In Bros, which may or may not be the first major gay rom-com, Billy Eichner’s character is working on another big first, opening the first major LGBTQ history museum. As part of that job, he spends much of the film discussing whether various historical figures were gay, including Abraham Lincoln and the ancient Egyptian pairing of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum. (In both of those cases it depends who you ask, and what you mean by “gay.”) Those of us who haven’t been watching The First Lady on Showtime (which is a lot of us) may be surprised to hear Eleanor Roosevelt among these names. In fact, at one point, the movie refers to her outright as “lesbian first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.” She was? In order to get some answers, Slate spoke to Susan Quinn, author of Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Heather Schwedel: I think it will be news to some people to hear the movie casually describe Eleanor Roosevelt as a lesbian.
Susan Quinn: I can tell you a little bit about how I came to the conclusion that she did have a love affair, a very important love affair, with Lorena Hickok. Lorena Hickok was very unusual for her time. She was a woman journalist who managed to get herself off the women’s page and to cover major stories of her time, including the Lindbergh kidnapping and various financial scandals and disasters, the kinds of things that mainstream reporters report. She was a reporter for the Associated Press and doing very well when she was assigned to cover Eleanor Roosevelt. And she didn’t really want to do the Eleanor Roosevelt beat because she was afraid it was going to throw her back onto the women’s page, because in the past, presidential wives usually were confined to the women’s page. But then she was able to spend some time with her. And she was immediately struck with how different Eleanor Roosevelt was from first ladies of the past. And so she [wrote to] her boss and said, “She’s a person.”
Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt had essentially agreed to have a loveless marriage, a kind of partnership. What happened early on, when she was pregnant with one of their children, was that Franklin had an affair with her social secretary. And she discovered the love letters between him and this social secretary. And it hurt her so deeply that she really couldn’t forgive him. And they thought about divorce, which would have ended his political career. They decided to just have a relationship that was not romantic, and to stick together. He vowed never to see this social secretary again, but then went on to continue seeing her off and on for the rest of his life. And she did not want to go to Washington and be the first lady because she was going to have to stand next to him and pretend to be a happily married woman, but she wasn’t. And that was when Lorena Hickok came into her life.
For the first few years after they met, she wanted Lorena Hickok, who was called Hick, to be with her all the time, and found a way for Hick to leave her job at the AP and to come live in the White House, which she did—she lived in one of the servants’ valet bedrooms, not far from where Eleanor lived on her side of the White House. And the two of them, when they were in Washington together, were extremely close and confided about everything. A lot of the time, Lorena Hickok was traveling, because she got a job reporting on what was happening with the Roosevelts’ programs all over the country. Eleanor and Lorena Hickok exchanged over 3,000 letters during these years.
Can you say more about the letters?
Both sides of the correspondence are at the Roosevelt library in Hyde Park. That was what my book is based on, is these 3,000 letters. And they are very full of, particularly in the first two, maybe three years, longing and affection and needing each other, wanting to be with each other. Sometimes they wrote twice a day.
Wow, 3,000 letters, you kind of can’t argue with that.
There’s no doubt that it was a very important relationship to both of them. Of course, none of this could be openly talked about. So at the time, people knew and didn’t know. But it was understood and accepted. I know it was a love affair whether it was physical or not. I think it was. Lorena Hickok knew that she loved women and had a number of other intense relationships with women. And I think she probably was the one who led the way. Eleanor definitely had other relationships with men as well. But I think this relationship was unique and important in Eleanor Roosevelt’s life and Lorena Hickok’s life.
Do you think Eleanor Roosevelt is generally considered to be a figure in LGBTQ history?
Well, I think it’s certainly more known than it used to be, partly because of my book, and then there’s a major biography by Blanche Wiesen Cook, who pretty strongly takes the point of view that they had a physical love relationship. It’s certainly out there now, much more than it used to be. When these letters were first open to the public, the first person to read them was so shocked by them that she wanted the librarians at the Roosevelt library to shut down the archive altogether. Fortunately, they didn’t. In the beginning, it seemed extremely shocking that this elegant first lady could have possibly had a love affair with a woman. But now I think we’re more comfortable with that idea.
When you look at Eleanor Roosevelt’s advocacy work and what she did for women, do you think this relationship affected her politics? Did it push her to do more things that would be important for the LGBTQ community?
Well, there was no community identified as LGBTQ, any of those categories. It just was not talked about. No one was talking about lesbians, except maybe in a few very kind of far-out circles in Greenwich Village and such places. So that didn’t come up. But I do think that they helped each other to be more tolerant and accept things. Hick was writing about the South and about the condition of Blacks in the New Deal programs. She had grown up in North Dakota and all-white surroundings, working class, where there was a lot of racism. So Eleanor I think helped her with some of those racist attitudes. And certainly Eleanor had some sort of upper-class attitudes about Jews of a certain kind, the Eastern European Jews, you know, working class or impoverished, and she became much more accepting. Eleanor changed a lot over her lifetime. She had been raised to be a debutante in an upper-class family. And she left all of that behind and became a person who was an advocate for equal rights for everybody. On that level, they changed and helped each other.
It’s interesting the movie claims Eleanor as a lesbian and not bisexual, given her relationships with men. Do you have thoughts on that?
No one in her lifetime labeled her as lesbian, bisexual, or anything else beyond being female. That was kind of about all you could say, at least in public. Once in a while, something would come up in the press about Hick being kind of, oh, I don’t know, a big battle-axe, that kind of thing, which was code in a way, probably, for lesbians. If anybody thought she was a lesbian, they couldn’t imagine that she would also like men, as Eleanor did. The idea of being bisexual, that would be way beyond what people could imagine or talk about.
If there were a big LGBTQ history museum opening in real life, do you think Eleanor Roosevelt would be important to include?
Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah, I think this love affair was important to her and influenced who she was and became, and Hick was a very important adviser to her. It was a relationship that mattered a lot. And I think it was a love relationship. I think it would be just fine to have her in the museum. But you’d have to also say that she was bisexual. She did have flirtations that were probably physical with other men besides her husband, and she liked men. We would say now that she was bisexual.
But if she were somehow transported into the future to visit this museum, she would probably be very confused?
She would be very confused. Being a very tolerant person, which she truly was, and open to new experiences, she would probably enjoy going to a museum where she was portrayed as bisexual. But it would definitely be a very new experience for Eleanor Roosevelt.