Did Eleanor Roosevelt have an affair in the early 1930s with journalist Lorena Hickok? That was the tantalizing question raised recently when more than 3,000 letters between the two women surfaced. Many of the letters were filled with endearing, intimate terms. Both friends of Hickok and scholars of the Roosevelt years doubt the women were lovers, though some concede part of the attraction each felt for the other may have been sexual.
"I think the conjectures in this case are ridiculous," snorts Jonathan Daniels, Franklin D. Roosevelt's last press secretary and the man who first wrote about the late president's friendship with secretary Lucy Mercer. Reached at his retirement home in South Carolina, Daniels said Eleanor Roosevelt's letters are "characteristic of a woman who gushed -- and she was a gushy woman."
Both Daniels and James Roosevelt point out that Eleanor had close friendships with other women that seemedromantic in nature because of the time and energy she invested in them. (Daniels says if Eleanor Roosevelt had affairs with all the women upon whom she showered her affection, "She will have to be classified as the Casanova of lesbians.")
"It has been suggested there was some kind of unnatural relationship between Mother, Marion [Dickerman] and Nancy [Cook]," James Roosevelt wrote in 1968 about his mother's friendship with two other women. "I was close enough to them to say there was nothing whatsoever to this . . . I think the situation satisfied the need for companionship each of them had. They were among the first women libbers, I suppose -- at least they seemed determined to prove they didn't need men."
Nathan Miller, author of The Roosevelt Chronicles , says it's unfair to apply "the standards of one society to something that happened in another society." Like historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Miller considers the explicit terms used in the letters to be the fashion of the time.
But Eleanor Pollock, a friend of Hickok and currently publicity chairman of the Washington Press Club, disagrees.
"I was startled by the letters," she says. "We were not in the dark ages in the '30s, I nover wrote anyone to say I kissed their picture. We were not naive, we were the mad, reckless generation of the '20s. It wasn't that we hadn't run into [lesbianism], but it didn't occur to us in the case of Eleanor and Hick."
Another of Hickok's old friends, who also expressed surprise at the letters letters, notes that the women sometimes exchanged more than one missive a day. "I don't think," she says dryly, "it's necessary for people who are close friends to write one another more than once a day."
Footnote: The mystery may not be answered until 1988, when the director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., will consider making public more letters now being withheld because they might be used to "embarrass, harass or injure any living person."