A warm, intimate account of the love between Eleanor Roosevelt and reporter Lorena Hickok--a relationship that, over more than three decades, transformed both women's lives and empowered them to play significant roles in one of the most tumultuous periods in American history."In 1933, as her husband assumed the presidency, Eleanor Roosevelt embarked on the claustrophobic, duty-bound existence of the First Lady with dread. By that time, she had put her deep disappointment in her marriage behind her and developed an independent life--now threatened by the public role she would be forced to play. A lifeline came to her in the form of a feisty campaign reporter for the Associated Press: Lorena Hickok. Over the next thirty years, until Eleanor's death, the two women carried on an extraordinary relationship: They were, at different points, lovers, confidantes, professional advisors, and caring friends. They couldn't have been more different. Eleanor had been raised in one of the nation's most powerful political families and was introduced to society as a debutante before marrying her distant cousin, Franklin. Hick, as she was known, had grown up poor in rural South Dakota and worked as a servant girl after escaping an abusive home, eventually becoming one of the most respected reporters at the AP. Her admiration drew the buttoned-up Eleanor out of her shell, and the two fell in love. For the next thirteen years, Hick had her own room at the White House, next to the First Lady's. These fiercely compassionate women inspired each other to right the wrongs of the turbulent era in which they lived. During the Depression, Hick reported from the nation's poorest areas for the WPA, and Eleanor used these reports to lobby her husband for New Deal programs. Hick encouraged Eleanor to turn their frequent letters into her popular and long-lasting syndicated column 'My Day,' and to befriend the female journalists who became her champions. When Eleanor's tenure as First Lady ended with FDR's death, Hick urged her to continue to use her popularity for important causes--advice Eleanor took by leading the UN's postwar Human Rights Commission. At every turn, the bond between these two women was grounded in their determination to better their troubled world. Deeply researched and told with great warmth, Eleanor and Hick is a vivid portrait of love and a revealing look at how an unlikely romance influenced some of the most consequential years in American history"--Publisher description.
Much of the author's evidence for the love affair between Eleanor and Hick is drawn from an archive of letters exchanged between them. The letters were donated by Hick to the FDR Library, with the proviso that they not be made available until after she died (Eleanor had died several years earlier). I appreciated that Quinn was careful not to draw unsupported conclusions about whether their love affair was physically consummated — there simply is no evidence to tell us either way. But it seems clear that the two women at the very least shared an extremely deep emotional bond and attachment that lasted the rest of their lives, even though it didn't always make them happy. Hick, in particular, comes across as someone who wanted much more than Eleanor was able to give her, and suffered jealously whenever the First Lady spent time with other close friends than her.
Apart from the personal relationship between Eleanor and Hick, time and again I was struck by the ways that times were different in the 1930s and 1940s. The Roosevelts seem to have treated the White House as their personal Howard Johnson Motor Lodge, with any number of people actually living in the White House with them for months or years at a time — close friends, extended family, pets of friends and family. And the press, including Hick, were privy to many personal details about the marriage and family life of FDR and Eleanor that would doubtless have created scandal, and tacitly agreed not to write about them. Bill Clinton must weep a bitter tear and then toss back some whiskey whenever he thinks about that.
I've been meaning to read a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt for some time, and I learned a lot to admire about her here even beyond what I already knew. Quinn is clear-eyed about the personal faults in Hick, Eleanor, FDR, and their children, all of whom suffered to varying degrees from the stifling attention of being in the close orbit of a beloved President. I'd still like to read a more comprehensive biography of this remarkable woman sometime, but this was a good place to start.
As for the book, to me it resembled one of those storied sandwiches, butt of many a joke, which consists of two luscious slices of bread with a repugnant meat filling the space between. The first and last hundred pages of the book are a delight, illuminating the joys and sorrows, ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies of the women's relationship in a sympathetic but not uncritical manner. Alas and alack, that leaves almost 200 pages of middle, which is essentially a superficial history of Roosevelt's war administration. Since this is familiar ground to every schoolchild in America, it will be review for most, and makes for a longish book. This book doesn't really need any filler, but if it did, Quinn's tangents peeking into the broader experience of the now forgotten but apparently numerous political tribades during this period are much more interesting and worthy of expansion than this rather tired collection of familiar political and military anecdotes.
While Eleanor is pretty much the world to Hick, and clearly loves her, Eleanor's position as first lady, her duties and in fact her entire personality make it clear that while she has strong feelings for Hick, other things, other people, other projects, draw her away. As much as I admire Eleanor for the changes she helped to make during a difficult time in our nation, I often feel that Hick's feelings are not completely explored or understood.She would never come first to Eleanor. Living this love during the time period was difficult enough, but for Hick, feeling that she was second, third or lower in importance must have been difficult. Throughout it all, Hick was staunchly patient, helpful and loving. I don't think she was often happy.
I was interested in reading a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt after watching "The Roosevelts" on PBS. She had impressed me with her intelligence, her stamina, interest in others and her tolerance of FDR's flings. This book follows her life from about 1932 to just before FDR becomes the President and until her death. Much of the story focuses on her relationship with the American Press journalist Lorena Hickok who becomes a life long friend. It's not clear if they were lovers as their relationship goes through ups and downs during and after the presidency. Hickok was assigned to Eleanor to write stories about the First Lady but quickly realized that she was a writer, orator and organizer in her own right. Hick was assigned to cover human interest stories of the victims of the Great Depression and travelled across the country, reporting back to the White House on the poverty and hopelessness of Americans. Eleanor was often able to meet up with her.
Over time and because of the circumstances of being the First Lady, they drifted apart but continued to correspond almost daily. Hick developed relationships with other women and Eleanor became very involved in speaking tours, writing a daily column called My Day and supporting FDR through the war years. After his death, she became a key supporter of the United Nations Declaration of human Rights. Eleanor died in 1962 and was celebrated by the world for her achievements. Hick struggled with finances later in life but managed to eke out a steady income by writing chapter books on American figures for an adolescent audience. She died in 1968 alone.
The book works as almost a dual biography. It gives information on both women, starting from their childhoods all the way through to their deaths. In addition, lots of historical context is given, so that the reader learns much about life in the U.S. during the Great Depression, the World's Fair, World War II, etc. An insider's look at the political scene is explored as well. There was definitely a lot that I learned about this era in history from reading Eleanor and Hick. Also, with both women being ahead of their time, there was so much that was applicable to today, especially issues related to social justice.
Quinn certainly did her research for this book, using a multitude of sources for it. These include letters exchanged between the two women (more than 3,300 over a 30-year period beginning in 1932), the unpublished autobiography of Lorena Hickok, Eleanor Roosevelt's memoirs and "My Day" columns, various newspaper articles, and occasional bits of other people's memoirs (e.g., Roosevelt's grandson Curtis). Furthermore, Quinn's writing style is easy and accessible, making this a smooth-flowing and enjoyable read. Although many historical facts are included, it never feels dull or taxing. I highly recommend this book for those who love history and/or biographies.
*Although many of the letters do suggest that there was perhaps a romantic relationship, it appears that Roosevelt had several other similarly passionate friendships. And, there was also indication that Hickok resumed a previous love affair during the same time she was supposedly in a relationship with Roosevelt.