No First Lady Like Eleanor Roosevelt
Two new books bring to life the grandmotherly nonconformist who flew with Amelia Earhart, championed the Tuskegee Airman and the Spanish Republic, and fell in love with a crackerjack reporter named Lorena Hickok.

By Richard Norton Smith
Oct. 28, 2016

They came by the thousands in February, 1940, student activists of the American Youth Congress braving a cold rain to protest Franklin Roosevelt’s newfound emphasis on military preparedness over domestic reform. Invited to the White House by the First Lady, they assembled on a muddied South Lawn carrying banners demanding Jobs Not Guns. Schools Not Battleships. FDR’s greeting did nothing to dispel the chill. In a mood characterized by his son as “I am Jesus – handle me with care,” the President offered well-worn arguments to defend his zigzag pursuit of economic and social justice. He warned about “handouts” and the need to accommodate political demands to the popular mood. Harsh words for the Soviet Union drew hisses from the crowd. A final, flippant sendoff admonished his listeners to “keep your ideals high, keep both feet on the ground, and keep everlastingly at it.”

Seventy-five years later the shock of his performance remains fresh. This is not the buoyant shape shifter of whom Churchill observed that meeting him for the first time was like opening a bottle of champagne. Nor is it the shrewd political operative who exploited the complex dynamic of his marriage, variously employing his wife as emissary, political surrogate, lightning rod, or canary in the coal mines she famously visited out of concern for those shortchanged by democratic capitalism. In patronizing the children’s army on the South Lawn, FDR delivered an implicit rebuke to the woman who rarely hesitated to use her daily newspaper column, weekly radio program, or frequent speeches and press conferences to goad Congress or the White House into accepting a moral obligation toward the outsiders with whom she identified by instinct.

Her empathy versus his calculation – the South Lawn confrontation not only captures the Roosevelt partnership with unblinking honesty. It encapsulates this third and concluding volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s definitive biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. Early on the author recounts a friendly debate with Arthur Schlesinger, Junior over the contrasting efforts of the President and First Lady regarding civil rights, civil liberties, and the genocidal crimes of Nazi Germany. Schlesinger pleads the pressure of domestic politics and the approaching war.

Professor Cook is unpersuaded. Case in point: The president’s weakened political position after 1938 gave the whip hand to southern lawmakers adamantly opposed to anti-lynching legislation. Not for the first time, Eleanor Roosevelt filled the void left by her husband’s silence, arguing the bill’s merits within the White House and in the ninety newspapers that carried her “My Day” column. The latter, skillfully mined by the author, was a kind of public diary, combining family chat and cultural criticism – ER praised Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story and the floor show of a Florida resort at which she was staying - with outspoken advocacy of liberal causes ranging from support of Negro colleges to community service in place of the military draft favored by FDR.

On the day in June, 1940 that her husband signed the Smith Act, limiting free speech and requiring “all aliens” to be fingerprinted by the government or risk deportation, Mrs. Roosevelt penned a brisk denunciation that could have been written with the current presidential campaign in mind. “Something curious is happening to us in this country and I think it is time we stopped and took stock of ourselves. Are we going to be swept away from our traditional attitude toward civil liberties by hysteria about ‘Fifth Columnists’?”

Eleanor Roosevelt is widely regarded as the prototypical “modern” First Lady, for whom public advocacy is as much a part of the job description as receiving lines and East Room ceremonials. One wonders. Consider the abuse heaped on Michelle Obama over so anodyne a cause as school nutrition. No, in the sheer scope of her activism ER remains sui generis, a grandmotherly non-conformist who flew with Amelia Earhart and championed the cause of the Tuskegee Airmen; argued the merits of the Spanish Republic with Winston Churchill and saw her byline in the movie magazine Photoplay; promoted the cause of handicapped children while minimizing her husband’s declining health.

Her complexities, on a par with her achievements and the controversies she stirred, richly warrant Professor Cook’s three thick volumes. More than a presidential spouse, however, or feminist icon, the Eleanor Roosevelt who inhibits these meticulously crafted pages transcends both First Lady history and the marriage around which Roosevelt scholarship has traditionally pivoted. She was never more motherly than when promoting her then-radical agenda of racial equality and freedom of expression. The author slyly describes an African-American soldier eating an ice cream cone in a canteen set aside for members of his race. Suddenly he finds himself confronted by Mrs. Roosevelt, in the midst of a grueling 25,000 mile tour of wartime outposts in the Pacific.

“May I have some of that ice cream?” she asks. After helping herself to a big bite, she returns the cone to its rightful owner.

“You see,” she tells him with a grin, “that didn’t hurt at all, did it?”

But it is her Sisyphean labors on behalf of refugees, many of them Jews threatened by the Nazi killing machine, that make ER at once heartachingly relevant and timeless as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights she nurtured to fruition in 1948. As First Lady she pressured FDR into establishing an Emergency Visa Program to save “persons of exceptional merit”; hosted fundraising picnics and concerts; showcased refugee singers and musicians at the White House; and broadcast disarming appeals in which she portrayed thousands of refugee children as “temporary visitors, not immigrants.”

Through it all, she battled State Department obstructionists like Assistant Secretary Breckenridge Long (“Franklin, you know he’s a fascist”), whose striped pants bigotry condemned countless European Jews to extermination. Not until January, 1944 did FDR establish by executive order the War Refugee Board. Another presidential directive mandated the round-up and incarceration of Japanese-Americans. Eleanor’s proposal that they adopt a Nisei couple got short shrift from her husband, who said the Secret Service would never allow it. The author may protest too much the bonds of love that united Eleanor and Franklin in their historic partnership. Having cited the latest instance in which his wartime responsibilities left the First Lady feeling excluded if not betrayed, she quotes FDR’s holiday toast to “the person who makes it possible for the President to carry on.”

The person so recognized did not reciprocate. After nearly forty years of marriage, Eleanor confessed to a friend, “there is no fundamental love to draw on, just respect and affection.” In its place she put her faith in “a sense of obligation and a healthy interest in people.” Her children offered little emotional compensation, though she worried like any military mother when her four sons joined the war effort. A classic self-accuser, Mrs. Roosevelt blamed herself for their failed marriages and flawed characters. Happily, no such regrets prevented her from being a hugely successful grandmother.

“I never lost a feeling of kinship for anyone who is suffering,” she acknowledged. Her very public pursuit of human rights fully justified the title of “Lady Big Heart” bestowed on her by Thurgood Marshall. Her private emotions were more complex. In earlier volumes, Professor Cook dealt sensitively with her subject’s intricate web of personal relationships, not absolving ER of a thoughtless disregard for those seeking an exclusive connection. Forty years have passed since a researcher at the Roosevelt Library uncovered, to her frank dismay, incontrovertible evidence that ER had once been in love with another woman, a crackerjack Associated Press reporter named Lorena Hickok. The two women had exchanged over thirty-three hundred letters that survive – we’ll never know how many more Hickok destroyed due to their explicit nature.

The book that resulted from this discovery, like much of the early scholarship surrounding the Roosevelt-Hickok relationship, suffered from a did they or didn’t they prurience in keeping with Reagan-era squeamishness about AIDS and gay issues generally. It fell to Blanche Wiesen Cook to dispel Victorian prudery and sensationalism alike. Cook’s game changing work is rightfully acknowledged by Susan Quinn in her own poignant account of a love affair doomed by circumstance and conflicting needs. Combining exhaustive research with emotional nuance, Quinn dives deep to convey the differing characters of President and First Lady. Confronted with the pending divorce of their daughter Anna, Eleanor encourages the younger woman to escape an unhappy marriage. FDR, by contrast, urges caution, reminding her that many couples “got on very well in the end without love.”

By her own admission, Eleanor Roosevelt fought a lifelong battle against fear, the fear of being unloved most of all. It was a vulnerability she was quick to recognize in others. Enter Lorena Hickok, Hick to her friends and colleagues. Raised in rural South Dakota, she survived a nightmarish childhood with an abusive father who, not content to beat his animal-loving daughter, dashed a favorite kitten’s brains against the barn. Taught “never to expect love or affection from anyone,” Hick was thirteen when her mother died. Within a year she was sent packing by the dead woman’s replacement. Taking refuge in books and music, at nineteen she found work as a cub reporter on a Battle Creek, Michigan newspaper. There she impressed editors with her versatility, humor, and sensitivity toward outcasts of every stripe. In Minneapolis and Milwaukee she covered sports as authoritatively as a society ball. By 1932 the sole woman reporter on Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential campaign train, Hick concluded of the candidate’s wife, “that woman is unhappy about something.”

Her journalist’s intuition served her better than her journalist’s detachment. Before election day Hickok had been given a privileged glimpse into the unorthodox Roosevelt marriage – of Eleanor’s “special friendship” with a handsome New York State trooper named Earl Miller; and Franklin’s intimate attachment to his long time personal secretary Missy LeHand. All this Hick kept secret, along with FDR’s long ago betrayal of his marital vows – and her own growing attachment to the tall, vulnerable woman who trusted her discretion and soon owned her heart.

“Remember,” Eleanor told Hick shortly after becoming First Lady, “no one is just what you are to me.” By then Hick had quit the AP, trading her career for a fantasy life to be shared exclusively with her new love. For her part, ER plotted ways to escape the White House, traveling – more or less – incognito with Hick through Canada and on the West Coast. When, inevitably, their identities were uncovered, her former journalistic brethren were not kind in their descriptions of Hick’s girth, appetite, or bruising manner. Sufficient between the lines hints were dropped to feed suspicions about the First Lady’s unconventional attachments.

Eventually, Eleanor’s ardor cooled. Needing to be needed, she couldn’t bear the thought of being possessed. “You have a feeling for me which I may not return in kind,” she told Hick. Deeply wounded, Hickok took to the road as a semi-official diarist of the Great Depression. Harry Hopkins ranked her brilliantly observed field reports among the best histories of Depression-era America. FDR cited them to expedite action from foot dragging subordinates. Hick’s description of soul crushing poverty in West Virginia prompted ER to undertake Arthurdale, a government sponsored new town that opened in 1934. A Puerto Rican trip led to new schools and a minimum wage scale for women garment workers on the island. Finally, Hick’s dispatches inspired the First Lady to launch her own daily column.

Unlike Professor Cook, who uncharacteristically limits her account of ER’s post-White House activities to a brief epilogue, Ms. Quinn offers a comprehensive, if sometimes painful, narrative of both women in their later years. While FDR’s widow became ever more iconic, and influential, her one time love and enduring friend struggled with declining health and financial hardship. For several years Hick lived in a motel cabin not far from Val-Kill, Eleanor’s refuge from the public existence she both craved and disdained. “To know me is a terrible thing,” ER once lamented. The evidence presented by Cook and Quinn, much of it bravely supplied by Lorena Hickok, suggests just the opposite.

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