The Love Affair Between Eleanor Roosevelt and Journalist Lorena “Hick” Hickok
In this episode of Listen, Ladies, host Maryalice Aymong talks to author Susan Quinn to discuss her fascinating book, Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady. Quinn’s immense research highlights Roosevelt’s relationship with Lorena Hickok, whom she initially encountered when Hickok was working as a reporter. Their relationship has been somewhat lost to history, but Quinn brings their romance and friendship to life in our interview and in the book. Her text is also set to become a TV series.
Below is an excerpt from her interview. To listen to the whole episode, download Listen, Ladies in iTunes.
Listen, Ladies (LL): Eleanor Roosevelt is known as a woman profoundly ahead of her time. She is someone who fundamentally changed the role of First Lady. She tirelessly advocated for human rights and against racism, as well as the most remote causes, like helping people out of poverty and supporting the military. She ultimately became the chair of the United Nations, Human Rights Commission. Beyond her public role, Eleanor Roosevelt was a passionate person and friend, who knew how to have fun. One of her most fascinating friendships was with Lorena Hickok, a strong, independent and whip smart lady. Author Susan Quinn shines a light on this relationship in her book, Eleanor and Hick, published in 2016 and just drafted to be made into a series adaptation.
LL: What brought you to want to learn more about Eleanor Roosevelt and specifically to explore this fascinating relationship she had with Lorena Hickok.
Susan Quinn (SQ): It began with my last book which is really about the Federal Theater Project, one of the Roosevelt New Deal programs. I learned through that about this woman named Lorena Hickok, who was a reporter for the AP and who wrote all the reports about daily life in the Great Depression. She went out into the field and wrote these very vivid and harrowing reports about what people were going through during the Great Depression. She was the writing version of Dorthia Wang. And she wrote these vivid reports, which I really admired. Along the way I learned that she wrote them for Harry Hopkins who was FDR’s right hand man. She also wrote them for Eleanor Roosevelt, and I began to understand that her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt was not purely a professional one. It was a deeply personal one and that interested me a lot. From then on, I began to realize that the story of that relationship, had not been well told. It had been told by a woman named Dorothy Burr in the 1970’s, but it was really told as Hicks story of being in love with Eleanor Roosevelt, but not telling the full story which is that Eleanor Roosevelt is also in love with Hick. It was a true love relationship and quite intense for the early years. That was my reason for writing the book, I felt like, “This is a great story, it needs to be told and it can be told now without all the discomfort and shaming of earlier versions and I could celebrate the relationship because there is a more accepting atmosphere now.”
LL: So when people think about reports coming into the White House, they know the president and the First Lady, but not the really personal relationships. What can you tell us about how this happened. How did it go from being a reporter covering the White house, to these two women seeing that they had a lot in common and becoming really close friends, and how did that impact Hicks’ career?. as it obviously did have a big impact on what she decided to do.
SQ: It began as a professional relationship, Hick was assigned to cover Eleanor Roosevelt. Around the time that FDR was elected in 1932, and she discovered very quickly that Eleanor was unhappy having to play the role of First Lady, and that she had this really vibrant, independent life of her own. With a lot of women friends, some of which were lesbians and in female relationships. She was very involved in democratic politics, teaching, and political writing in New York. She really did not want to go to Washington and become the First Lady and do all the ceremonial things. She was really unhappy. She did not really see a way forward and Hick understood this and helped her. She became a very unique first lady, even now no one has stood like Eleanor Roosevelt. Hick helped her by encouraging her to write a daily column about her life, which was called, My Day. It became enormously popular. It was a syndicated column that really introduced her to the rest of the world. She encouraged her to have her own press conferences with other women, and women reporters. And generally gave her a lot of moral support when she was feeling down. Eleanor and Franklin had agreed to stay together in their marriage, but it was not a love marriage anymore. He had an affair which deeply wounded her early on. So they were political partners and they worked well together but coming back to Washington, was going to bring back up a lot of bad memories. And also take her away from the things that she loves to do. Hick helped her and in this really important time for Eleanor and Hick was gay. That had been true for her whole life, and she had other lovers before Eleanor and Eleanor was bisexual. For the early period of that relationship, I believe it was a love relationship. But it certainly was a very important relationship for both Eleanor and Hick.
LL: One of the things that struck me was they obviously came together later in their lives as close friends, but they really came from different backgrounds. Can you talk about and compare their upbringings.
SQ: They could not have been more different. Lorena Hickok was raised in poverty in South Dakota in the stark Midwest in these little rare roads towns. She had a father who was abusive, she was kicked out of her house at 13 and went to work in other people’s houses as a maid. She barely graduated from high school because she was working all the time and then never made it to collage. She had a very hardscrabble life. Which made her a very good reporter on other upbringings during the Depression. Eleanor came from great wealth. She was a Roosevelt even before she got married, but she was a Roosevelt from the Teddy Roosevelt branch. Her mother died when she was young and her father died only a little bit later. From the time she was 10 she was raised by a grandmother who was pretty cold and Victorian in a great big house where she felt lonely most of the time. Both of them had difficult sad upbringings but in very different ways. Even though they came from such different backgrounds, they shared a sadness about their childhood that was an important connection from the start.