Concealing an extramarital affair is easy as long as there are no witnesses. Just look at the depths to which Kenneth Starr has been forced to sink in his effort to prove that President Clinton was getting busy with Monica Lewinsky. Gifts, such as dresses and books of poetry (even that of Walt Whitman), represent only circumstantial evidence, and tape recordings of private conversations are problematic in their own right.
Indeed, it seems that even love letters are not always dispositive. Which brings us to the case at hand: Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, the First Lady’s reporter pal at the Associated Press. The 30-year relationship between Eleanor and “Hick,” as the First Lady called her, has been the subject of all manner of speculation over the years. Yet despite the existence of reams of charged correspondence between these two women, the precise nature of their relationship has never been definitively established.
In 1980, the historian Doris Faber penned a biography of the cigar-smoking Hickok in which she concluded that the two had not in fact been lovers, but 12 years later a biographer of Eleanor, Blanche Wiesen Cook, offered a starkly different assessment. Not surprisingly, Cook’s book proved controversial, and she eventually responded indignantly to her critics in The Nation: “Why are so many wedded to a stereotype of a frigid, sublimating, forever lonely Eleanor Roosevelt?”
The opportunities for romance were no doubt there: Hick had a small bedroom in the northeast corner of the White House for much of FDR’s tenure. So was the motive of revenge. For years, FDR was said to be carrying on with his personal secretary, Missy Lehand. And after 1918, when Eleanor found FDR’s trove of love letters to Eleanor’s social secretary, Lucy Mercer, husband and wife slept in different bedrooms. Moreover, Hick would not necessarily have been Eleanor’s only dalliance; much has also been made of her relationship with a New York state trooper and presidential bodyguard, Earl Miller, who was 13 years her junior.
Even Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose own 1994 book on the Roosevelts was critical of Cook for getting carried away, acknowledged that the letters between Hick and Eleanor “possess an emotional intensity and a sensual explicitness that is hard to disregard.” But after this brief lapse in No Ordinary Time, Kearns recovers her scholarly detachment: “Yet the essential question for the biographer is not whether Hick and Eleanor went beyond kisses and hugs, a question there is absolutely no way we can answer with certainty.”
She is, of course, right on both counts, yet idle curiosity persists. So what do the letters say? Culturebox has not yet seen the galleys of the new book, but can offer up a couple of the more florid lines gleaned from previous biographies. From Lorena to Eleanor: “I’ve been trying today to bring back your face…and the feeling of that soft spot just northeast of the corner of your mouth against my lips.” From Eleanor to Lorena: “All day I’ve thought of you. Oh! I want to put my arms around you; I ache to hold you close.”