- Out of the Closet and into History? The Eleanor Roosevelt–Lorena Hickok Affair
The long-awaited third and final volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s definitive biography of Eleanor Roosevelt has brought with it appropriately glowing reviews. But those reviews show the reviewers’ amnesia regarding the important and difficult battle Cook waged to get the historical profession and the Roosevelt establishment to stop dismissing ER’s romantic relationship with Lorena Hickok (or “Hick” as her friends called her). The New York Review of Books, for example, ran Susan Dunn’s joint review of Cook’s final ER volume and Susan Quinn’s Eleanor and Hick (December 8, 2016), which erroneously claimed: “Ever since Blanche Wiesen Cook disclosed the intimate nature of their friendship in the first volume of her biography [of ER] in 1992, the scholarly consensus has been that yes Eleanor and Lorena were ‘romantic.’” Actually, in the very pages of The New York Review of Books, Cook’s depiction of that lesbian relationship was attacked in 1992 by Geoffrey C. Ward, an FDR biographer whose review of Cook’s first ER volume (“Outing Mrs. Roosevelt,” NYRB, September 24, 1992) denied that such a relationship was possible and suggested that Eleanor was virtually asexual.
The pattern of denial continued into 1993, and again was played out in the pages of The New York Review of Books (March 25, 1993) when Cook wrote in, trying to shake Ward out of his cramped vision of ER as “Cold, remote, endlessly prodding; ugly, terminally insecure, dry as dust . . . never had any [End Page 314] fun; never was any fun.” Ward was unmoved and sought to cast more doubt on the possibility of an affair with Hickok by claiming that Eleanor, “at least in the mid-1920s . . . shared society’s benighted view of homosexuality.”
Implicit in the writings of Ward and others in denying an ER-Hick lesbian relationship is that their position is based on an objective reading of the evidence. No historian or biographer, at least, has gone so far as Roosevelt filmmaker Ken Burns did with his sweeping, ignorant claim that “We have no evidence whatsoever of that [a ER-Hick affair] and none of the historians and experts believe it.”1 Cook does “believe it” and has offered the ER-Hick letters as strong evidence of the affair. But scholars who deny the affair cite what they see as counter-evidence: mostly statements by ER’s friends and family members suggesting that she was too sexually repressed to engage in such an affair. Some have argued that ER’s correspondence with those close to her was so often emotionally overheated that the sensuous and erotic passages in her correspondence with Hickok ought not be taken literally. So the disagreement about the existence of an affair can be seen as deriving from differences over historical methodology (reading the letters literally or not) and historical judgment (determining whether there is compelling counter-evidence that somehow negates the sexual passages in the ER-Hick letters).
It would be naïve, however, to reduce this dispute simply to the kinds of methodological questions one might confront in a graduate history seminar, since the debate over the affair has been shaped by the political climate. Hickok’s papers were opened in 1978, a time when homophobia ran rampant in U.S. society and when marriage equality was not even on the horizon. This paved the way for a pattern of lesbian denial among Roosevelt biographers and scholars. Until Cook came along, all those publishing in the field—whether out of homophobia, puritanism, or whatever analytical lens through which they read the evidence—could not let go of their stilted image of Eleanor...