Franklin, Eleanor, Sara, Lucy, Earl, Missy, Lorena, Daisy, and Joe. This was a very crowded and complicated marriage. FDR and ER were neither exclusive nor stingy with their affections. And then there was his mother, Sara. Franklin and Eleanor’s story and its accompanying scandals reminded me of another power couple that occupied the White House and our collective consciousness half a century later, Bill and Hillary.
Loving Eleanor by Susan Wittig Albert is a well-researched, but fictional memoir of Lorena Hickok, a noted journalist who became a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. Very close. Three thousand revealing and personal letters between the two, that had been archived it the FDR Library, were unsealed ten years after Hickok’s death in 1968. They have provided much source material for both biographers and this fictionalized narrative. They leave little doubt as to the nature of their relationship, at least for a time.
But let’s back up a bit. Before FDR was elected President, Eleanor feared disappearing into his shadow. Remember, this was a time when women in general and First Ladies in particular occupied strictly defined roles. It was during the first presidential campaign that Hickok penned a series of articles about “The Reluctant First Lady,” highlighting ER’s concerns, her interests, and the projects that she desperately wanted to continue. It was “Hick” who encouraged Eleanor to find ways to change the role of First Lady into one in which she could thrive and find fulfillment. ER began holding weekly press conferences with female journalists, writing the widely syndicated “My Day” newspaper column, and shedding light on a host of women’s issues.
While FDR had several well-documented affairs, he was somewhat vindictive when it came to Eleanor’s dalliances. Earl Miller, ER’s hunky body-guard was bought (and married) off. Hick was reassigned to a traveling job during the Depression that kept her out of Washington D.C. And Joe Lash, a younger political activist and journalist beau was sent to the Pacific during WWII. Albert calls this FDR’s “left hook.”
The Roosevelts are of course, larger than life and endlessly fascinating. I’ve read Lucy by Ellen Feldman, about Eleanor’s former secretary who had a decades-long affair with FDR and who was with him when he died at Warm Springs. And I’ve seen the amusing Bill Murray movie, “Hyde Park on Hudson,” which focused on FDR’s relationship with his distant cousin, Daisy. The Ken Burns PBS documentary about the Roosevelts added to my picture of this influential family. However, this book has piqued my curiosity and put more books onto my always growing to-read list, including historian Blanche Wiesen Cook’s authoritative three volumes about Eleanor and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about the couple. Then there are ER’s own books.
More than anything though, this book illustrates once again, that no one can really know what goes on in inside a marriage or the human heart. The power struggles and compromises that go on behind closed doors even–or especially–in the most public of couples, remain hidden from view. In addition, no matter how we may idolize and deify them, these icons are still quite human, with all the accompanying wants, needs, desires, and limitations. Knowing their struggles and private demons, especially when set against the times in which they lived, makes me appreciate them more and softens my heart. After all, who am I to judge?