Blanche Wiesen Cook is two volumes into an Eleanor Roosevelt biography that will stretch to thousands of pages. Its worldview is cranky and at times irresponsible. Its subject is a busybody. And yet these books are a real achievement. They leave no doubt that Eleanor deserves a William Manchester to her Winston Churchill or, for that matter, a Frank Freidel to her FDR.
A recap: Eleanor Roosevelt is born in 1884, orphaned early. Her mother lives just long enough to inculcate in her (unjustifiably) a sense of her own awkwardness. Her beloved father, Elliott Roosevelt, is a kind-hearted drunk who dies at 34, hounded to the grave by a sadistic and mentally warped elder brother, who (perhaps smarting at having been outshone by Elliott in his youth) slanders him in public, fleeces him out of his money, turns his family against him, and seeks to get him institutionalized. That brother, Teddy, becomes president in 1901. (OK … so that’s more my opinion than Cook’s.)
Eleanor attends Allenswood, Marie Souvestre’s radical girls’ school in England, a vaguely Sapphic environment where she learns four languages and much poetry, and blossoms. No room for that back in the States, once she marries her cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Eleanor comes under the thumb of her passive-aggressive mother-in-law Sara (Nurse Ratched-cum-Martha Stewart), who uses the family finances to stay Top Woman in her son’s life.
FDR is bound for glory: New York state senator, assistant secretary of the Navy 1913-1921, vice presidential nominee 1920, New York governor 1929-32, then president to 1945. He’s also, in Cook’s nice phrase “a flirt, a bottom-pincher, and a knee-holder.” When ER discovers love letters from Lucy Mercer while unpacking his trunk, she offers him his “freedom.” If that’s a euphemism for divorce, he declines. If it means freedom tout court, he accepts.
So does she. And in a strange way, after an initial frost, their marriage grows more tender as it grows more distant. (Let’s talk more about this.) He veers into the man’s world of Albany, Washington and, once he’s stricken with polio, the spa he starts in Warm Springs, Ga. She becomes a woman’s agitator–trade unions, suffrage, Democratic Party backrooms. Cook’s bombshell is her assertion that Eleanor, throughout the White House years, was in a passionate lesbian relationship with AP reporter Lorena Hickok. “Hick” is a deeply sympathetic character–from a broken Midwestern home, she knows not only real breadline-and-boardinghouse poverty but also opera and poetry. She’s Eleanor’s Boswell/Eckermann and Cook’s eyes and ears.
In the White House, Eleanor is too immersed in her life of women’s activism to change. But she adapts so skillfully that no one quite realizes it. She continues with coalition-building, starts a column (“My Day”), and grapples with America’s race problem. Under Hick’s influence, she occupies herself with the Poor of all sexes. The White House has two social circles, two policy circles, two agendas. But while Eleanor’s agenda looks separatist–women-only press conferences, an attempt to avert World War II through a Lysistrata-style “women’s strike for peace”–it also succeeds in grafting onto Roosevelt’s coalition new blocs of the hitherto-disenfranchised without which the New Deal would be impracticable. The only shameful note: Eleanor’s seeming indifference to the plight of Europe’s Jews.
This is Whig History for the PC era, full of paeans to same-sex love, sweeping generalizations about emotional needs, attacks on present-day lack of civility, and you-go-girl!-type interjections. Such history brings strengths: Since Cook’s first allegiance is to feminism (more specifically, to gay rights), she is not dug in on most of the political and economic questions that divide FDR’s hagiographers from his detractors. She thus shows the elitist, paternalist (and shallow) roots of Franklin’s progressivism, his tendency to compromise, the personalism of his program. (I’d make the case that Eleanor had more in common with him than it appears.) It also brings weaknesses: This is radical history, and Cook’s description of post-World War I race riots, of the Wobblies’ agitation in the 1920s, of mid-1930s anti-communism (which she calls a “Red Scare”), could have been written by Earl Browder.
Sorry to run on. These are excellent books to be read with extreme caution. I’m puzzled that Cook at once urges that we study Eleanor in her own right, yet so “privileges” these first five years of her husband’s administration. I’m bothered that Cook uses the old leftist trick of praising her subject’s visionary radicalism, and then condemning as alarmist fabricators those who recognize but don’t like it. (A particular paradox: In insisting on Eleanor’s lesbianism as central, she follows the lack of circumspection of ER’s contemporary detractors, not allies.) I wonder if rich ladies’ self-actualization provides a useful model for legislation to help poor women. I’m also curious about how Cook would compare Eleanor and Hillary Clinton–since she is constantly inviting 1990s comparisons. But I’m most curious about what you think.