Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor are larger-than-life figures in American history. Franklin, the only American president elected three times, lead the country through the Great Depression and World War II, despite being crippled by polio. Eleanor redefined the role of First Lady, and sometimes caused controversy with her advocacy for human and civil rights.
It is no secret that the charismatic FDR was a lady’s man and had affairs with his White House secretary, Missy LeHand, and before that, with Eleanor’s secretary, Lucy Mercer. Many historians also believe Eleanor found her own love with another woman, journalist Lorena Hickok.
Novelist Amy Bloom’s latest novel, White Houses, imagines the relationship between the two women who came from disparate backgrounds. Bloom first learned about the love letters between Roosevelt and Hickok when she read Blanche Wiesen Cook’s 1992 biography about Eleanor. Bloom went through the 3,000 letters between Roosevelt and Hickok stored in 18 boxes in the archives of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, written between 1932 sand 1962. The correspondence stopped when Eleanor died. Author Susan Quinn added to the research with her 2017 biography, Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair that Shaped a First Lady.
Bloom tells the story from Lorena Hickok’s point of view, and shares some of her remarkable life. Lorena grew up in a dirt-poor, abusive family in South Dakota, and escaped at the age of 13. She joined a circus for a while until she made her way to her aunt in Milwaukee, and finished her high school education. She knew she wanted to be a journalist, and ended up in New York working for the Associated Press. She covered the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping, making her the most famous female journalist of the time. Lorena met Eleanor when she was assigned to interview her in 1928, and later to cover the future First Lady during FDR’s first presidential campaign. When the two women became smitten with each other, they managed to find time alone, keeping their relationship hidden. Lorena actually lived at the White House for quite a while, as a “First Friend,’’ and worked for the administration.
Bloom’s writing is tender and beautiful, exploring the forbidden love story of two remarkable women. It lends a new dimension to one of the greatest First Ladies this country has seen. It makes me want to know more about Lorena Hickok.