In fall 2014, PBS aired “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” but it did not do Eleanor Roosevelt justice. Lorena Hickok, perhaps the most important relationship in Eleanor’s life, is not mentioned until Episode 5 of 7, and she is given a quick description.
Susan Quinn’s new biography “Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady” reveals not only the longevity of the caring relationship, but it also documents the impact it had on public programs, including the New Deal.
“Eleanor and Hick” is well-timed. Just over a year since the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is legal under the Constitution, we see the first book to fully discuss the important homosexual relationship between Roosevelt and a famous journalist.
“Eleanor and Hick” is the work of Quinn’s thorough study of correspondence between Roosevelt and Hickok. This was during a time when letters were sent up to three times a day. Letters upon letters. Quinn is the first to have full access to the letters, and there could not have been a better writer to entrust with them. The author writes on her website, “Because my daughter is gay, I felt a special connection to this story of love between women.”
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The women’s 30-year relationship, as it takes place in their letters, is mostly reserved. As Quinn writes, “Eleanor was usually uncomfortable with physical intimacy.” Yet, as the women planned a three-week car trip for July 1933, Roosevelt’s love for Hick shines. Of her initial journey to Maine with companions Marion and Nan, she wrote:
“Hick dearest, this has been the most glorious day, and the best of it you and I will be doing together next month.”
Quinn, also a biographer of scientist Marie Curie and psychoanalyst Karen Horney, includes the correspondence carefully in the book, avoiding sensationalism. She is clear about the risk the women took in pursuing their relationship:
“Of all the many brave things Eleanor Roosevelt did over her lifetime, going off with Hick — and only Hick — on a three-week car trip may have been one of the bravest.”
Yet, the two women could not have started off their lives on any more different of terms. Hickok, kicked out of her home at 14 by her stepmother, worked as a servant until she was able to attend college through the charity of others. Roosevelt lived a life of access and prestige, though she often resisted it. Still, both women lost a parent early in life and persevered through many tragedies — Franklin Roosevelt’s polio diagnosis in particular.
Their relationship was important to the Roosevelt presidency, Quinn writes. Hickok, who interviewed Eleanor as an Associated Press reporter, would later quit her job to live in the White House and work as a reporter for the administration. In 1933, she traveled to mining towns in West Virginia where she reported on devastating poverty, including hungry children sleeping on “bug-infested rags.”
Soon after Hickok’s report, Eleanor Roosevelt followed. Within a year, 50 homesteads were built, and miners had running water and land for gardening. The president’s homestead project spread around the country and eventually 10,938 new homes were built.
“They were happy when they were part of a shared enterprise, as they were when Hick was out in the field and Eleanor was working her magic back in Washington,” Quinn writes.
The biography marvelously weaves the lives of these two women together, showing their fierce independence and yet continual dependence on each other. The book also reflects a refreshing change in cultural opinion, most likely one that will usher in books on other historical homosexual relationships just as well-researched and kind as “Eleanor and Hick.”
Lizzy Petersen is the grants and outreach programs manager at River Styx.