The preeminence of Eleanor Roosevelt in American affairs for decades has assured a storm of interest in her long-lasting intimate correspondence with a friend, Lorena Hickok, a news reporter. Franklin D. Rossevelt Jr. yesterday repeated his warning that the intimate tone of the newly revealed documents should be judged by the effusive loving tone his mother commonly used in her vast correspondence with many people.
Phrases in the letters include, "I ache to hold you close," "my life . . . is empty without you" and "how I wanted to put my arms around you in reality instead of in spirit." At one point, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, "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."
The question of Hickok's relationship with Mrs. Roosevelt grew out of the availability of the letters of Hickok, which are the subject of a book by Doris Faber to be published by William Morrow & Co.
An important student and biographer of Eleanor Roosevelt, Rhoda Lerman, also warned against misinterpreting the letters as evidence of more than an affectionate nature.
Lerman, of Cazenovia, N.Y., is a biographer of Eleanor Roosevelt and a founding member of the group that got Val-Kill, Eleanor's private cottage at Hyde Park, declared a national memorial.
She said that for 3 1/2 years she worked intensely on research, and produced a film, "Soul of Iron," which was admired at its showing before a Senate committee here at the time the Val-Kill memorial was before Congress. She also wrote a highly praised novel, "Eleanor," which was released this summer.
"It is conceivable," Lerman said, "that Eleanor Rossevelt had a phiysical relationship with a woman. But you should know that she wrote letters to her mother-in law [Sara Delano Roosevelt, with whom Eleanor did not have a very happy relationship] that sounded much like the letters to Hickok, yet obviously there was no physical intimacy there.
"Some of Eleanor's closest friends were women couples, not necessarily lesbians. You have to remember Eleanor Roosevelt learned much from them, about labor, for example.
"Of course Eleanor Roosevelt was tremendously sought after. [She was a major spokesman for liberal views, for advancing the status of the underdog and for promoting the dignity of women.] Now I grant you that when Hickok speaks of kissing the soft spot 'northeast of the corner of your mouth' it does sound rather physcial.
"Northeast of Your Mouth' -- what a title for a book, I suppose. But in the 3 1/2 years I spent researching the life of Eleanor Rossevelt, I had to weigh just mountains of things people told me. I was certainly aware of the hints of lesbian behavior, and I have no certain knowledge, but I suspect it is more a case of girl scout camp stuff -- or a girl's soccer team, you know, where they all have names like P.J. -- than anything physical."
"Who can tell from effusive language?" said Eleanor Van Seagraves, Mrs. Roosevelt's granddaughter, in response to the inevitable question. "She wrote all her letters with the same effusiveness. It's hard to explain to anyone under 50 that kind of style. It was more or less normal for my grandmother to reassure friends of hers. If there was a closet lesbian relationship going on, none of us knew about it."
Esther Von Waggoner Tufty, who at 83 still covers Washington for 26 regional newspapers, was among the corps of pioneering "newshens"that included Hickok. She knew there was a special friendship between them, Tufty said, but no more than with several other women reporters who covered Mrs. Roosevelt on campaigns and in the White House.
"The implications of this story offend me," she said, "I'm annoyed to even have the idea go through my mind."
When Mrs. Roosevelt became first lady, she broke several precedents by deciding to have press conferences and by restricting them to women reporters, partly to encourage the employment of women in journalism. "The boys on the other side of the White House [the male press corps] always accused us of hero-worshipping Mrs. Roosevelt," said Esther Tufty. "I suppose there was some of that . . . She caused more to be written for women, by women and about women than anyone."
Hickok died in 1968 at the age of 75 in the village of Hyde Park, which is near the Roosevelt family estate of the same name. She lived out her declining years in a small apartment behind the church rectory, eking out a living writing children's books, including a biography of Helen Keller and one about Mrs. Roosevelt called "Reluctant First Lady."
Born in Wisconsin, she started working for the Milwaukee Sentinel while a teen-ager. Eventually she moved to New York and worked for The associated Press, where she met Mrs. Roosevelt while covering politics when Roosevelt was elected governor in 1928. She later traveled with Mrs. Roosevelt as a reporter on presidential election campaign trips and was with her on the first victorious election night in 1932 and later before the inauguration.
According to Joseph P. Lash's book "Eleanor and Franklin," it was Hickok who first suggested that Mrs. Roosevelt hold press conferences.
Apparently feeling that her close friendship with the president's wife affected her objectivity as a reporter, Hickok resigned in 1933 and took a job as a confidential adviser to Harry L. Hopkins, then Federal Relief administrator. During this period she traveled around the country and wrote Mrs. Roosevelt from her travels.
Although Mrs. Roosevelt had friendships and wrote numerous letters to a great many other people, it is not clear why the correspondence with Hickok is considered worthy of a book.
"No comment," said Hillel Black, editor-in-chief of William Morrow, which is publishing the book, "The Life of Lorena Hickok," in February. "Is this a valid book to publish? Absolutely yes." The author, Doris Faber, is on a long-planned visit to Ireland, Black said, and could not be reached.
Asked if the book means to imply a lesbian relationship between the two women, Black said "no comment, and by saying no comment I don't mean a positive no comment."
Lerman said she once read a draft of 40 pages dealing with lesbian women to a male member of the Roosevelt family, who burst into tears "and then we had a terrible fight" and she decided not to print it.
The 40 pages dealt with Eleanor's friendship with eight women whom Franklin Roosevelt called Eleanor's "he-she's," Lerman said. The point of that passage, she said, was to show how much Eleanor learned from them in such fields as labor, politcking, international affairs, agriculture and so on, since the various women were knowledgeable and eleanor was not.
There was no evidence, Lerman said, that Eleanor Roosevelt had any physical relationship with any of the lesbian women she counted as close friends.
But, she said, she thought it was "inappropriate" to include that passage since it showed the closeness Eleanor felt to women who were known to be lesbian. Also, she said, she cannot stand to see men cry.
Lerman said she had seen films of Hickok and Eleanor in a biplane to Puerto Rico, in which the women had a tussle over a cleaning tissue "and Hickok swatted Eleanor on the rump and all the time they were giggling like mad. But as I say that seemed to me more like horseplay among girls than evidence of anything physical in love.
"I also saw a photograph of Eleanor seated on a rock out in the country and standing on the rock above her was a trooper she was fond of. She had her right arm draped inside his thigh.
"That man had three wives, and one of them named Eleanor in her divorce suit in 1948 -- I've seen the material at the Hyde Park archives and at the Federal Bureau of Investigation about it.
"I also talked to a furniture mover who told me he had seen Eleanor in an old shirt scraping paint from windows of a hose the trooper was moving into.
"People in Albany [the New York capital] knew this. People told me Eleanor had to get him married a couple of time to cover up the friendship between them, but Eleanor raided the barracks.
"A lot of people believed her close friendship with women was merely sand to throw in people's faces. I myself believe she preferred men, young and handsome.
"Certainly the trooper, who was a gas station attendant when she found him, was absolutely gorgeous, a stallion, and stupid. I formed my opinions on things told me by the neighbors and the best friends of people's wives.
"Now at Val-Kill, her separate cottage at Hyde Park, the antimacassars on the chairs have three initials woven into them -- Eleanor's and two other women's.
"I don't know how spoiled Eleanor was.
"But she certainly needed enormous amounts of affection and support from people. She was getting a hell of a lot of support from women and I remember her daughter, Anna, once said, trying to shock me, that "the women at Val-Kill were very avantgarde.'
"It is also possible, as a relative once suggested to me, that some of these women were trying to seduce Eleanor.
"I remember one woman, a cute little blond, of whom I had heard hints of an intimacy with Eleanor Roosevelt. I investigated thoroughly, and she turned out to be an absolutely lovely woman -- it was a healthy, healthy situation.
"She certainly was close to women, not just Lorena Hickok but others. You know she had what I call her low-life friends, both men and women, and often went out with them. They all called her 'lady.'
"How those four sons of hers got the idea she had no sexual feelings is a mystery to me. They were all very lusty women, Eleanor and her friends. But it was not all all unusual, when Eleanor was a child, for women to have strong emotional friendships with other women, without the slightest physical love.
"I had the seed of lesbianism, I guess, in my book about her, "Eleanor,' but no more than the seed. In my own thinking -- and for a long time I did nothing but live and breathe Eleanor Roosevelt -- I gave up that particular line. As I saw her, she really preferred men."