Sometime early in his marriage, Franklin Roosevelt set out to write a novel. Its hero was to be George Richards, a young Chicago millionaire who had made his money manufacturing soap. FDR never got beyond the second page, but he did keep at it long enough to include an admiring portrait of his hero’s wife:
Mrs. Richards… seemed just as capable of managing economically and without friction an establishment that boasted of 3 servants as she had been when she did all the cooking and the housework in 3 rooms. Browning Clubs and other uplifting agencies among the fashionable ladies of the Chicago of that day meant nothing to her. Her husband, her children and her house were to her the beginning and the end.
Eleanor Roosevelt had brisk efficiency in common with her husband’s fictional domestic paragon, but precious little else, and the story of the Roosevelt marriage is very largely the story of the gap between the roles each had in mind for the other to play. Franklin would have preferred a wife like Mrs. Richards (or his own mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt), someone whose admiration for him was unconditional. Eleanor, on the other hand, orphaned as a child and perennially insecure, demanded an attentive intimacy of which Mrs. Richards’ elusive creator was incapable, and when she did not get it, and her husband then betrayed her with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, she famously struck out on her own. FDR’s loss was the country’s gain, of course, and in recent years, as women’s history has begun to take its place in our common history, her story has sometimes threatened to eclipse his.
“I honor the human race,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote at seventy-seven. “When it faces life head-on, it can almost remake itself.” She was writing from experience, for to an astonishing degree she was her own invention.
Franklin Roosevelt’s exuberant self-confidence was the gift of fond parents, a legacy of the love and approval with which he was surrounded as a boy. Eleanor Roosevelt had no such foundation. Her father was an alcoholic; her mother remote and troubled. Both were dead by the time their daughter was ten, and she was raised by relatives whose interest in her was for the most part merely dutiful. She was timid, withdrawn, frightened of “practically everything,” she remembered—mice, the dark, other children, “displeasing the people I lived with.” Her Aunt Edith, Theodore Roosevelt’s second wife, had thought her likely doomed: “I do not feel she has much of a chance,” she wrote when her niece was eight, “poor little soul.”
That poor little soul grew up to become the best-known, most widely admiredwoman in America, but nearly every inch of her climb required her to surmount immense psychological obstacles. The thing always to remember she said—and the italics are hers—is that “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Early experiences with her erratic father and with two alcoholic uncles—one of whom enjoyed firing birdshot at her from an upstairs window—had fostered in her a terror of irrational behavior. She learned at least partially to master it during World War One when, as the wife of the assistant secretary of the Navy, she regularly made herself visit the mental ward of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington. There she asked to have herself locked in so that she might talk with battle-shocked sailors, some chained to their beds, others unable to stop shouting of the horrors they had seen. “I wanted to bang at the door, to get out,” she remembered, “but I was ashamed of myself. I would not have shown my terror for the world.” Her fear of people who had lost what she called the “power of self-control” never left her. But she had demonstrated to her own satisfaction that she could face it down and carry on.
She filled much of her life with such self-administered tests, designed to reassure herself that if her anxieties could not always be entirely dispelled, they could be managed, kept in perspective: she was not fully persuaded that she had rid herself of racial prejudice, for example, until she had kissed her very dark colleague Mary McLeod Bethune on the cheek.
The struggle took its toll. She worried constantly that she might slip back, give in to the anxiety she called “the great crippler.” She nursed grievances in silence, suffered severe depressions, considered suicide. And her deepest childhood fear—that she could never hold anyone’s love for long—continued to haunt her in adult life. FDR always wanted to have a good time; ER didn’t know how. She was in fact “almost a melancholy person,” her niece Eleanor Wotkyns remembers, but she could recognize happiness in others, and when she did, “you could almost feel her touching it and liking the warmth of it….”
She justified her life by the ceaseless performance of duties. In this, as in many other things, she was more the favorite niece of the hyperkinetic Theodore Roosevelt than the wife of the easily distracted, far more relaxed FDR. “Black care,” TR once wrote, “rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.” ER put it differently, but the meaning was the same: “When one isn’t happy it is hard not to live at high speed.”
Eleanor Roosevelt lived at the highest possible speed, as the three recently published volumes of her “My Day” columns attest. Hastily dictated at the end of frenetic days, largely without humor and often hortatory, her columns offer little entertainment.1 But they are an astonishing record of good causes championed and good works done. She was dogged, inexhaustible, hugely effective.
Blanche Wiesen Cook’s new biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, the first of a projected two volumes, is admirable in many ways. Cook builds a convincing case that by 1928, for all of her subject’s lifelong protestations that she was merely filling in for her immobilized husband, ER had already built a sizable political following of her own. Cook is especially good at conveying the crucial contribution of other independent women to Eleanor Roosevelt’s self-creation.
The most important was Mademoiselle Marie Souvestre, the elderly French schoolmistress who took an interest in the adolescent Eleanor at Allenswood School outside London. Under Souvestre’s maternal care, she learned that the plainness that had so troubled her female relatives need not destroy her; that friendship, loyalty, sympathy, and intellect, too, could be made to count for something. It was at Allenswood, her cousin Corinne Alsop wrote, that “Eleanor for the first time was deeply loved, and loved in return.” By her senior year, she was the idol of the younger girls, who filled her room with violets on weekends to show their devotion. The memory of the success she achieved during her three years at Allenswood—“the happiest of my life”—never left her; the “self-confidence and ability to look after myself” she gained there would be undercut by her early, dependent years as a wife and mother, she wrote, but “when it was needed again, later on it came back to me more easily because of…Mlle. Souvestre.”2
She never took part in the women’s suffrage movement, and even expressed the fashionable sardonic view of its more zealous campaigners: “The suffrage parade was too funny,” she wrote an old friend after watching Woodrow Wilson’s inaugural in 1913, “and nice fat ladies with bare feet and legs posed in tableaux on the Treasury steps!” But when she plunged into politics on her own after her husband’s crippling in 1921, it was to veterans of that struggle to whom she turned for counsel and close friendship: Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, Caroline O’Day, Esther Lape and Elizabeth Read, and Molly Dewson, among others.
Together they transformed Democratic politics in New York State. ER had no illusions about the political role even the most apparently enlightened men had in mind for women. Men would say, she wrote: “You are wonderful. I love and honor you…. Lead your own life, attend to your charities, cultivate yourself, travel when you wish, bring up the children, run your house. I’ll give you all the freedom you wish and all the money I can but—leave me my business and politics.” She would have none of it: “Women must get into the political game and stay in it.”
She got in and she stayed, helping to lead four important women’s organizations—the League of Women Voters, the Women’s Trade Union League, the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Committee, the Women’s City Club—and she was capable, when the circumstances called for it, of facing down the most implacably chauvinist male politicians. In 1924, for example, when Charles Murphy, the “Quiet Boss” of Tammany Hall who had once outmaneuvered FDR, announced that he and not the county chairwomen ER and her friends had spent months helping to organize would choose the women delegates-at-large to the upcoming convention, she objected. “I imagine it is just a question of which [Murphy] dislikes most—giving me my way or having me give the papers a grand chance for a story by telling [all] at the women’s dinner,” she wrote FDR.
She told all. “It is always disagreeable to take stands,” she said. “It is always easier to compromise, always easier to let things go. To many women, and I am one of them, it is extraordinarily difficult to care about anything enough to cause disagreement or unpleasant feelings, but I have come to the conclusion this must be done for a time until we can prove our strength and demand respect for our wishes.” Murphy surrendered the next day.
“Against the men bosses,” she wrote, “there must be women bosses who can talk as equals, with the backing of a coherent organization of women voters behind them.” Eleanor Roosevelt became such a boss, and used her position on behalf of causes to which most of her male counterparts gave only lip service—the five-day week, the Child Labor Amendment, the League of Nations—but not the Equal Rights Amendment, which she then saw as undercutting the hard-won rights of woman workers to special protection. In 1926, she got herself arrested walking the picket line in support of striking box workers.
When she helped sponsor the Bok Peace Award contest, aimed at developing a plan by which the United States could keep out of future wars, the FBI began a file on her, which ran to more than three thousand pages, “and constitutes,” Cook writes, “a running record of her work in behalf of dignity, decency and justice.”
Especially in her later years, Mrs. Roosevelt’s air of grandmotherly idealism often fooled her critics into thinking she was naive, and even her allies sometimes underestimated her. In fact, she was every bit as astute a judge of her fellow-politicians as her husband had been—sometimes shrewder, since she was more suspicious of flattery than he.
And she learned from experience that neither men nor women had a monopoly on effectiveness or honesty or intelligence. When Adlai Stevenson became head of the United Nations Delegation in 1961, she sent him a characteristically shrewd note:
I enclose a list of really able women and I have checked the ones I think you might find best to work with. I am also enclosing a list of ladies without any mark on the paper. They are ladies I think may ask for different things but for heavens’s sake don’t let them get anything. They will be a nuisance to you right along.
A list of men will follow soon.3
Like the Roosevelts’ friends, those who write about the Roosevelts tend to divide into two camps. FDR’s biographers sometimes find ER’s unrelenting virtue wearying. ER’s biographers often come to share their subject’s disappointment that FDR wasn’t more faithful, more principled, more willing to take risks on behalf of worthwhile causes. Cook is solidly in ER’s camp and accuses some FDR biographers of treating Mrs. Roosevelt “meanly.” (I confess that I am one of them.) But I don’t believe any of us ever treated Mrs. Roosevelt as meanly as Cook treats a good many of the men who here clutter the brave world of ER and her uniformly worthy female friends. I know of no evidence, for example, that Franklin Roosevelt was “known to be a womanizer and a tippler,” before he began to court his future wife—he drank no more than most of his Harvard classmates, was, in fact, less worldly than most of his peers, and may well have gone to his wedding bed a virgin. Nor do I know of any evidence that later in life he was “a bottom-pincher, and a knee-holder.”
Sometimes Cook is simply wrong. There is no evidence that Mrs. Roosevelt ever suffered from anorexia, as Cook asserts, other than that in times of great stress she sometimes had trouble keeping food down. Cook writes that the Roosevelts “had few, if any, secrets from each other,” yet even ER admitted she had never been her husband’s confidante and he clearly had many secrets from her—including the all-important one, from her point of view, that, despite his pledge never to see Lucy Mercer again, he saw her repeatedly during World War II and was with her when he died.
Small errors and loose writing are easily forgiven, and Cook’s rounded portrait of ER’s growth as a public figure would make up for them had she been content with that. But she also insists that her subject’s private life was as unconventional as her public one was unusual for her time. The authentic Eleanor Roosevelt, she believes, “has been lost in an historical lie,” the victim of a mostly male conspiracy: “Portrayed as a Victorian wife and mother, she has been rendered a saint without desire, an aristocratic lady without erotic imagination.” Beginning in the late Twenties, Cook suggests, Mrs. Roosevelt turned to at least two sexual partners, first Earl Miller, the strapping New York State policeman initially assigned to guard her husband when he was governor of New York, and then the journalist Lorena Hickok, whose intense friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt was revealed by the journalist Doris Faber more than a decade ago. “In conventional terms,” Cook writes, “ER lived an outrageous life.”
No one can ever know precisely what happened behind closed doors so long ago, and Cook admits as much in her introduction: “We can only conclude with Virginia Woolf: ‘When a subject is highly controversial—and any question about sex is that—one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold.’ ” But no opinion is valid unless it proceeds from an even-handed examination of the evidence, and that, again and again, Cook fails to provide.
Since none of those still living who knew Eleanor Roosevelt well—at least none whom I have ever interviewed—share Cook’s beliefs about her private life, and most of those who have written about her, after examining the same documents, don’t either, one would expect at the least some new evidence in support of them. In this volume at least, she offers none, and where evidence does exist that tends to undercut her argument, she often simply leaves it out.
It suggests how very different the Roosevelts’ time was from ours that the complexities of their marriage were so successfully concealed during FDR’s dozen years in the White House. Had they, in 1932, had to endure the incessant press scrutiny now routinely imposed upon would-be First Families, they might never have made it to Washington at all. Questions about FDR’s physical condition and his reputation for genial equivocation aside, there remained his early romance with Lucy Mercer, his closeness to his unmarried secretary, Marguerite LeHand, and the fact that for all but ceremonial purposes, he and his wife lived apart, maintaining separate residences, separate circles of friends, rarely even dining together unless guests were present.
Such matters were off-limits to the press in that more circumspect time, and the first writer seriously to hint at the complexity of the Roosevelts’ marriage was Eleanor Roosevelt herself, whose This Is My Story appeared in 1937. Cook calls it and its succeeding volume “understated, self-deprecating monuments to discretion and silence,… [that] reveal…nothing of her relations with her husband,” but the friends in whom she had confided about her husband’s infidelity had little difficulty reading between its lines. Of the years during World War One when her husband betrayed her, for example, she wrote, “I think I learned then that practically no one in the world is entirely bad or entirely good….”
In This I Remember, published in 1949, she went considerably further, confessing that she had experienced only “an almost impersonal feeling” at her husband’s death in large part because “much further back I had had to face certain difficulties until I decided to accept the fact that a man must be what he is….” FDR, she continued, in a distinctly unsentimental summing-up of their relationship, “might have been happier with a wife who was completely uncritical. That I was never able to be, and he had to find it in other people. Nevertheless, I think I sometimes acted as a spur, even though the spurring was not always wanted or welcome. I was one of those who served his purposes.”
By the time her second book was published, the Roosevelts’ most closely held secrets had already begun to spill. In her gossipy 1946 memoir Washington Tapestry, Olive Clapper, the widow of the columnist Raymond Clapper, had noted “a persistent rumor” that the Roosevelt marriage had once been threatened by FDR’s indiscretion with a young Roman Catholic woman whom she declined to name. Three years later, the name was revealed when Roosevelt’s former secretary Grace Tully let slip in her memoir, FDR, My Boss, that Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd had been with FDR in Warm Springs when he died.
In 1954, Jonathan Daniels, a former Roosevelt aide, offered a fuller account of the relationship between FDR and Lucy Mercer in his The End of Innocence—and was indirectly taken to task for it two years later by the President’s eldest son, James, in Affectionately FDR: A Son’s Story of a Lonely Man: “I think the record of [my parents’] long and successful marital partnership is the best and most dignified answer to such rumors.” (This may have been an entirely sincere denial; only Anna, among the children, had ever been let in on the story by her mother, and even when, during World War Two, Franklin, Jr., home on leave from the Navy, happened into his father’s office to find a striking elderly woman sitting at his father’s feet and massaging his atrophied legs, the smiling President simply introduced her as, “My old friend, Mrs. Rutherfurd.” Franklin, Jr. had no idea what part she had played in his father’s life until well after FDR’s death.) Mrs. Roosevelt died in 1962. Six years later, Daniels retold the story of FDR’s romance in much richer detail in Washington Quadrille, and no one has added much to it in the intervening years, thanks mostly to the determined (and entirely understandable) reticence of the Rutherfurd family.
But in Eleanor and Franklin, published in 1971, Joseph P. Lash, one of the few close friends with whom Mrs. Roosevelt had discussed the Mercer affair, shrewdly assessed its impact upon her. It had confirmed all that an unfeeling aunt had once told her: she was too plain, too dull, too unhappy, to sustain the love of any man. But it had also encouraged her to build a life of her own, helped transform her from an intensely private person into a public figure of extraordinary energy and strength. “I have the memory of an elephant,” she told friends years later. “I can forgive but I cannot forget.” In fact, she neither forgave nor forgot; her husband’s betrayal of her was the wound she never permitted to heal; its incessant pain helped goad her toward independence.
In 1968, Lorena Hickok died, leaving well over three thousand letters to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library with instructions that they not be opened for ten years. There a newspaperwoman named Doris Faber stumbled upon them in 1978 and was both startled and bewildered by the apparent ardor with which Hickok and Mrs. Roosevelt had once written to each other. Faber’s book, The Life of Lorena Hickok: ER’s Friend, was published in 1980, and while she finally concluded that the women had been intimate friends but probably not lovers, the impassioned tone of some of the letters she included seemed to some to suggest otherwise.
Joseph Lash had only touched upon Mrs. Roosevelt’s relationship with Hickok in his own book—not, as Cook implies, because he wished to keep their relationship a secret, but because Hickok herself had denied him access to their correspondence. He had been one of those with whom she had had to share her famous friend and she resented it. “Someday—probably years from now—someone will write a fine biography of your Mother,” she told Anna Roosevelt in 1966, “… but it won’t be ‘good old Joe.’ I’ll be damned if he’s going to get his hot little hands into my papers.”4
Hickok’s papers made headlines and partly in response to the questions they continued to raise, Lash published two thick volumes of Mrs. Roosevelt’s letters, Love, Eleanor and A World of Love, which demonstrated to his satisfaction and that of many Roosevelt scholars that while her letters to Hickok had indeed been passionate, they were only marginally more so than the letters with which she flooded other friends, male and female, over the years, so many that if epistolary ardor were the sole criterion, one would have to assume she was conducting simultaneous affairs with all of them.
Cook disagrees. “The myths of Victorian prudery and purity have been history’s most dependable means of social control,” she contends. “Class-bound and gender-related, obscured by privets and closets and vanishing documents, establishment lust has followed the dictates of establishment culture: traditionally for men only.” Victorian prudery (as opposed to purity) was not a myth but a reality, but otherwise, Cook makes a good general case. She is right that an earlier generation of historians, mostly male, too often distorted the great women of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, preferring to see them “as asexual spinsters, odd gentlewomen who sublimated their lust in various good works.”
But when she applies this generalization to the way Mrs. Roosevelt has been treated by other biographers she goes badly wrong. It is simply not true, as she writes, that “all explanations of [Eleanor Roosevelt’s] life have continued to assure us that she was limited by her Victorian upbringing, confined to her Victorian sensibilities.” I and others have argued that it was not so much the confined social background in which she was raised as her own uniquely constricted upbringing that makes her supposed affairs so improbable.
Childhood had left her, ER once wrote, “with an exaggerated idea of the necessity of keeping all one’s desires under complete subjugation.” This did not mean she did not have desires. She craved physical affection all her life—perhaps because she had so little of it as a child. Even on her honeymoon, the prospect of embracing her mother-in-law evidently thrilled her: “…I shall look forward to our next long evening together,” she wrote Sara Delano Roosevelt just before she and her new husband set sail for Europe, “when I shall want to be kissed all the time,” and again from the Continent, “I feel as though we would have such a long arrears of kisses and cuddly times to make up when we get home!”
Kisses and cuddly times were one thing, sex was another. “Something,” Eleanor Roosevelt once confessed to Lorena Hickok, “locked me up & I cannot unlock.”5 The key to that lock seems to have been her stunted childhood. After the deaths of her parents, she grew up in a largely loveless household, punctuated by the frequent threats of suicide of a self-obsessed aunt and the unpredictable behavior of her alcoholic uncles. To the end of her 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 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, I believe, conspired against her enjoying sex.
We know she felt this way because she said so, though Cook is oddly dis-missive of her testimony. “We have been told, over and over again,” she writes, “based exclusively on her daughter’s casual observation, that ER considered ‘sex an ordeal to be borne.’ ” But there was nothing remotely casual about Anna Roosevelt’s memory of what her mother had said to her on the eve of her own first wedding—it profoundly affected her own private life and she never forgot it. Much later, as a young adult, Curtis Roosevelt, Anna’s son, discussed with his mother his grandmother’s attitude toward sex. ER had been frank to say she disliked its sweaty mechanics, Anna told him, and after discovering FDR’s relationship with Lucy Mercer, she had never again shared his bed, nor had he ever entered her bedroom.
Eleanor Roosevelt always seemed uncomfortable when sex was discussed. Off-color stories made her wince—and her sons liked to tell them in front of her in part just to see her wince. When she attended Tobacco Road in 1934, she found it “revolting,” and in 1948, she saw A Streetcar Named Desire and was equally horrified. The play was “crude and almost animal-like,” she wrote in “My Day.”
I felt a little soiled in my mind and quite ill…. There is a certain kind of healthy vulgarity that one can endure, perhaps with some embarrassment but still with amusement. There are certain other types of artistic and emotional expression, however, that show degeneracy of the spirit with the individual and with the nation.
Finally, and here I confess that I am myself indulging in pure speculation, it is hard for me to believe that Mrs. Roosevelt would ever 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 she never forgave him for betraying.
What then are we to make of Eleanor Roosevelt’s relationships with Earl Miller and Lorena Hickok? The answer, I believe, lies largely in a sentence from a letter she wrote to Hickok in 1934: “I always feel that you & Earl need me more than anyone when things go wrong for neither of you have anyone much nearer to whom to turn….”
Love and service were synonymous to Eleanor Roosevelt. She was drawn to persons for whom she thought she could do good. And when she had done what she could for them, she usually moved on, since she assumed their affection for her would not last, that she was valued because of who she was, not what she was.
“But Mrs. Roosevelt,” her secretary Maureen Corr asked her toward the end of her life. “Don’t you think people ever love you for yourself?”
“No dear,” Mrs. Roosevelt replied. “I don’t.”
Eleanor Roosevelt met Corporal Earl Miller of the New York State Police in 1929, when she and her husband moved to the Governor’s Mansion in Albany and FDR made him her bodyguard. He was thirty-two, handsome and athletic—he’d been a circus acrobat and amateur boxer, prided himself on his marksmanship, swimming, and horsemanship—and he was brashly charming. She was then forty-five, the mother of five mostly grown children, already a grandmother, and miserable—convinced her husband’s election to the governorship meant an end to the independent life she had painstakingly constructed for herself since 1918.
Beginning in girlhood, when she had romanticized her absent, unreliable father, she was drawn to boyish, athletic charmers. Like her husband when he’d been young, like Dr. David Gurewitsch, the close friend of her last years, Miller fit that pattern. But unlike FDR, Miller seems to have been willing from the first to confide in her, telling her of his own lonely childhood, even seeking her counsel about the many young women who pursued him.
Both Roosevelts liked him, and he soon became a member of the family’s inner circle, but his first allegiance was always to ER, and she lavished upon him the sort of generosity and attention she might have given a favorite son. She bought him clothes, helped him set up a series of households, made the arrangements for at least one of his weddings, even scrubbed his floor. Some of her friends were startled by the informal way he treated her. Her mother-in-law was appalled when he began to dine with the family rather than with the servants in the kitchen, and there were inevitably whispers in Albany about the handsome young officer who seemed to accompany the governor’s wife wherever she went. Mrs. Roosevelt paid no attention. Her friends were her friends.
Cook, however, suggests they were lovers. “Forever chivalric,” Cook writes, “Earl Miller never provided any details of his friendship with ER.” He did take a dim view of anyone who wrote about the personal lives of either of the Roosevelts who had been so kind to him, but he did something else which Cook chose to ignore. He explicitly denied any physical relationship with Mrs. Roosevelt.
“Wouldn’t Mrs. R. have married you?” Joseph Lash asked him.
“Me?” Miller answered. “I never asked her or would have done so.”
Lash persisted. “But might she have asked you?”
“You don’t sleep with someone you call Mrs. Roosevelt. Anyway, my taste was for young and pretty things.”
Young and pretty things abounded and Miller made the most of his opportunities, with his patron’s apparent approval. When he stayed in the New York apartment she often shared with her secretary Malvina Thompson, she was indulgent even when his girl-friends called him at four in the morning, and when in 1940 Miller told her he had fallen in love with his first wife’s cousin, her main worry seems to have been that Missy LeHand, her husband’s secretary, with whom Miller had simultaneously been having an affair, might be upset.
In another part of Miller’s interview with Lash, also left out of Cook’s book but central, I think, to assessing his relationship with the Roosevelts, Miller explained what drew him to his employers.
I had no home after I was twelve…. I transferred the affection I would have felt for my parents to the Roosevelts. As I sat in back of the Packard and saw the back of F.D.R.’s head, I thought it was my dad. They gave me the first home I knew.
Still more important, we have Eleanor Roosevelt’s own words on the subject, at least indirectly. In 1948, Earl Miller’s third wife sued him for divorce, naming Mrs. Roosevelt as corespondent and offering in evidence a packet of her letters to her husband. Franklin Roosevelt, Jr., volunteered to act as her attorney. “Mummy, if I’m going to represent you in this action,” he said, “I have to know everything.”
Of course she had always loved Earl, she assured her son, but “[i]n the sense that you mean there was nothing.”
Franklin, Jr., and Elliott were then given access to copies of the letters. While they were effusive, Franklin, Jr., told me, they were no more so than her letters to other friends. The controversy horrified Mrs. Roosevelt, less because she could be embarrassed by it, than because the letters could be misconstrued so as to damage the political futures of her sons. A financial settlement was reached, Mrs. Miller got her divorce, and the letters were sealed by the court. 6
As Cook demonstrates, Eleanor Roosevelt possessed an extraordinary gift for political and personal growth. Slower than many of her contemporaries to see the value of votes for women, she transformed herself into a tough and able politician; timid and reticent as a girl, she became an international champion of progressive causes. Homosexuality, however, was not one of them. Had she somehow lived on into our own time, she undoubtedly would have added gay rights to her lengthy agenda. But she did not, and in laying the groundwork for ER’s supposed homosexual relationship with Lorena Hickok, Cook again stacks the deck.
She notes, for example, that after reading Margaret Kennedy’s novel, The Constant Nymph in 1924, ER jotted, “No form of love is to be despised” in her journal. But the novel from which she adapted that line describes a heterosexual, not a homosexual romance, and Cook does not include the inconvenient fact that when Mrs. Roosevelt’s friend Esther Lape gave her a copy of André Gide’s novel Les Faux-Monnayeurs at roughly the same time, its theme of male homosexuality appalled her. “She read it in terms of forbidden subject. She couldn’t bring herself even to consider homosexuality,” Lape recalled. “Generally her reaction was not so final, but in this case it was.”
ER, like so many otherwise enlightened women and men of her day, considered homosexuality a neurotic compulsion, a subject to be shunned. (On the evidence presented in Doris Faber’s biography, even Lorena Hickok seems to have been sadly discomfited by it in herself.) It is true that some of Mrs. Roosevelt’s closest friends were women who lived with other women, including Esther Lape and her companion, Elizabeth Read, who helped introduce ER to women’s politics, and Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, with whom she built Val-Kill, the cottage and furniture factory complex near her mother-in-law’s Hyde Park house. Cook writes that these women were lesbians, and if we apply the broad definition of lesbianism she has offered elsewhere, she is clearly right: “Women who love women, who choose women to nurture and support and to create a living environment in which to work creatively and independently….”7 But whether some or all of ER’s friends also engaged in sexual activity is impossible to know—their partnerships had been formed in the era of the “Boston marriage,” which provided women with a socially accepted alternative to marriage and children and did not necessarily imply anything more than companionship. If they did, it is by no means clear that ER was aware of it, let alone took part in it, as Cook hints she did. Private lives were truly private then, especially for women of Mrs. Roosevelt’s class and upbringing, and it was still possible to avoid seeing what one did not wish to see.8
Mrs. Roosevelt enjoyed Earl Miller’s friendship at one low point in her life. Lorena Hickok entered it at another, ER had worked out for herself a way to retain her independence as the wife of the governor of New York, but FDR’s run for the presidency again threatened to make her a mere appendage, no longer able to speak her mind, and without meaningful work to do. (When she asked her husband if she couldn’t just help with his mail, he bluntly turned her down; Missy, he told her, would be displeased.)
Like Earl Miller, Lorena Hickok, came from a very different world from Eleanor Roosevelt’s, but her girlhood had been still more troubled and her struggle to invent herself at least as arduous. Her father was a Middle Western butter-maker who beat his daughter, and may have raped her, as well. Her mother died when Hickok was thirteen, and shortly thereafter she left home, supporting herself as a hired girl in rooming houses until an aunt took her in at fifteen. With her help, she got through high school, then got a job with the Battle Creek Evening News. She eventually moved to the Minneapolis Tribune, then the New York Mirror, finally the Associated Press. She was a lively writer, widely respected, and popular with her mostly male colleagues, with whom she swapped stories and smoked cigars and drank bourbon. There is no question about her sexual inclinations; she was devastated in 1926 when her woman companion of eight years, another reporter, left her to marry a man.
Assigned to cover the Roosevelts during the 1932 campaign, Hickok was soon smitten by the candidate’s wife. She seemed to sense intuitively ER’s fragility, her need for admiration and support. The result was one of the most intense friendships of Mrs. Roosevelt’s life. On the surface, it would seem to have been different from the others, in that it had been initiated by ER’s vulnerability, not Hickok’s. But the situation quickly changed, partly because of Hickok’s devotion and encouragement, and ER began to fashion a new life for herself, redefined the role of First Lady, developed new friendships. Hickok, left behind, was hurt and resentful, and became increasingly dependent.
There is no question that Lorena Hickok was in love with Eleanor Roosevelt. And that Eleanor Roosevelt loved her. But the precise nature of their friendship beyond those agreed-upon facts resists definition. Whether they ever expressed their affection for each other physically is both unknowable and ultimately unimportant, but to suggest, as Cook does, that they did so when the evidence is at best ambiguous seems irresponsible.9
“I wish I could lie down beside you tonight & take you in my arms,” ER once wrote Hickok, and Cook sees in this and similar effusions evidence of a physical relationship. But this is little different from the language she used when writing to her mother-in-law, thirty years earlier—and would use again when writing to other friends with whom she clearly had only a platonic friendship. Often, too, her letters to Hickok were less amorous than solicitous, offers of comfort and consolation prompted by Hickok’s complaints about her digestion, her loneliness and bleak prospects.10
The most celebrated of Lorena Hickok’s letters to Mrs. Roosevelt, written after a lengthy absence, reads in part: “Only eight more days…. Funny how even the dearest face will fade away in time. Most clearly I remember your eyes, with a kind and teasing smile in them, and the feeling of that soft spot just north-east of the corner of your mouth against my lips….”
“They wrote to each other exactly what they meant to write,” Cook believes. “Sigmund Freud notwithstanding: A cigar may not always be a cigar but ‘the north-east…corner of your mouth against my lips’ is always the northeast corner.” No one denies that Hickok wanted a physical relationship with Mrs. Roosevelt. The question is whether Mrs. Roosevelt entertained similar feelings for her. And if the two did always mean exactly what they wrote, it will be interesting to see how Cook will deal with three passages that fall within the purview of her next volume. “Yes, dear,” ER wrote Hickok in 1934,
I think you will remember that I once told you I wished you had been happy with a man or that it might still be. I rather think that the lack of that relationship does create “emotional instability” but people do seem to weather it in time & who knows what the future holds.
And again in 1935:
Of course you should have had a husband & children & it would have made you happy if you loved him & in any case it would have satisfied certain cravings & given you someone on whom to lavish the love & devotion you have to keep down all the time. Yours is a rich nature with so much to give that the outlets always seem meagre.
And yet again, that same year:
I know you often have a feeling for me which for one reason or another I may not return in kind but I feel I love just the same & so often we entirely satisfy each other that I feel there is a fundamental basis on which our relationship stands.
That basis—of intimate friendship and shared confidences rather than of sexual intimacy, I believe—never entirely satisfied Hickok, but she eventually came to terms with it, and moved on to an intense and apparently physical relationship with another woman, Judge Marion Harron of the United States Tax Court.
ER continued to help Hickok until her own death, finding her jobs, providing a room at the White House during the war, and, later, near her own cottage at Hyde Park. Mrs. Roosevelt’s secretary Malvina Thompson, to whom the frantic comings and goings of her employer’s many “satellites” were a perpetual source of wonder and annoyance, referred to Hickok as “the enduring guest.” Others in Mrs. Roosevelt’s circle believed her a freeloader, just as she saw them as parvenus. Perhaps Hickok’s decision to deposit so many of her letters to and from Mrs. Roosevelt in the Roosevelt library was her attempt to demonstrate after her death what she had been unable to demonstrate before: her centrality in the life of the driven, peripatetic woman she continued to love and resented sharing.
Cook’s lament that the documents that would demonstrate what she calls Mrs. Roosevelt’s “amorosity” and prove her case have deliberately been destroyed runs throughout her book: “The disappearance of many documents was not an accident,” she writes, “but rather a calculated denial of ER’s passionate friendships.” Calculated by whom? She never quite says. What struck me when writing about the Roosevelts was not how little documentary evidence had survived but how much. At the time of Roosevelt’s death, his library housed forty-five tons of papers. Since then, so many thousand letters to and from Eleanor Roosevelt have been added to the collection that no one has attempted even a crude tally.
In any case, at least some of Cook’s questions about missing documents can readily be answered.
“ER’s friendship with Earl Miller has been and remains an amazing study of denial and lost documents,” she writes. “No other friendship has been so well covered up….” The correspondence between Eleanor Roosevelt and Earl Miller has disappeared, but who destroyed it when and how much of it there ever was remain unclear. Cook claims Miller wrote his Lady “long, daily letters,… from 1928 until ER’s death in 1962,” though she nowhere explains how she knows this, and Maureen Corr, who handled all of Mrs. Roosevelt’s mail from 1952 to the end of her life, says that Miller’s letters, at least during those years, were only “very occasional.”
“Although [Esther] Lape had agreed to be interviewed by an archivist,” Cook continues, “she changed her mind and sealed her interview.” The implication is that Miss Lape had been indiscreet about Mrs. Roosevelt’s private life and thought better of it. What actually happened was that Miss Lape, in her nineties and unwell, disliked the transcript when she saw it typed up, and asked that it be sealed. According to the interviewer himself, Mrs. Roosevelt’s personal life never came up.
Again, Cook writes, “After [ER’s] death, Hickok and Lape sat around the open fire at Lape’s Connecticut estate and spent hours burning letter after letter.” There is no way of knowing what Miss Lape may have burned that day. But Hickok wrote Anna Roosevelt the next day that she had burned just fifteen letters, and it seems clear from what she says that her decision to destroy documents, on this occasion at least, had nothing to do with eliminating evidence of any alleged romance with Mrs. Roosevelt (had she worried much about that, she would surely have destroyed the fervent letters that launched the controversy). Rather, she told Anna, she was worried that the Roosevelt children might be hurt by some of the things their mother had said about them. Hickok had been among those to whom ER unburdened herself about the tumultuous private lives of her often married offspring. “Your Mother wasn’t always so very discreet in her letters to me…,” Hickok told Anna, “undoubtedly…there are things that would be offensive to you children or hurt you.” In destroying a handful of letters, Hickok was honoring her late friend’s wishes.
Admittedly, several of Eleanor Roosevelt’s closest friends, among them Marion Dickerman and Esther Lape, did not in the end choose to leave their correspondence to the Roosevelt Library. No one can be certain why, but both had lived long enough to see their celebrated friends’ personal lives sensationalized and may not have wanted to be the unwitting cause of still more misinterpretation.
As a fellow biographer, I share Cook’s regret at the disappearance of any document. But as a human being, I sympathize with those who decide simply to do away with evidence rather than permit strangers to wander through their private lives after they are dead, picking and choosing and getting things wrong.
September 24, 1992
Eleanor Roosevelt’s My Day, three volumes, Rochelle Chadakoff and David Elmblidge, editors (Pharos Books, 1989–1991). ↩
Eleanor Roosevelt, This is My Story (Garden City Publishing, 1937), p. 85. ↩
Quoted in an unpublished speech by Joseph Lash, lent to me by Trude Lash. ↩
Doris Faber, The Life of Lorena Hickok, E.R.’s Friend (Morrow, 1980), p. 373–374. ↩
Joseph P. Lash, Love, Eleanor (Doubleday, 1982), p. 201. ↩
While Cook’s account takes no note of ER’s own denial of an affair with Miller, it does include James Roosevelt’s suggestion that there may possibly have been one. In assessing the authoritativeness of James Roosevelt’s views a little publishing history is helpful. After the great success of Lash’s Eleanor and Franklin demonstrated that there was still money to be made from writing about the Roosevelts, Elliott, the most troubled of their children (and for that reason, perhaps, his mother’s favorite) rushed to repay her devotion with An Untold Story: The Roosevelts of Hyde Park (1973), the first of three ghosted books peppered with “revelations” about his parents so crude and mean-spirited that James and his sister Anna felt impelled publicly to disassociate themselves from them. Not long after that, James Roosevelt and his ghost hurried to the Playboy Press with a hastily assembled book of their own, in which they speculated that ER “may” have dallied with Earl Miller, a notion to which her son had clearly come very recently, and for which he offered not a shred of evidence. ↩
Blanche Wiesen Cook, “Female Support Networks and Political Activism: Lilian Wald, Crystal Eastman and Emma Goldman,” Chrysalis, No. 3 (Autumn 1977), p. 48. ↩
When Elizabeth Reade died, for example, Mrs. Roosevelt wrote Joseph Lash of her friend’s long relationship with Esther Lape: “Their lives were in all but the physical relationship, like the best kind of marriage ” (My italics). Whether she merely meant that they were not man and woman, or really thought there had been no physical relationship between them, no one knows. But the one, it seems to me, is no more likely than the other. ↩
Cook is perhaps most careless in her use of an innocuous anecdote first told by ER in This Is My Story, and then retold in Hickok’s biography of her friend, Reluctant First Lady. On inauguration day in 1933, the new President’s wife called Hickok to the family quarters for an exclusive interview. “I do not remember what I told her,” ER wrote, “but I do remember that we were interrupted so often that we finally retired to the bathroom to finish the interview.” ↩
Precisely the same sort of response was elicited by the complaints of other friends: “I want to be with you & put my arms around you,” she wrote Joseph Lash in 1940, for example, after receiving a letter in which he had expressed discouragement at the course of his courtship of the woman he eventually married. ↩