we have to pause to consider FDR’s selfish and unconcerned methods. And then we have to ask, as we contemplate an adult woman’s active life over sixty years, about one’s changing needs, interests, erotic and affectional preferences.

What happens when a straight lady falls in love with a lesbian? Now don’t tell me that “kisses and cuddly times were one thing, sex was another,” in order to walk away from this very complex relationship with Lorena Hickok. It simply cannot be done. And don’t tell me that letter to her mother-in-law about wanting to be hugged written when she was nineteen is the same as the many letters she wrote to Hick after she was fifty. Geoff, darling, it’s not the same.

And about those lost letters from ER to Hick. Hick burned more than fifteen. There was a whole year, the first and most passionate year of their friendship, destroyed. Hick destroyed the letters, after she copied the political pages. And then, after her death, her sister burned another entire packet. But again Geoffrey Ward is not interested in the details. He leaps to letters written after 1934, all of which are fully dealt with in volume II, for his argument. In addition, Hick destroyed many of her own letters. For entire months, during their thirty years correspondence, we have ER’s answers but not Hick’s letters. So we do not know, for example, what anguish on Hick’s part prompted ER’s response about peace in marriage and the satisfaction of having children. Just for the record: some say over 50 percent of all lesbians, then and now, have been wives and mothers.

Then there is Earl Miller. Ward repeats the only story we are meant to believe, derived from a conversation with Joseph Lash: “He explicitly denied any physical relationship with Mrs. Roosevelt.” He was only attracted to “young and pretty things.” Why then did Earl’s wife name Eleanor Roosevelt instead of, for example, Roberta Jonay (whose picture was published with Ward’s review presumably to give us a sense of Earl’s real interests), the correspondent in her divorce case? Why then have all the letters between ER and Earl been made to disappear? Ward tells us those letters were seen by ER’s sons Franklin, Jr., and Elliott, and they were in fact “effusive.” Many of us have come to realize that when the documents disappear, here is usually a very interesting story. Moreover, Earl never told Joseph Lash the truth about anything significant, as he proudly announced to his closest friends; and for all the details you’ll have to read volume II of my biography.

Ward’s silliest and most self-indulgent point is his “speculation” that ER could not have “slept with anyone other than the man to whom she had resolved to remain married, for to have done so would have been to betray the wedding vows….” The fact is there is a context for ER’s life as it unfolded over time: FDR’s preoccupation with other women. Ward bristles at my terms, but there is no doubt about it: FDR was a “tippler” (check out ER’s relatives on FDR’s extravagant drinking at parties, so reminiscent of her father; and he was a devoted Clubman, all along the Groton-Harvard-Washington axis); and he was a womanizer. He held knees, and patted bottoms, almost upon first meeting: Countless women, several of them ER’s Todhunter students, have told me so. But FDR’s habits are really not the issue here; ER’s response is. And her response was made clear in 1923 in an article called “The Women of Thibet”: It has been brought to my attention, she wrote, that the wives of Thibet have many husbands. This seems to me a very good thing, since so many husbands have so many wives.

Moreover, ER offered FDR a divorce; continually supported the divorces and remarriages of her young friends and children; and also offered them her own homes for trysts and liaisons. Actually, ER was consistently attracted to people who evoked her father—tipplers and flirts, including Earl Miller, and Lorena Hickok. For ER, it was part of their charm, and she never turned her back or walked away from loved ones when they were “out of control.”

Beyond these differences, I was particularly appalled by Ward’s misrepresentation of Esther Lape. On no evidence whatsoever, he attempts to “prove” that ER was both ignorant of and appalled by homosexuality; that she considered “homosexuality a neurotic compulsion, a subject to be shunned.” Where does he get that? ER’s closest friends were lesbian women; she lived in part in a lesbian world; she built a home with a lesbian couple; and was an intimate confidante for over forty years to Esther Lape. To deny the contours of ER’s understanding, Ward ignores ER’s full awareness of homosexuality among youth, sailors in particular—given the great Navy scandal that involved FDR in 1920; cuddles the old clichés about “Boston marriages”; and pounds us into his belief that ER never saw anything beyond chaste companionship. ER understood precisely the nature of the Lape-Read “marriage”—and especially at the time of Elizabeth Read’s death, dealt with in volume II, illustrated for history her sensitivity and concern.

Esther Lape, like Hick and Earl Miller, avoided Joseph Lash, refused to speak with him frankly. They never told him anything about their lives, and he failed to see anything significant about them. So there is no way for history to know what ER told Lape in 1925 about Andre Gide’s novel Les Faux-Monnayeurs, nor what Lape thought about ER’s response, except from Esther Lape herself. Therefore, Ward’s greatest insult to history is his failure to go to the only authentic source, Lape’s privately printed memoir. What Lape actually wrote was:

Stirred by its sensitive dealing with sex in school boys, I enthusiastically sent a copy of the book to Eleanor—with a vastly disappointing result. Years later, Eleanor laughed merrily when I reminded her how ‘shocked’ she had been by the implications of Les faux-monnayeurs.”

There are of course many reasons for ER to dislike Gide’s novel. Virginia Woolf hated it, and so did Sylvia Townsend Warner. It is a misogynist fantasia, and every woman in the book is treated with contempt. The young “counterfeiters” seek adulthood through winding paths of drunkenness and cruelty. Neither ardent nor exquisite, the homosexual theme of a young school-boy’s love for his half-uncle is rendered boring beyond belief.

The emphasis of Lape’s memory concerned how she and ER subsequently “laughed merrily” over the event: “In the course of the years there were few disagreements between Eleanor and me.”

ER’s views changed over time. Her detractors remain constant.

Blanche Wiesen Cook
Easthampton, New York

Geoffrey C Ward replies:

I, too, remember the long, interesting lunches Blanche Cook and I shared, though I believe there were only two of them and I recall each as having been amiable, sometimes even hilarious, and never remotely confrontational. But she knows better than to assert that “Bottom line: Geoffrey Ward hates Eleanor Roosevelt,” or to allege that I told her that I did even once, let alone “again, and again.” In fact, as large sections of two books and several magazine articles should make clear to anyone interested in looking them up, I admire Mrs. Roosevelt enormously, both for the great accomplishments of her later years and for the remarkable courage and determination with which she transformed herself into perhaps the most important American woman of our century. What I did suggest at those lunches was that the insecure young orphan who married the glossy young FDR, bore his children, endured his subsequent betrayal of her, and began to edge toward an independent political life of her own—the Eleanor Roosevelt about whom I was then writing—seemed to me very different from the First Lady of the World she would one day become.

When Cook writes, “I leave all conclusions [about Mrs. Roosevelt’s sexual life] up to the reader,” she is being disingenuous. For while she does indeed claim that’s what she’s doing, if it had truly been her intention to trust the reader to make his or her own judgments, she would not have so consistently left out the evidence that cast doubt on her erotic speculations. The second half of my review was meant to point out some of Cook’s omissions and, in her lengthy response, she does very little to explain them.

Instead she misrepresents both me and much of my criticism. For the record:

It was not I but Mrs. Roosevelt who said she did not like sex. I merely tried to explain why that might have been.

Cook chooses to overlook my explanation that ER’s early letters to her mother-in-law, hoping for “kisses and cuddly times,” were just the first of many ardent letters she wrote to a host of people for whom she had enormous affection but with whom she clearly did not have a physical relationship.

I did not say that the fifteen letters Lorena Hickok burned were all that she destroyed, only that there was a perfectly logical—and entirely innocuous—reason for her having burned these, an explanation characteristically omitted from Cook’s account. (I concede that I don’t know why Hickok destroyed other letters, but neither, for all her dark hints of cover-up, does Cook.)

The aggrieved Mrs. Earl Miller presumably threatened to name Mrs. Roosevelt as co-respondent rather than one of the “pretty young things” her wayward husband seemed incapable of resisting, because 1) she was in possession of some of Mrs. Roosevelt’s easily misunderstood letters, and 2) she knew that threatening to publish them would be the most likely way to win herself a lucrative settlement out of court—as she evidently did. (I had nothing to do with selecting the photographs used to illustrate my review, by the way; nor had I ever heard of Roberta Jonay until I saw the illustrations.)

I have not had the benefit of Cook’s interviews with “countless” women whose bottoms were allegedly patted by the mature FDR, but he was in any case surely neither a “womanizer” nor a “tippler” when a Harvard undergraduate, which is what Cook said he was.

I committed no “insult to history” in quoting Esther Lape’s memory of Mrs. Roosevelt’s initial horror at André Gide’s novel dealing with male homosexuality, Les Faux-Monnayeurs. My source, accurately quoted, is Lape’s interview with Joseph Lash (see Joseph P. Lash, Love Eleanor, page xiv):

She read it in terms of forbidden subject. She couldn’t bring herself even to consider homosexuality. Generally her reaction was not so final, but in this case it was.

In fact, I have never read the privately printed memoir Cook cites. But while it is nice to know that in her later years Mrs. Roosevelt “laughed merrily” at her earlier attitudes, it does not change the fact that at least in the mid-1920s, the period under discussion, she shared society’s benighted view of homosexuality.

Finally, I confess I find it hard to understand why I am to be numbered among Mrs. Roosevelt’s “detractors” when all I tried to do was explain why I believe it most unlikely that she ever conducted an extramarital affair, either with a woman or a man.

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