Thursday, January 25, 2018

Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady, by Susan Quinn

Today I'm looking at a biography about Eleanor Roosevelt and her friend Lorena Hickok, although based on their correspondence it is possible that Eleanor and Hick were far more than just friends. This book covers their lives, albeit only very briefly. (And in a life as full and complex as the lives of Eleanor Roosevelt or Lroena Hickock, it's very difficult to talk about either one fully in just one book.) Most of the focus of this book seems to be in the New Deal years, when Eleanor and Hick's relationship was at its closest, especially after Hick left her job with the Associated Press to work for the Roosevelt administration and later the Democratic Party. After they separated the two ladies remained in contact and Quinn also talks about other romantic connections in Eleanor's life which add depth to an already fascinating person.

Lorena Hickok died in 1968 and willed her surviving correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, on the condition that they be sealed for a decade after her death. When the letters were first examined in 1978 the depths of the romantic attachment between the two ladies was revealed for the first time, but this being the seventies the possibility of Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the most respected women of the twentieth century, being involved in a homosexual relationship was deemed impossible and dismissed. However, as times and mores have changed, a reexamination of the correspondence between Eleanor and Lorena is well worth going into. And Quinn makes a convincing argument that the two women were definitely involve romantically based on the available evidence.

First and foremost there is the depth of emotion and expression in their letters, especially the ones written by Eleanor. Eleanor herself was a very emotionally reserved person due to her childhood and had particular difficulty expressing emotions with her own family. Yes, Eleanor had an easier time expressing emotions with friends but the depth of emotion with Lorena was on quite another level. Second we know for a fact that Lorena was a lesbian so that makes the possibility of a homoromantic relationship between the two all the more possible. Third, Eleanor herself had lesbian friends some of whom she went into business with in the Val-Kill furniture shop so Eleanor was not unaware of the possibility either. (Although where Eleanor fell on the spectrum both romantically and sexually is a question ultimately unanswerable.) Finally, we know that Eleanor was trapped in an unsatisfying marriage after the discovery of Franklin's affair with Lucy Mercer in 1918. Unable to divorce because of Franklin's political ambitions, but equally unable to go to Franklin for emotional support because of his betrayal, it is perfectly rational that Eleanor might search elsewhere for romantic and emotional companionship outside her marriage, much like how Franklin did.

The question of whether Eleanor and Lorena were ever physically intimate is unanswerable. Any letters that may have answered that question have been destroyed so the matter is left purely to speculation, but I think the subject's largely irrelevant. We have a large body of evidence suggesting a deep emotional and romantic relationship between the two women, however they chose to express it within the limited roles available to them in the 1940's. And quite frankly I think it's an inspiring message to people across the gender and sexuality spectrums that even people like Eleanor Roosevelt didn't fit into neatly defined categories. People are ultimately people, regardless of time and place; messy, complicated, unsure of themselves, loaded with emotional baggage, and all manner of other issues.

A lot of the rest of the information in the book, at least about Eleanor, was a repeat of things I was already familiar with thanks to resources such as the Ken Burns Documentary and the book Eleanor and Franklin. As I said, this book specifically seems to focus on the New Deal/1930's era when Eleanor and Hick were closest in their relationship. But regardless I think this book is definitely worth checking out.

- Kalpar

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