In Eleanor and Hick, Susan Quinn explores the long affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and reporter Lorena Hickok. Heres how they met.
By the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt was nominated for president, in August 1932, some doubted whether a survivor of polio, paralyzed from the waist down, had the strength to conduct a vigorous campaign, let alone lead the country out of the worst economic depression in its history. Even his advisers were worried. FDR came up with a defiant answer to all of them: a 9,000-mile, 21-day trip through 17 midwestern and western states aboard the Roosevelt Special.
It was a trip perfectly suited to both FDRs temperament and his physical limitations. As soon as the train came to a stop, FDR stepped out on the rear platform, gripping the arm of his son Jimmy. The railing cut off sight of his lower body, so the public saw only his broad shoulders and chest as he delivered his one-minute address. Its nice to be back in Dubuque, he would begin, flashing his wide smile, adding, Im just here to look, learn, and listen. His speech was patrician, but his message was friendly, and his physical courage buoyed his worried listeners.
Between stops, FDR had only to look out the train window to see just how bad things had become. In Chicago, there were blocks of lifeless factories, overgrown parks, and rows of vacant stores with blackened windows. Shantytowns, clustered along the railroad tracks, sent up smoke from cooking fires. In the rich farm country of Iowa and Ohio, the farmhouses were unpainted, the fences were crumbling, and food was rotting in the fields. By the time the Roosevelt Special reached Seattle, Roosevelt had reason to speak in the name of a stricken America and a stricken world.
Even in such terrible times, however, Franklin Roosevelt managed to enjoy himself. He loved everything about campaigning, from the enthusiasm of the local crowds to the sparring with the newspaper boys. FDRs sitting room was open to all comers: local politicians got on and off, and close advisers and future cabinet members huddled late into the night, plotting a future course for a country in crisis. FDR enhanced his listening and learning with healthy doses of jokes, storytelling, poker, and booze.
Eleanor Roosevelt waited until the return journey from the West Coast to join the Roosevelt Special. She didnt share her husbands enthusiasm for the cheering admirers on the campaign trail. It seems undignified and meaningless but perhaps we need it! she once confided. She wasnt comfortable with the jocular atmosphere around FDR, either. Try as she might, Eleanor didnt always get the jokes and was uncomfortable with the teasing. On her honeymoon, she had refused to join a bridge game that involved money, because she had been raised to think it was improper. Drinking, especially, made her uneasy. She had her own reasons for disliking even the smell of alcohol: her father had drunk himself to death, and it now looked as though her brother was going down the same path.
Eleanor had plenty to say about policy issues. But the politicians and brain trusters who surrounded Franklin rarely thought to include her in their discussions. The exception was Louis Howe, a wizened little man with a scarred face and bulging eyes who had been a true believer in FDRs greatness since they met in 1911. Eleanor Roosevelt had been repelled by Howe in the early days: he was an inelegant chain-smoking newspaperman, the sort of person she had been brought up to avoid. But Howes attentions to her in 1920, when FDR was running for vice president on the ill-fated Democratic ticket, went a long way toward changing her mind. When Franklin was stricken with polio on Campobello Island, Eleanor and Louis became a team. They were the only ones who believed that FDR had a political future in those years immediately following the diagnosis. Howe came to understand then that Eleanor could keep Roosevelt aspirations alive while FDR recovered. He urged her to lower her high-pitched voice and suppress her nervous giggle when she spoke in public, and he encouraged her to get more involved in New York politics. In time, he even had the idea that Eleanor should run for president herself.
For Louis Howe, the trip on the Roosevelt Special was a dream come true: hed been working toward the presidential run ever since Franklin Roosevelt first served in the New York state legislature. Shrewd political operative that he was, Howe was confident that the Hoover campaign was doomed and that FDR was about to become the next president of the United States.Eleanor Roosevelt didnt want to believe it. The spark that Howe had ignited in her had led to a new, independent life. She was the cofounder of a craft workshop called Val-Kill Industries, a cofounder and teacher at a girls school, and an activist with other women in New York politics. Whats more, she knew a fair amount about the ceremonial burden involved in being First Lady: her aunt Edith had been an exemplary one for her uncle Theodore. She didnt want any part of it. She had been as passionate as Howe about FDRs political rehabilitation. But she didnt share his excitement now, as the Roosevelt Special gained momentum.
It was comforting, under the circumstances, when the campaign train went off on a side rail so that she could pay a visit to an old friend who would understand and sympathize. Eleanor and Isabella Greenway had endured coming out as debutantes in consecutive yearsboth looked upon it as more duty than pleasureand Isabella had been a bridesmaid in the Roosevelt wedding, staying by Eleanors side as they organized the myriad presents and even composing some of the thank-you notes. Since then, Isabella had married Robert Ferguson, an old family friend, and moved with him to Prescott, Arizona, in hopes that the dry climate would cure his tuberculosis.
Since Eleanor and her husband kept friends forever, it was natural for them to take a day off from the campaign trail, away from press and public, to visit Isabella and her husband in Prescott. Journalists were more obliging in those days: photographers agreed not to take pictures that included FDRs wheelchair. No picture of FDR in a crablike position, as his prone and helpless body was lifted in and out of his automobile, ever made the newspapers. Giving the family a day off to visit friends was all right with them.
What did surprise and rankle the reporters, though, was that an exception was made for one rookie Chicago Tribune reporter named John Boettiger, who for some reason was asked to come along on the private visit. No one resented this slight more than Lorena Hickok. Hick was the only female reporter on the Roosevelt Special and one of the top female reporters in the country, and shed gotten there by fighting for stories. Most women, fellow reporter Walter B. Rags Ragsdale noted, were society editors or worked the social beat. The rarities were women who fought and scratched their way to the street as regular reporters. Another reporter who knew her well noticed that a red rash tended to develop on the back of Hicks neck if she thought she was getting cheated out of a plum assignment.
Hick had already complained when she discovered that all the men on the Roosevelt Special had compartments or drawing rooms in which to sleep and work, while she was stuck with a small berth up toward the engine, in the neighborhood of the local reporters. So naturally she was furious about John Boettiger, an inexperienced reporter, getting special treatment. She decided to complain to Eleanor Roosevelt about it.
Hick didnt expect the reaction she got: Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to come along, too. Hick was intrigued, and a little puzzled. Eleanor had kept her at a distance in the past. When she had interviewed Eleanor at the governors mansion, she had been invited up to the drawing room for an elegant tea, poured from a silver pot. On that day, like all others, Lorena Hickok dressed to be taken seriously: a soft silk shirt collar over a suit jacket and a skirt, of course. She was a presence. Her legs were shapely, her shoes sensible. She had a round face with a strong, determined jaw, and intense, penetrating eyes. At five foot eight, she was broad without look- ing fat.
Though hardly a fashion plate herself, Hick had felt sorry for Eleanor. She could tell that Eleanor felt homely, despite her warm blue eyes and winning smile. She dressed abominably, in Hicks view: her skirt was too long, her blouse was a terrible green, and she wore a hairnet with an elastic that cut into her forehead. She had inherited the protruding front teeth of the Teddy Roosevelt branch of the family.
Yet Eleanor had a natural elegance when she moved. Hick was struck by her long slender hands and the graceful way she manipulated the tea things. At tea that day, Eleanor kept everything friendly but bland. Hick had a strong impression that the governors wife didnt trust her. That was why she was surprised when Eleanor asked her to come along to Prescott: something had changed. Hick, ever the reporter, soon figured it out: it all had to do with a long conversation shed had late one night with Eleanors secretary, Malvina Thompson, as the two of them kept each other company on the Roosevelt Special.
Malvina Thompson, known to everyone as Tommy, was much more than the usual secretary: she was Eleanors fiercely loyal friend and traveling companion, always willing to work at Eleanors demanding pace. The two had met while both were working on Al Smiths 1928 presidential campaign. Afterward, Tommy became secretary to Louie Howe, but she worked on the side for Eleanor. By the time FDR was elected governor of New York, Tommy and Eleanor were a full-time team. Tommy was married until 1939, and had another man in her life after that. But most of her waking hours were devoted to the woman she called Mrs. R. Tommy and Hick had a lot in common: they were born the same year, came from the working class, smoked, drank, and held strong opinions. It was natural for them to gravitate toward each other when work was done.
The train moved along at a measured pace during the day, when FDR was sitting up in his custom-built chair in the parlor car. If it went too fast, the jerks and jiggles made it hard for him to steady himself for reading and conversation. At night, the engineer made up for lost time, hurtling though the dark. It may have been a train whistle late one night that prompted Tommy Thompson to share a childhood memory with Hick about her father, who had worked as a locomotive engineer on the railroad. He would sound three short blasts on the train whistle in a private salute as the train roared past the familys apartment windows in the Bronx.
It was such a touching idea, and so at odds with Hicks own childhood memories, that it prompted her to open up to Tommy about her painful past. Hicks mother had died when she was thirteen, leaving her to deal with her violent, abusive father. Within a year, he remarried, and the stepmother kicked her out of the house. From age fourteen on, she had had to make her own way in the hardscrabble pioneer towns of South Dakota, living in other peoples houses as a hired girl.
When Eleanor heard Hicks story from Thompson, it changed her view of the tough AP reporter. Because her own life had been scarred by loss and disappointment, she was drawn to others who had suffered and struggled. After that, she began to suspect what Hicks fellow reporters already knew. There was the surface Hick: blas and shock-proof, a tough-minded reporter who knew how to drink and smoke with the boys, and who fought for her rights. Then there was the tender-hearted and sometimes shy Hick underneath, who bore witness to the suffering of ordinary people in those terrible times.
Long before she joined the AP, back when she was a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune, Hick could be relied on to find and tell the most vivid stories of hardship: long, detailed pieces about girls who came to Minneapolis from little farm towns and got into trouble, about an injured worker who decided to crawl under a bridge and starve to death, about an organ grinder whose monkey was stolen.
Hick was still looking for such stories on the campaign trail. Her fellow reporter Rags Ragsdale would often cover FDRs whistle-stop speeches while Hick circulated in the crowd and talked to people about their lives. Many times, she came back aboard the campaign train, Ragsdale remembered, fuming and almost tearful over a hard-luck story she had picked up from someone in the crowd.
There were unending hard-luck stories. During a stopover in Topeka, Kansas, Hick watched Franklin Roosevelt address thousands of deeply tanned, grim-faced farmers, some so ragged that they reminded one of pictures of starving Mongolian peasants in the rotogravure sections of the Sunday papers. They did not cheer. They did not applaud. They just stood there in the broiling sun, silent, listening.
After her day with Eleanor in Prescott, Hick realized why rookie reporter John Boettiger was getting special treatment: he was having an affair with the Roosevelts oldest child, Anna, who was unhappily married to Curtis Dall. Not long after, both Anna and John would divorce in order to marry each other.
The divorce was fodder for the gossip columns when it finally happened. But when Hick came back from her day with the Roosevelts and briefed her fellow reporters, she talked about the ranch and the barbecue, not the affair. It was the first of many family secrets she would keep.
The more important discovery Hick made that day was that Eleanor Roosevelt was at least as fascinating as her husband. Lorena was as excited as I ever saw her when she came back, Ragsdale remembered. From this time forward it became hard for her to write with the usual AP restraint about Mrs. Roosevelt.
In the past, Hick had avoided writing about politicians wives: fashion, teas, and charity events were womens page stuff, and shed escaped that long before, during her initiation at the Milwaukee Sentinel. Eleanor, in turn, resisted the curiosity of reporters, especially if it touched on anything personal. Her grandmother had taught her that it was unseemly to appear in the public eye. I gave as little information as possible, she explained in her first memoir, feeling that that was the only right attitude toward any newspaper people where a woman and her home were concerned.
Eleanor had good reason to be wary of all reporters. As the Boettiger incident would make clear, things went on in the Roosevelt household that needed to be kept away from the scandal-loving press. Whats more, Eleanor disliked the usual portrayals of the devoted political wife at least as much as Hick hated writing them. In Eleanors case, as Hick would soon discover, that ceremonial role was a faade that had little to do with who she really was.
At first, Hick cared only a little about Eleanors reticence. FDR, not Eleanor, was the story, and he relished Hicks attention. In April 1932, months before he became the Democratic candidate for president, he invited her up to Hyde Park for a daylong charm offensive.
The big house at Hyde Park was a living museum of FDRs branch of the Roosevelt family. In 1915, FDR himself had worked on plans to double the houses size to accommodate his growing family. The enlarged version of Springwood, as the mansion was called, was full to overflowing with the family collections of books, nautical prints, and paintings. There were also portraits of Roosevelt and Delano ancestors hanging on the walls, along with porcelain and curios from China, where the Delanos made their fortune as traders. Very little in the house was connected to Eleanors history: she had grown up in her grandmother Halls mansion farther up the Hudson. The Roosevelt house she knew and loved was Sagamore Hill on Long Island, the home where Theodore Roosevelt, her fathers older brother, lived with his large family and the souvenirs of his adventurous life.
FDR and Hick sat before the fire in the big house at Hyde Park and talked politics as Eleanor listened, knitting. Then FDR took Hick out in his hand-controlled roadster for a tour of the estate, pointing out the hill where he sledded as a boy, the Christmas trees he was growing to renew the impoverished soil, and the stone cottage, at nearby Val-Kill, which he designed for my Missus. It was, he noted, conceived in the Dutch colonial style of his ancestors.
Hick toured the cottage with the missus and learned of the small furniture-making company Eleanor was part of. Eleanor and her women friends had founded Val-Kill Industries with the idea of providing local farmers with craft skills. The little workshop turned out colonial reproduction furniture and pewter.
It could not have escaped Hicks notice, as Eleanor and her two friends took her around the small factory, that they made an unusual trio. One was Nancy Cook, a carpenter who had used her skills to fashion artificial limbs during World War I, and the other was Marion Dickerman, the head of a girls school in New York City. Both were avid Democrats and hardly the ladies who lunch whom Hick tried her best to avoid. Probably she also realized that Cook and Dickerman were a couple. Hick must have been intrigued by Eleanor and her unconventional friends, but she left them out of her AP piece. Instead, she emphasized FDRs admirable efforts to restore the soil on his property.
Hick became more interested in Eleanor during the Democratic convention in 1932, while she was keeping vigil with fellow reporters outside the governors mansion in Albany, waiting for the delegates to settle on a candidate. It was a noisy and contentious convention, and the outcome was still unclear when FDR held a press conference on the first day of July. Hick noticed that he was lively and buoyant, joking and laughing even more than usual. His mood suggested what was later confirmed: a deal was in the making. But what she also noticed that night was that Eleanor looked despondent. That woman is unhappy about something, Hick told her Albany counterpart after they left. It was the only really vivid memory she carried away from the press conference. Yet it didnt show up in the story she filed at the time.
By the time she got off the Roosevelt Special in Buffalo, Hick had figured out that covering Eleanor Roosevelt had the potential to be much more than churning out the standard First Lady coverage of the past. So when the AP reporter who was assigned to Eleanor left, Hick began actively lobbying for the job. She wired her boss, AP city editor Bill Chapin, the dame has enormous dignity, shes a person. In October, Chapin finally gave her the green light. Shes all yours now, Hickok, he told her. Have fun!
Hick became Eleanors appendage. She spent her afternoons sitting outside her office in New York, trying to guess what was going on behind closed doors. She went to every one of her public appearances. On the night of Eleanors forty-eighth birthday, there was a small dinner party celebration with close friends. Hick, of course, was not invited. But she did manage to hear Eleanor comment that it was good to be middle-aged. Things dont matter so much. You dont take it so hard when things happen to you that you dont like. The remark intrigued Hick. But it didnt seem like newspaper copy.
Hick was invitedor invited herselfon Eleanors marathon campaign journey around New York State two weeks after the birthday party. Over five days at the end of October, Eleanor spent a total of fifty hours on the train. Most of the time, Hicks AP story reported, Mrs. Roosevelt was accompanied only by one woman companion. That woman companion was the author of the story, Lorena Hickok.
On the campaign trail during that trip, Eleanor operated by complicated rules. On one hand, she refused to make campaign speeches for Franklin, because she didnt think it was appropriate for the wife of the candidate to appeal to voters on his behalf. On the other, she did speak out enthusiastically in support of gubernatorial candidate Herbert Lehman, because, as she explained, he was a good friend of the family. In other words, it was personal not politicala distinction, in Eleanor Roosevelts case, without a difference.
Hick noted that Eleanor vacillated between the private and public persona from one day to the next. In Syracuse one evening, she warned an audience of Democratic women that the coming winter was likely to be desperate and that the Republicans had no answers. If you and I were hungry, I doubt whether wed be so patient as these people have been so far. Then the next day, she insisted that she was just the candidates wife and didnt talk politics.
There were still more surprises and contradictions to come. Eleanor paid a visit to her husbands former bodyguard, Earl Miller, and his new wife in Elmira, New York. The Millers had been married not long before at the Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park. But this too was far more complicated than it appeared on the surface.
Earl Miller and Eleanor Roosevelt had an affection for each other that made some suspect they were lovers. At the very least, it was a lively flirtation. Earl, a fit and handsome athlete thirteen years her junior, had encouraged Eleanor in new, bold pursuits: riding horseback with her and teaching her to dive, to play tennis, to fire a pistol, and even to take part in silly home movies when he visited her at Val-Kill. Eleanor, for her part, lavished attention on Earl, helping him set up house and listening to his tales of romantic woe.
Some had suggested that this marriage, which began to go sour very quickly, was a sham, staged only to put off the gossips and protect the woman Miller called Lady. Later, there was a second unsuccessful marriage. That time there was a threat that Eleanor Roosevelt would be named as a co-respondent in divorce proceedings. Millers special friendship with Eleanor might have become a scandal if it got the attention of the wrong people. Once again, Hick was witness to a potentially damaging family secret; once again, she kept it to herself.
Eleanor had no sooner returned from her New York State tour than she learned that FDRs personal secretary for the last twelve years, Marguerite LeHand, known as Missy, had lost her mother. Immediately she made plans to get back on the train and accompany Missy all the way to the mothers home in Potsdam, New York, up near the Canadian border, for the funeral. Hick came along, of course.
On the long train ride to Potsdam, Hick learned about yet another unusual aspect of the complicated emotional landscape of the Roosevelt marriage. Missy was not just a personal secretary to FDR. She had become in fact a sort of second wife. She had lived in the governors mansion for the previous four years, and she would go on to live in the White House for much of Roosevelts presidency. A tall, stylish woman in her thirties, with gray eyes and a long face, Missy was a highly efficient secretary completely devoted to carrying out Effdees wishes. She was also the one who kept FDR company, who listened to his jokes and shared in his cocktail hour, the one who came into his bedroom in the morning to plan for the day, and who sometimes could be seen sitting on his lap when work was done. She might have been a lover.
Quite understandably, there were times when Eleanor resented Missy, especially since she was not the first personal secretary to become her husbands intimate companion. Nonetheless, Eleanor insisted that she was very fond of Missy. This fact says not only a great deal about Eleanor, who tried hard to love almost everybody, but also about the evolution of the Roosevelt marriage. Certainly, Eleanor no longer wanted to play the role that Missy did in her husbands life. Some months before, in a magazine piece entitled Ten Rules for a Successful Marriage, she had observed that a husband may have many other helpers besides his wife, particularly if his interests are varied and broad.
It would be hard to imagine a man with more varied and broad interests than Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was a lover of people of all kinds. He relished politics and was a brilliant player of the game. But he loved many other things as well: every kind of boat, including those he sailed and the boat models he constructed out of tiny pieces of wood; trees of all kinds, including the virgin timber and the new spruces he nurtured on his 1,100-acre estate at Hyde Park; his stamp collection, which he fussed over in quiet moments; the pleasure of a good stiff drink, preferably mixed by his own hand. FDR liked to enjoy all of these things without fear of disapproval, in the company of an agreeable woman. Missy, though she had her own opinions, was such a woman. Eleanor, though she may have tried to fulfill that role in the early years of her marriage, most certainly was not.
One thing became clear to Hick during her weeks as Eleanor Roosevelts constant companion: the complete story of her life couldnt be told without hurting her and her family. It was going to take a skilled and careful hand to introduce this unusual woman to the public. Lorena Hickok, who had her own secrets, was ideally suited to the job.
At some point during their journeys, Eleanor must have sensed this.