"A REPORTER SHOULD NEVER get too close to the news source," was Louis Howe's advice to Lorena A. Hickok, an Associated Press newspaperwoman assigned to interview Eleanor Roosevelt after her husband's inauguration in March, 1933. But the warning came too late for the self-confessed lesbian. She had already fallen deeply in love with the president's wife, plighting her troth with a prized sapphire ring.
"Hick darling," Mrs. Roosevelt wrote in gratitude. "I want to put my arms around you, I ache to hold you close. Your ring is a great comfort. I look at it & think she does love me or I wouldn't be wearing it!"
This letter is one of over 3,000 affectionate exchanges between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, dating from 1932 to 1962. Their correspondence forms the basis of Doris Faber's mildly startling, rather awkwardly written biography of a hitherto neglected figure.
In her time Hickok was the foremost female journalist in America. The road to that eminence had been hard won. Born into a lackluster Wisconsin family in 1893, she had worked her way to college as "a hired girl," washing dishes in private homes and cheap boarding houses. Unattractive and pudgy, neglected by her mother, beaten and raped by her father, she sought solace in books, becoming a straight-A student in most subjects, including Latin, Greek and German. During the next 20 years she established herself as an award-winning reporter, producing "a steady flow of front-page stories" for the Minneapolis Tribune, the New York Mirror and the Assoicated Press.
She was first introduced to Mrs. Roosevelt (eight years her senior) in 1928, while covering FDR's campaign for governor of New York and was instantly attracted to her patrician qualities. She also felt a special empathy with her plainness, ungainly height and poor dress sense. For her part, Eleanor Roosevelt was drawn to Hickok's directness, humor, quick intelligence and imagination. She envied women of achievement, and longed to be one of them. At the same time she sensed the loneliness of the stout reporter and treated her, according to Faber, with "the special kindness that a woman of her compassion reserves for life's unfortunates." It was, in fact, an attraction of opposites. Eleanor was reserved and abstemious, with an expressed dislike of even the smell of alcohol. Lorena was loud, sometimes brash, a prodigious eater with a penchant for hard liquor.
By the time FDR became president, Eleanor Roosevelt had already spent some 23 years in public life. Yet she felt inadequate for the role of first lady, fearing that she would be thought "a pallid ineffectual copy" of her Uncle Theodore's wife, Edith Kermit Roosevelt. In her opinion, Aunt Edith was "one of the most successful and admired hostesses the White House had ever had." Another reason for her lack of confidence was that her husband was so intellectually self-sufficient and so determinedly cavalier about his physical disability that her intense desire to be needed was not satisfied. While acknowledging that he was "a great man," she felt "a stranger" to him, particularly since discovering his affair with Lucy Mercer.
Into this vacuum in Eleanor Roosevelt's emotional life stepped Lorena Hickok. Discreet, loyal, generous and warm, she quickly became a prop to the "reluctant First Lady," as she called her in a charming memoir written toward the end of her life, and now reissued. In one of Eleanor's early Washington letters to the reporter she wrote: "I can't kiss you so I kiss your picture goodnight and good morning! . . . God bless you 'light of my life.'" And then later: "I couldn't bear to think of you crying yourself to sleep. Oh! how I wanted to put my arms around you in reality instead of spirit."
In spite of her well-established intimacy with the first lady, Hickok felt uncomfortable visiting the White House -- "a crudely cut out comic paper doll pasted on a fine old tapestry." Beside, she was ill at ease with FDR; his intellect intimidated her, and his friendliness no doubt made her feel guilty.
As for her career, she had committed the fatal insolence of growing too close to her subect. Accordingly, less than a month after her friend went to Washington, Hickok resigned her post at the Associated Press and began work for Harry Hopkins at the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. During the Depression she was to produce some of the best reports ever written on the state of America's underpriviledged.
From this point on the lives of the two women took on the symmetry of a Henry James novel. As Eleanor's moon waxed, Lorena's waned. As Eleanor gained confidence in her official duties, and (thanks to Hickok's assistance and encouragement) in her writing and speechmaking, Lorena went into professional and physical decline. She came to depend on Mrs. Roosevelt's recommendations for government-related jobs, for money, clothes and even shelter. (During World War II she actually moved into the White House for four years, giving her address on tax returns as 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.) Her weight soared toward 200 pounds; she contracted diabetes and its attendant eye problems and fell victim to melancholia.
Her work for Hopkins took her away for weeks at a time. "I've been trying today to bring back your face," she wrote the first lady from Minnesota. "Most clearly I remember your eyes . . . and the feeling of that soft spot just northeast of the corner of your mouth against my lips."
When Time described Hickok as "a rotund lady with a husky voice, a peremptory manner, baggy clothes," she confessed to wanting "to kick every reporter I see." Eleanor claimed not to care what the press said about either of them. "One cannot hide things in this world can one?" she wrote Lorena. "How lucky you are not a man!" With scant regard for present scandal, or the censure of posterity, the first lady continued to commit her innermost feelings to paper: "It is all the little things, tones in your voice, the feel of your hair, gestures, these are the things I think about and long for."
Inevitably, as Eleanor Roosevelt became more a "personage," moving onto the world stage as an American delegate to the United Nations after the death of FDR, her need for Lorena Hickok dwindled. Nevertheless their friendship lasted, and they spent their final years living in close proximity at Hyde Park. Eleanor's death parted them in 1962.
The subject matter of Faber's book is compelling; the prose style less so. At times her syntax is positively bewildering: "No more than E.R. could endure hurting their feelings could she be less than motherly to Earl Miller." Whole paragraphs are patched together out of such non sequiturs as: "Hick also served as a safety valve allowing the harmless expression of varied emotion. E.R. confided her gloom to Hick when her son Elliott's wife tried to give back family pearls, once that divorce became inevitable. Upon attending a ceremony at the Labor Department E.R. told Hick she was 'very proud' of Frances Perkins, the first woman Cabinet member, in whom she took a propietary interest. After a weekend in New York, E.R. alluded to another aspect of her dependence on Hick: 'By the way, did I leave my sponge in your bath tub? If so, please bring!' Then before E.R. finally wrote to Elliott . . ." and so on. p
At times the author is apologetic. She has "very mixed emotions" about presumably casting a shadow on a woman who is revered. Not content with simply presenting us with the evidence she stumbled upon in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library, she tries to dissuade us from reading between the lines of this correspondence and see it in some innocent historical context. "A contemporary reader can scarcely appreciate the prevailing naivete of the 1930s on the subject of homosexuality," she writes. Of people as well-read and well-traveled as her two subjects this is an implausible hypothesis. Nor is it conclusive to insist that lack of expression of guilt in Mrs. Roosevelt's letters is proof of the absence of physical intimacy. Far from feeling guilt, Eleanor warned Lorena that "too much conscience is an unpleasant thing . . . I just enjoy what I can have & learned long ago to accept what had to be --."
As the older woman's ardor cooled, Hickok turned to others for consolation. She had at least one love affair with a woman before her death in 1968 and deposited the evidence, along with letters to and from Eleanor, in the Hyde Park archive. In revenge? Perhaps.
There are no feelings of rancor, however, in Hickok's simply written book, Eleanor Roosevelt: Reluctant First Lady first published in 1962 just before Mrs. Roosevelt died. This describes the halcyon days of her friendship with the first lady. Though only 176 pages long, it is revealing on the subject of Eleanor's competitiveness with FDR and has occasional telling details of the two women's private automobile tours. While not salacious, these details do imply a certain schoolgirlish intimacy. On a visit to Lake Placid, for instance, a debate ensued over who should bathe first. Mrs. Roosevelt "started thrusting her long slender fingers" at Lorena. "I was so ticklish," the author confesses, "that all she had to do to reduce me to a quivering mass of pulp was to point her fingers at me." When the press became too curious and refused to let them travel in peace, the happy motor trips ceased.
Hickok might have been expected to write a rather more bitter memoir. As a result of her friendship, she had had to abandon her career in her prime, while Mrs. Roosevelt went on to become the nation's most esteemed woman.
"I'll never do to anyone else what I did to you," Eleanor worte in an attempt to console Lorena. "I'm pulling myself back in all contacts now. I've always done it with the children & why I didn't know I couldn't give you (or anyone else who wanted and needed what you did) any real food I can't now understand."
But Lorena understood. "It would be so much better, wouldn't it," she lamented, "if I didn't love you so much."