Sunday, April 30, 2017
Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady: A Review
Quinn, S. (2016) Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady. Penguin Press, New York.
In the years since the death of Eleanor Roosevelt, all the skeletons appear to have come out of her and her husband President Franklin D. Roosevelt's closet. Eleanor herself appears to have been forced out of the closet, her sexual persuasion now a subject of debate. The BIG question surrounding the former First Lady is 'Was Miss Ellie gay? Was she maybe bisexual?' Eleanor and Hick cannot answer the question of whether she and her friend/associate Lorena Hickok had a sexual relationship. There is simply no solid proof of such a thing.
Eleanor and Hick does show that there was a deep, profound, even romantic relationship between Roosevelt and Hickok, but romantic attachments does not always mean sexual relations or even physical desire. One can feel passionate, even romantic about someone without it becoming physical. Eleanor and Hick makes a strong case that without Hickok, Eleanor would not have become the iconic, activist First Lady she became.
There could not be two women as vastly different as the patrician Eleanor and the hard-scrabble Lorena. The former was born into wealth and privilege, daughter of one of the oldest New York families and niece of the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. The latter was born into squalor, abused by her father and forced out into the world. Despite their radically different social circumstances, the two were kindred souls.
Eleanor, nicknamed 'Granny' by her own mother for her dour demeanor, was brought up in a pretty chaotic world. The glamorous Alice Roosevelt looked askance at her daughter and openly called her unattractive. Eleanor's father Elliott had a very serious drinking problem and while he was devoted to his 'Little Nell', it wasn't enough to save him. Eleanor's childhood was filled with fine homes but ones full of emptiness and even danger.
Hickok's early years were equally chaotic. With essentially no parents, she dropped out of school and worked in other people's homes until a distant relative, Aunt Ella, rescued Hick, helping her get an education and eventually a career as a journalist. It was as a journalist that Hickok and Roosevelt got reacquainted (Hickok having previously interviewed Eleanor when the latter was the spouse of an up-and-coming politician named Franklin); Hickok got a chance to board a train carrying the Roosevelts on a campaign tour and she got an interview. Despite their differing backgrounds, they immediately bonded.
Hickok was as openly lesbian as one could be in the 1930s, and she fell in love with Eleanor as well as the New Deal the Roosevelts personified. Knowing that it would be impossible to be impartial, Hick gave up her career as a journalist to be with Roosevelt in both official and unofficial capacities. Eleanor's own private life was not as clear: in her posh French school, Allenswood, many girls were attracted to her in various degrees, from mere infatuation to perhaps sexual desire. Whether she actually returned the affections is unknown.
For a time, the two were very close companions, bosom buddies if you will. Again, whether it ever turned sexual, even once, is something Eleanor and Hick does not give a firm affirmative or negative. Roosevelt did associate with a large group of lesbians, who were a major part of Democratic Party outreach, especially to women. One of her enterprises, Val-Kill, was a cooperative between Eleanor and a lesbian couple with whom she eventually had a bitter falling out.
Hick encouraged Eleanor to be more assertive, working with her to break out of her shell more and take risks. It was Hick who suggested that Eleanor use her diaries and letters to her to create what would become Eleanor's daily My Day newspaper column, making Eleanor's voice and views known around the world, for good or ill to FDR (who was too busy with both the business of government and his own wandering eye to be hovering over 'the missus').
Quinn's argument is that Eleanor would not have become the First Lady of the World if not for the help of this squat little woman next to the almost six-foot-tall Eleanor. Eventually though, whatever passion they felt for each other, be it romantic, sexual, or something in between, faded. There was still respect, admiration, and affection, but the thrill was gone. Eleanor had found other people (men, interestingly enough), while Hick found love with another woman.
Eventually, old age caught up with Eleanor Roosevelt, and she died in 1962, revered and admired. Lorena Hickok died five years later, pretty much forgotten by history, yet in those five years, on Eleanor Roosevelt's birthday, Hick would go to her old companion's grave and leave a tribute: a yellow rose.
There is a difference between affection and attraction. They are not one and the same. I believe one can be fond of someone, even feel great emotion for them, without it ever entering the world of physical intimacy. It may be possible that Eleanor Roosevelt had great passion for Lorena Hickok, finding in her someone to confide in, to free up emotions. Their letters do indicate something very strong: Eleanor treasuring a ring Hick had given her, reminiscing about their trips together.
One letter even speaks about how Eleanor wanted "to put my arms around you and hold you close". Read today, they strongly suggest a physical relationship.
So, was Eleanor into a gay life? Again, no proof has yet confirmed or wholly denied a physical relationship, and my memory of Eleanor and Hick doesn't ever say "Yes, they had sex". I imagine that for many people, particularly the LGBT community, having someone as prominent as a First Lady be in 'the sewing circle' would be of great symbolic use.
As a side note, these are probably the same people who stretch to find that either President James Buchanan or his successor, Abraham Lincoln, might have been gay based on circumstantial evidence that can be interpreted in certain ways to fit the supposition.
However, on a personal level, I'm disinclined to think that Mrs. Roosevelt did indeed carry on a sexual relationship with Lorena Hickok or with anyone outside Franklin.
There are a few things to consider. First, Mrs. Roosevelt came from an era where women could be more openly affectionate without there being any suggestion of 'untoward or unnatural' activities. Second, Eleanor and Franklin had five children together, hardly a suggestion that Eleanor didn't, at least on some level, enjoy heterosexual sex. There might have been more intimacy between them if not for Franklin's devastating affair with Eleanor's social secretary, Lucy Mercer (later Mrs. Rutherford), which totally broke that part of their life together. Third, would Eleanor, as old-fashioned in some ways as she was, and who had endured the horror of an unfaithful spouse, herself opt to be unfaithful?
There had been rumors of an affair between herself and a bodyguard, Earl Miller. He had a smaller but still influential role in the First Lady's life, showing her how to shoot and making her laugh. When asked about the possibility of an actual sexual relationship, he answered, "You don't go to bed with someone you call 'Mrs. Roosevelt'". In her latter years, the Widow Eleanor was also extremely fond of her doctor, David Gurewitsch, with the suggestion she was in love with him.
Whether Eleanor Roosevelt was gay or bisexual is known to only one person, and she isn't giving interviews outside a seance.
If the idea that Eleanor Roosevelt was schtupping a rather frumpy middle-aged woman is the reason one picks up Eleanor and Hick, it would be a sad turn, because the book is not some sordid tabloid gossipy tome. It is instead, a very interesting read about the relationship between two women, whatever form it took, helping and shaping each other, as well as shaping world history. One learns quite a bit, such as how influential lesbians were in the Democratic Party of the Roosevelt years.
One also learns about these two very interesting women, who rose from very punishing circumstances to become strong, capable, and historic figures. That, I would argue, is more interesting than any sexual tidbits about long-dead people.