Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady
By Susan Quinn
New York: Penguin Press, 2016, 404 pp., $30.00, hardcover
Loving Eleanor: The Intimate Friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok
By Susan Wittig Albert
Bertram, TX: Persevero Press, 2016, 322 pp., $27.15, hardcover
Reviewed by Blanche Wiesen Cook
At last! After decades of silence and tedious denial, two splendid books have arrived to celebrate Eleanor Roosevelt, Lorena Hickok, and their love for one another. Written with style and verve, and vigorously researched, both are filled with delightful details and provocative musings.
To add to our arsenal of hope in these hard times, they are by “straight”—and as far as we know—happily married women. I was fortunate enough to meet Susan Quinn and her husband Dan Jacobs at the Tucson Book Festival in March 2017. Aware of her important work on the New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA), I asked her how she decided to write about ER and Hick. She replied that she thought learning about them might enhance her understanding of her lesbian daughter—and it did.
Eleanor And Hick is basically a dual biography that covers the antecedents and details of the women’s lives and changing friendship across the decades. Since ER was a serial romantic who never stopped growing and changing as she encountered new friends and confronted new situations, I quibbled with Quinn’s subtitle, The Love Affair that Shaped a First Lady. Hick enhanced ER’s writings and activism in many ways: she suggested that ER write her My Day newspaper column—which ER published daily from 1935 – 1962—and hold press conferences for women journalists only. But ER’s influences ranged from her high-school mentor Marie Souvestre; to her life-long friend and advisor Esther Lape (who began campaigning for a national, single-payer health-care plan as part of the l935 Social Security Act and did not stop until she died at the age of l00 in l982); to Lape’s partner Elizabeth Read, a noted international lawyer who became ER’s financial adviser; and ER’s secretary and traveling companion Malvina Thompson, known as Tommy. As another ER friend, Joseph Lash, frequently said, “ER is infinite.” Until there are biographies of Souvestre and Lape, as well as of Joseph Lash and his wife Trude Lash, we have only a partial sense of the many who influenced the ever-evolving ER.
Such differences are minimal, however, and one is delighted by Quinn’s impressive research and the new information she uncovers, such as the details of Hick’s five year relationship with Judge Marion Harron. Harron was profoundly in love with Hick, writing, “[Y]our mirth is as light and bright as sunshine and as warm.” According to Quinn, Harron was “the pursuer,” who longed for more than Hick was prepared to give. After they spent a happy time together in January l944, Harron compared herself to a devoted puppy: “My name is Butch—or Bo—and I always come when you whistle—lie flat when you say ‘flat’—and lick your cheek.” They separated in l945, when Hick rejected an exclusive relationship.
In addition to Harron, Hick had lifelong friendships with such political leaders as Mary Norton, the first woman Democrat to serve in Congress; Gladys Tillet, Democratic Party chair and US representative to the UN Commission on the Status of Women; and Helen Gahagan Douglas, congressional representative from California whose political career was essentially destroyed by a red-baiting Richard Nixon when she ran for Senate in 1950. These friendships give us a new understanding of Hick, as do her friendships with young people—including the Roosevelt grand-daughters. Moreover, Quinn’s research into Hick’s writings illuminates her deeper legacy, and the reason for her many lasting friendships. Her unsigned articles in the Democratic Digest include, for example, a December l943 column about FDR’s meeting at Tehran with Stalin and Churchill. They “met on a spot which had played a role in the lives of empire builders of ancient times—Alexander, Darius, Xerxes and Genghis Khan, and there mapped out destruction for those who dreamed of world empire in our time,” Hick wrote, with appropriate drama.
While Quinn’s work follows ER and Hick separately through their lives, Susan Wittig Albert’s Loving Eleanor is a vivid “fictional interpretation,” written from Hick’s perspective as her relationship with ER unfolded and endured. Albert’s novel, which is rooted in the women’s correspondence, is so skillfully told that I found her “enhancements” believable and profoundly moving. For example, there’s the mystery of Earl Miller’s lost papers. Miller was ER’s bodyguard and possibly her lover; we know that ER and Miller wrote to each other regularly, much as Hick and ER did. Lash revealed that the letters mysteriously disappeared. Why and how? Read this book: Albert has a theory.
Both Quinn and Albert credit Hick’s reports to presidential adviser Harry Hopkins and ER for many of the New Deal programs that saved lives and promoted hope during the worst years of poverty and decline during the Depression. In Hick’s reports from the mining camps of West Virginia, she unburdened her heart to ER—and demanded, writes Albert, “Listen! Something has to be done. Pay attention!” Immediately, ER set off to meet Hick and a contingent from the Quaker American Friends Service Committee, directed by Clarence Pickett. Together with Pickett, who later became an official in the Interior Department, ER helped to develop Arthurdale, (originally called Reedsville), a “homestead” project that provided housing for the families of displaced miners.
Albert imagines Hick’s feelings about Thompson, Miller, FDR, Lash—and the many other folks in ER’s life. And she delves into Hick’s intimate life: her youthful relationship with the contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink and above all, her deep commitment to ER, which curtailed her relationship with Harron. Like Quinn, Albert concludes that Harron wanted more than Hick could give. Evidently, for several years Hick juggled her love for Harron, while, Albert concludes, her “heart was reaching out for Eleanor, loving her still, loving her always.”
In this mean moment of backlash and bigotry, Quinn and Albert offer healing pleasures and political reminders: two women changed history while enveloped in passion and love. They created programs for the poor and disenfranchised; they fought for democracy, freedom, and justice against rule by the careless and greedy. These books fortify us as we proceed into the unknown, shoulder to shoulder with ER and Hick, Quinn and Albert, hearts open, fists high!
Blanche Wiesen Cook is a distinguished professor of History and Women’s Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is the author of a three-volume, award-winning, best-selling biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, and her other books include Crystal Eastman on Women and Revolution (1978) and The Declassified Eisenhower : A Divided Legacy Of Peace and Political Warfare (1981). a frequent contributor of reviews and columns to many newspapers and periodicals as well as a popular television commentator. Cook is the former vice-president for research of the American Historical Association; former vice-president and chair of the Fund for Open Information and Accountability (FOIA, Inc.); and co-founder and co-chair of the Freedom of Information and Access Committee of the Organization of American Historians.