Eleanor Roosevelt's proper girlfriend

October 18, 1998|By Lauren Weiner | Lauren Weiner,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok," edited by Rodger Streitmatter. Free Press. 336 pages. $25.

Before you get upset about an Eleanor Roosevelt scandal thrust in your face - who needs another scandal? - I suggest looking at "Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok" in the following light.

This correspondence invites us to compare Mrs. Roosevelt to the ancient Greeks. The Greek elders' relations with their male proteges were, in many ways, an outgrowth of their lofty social position. They were not gay in today's sense of that term.

So, too, Mrs. R. comes across not as homosexual but as someone with a husband; an extended family of children, grandchildren, cousins and assorted dependents; servants; office aides; house pets; a horse named Dot; and a girlfriend.

Lorena Hickok, a hard-drinking reporter from the wrong side of the tracks, joined the entourage of a dutiful and busy society lady - or "socially concerned aristocrat," to borrow editor Rodger Streitmatter's phrase.

Aristocrats make their own rules of behavior. Streitmatter's comments suggest that Mrs. R. embraced Lorena Hickok faute de mieux after Franklin Roosevelt cheated on her. Keep in mind, Mrs. R. was an American and not a European aristocrat. The criss-crossing promiscuities, betrayals and vicious gossip of England's Bloomsbury bisexuals, to take one European example, are entirely missing here.

The situation seems to have had a certain stability. Then, too, insofar as it was sexual (hugs 'n' kisses appear to have been the extent of it), it didn't last long. After some torrid months during 1933 and 1934, the two women evidently became just friends, remaining so for life.

Thus, "Empty Without You" is, paradoxically, a shocking book and also a rather tame one.

Anybody expecting the first lady to display a rebellious private side will be disappointed. She accepted her maternal and public roles - even incorporated Hickok into them, making her, in effect, deputy mother to the far-flung Roosevelt offspring.

I would add that anyone expecting the first lady to have treated her friend fairly will likewise be unhappy. Hickok, who actually was a lesbian, gave up journalism to become the first lady's public relations expert. She taught her how to be a political figure. These two left-wingers were also patriots and Hickok paid dearly for her patriotism: She lost the company of the woman she loved, as Mrs. R. flew off into the wild blue yonder to give speeches and visit the Allied soldiers fighting the Second World War.

Hickok was assigned the important but lonely job of studying federal relief programs across the United States. When she was in a bad car crash out West, Mrs. R. wrote from Washington: "Gee! you are swell about it. ... Now I must dress for dinner!"

After getting testy about a lack of attention from her beloved, Hickok gamely tried to adjust. She never found a replacement for Eleanor Roosevelt in her life. After the Roosevelt administration ended, the books Hickok wrote earned little and her self-destructive drinking took its toll on her health. She died poor and alone.

The historical value of this volume has less to do with Eleanor Roosevelt, I think, than with the sadnesses borne by homosexuals not fortunate enough to have lived today.

Lauren A. Weiner is an editor in the office of Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Arizona). She has worked as a reporter, writer and editor for the Washington Times, the Institute for Contemporary Studies and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, the New Criterion, Insight and elsewhere.

Pub Date: 10/18/98

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