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The Charms of Eleanor

Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, San Francisco, August 1934

Eleanor’s compassion earned her incessant abuse from those who were contented with the uncompassionate side of American culture. The Southern press cudgeled her relentlessly for speaking up for racial equality. A typical item in the Alabama Sun of the 1930s stated:

Every time Eleanor opens her big mouth, it’s big news for the Negro newspapers…. The past week, Eleanor was journeying as usual but stopped at Newark, New Jersey, where a bunch of Negroes were having a jamboree, and naturally Eleanor had to stop there and have her picture taken with a nigger.

In all regions, commentators friendly to corporate power walloped her for harboring sympathetic views on labor unions. For a long time her views on everything seemed inescapable. She wrote a daily newspaper column called “My Day”—which regularly went beyond a record of daily events and put forward strong views—as well as frequent magazine articles, and three books of memoirs notable, according to Rowley, for their omissions and stories improved with fictional touches to heighten political points.

Her critics often seemed furious because it was a woman who was issuing such irritating opinions. It was a time when many Americans still said, “Woman’s place is in the home,” and meant it. A woman challenging antique social wisdom by pronouncing on serious—men’s!—affairs was destined to experience a life rich with rude abuse.

When her erotic relationship with Lorena Hickok, the newspaperwoman who loved her, threatened to produce a spate of nasty gossip, Eleanor had become so hardened to abusive criticism that she could simply shrug it off as the sort of thing one had to expect. That the Hickok relationship was indeed erotic now seems beyond dispute considering what is known about the letters they exchanged.

In 1933, two nights after FDR’s first inauguration, for example, Eleanor sat in her White House bedroom writing to “Hick darling” in New York:

How good it was to hear your voice…. Jimmy was near & I couldn’t say “je t’aime et je t’adore” as I longed to do but always remember I am saying it & that I go to sleep thinking of you.

Later, having placed Lorena’s picture near her desk, Eleanor writes, “I can’t kiss you, so I kiss your picture good night and good morning!”

Whatever the depth of Eleanor’s love for Hick, as she called Lorena, it did not affect her love for Franklin that had developed from the settlement of the Lucy Mercer affair. The settlement had produced “one of the most interesting and radical marriages in history,” Rowley writes. Franklin and Eleanor had developed their new-style marriage into a partnership that served the needs of both in ways that enabled them to become “the spectacular and influential individuals” the world knew.

Both FDR and Eleanor had other intimate companions, other loves,” Rowley writes. “They accepted this about each other. It was part of their generous spirit…. Their bond was strong enough to withstand betrayal, polio, and the White House.”

Rowley is describing a love too profound to allow for much competition from Lorena Hickok. Lorena, apparently realizing that her love was doomed, vented her despair from time to time in outbursts of anger and jealousy. In 1933, sensing that Eleanor is excited by her new life in the White House and her rising interest in political activity, Hick throws a scene, then apologizes:

Oh, I’m bad, my dear, but I love you so…. At times life becomes just one long, dreary ache for you.

And later, in a lonely and sentimental vein:

I’ve been trying today to bring back your face. Most clearly I remember your eyes, with a kind of teasing smile in them, and the feeling of that soft spot just northeast of the corner of your mouth against my lips.

She had first seen Eleanor while covering Franklin’s 1928 campaign for governorship of New York, and the relationship flowered during his 1932 presidential campaign, which Lorena was covering for the Associated Press. Beasley describes her as a “large woman who struggled with her weight” and was sexually oriented to women. Time magazine saw her as “a rotund lady with a husky voice, a peremptory manner, baggy clothes.” She was the child of a South Dakota farmer, a self-styled “hick from the sticks” with a talent for journalism that had carried her to the top in Washington. Probably no one else was more intimate with Eleanor during the early days of the New Deal. When Hickok quit her reporting job because of her closeness to the Roosevelts, Eleanor found her a place on the federal payroll and made her one of the White House’s several resident guests. She was given sleeping accommodations in Eleanor’s sitting room.

According to Rowley, reporters covering the 1932 campaign realized before election day “that she was passionately in love with Eleanor and that her feelings appeared to be reciprocated.” Shortly afterward she told Eleanor she was worried about gossip, and Eleanor replied, “I am always so much more optimistic than you are. I suppose because I care so little about what ‘they’ say.”

Rowley’s book weaves the Hickok affair into an entertaining history of extensive low-voltage sexual energy that ran through the Roosevelts’ big household. We are told that FDR himself was desperately beloved by his secretary Missy LeHand, who lived permanently in the White House, and that he flirted openly with Crown Princess Martha of Norway, who had fled to Washington to escape the Nazi occupation and became a frequent visitor at the White House and Hyde Park.

One day Eleanor, walking with a friend, surprised FDR and Princess Martha having tea at a remote cottage on his Hyde Park estate. He always needed “a Martha for relaxation” and “the non-ending pleasure of having an admiring audience for every breath,” she told her companion.

Eleanor was suspected of being in love with her athletic young bodyguard Earl Miller, a former acrobat, boxer, and state trooper who joined the household when FDR was governor of New York. Though eleven years younger than Eleanor, he was a man of considerable charm. When Eleanor was still the withdrawn and painfully shy wife of the new governor of New York, Earl persuaded her to play tennis with him, accompany him on horseback rides, and, in general, live a little. Eleanor liked his company, and FDR did too, and soon Earl was eating at the family table despite scowls from Sara Delano.

Later in the White House years she developed a notably deep affection for Joseph Lash, a young radical from New York with political views that alarmed J. Edgar Hoover. Eleanor’s huge FBI file shows agents deployed around the clock to detect lascivious activity once when Lash and the First Lady stayed at the same hotel. The one FBI document published by Rowley reveals that Mrs. Roosevelt paid all the hotel bills.

The marriage of the Roosevelts began on St. Patrick’s Day in 1905. Eleanor’s Uncle Ted, who had just been reelected president of the United States, walked the bride to the altar. He and the groom were distant relatives of a degree comprehensible only to hardened genealogists, but historians have since wondered if Franklin’s choosing Eleanor to be his wife might have been influenced by her close kinship to his hero.

We needn’t go there. Whatever its roots, it turned out to be an extraordinary marriage once it was purged of sex. It ended in 1945 with Franklin’s death at Warm Springs, Georgia. His house guest that day, to Eleanor’s surprise, was Lucy Mercer.


Eleanor Roosevelt in ‘Flesh and Blood’ August 18, 2011

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