- Writing the Outrageous Life:Blanche Wiesen Cook and Eleanor Roosevelt
There are many ways to characterize the career of Blanche Cook, a scholar and activist who has committed herself to, and taught us so much about, issues concerning peace, human rights, American diplomacy and history, civil rights, and biography.
Many of us are familiar with Blanche's texts regarding Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crystal Eastman, and Eleanor Roosevelt; her editorship of the Garland Library of War and Peace; and her pioneering freedom-of-information work with the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association—as its representative to the State Department's Historical Advisory Committee—and of course with the Fund for Open Information and Accountability in support of the Freedom of Information Act and the Sunshine Law that Congresswoman Bella Abzug introduced. Thanks to this work, documents regarding the U.S. role in the overthrow of the governments of Guatemala and Iran, among other anomalies, were declassified, and the FBI was prevented from destroying the files it kept on Martin Luther King, Jr., Cointelpro, and other civil rights papers. In addition, Cook's activism on this front also facilitated the opening of the 5,000–page file on Eleanor Roosevelt (Cook 1996, 286; Rattiner 2003).
As I thought about her contributions, a kind of paradigmatic phrase came to mind that sums up much of her life and work. Blanche Wiesen Cook hates secrets: an enmity that we should all be grateful for. [End Page 96]
As I recently learned, unveiling secrets plays a large role in the work of any biographer. This fact is particularly salient when the subject is an iconic figure like Eleanor Roosevelt, so I want to offer some observations about this master work. My goal here is not so much to offer new insights but to provide a kind of biography of a biography, much aided by an interview I had with Blanche on December 5, 2009 in New York City.
The Eleanor Roosevelt biography was in many ways an "accident," Blanche told me. The journey toward its fruition began in 1980 when she was asked to review Doris Faber's The Life of Lorena Hickok: ER's Friend for Feminist Studies. As is clear from the review, Blanche was appalled by the book. Faber had won the race to write about the recently unsealed archive of Hickok, a journalist, only to "cruelly" exploit the contents of some 3,000 letters between the two women, many of which could only be characterized as passionate love letters. Faber "despises Hickok and loathes homosexuals," Blanche concluded in the review, noting the author's stereotypical characterization and her insistence that Eleanor's feeling toward Lorena was merely a "school-girl" crush by an affection-starved First Lady (Cook 1980, 512, 514). Continued Cook, the "denial of lesbianism … involves the notion that women without men are lonely asexual spinsters and that erotic and sexual pleasure without male penetration is not erotic or sexual pleasure" (511). The review was widely cited and was the start of Blanche's intense interest in Eleanor.
Still, the desire to write a full-length biography was still in the offing. In our interview, Blanche recalled a lunch date with Joseph P. Lash, the long-time friend and family biographer of ER. Lash was a friend who, to Blanche's delight, had provided an enthusiastic blurb for Crystal Eastman on Women and Revolution, which she had edited. The comment further endeared Lash to Blanche, but not enough for her to assent to his suggestion that she write about Mrs. Roosevelt. Lash, who had been quoted as being "flabbergasted" by the implications that Roosevelt had had a lesbian relationship, had no intention of writing about Hickok and in fact was prepared to publish letters that purportedly showed that Mrs. Roosevelt wrote equally affectionate missives to an array of friends and relatives. Blanche's response was something like, "oh, please," but she initially was not interested. "You know what I actually said to him," Blanche said, shaking her head in disbelief, "I said, I write hard history," meaning the kind of diplomatic and foreign relations texts such as The Declassified Eisenhower that she...