White Houses: review

White Houses
Amy Bloom
Random House

The story begins April 1945, just weeks after FDR’s death. Lorena Hickok, Eleanor Roosevelt’s dear friend, is readying the apartment–Eleanor white housesneeds to gather herself after the President’s funeral with all its pomp and obligations for the widowed First Lady. She is tired. Bereft. (She only learned after his death that Lucy Mercer had been at Warm Springs with Franklin when he died.) So Eleanor turns to Hick, as she calls Lorena, for comfort and tenderness. The two had met eleven years prior and their relationship was an anchor for both of them.

What follows is a flashback of those eleven years, four of them with Hick living in the White House, just down the hall from the President and Eleanor. Lorena Hickok was a trailblazing political journalist for the Associated Press at a time when newspaper women were relegated to the social pages. After an interview with Eleanor shortly before FDR took office, the two women developed a fast friendship. They vacationed together, went on road trips and picnics, corresponded daily when apart.

Author Amy Bloom tells the story of Eleanor and Hick as if the two had been lovers. And it’s difficult to know if that was the case. Or not.

Their correspondence was certainly passionate and even suggestive of an affair. Here is Eleanor to Hick just after Franklin’s inauguration: “I want to put my arms around you … to hold you close. Your ring is a great comfort. I look at it and I think she does love me, or I wouldn’t be wearing it” (Goodwin).  Hick moved into the White House after resigning from the AP to work for the Democratic National Committee, but the real reason for her career move might have been to be closer to Eleanor. Her years long relationship with Ellie Morse was in the past, and Hick was smitten with Eleanor. For her part, Eleanor was not at first comfortable in her role as First Lady and it was Hick who saw her potential and urged Eleanor to start her syndicated column My Day and hold press conferences of her own. Each woman had suffered and was insecure in her own way–the other provided support and encouragement not found elsewhere.

One of the best books I’ve ever read about the Roosevelts was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time which covers Franklin and Eleanor during the War years. It’s a painstaking look at the couple, one that reveals how their relationship changed over time. Goodwin’s book is much less concerned with romanticizing the couple, as did the popular Franklin and Eleanor by Joe Lash. I’m not certain how Goodwin would view this novel, but she did write that the communication between women of the Victorian age needs to be put into the context of the time, that because the relationships between men and women “lacked ease … women opened their hearts more freely to other women.” Goodwin admits the correspondence between Eleanor and Hick  does”possess an emotional intensity and sensual explicitness that is hard to disregard,” but that a historian recognizes that there is no way to ascertain the true nature of what went on behind closed doors.

Amy Bloom goes behind those doors in a novel that some will find engaging … and others unsettling. But the novel is thought-provoking–maybe enough so that you’ll read its perfect companion No Ordinary Time.

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