Eleanor Roosevelt served her country faithfully as first lady – but according to a new biography, she was not always faithful to her husband, former President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In Susan Quinn’s book, Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady, Quinn reveals details from the more than 3,300 letters Eleanor and reporter Lorena Hickok exchanged over 30 years.
The book quotes one letter in which Eleanor wrote to Hickok, who was openly gay: “Oh! how I wanted to put my arms around you in reality instead of in spirit. I went and kissed your photograph instead and the tears were in my eyes. Please keep your heart in Washington as long as I’m here for most of mine is with you!”
The women first met when Hickok was assigned to write a profile on the first lady in 1932. They exchanged letters regularly until Eleanor’s death in 1962. Beyond the letters, the women’s decades-long relationship involved weeks-long trips together, quiet evenings celebrating Christmas alone together, and Eleanor’s financial support of her poorer friend. She sent money, helped Hickok secure jobs and even invited her to live with her in the White House – an offer that Hickok eagerly accepted. While some of the more revealing letters were destroyed, according to Quinn, the author questions one letter Hickok wrote to Eleanor about “a lovely ‘Christmas’ last night.”
“What did happen between Hick [Hickok’s nickname] and Eleanor on these intimate occasions?” wonders Quinn. While she acknowledges the two women may not have engaged in anything more than “kissing, cuddling, and tickling” – particularly because Eleanor reportedly didn’t like physical contact – Quinn writes, “It’s also possible that Eleanor’s wish to please allowed Hick to lead her further into sensual pleasures that she avoided at other times.”
For his part, FDR was surprisingly comfortable with his wife’s relationship with Hickok.
“For the most part, FDR felt the same way about Hick that he did about Eleanor’s other women friends,” writes Quinn. “As long as the press and public didn’t notice anything irregular – and it is remarkable that they almost never did – he was happy to have Eleanor go about her own separate life, just as he went about his.”
FDR’s acceptance of his wife’s close relationship with Hickok may have stemmed from his own extra-martial play. Early on in her marriage to FDR, in 1918, Eleanor found a packet of love letters from FDR’s lover – Lucy Mercer. While he would go on to have more flirtations – with a Norwegian princess and his own daughter-in-law – Quinn writes that it was this first deception that shattered Eleanor’s heart.
“[Eleanor] told Hick how unloved she felt in her marriage and how disappointed she was in the ‘great man’ everyone else idolized,” writes Quinn. Eleanor wanted to divorce FDR, but they ultimately decided to remain married, in part because FDR’s mother threatened to disown him. Beyond that, “divorce would have been political suicide,” Quinn explains.
So, for the majority of their marriage, the Roosevelts’ relationship was based on politics – not romance. As a result, Quinn writes, FDR turned to other women. When he died, Lucy Mercer was the one at his side – not Eleanor.
Now a widow and no longer involved with Hickok (though they still wrote each other), Eleanor found another person to idolize. At age 64, Eleanor fell in love with a doctor – 46-year-old David Gurewitsch.
“[Eleanor] was well aware that David had other women in his life,” writes Quinn. “But some of her letters suggest that she would have liked to be his one and only.”
If that isn’t enough evidence of Eleanor’s devotion to Gurewitsch, Quinn writes that “Eleanor Roosevelt wrote or called [Gurewitsch] every single day. She kept his photograph on her bedside table, and she insisted that he was ‘the love of her life.’ ”
Ten years after meeting Eleanor, Gurewitsch eventually married another woman. Quinn writes that Eleanor’s “face turned ashen” when she heard the news. She was devastated because, once again, she’d been rejected. Throughout the book, Quinn argues that Eleanor always craved affection. Her relationship with Gurewitsch was the latest in a series of relationships in which Eleanor was always the “outsider.”
“Hick may well have been the only one of Eleanor’s deep attachments who loved her above all others,” writes Quinn. Even if Hickok wasn’t the great love of Eleanor’s life, Eleanor was the center of Hickok’s world.
“Hick told her friend Helen Douglas she would want to die once Eleanor Roosevelt died,” writes Quinn. Though Hickok lived for another five and a half years after Eleanor’s death, “each year, on Eleanor Roosevelt’s birthday, [Hickok] visited the grave with her personal tribute to her dearest friend: a single yellow rose.”