Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok

ER and LH in Puerto Rico, 1934 I just read the article “The First Lady’s Lady Friend” by Kenneth Lynn (from The Air-Line to Seattle: Studies in Literary and Historical Writing about America, 1983), about Eleanor Roosevelt’s love affair with Lorena Hickok — well, mostly about the way in which Hickok and F.D. Roosevelt biographers minimize it (or, in Doris Faber’s case, over-focus on the question of its exact physical/sexual nature).

I’ve read the published collection of their correspondence (Empty Without You, 1998 ) and a couple of ER biographies. But even I hadn’t put two and two together to notice that it might not have been coincidence that ER’s transformation (from an often diffident and depressed wife of a New York governor turned U.S. President into a great political force) coincided with the consistent and passionate love she received from Lorena Hickok. I think Lynn could be right on.

Only fleetingly does [Faber] give evidence of realizing that the great interest of the Hickok-Roosevelt correspondence consists in its revelation of how Eleanor Roosevelt broke free of a lifetime of self-doubt. […] The more pages Mrs. Roosevelt fills with protestations of how much her secret private life has come to mean to her, the more pages she devotes to telling Miss Hickok about her rapidly expanding public life. The Hickok-Roosevelt correspondence not only chronicles a love affair, it traces the emergence of the most active First Lady in American history.

Both Roosevelt and Hickok became especially concerned with the poor. Lynn continues:

That both Mrs Roosevelt and Miss Hickok were extraordinarily concerned with the suffering of poor Americans in the 1930s can be partially explained by the fact that Miss Hickok was forced to give up her newspaper career in order to continue her romance with Mrs Roosevelt, that she thereupon went to work for Harry Hopkins’s Federal Emergencey Relief Administration — which gave her detailed knowledge of the poor — and that she passed on everything she learned to Mrs. Roosevelt. Their exchanges on this subject, however, did not take place in a vacuum. They took place in the context of a love affair which the participants had to keep secret lest they be disgraced and which had been built upon mutual confessions of victimization and despair [mainly, during their childhoods]

Photo: ER and LH in Puerto Rico in 1934.

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