In White Houses (Random House), celebrated writer Amy Bloom imagines the relationship between First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, the journalist who covered Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidential campaign and then developed a close relationship with Eleanor. “Hick” was known as a lesbian and she was also known to say she was in love with Eleanor. Although historians acknowledge the two women exchanged letters and were openly affectionate, whether they had a physical relationship is still debated.
The novel, told from Hickok’s point of view, is luscious in its depiction of love as safe harbor from a harsh world. Told in chapters not arranged chronologically, that safe harbor for Hickok is from a childhood where she had to raise herself, and for Eleanor is from a too-public life supporting her husband. The theme of social and cultural expectations and transgressions thread through the story as Hickok realizes Eleanor will never leave her husband despite his blatant affairs and her love for Hick: “It was a promise to leave everything else behind, even if it was only for the length of the whispered call, for three minutes stolen from the state dinner.”
The novel is told in moments where love and happiness are alive and palpable (drinking tea, talking, and making love) and in nostalgia or anticipation of such moments. The moments matter more than any plot line it seems, and yet, there is tension: They are together for a time, and things are perfect, or they are together and things are not perfect, or Hickok needs a place to live, and Eleanor offers her a room in the White House despite Lorena having another lover. The language gushes with vivid imagery and lyricism: “I thought that if we both died, right then, under the enormous green hands of the maple leaves, we would be delighted. We would start believing in God, I thought, just as we died. I held my breath for a few seconds to encourage a heart attack.”
And yet, the book is more complicated than a simple love story. It is also about civic duty and navigating social pressure. Both Eleanor and Hickok desire to escape into their secret world, but they are plagued by gossip, and despite brief stints at other properties, Eleanor always returns to the White House and to her role as First Lady. The book also probes the realities of being gay in 1945: Hickok is slyly referred to as “First Friend"; Eleanor and Hickock's relationship is an open secret; and Parker Fisk, Eleanor’s gay cousin, is excused for his sexual escapades by virtue of their being alcohol-induced.
Ultimately, White Houses is a moving portrayal of a star-crossed relationship not conducive to the time or place in which it occurred. At the end of the book, Hickok, now an old woman, visits the marble slab under which Eleanor and Franklin lie buried together. Earlier in the book, when Hickok and Eleanor break up for the final time, Hickok says, “Franklin had won, as he and I and Eleanor had fully expected, and I wasn’t even entirely sorry. The country needed him, and he needed her.” Despite losing Eleanor, first to the President and then to death, seventeen years later, Hickok can smell Eleanor’s scent of “salt and cucumber” and remember their sleeping together, their “legs entwined, like climbing roses.”
top photo: Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena HIckok
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Andrea Clark Mason's work has appeared in a number of literary and mainstream magazines. She teaches creative writing and journalism at a community college in Denver. You may learn more about her on her website: www.andreaclarkmason.com.