Some politics but more love in fictional story of Eleanor Roosevelt

Review: Vivien Horler

White Houses by Amy Bloom (Granta)

white housesLorena Alice Hickok was a rare thing in the US in the early 1930s, a hard-news woman journalist.

She covered Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression, the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s election campaign which saw him and his wife Eleanor entering the White House in 1932.

Hickok, who was known to be a lesbian, became a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, moving into the White House, which led to her resignation from her reporting job with Associated Press as she was too close to the First Family.

The women travelled together, and wrote each other passionate letters – more than 3 000 letters between the pair are held at the Franklin D Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in New York State.

Google Hickok and you’ll find this paragraph in her Wikipedia entry: “The exact nature of this relationship has been widely discussed by historians; some have argued that the relationship was clearly romantic or erotic, while others have argued that historians have been misled by Roosevelt’s exuberant letters.”

In this novel Amy Bloom unequivocally comes down on the side of romantic and erotic love between the two. But in an author’s note she says while she has worked from “the particulars and facts of geography, chronology, customs and books by actual historians… this is a work of fiction, from beginning to end”.

Hick, as she is known by both Eleanor and Roosevelt himself, lands a job with the administration, travelling around the country, returning to the White House after every trip, the unofficial First Friend. She observes the Roosevelt marriage, essentially a working partnership as the president, despite his polio and his wheelchair, has other loves.

The two women are from vastly different backgrounds, Hick from a poor abusive family in South Dakota, Eleanor from American nobility. Yet theirs is a true and loving relationship, despite the pulls and pushes of their respective circumstances.

In the book, the relationship with Eleanor lasts years. Neither of them, notes Hick, are “conventional beauties”, but Hick is angry and frustrated by magazine pictures of the ageing Eleanor. “Dearest,” says Eleanor, “When one has buck teeth and a weak chin, one can hardly blame the photographer.” But Hick does. Eleanor dresses badly but inspires love in millions of people for her way of listening to them, her caring and her blue eyes.

The Roosevelts’ hearts were in the right place – there are occasional warming references to the politics of the time and their responses. Immersed in the difficulties of emerging from the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal, Eleanor says: “The function of democratic living is not to lower standards but to raise those that have been too low.”

And commenting Roosevelt’s first election win, Hick says: “Franklin came in on a tidal wave of decency and great speeches.” And then she quotes him delivering a message that has resonance for South Africa today: “True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictactorships are made.”

I had only the barest grasp of the Roosevelt years, and found myself doing a lot of googling. For instance, I’d had no idea that Roosevelt was the first US president to serve more than two terms, actually winning four presidential elections, the last shortly before his death in April 1945, just a month before the end of World War II.

Before Roosevelt, there was a convention but no law that limited a president to two terms; after his death the US constitution was amended.

This is a tale of some politics and much love as well as dogged devotion. Bloom writes beautifully. Hick says of Eleanor: “You are not just my port in the storm, which is what middle-aged women are supposed to be looking for. You are the dark and sparkling sea, and the salt, drying tight on my skin, under a bright, bleaching sun…

And my favourite phrase in the whole book: “There I was, as happy as a rose in sunshine.”

So were they lovers? Who knows – but Bloom’s creation of this relationship makes a convincing case and a great read.

  • This review also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday July 29, 2018

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