Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Born Today In 1893, Journalist Lorena Hickok, Lesbian 'Close Friend' of Eleanor Roosevelt

AP photo

Lorena "Hick" Hickok was born today, March 7, in 1893. She was an American journalist known for her close relationship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Born in East Troy, Wisconsin to a dressmaker and a dairy-farmer, Hickok had an unhappy childhood marked by isolation and abuse. After her mother's death when Hickok was 14, she left home, worked on her own, and completed high school with the help of a cousin. She went into journalism after failing out of college, and soon became a successful reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and the Associated Press (AP), achieving several firsts for American women journalists. By 1932, she had become the nation's best-known female reporter.

After being assigned to cover Roosevelt during her husband's first presidential campaign, Hickok struck up a close relationship with the soon-to-be First Lady. For several years, the two corresponded almost every day, traveled together, and professed emotional and physical affection for one another. The exact nature of this relationship has been widely discussed by historians; some have argued that the relationship was clearly romantic or erotic, while others have argued that historians have been misled by Roosevelt's exuberant letters. It is known, and was known in the White House press corps at the time, that Hickok was a lesbian. More than 3,000 letters from the pair's correspondence are preserved at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.

Compromised as a reporter by her personal relationship with Roosevelt, Hickok left the AP and began work as the chief investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), a department of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Hickok encouraged or inspired several of Eleanor Roosevelt's initiatives, including her syndicated column, her all-women press conferences, and her planned community at Arthurdale, West Virginia. As Hickok grew more demanding of the First Lady, however, the pair's initial closeness lessened. Following complications with her diabetes, Hickok resigned from FERA in 1936 and worked for 3 years promoting the 1939 New York World's Fair. From 1940 to 1945, she served as the executive secretary of the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee, living at the White House for most of this time. As her diabetes steadily worsened, she lived out her final years at Hyde Park to be near Roosevelt, publishing several books.

Hickok first met Roosevelt in 1928 when assigned to interview her by the AP. In 1932, Hickok convinced her editors to allow her to cover Eleanor Roosevelt during her husband's presidential campaign and for the 4-month period between his election and inauguration. When the mother of Franklin's secretary, Missy LeHand, died in October 1932, Eleanor invited Hickok to accompany her to Potsdam, New York for the funeral. The women spent the long train ride talking, beginning a long friendship. 

By Franklin's inauguration on March 4, 1933, Hickok had become Eleanor's closest friend. The two made trips together to Albany and Washington, D.C., and spent nearly every day in each other's company. Hickok joined the Roosevelts every Sunday night for dinner, while on other nights Eleanor joined Hickok at the theater or opera, or at dinners alone at Hickok's apartment. For the inauguration, Eleanor wore a sapphire ring Hickok had given her.

That same day, Hickok interviewed Roosevelt in a White House bathroom, her first official interview as First Lady. By this time, Hickok was deeply in love with Roosevelt and finding it increasingly difficult to provide objective reporting. In addition, Hickok's job kept her largely in New York, while Eleanor was in Washington. Both women were troubled by the separation, professing their love by telephone and letter; Roosevelt put a picture of Hickok up in her study, which she told Hickok she kissed every night and every morning. During this period, Roosevelt wrote daily 10-15 page letters to "Hick," who was planning to write a biography of the First Lady.

The nature of Hickok and Roosevelt's relationship has been a subject of dispute among historians. Roosevelt was close friends with several lesbian couples, suggesting that she understood lesbianism; Marie Souvestre, Roosevelt's childhood teacher and a great influence on her later thinking, was also a lesbian. Hickok biographer Doris Faber published some of Roosevelt and Hickok's correspondence in 1980, but concluded that the lovestruck phrasing was simply an "unusually belated schoolgirl crush" and warned historians not to be misled. Researcher Leila J. Rupp criticized Faber's argument, calling her book "a case study in homophobia" and arguing that Faber unwittingly presented "page after page of evidence that delineates the growth and development of a love affair between the two women." In 1992, Roosevelt biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook argued that the relationship was in fact romantic, generating national attention.

Biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin summarized the letters between Hickok and Roosevelt thus:

"Hick longed to kiss the soft spot at the corner of Eleanor's mouth; Eleanor yearned to hold Hick close; Hick despaired at being away from Eleanor; Eleanor wished she could lie down beside Hick and take her in her arms. Day after day, month after month, the tone in the letters on both sides remains fervent and loving."
Goodwin concluded, however, that "whether Hick and Eleanor went beyond kisses and hugs" cannot be known for certain, and that the important issue is the impact the close relationship had on both women's lives. A 2011 essay by Russell Baker reviewing two new Roosevelt biographies in the New York Times Review of Books stated, "That the Hickok relationship was indeed erotic now seems beyond dispute considering what is known about the letters they exchanged."

Lorena Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt, 1935. CreditBettmann/Corbis
Hickok was a lesbian. Her interest in women began when she was young and over the course of her life, she had several long-term relationships with women. Some of her lovers ultimately married men or were married to men at the time they were with Hickok. 

Hickok suffered from diabetes, which ultimately caused her death. She used the condition to avoid social situations, claiming it made it difficult for her to dine with others, but Hickok had always enjoyed her solitude or that of her dogs, Prinz and Mr. Choate. Hickok relied her on her sister, Ruby Claff, a nurse, to help her during her ill health, as she had not only diabetes but blindness and arthritis as well in her later years.

Hickok died at the age of 75. She was cremated and, for two decades, her ashes sat in an urn in a funeral home before being buried in an unmarked grave. A marker was finally placed on the site on May 10, 2000, describing her as "Hick" and an "Associated Press reporter, an author, an activist, and a friend of a Eleanor Roosevelt."

Late in life, Hickok wrote several books. She co-authored Ladies of Courage with Eleanor Roosevelt in 1954. This was followed by The Story of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1956), The Story of Helen Keller (1958), The Story of Eleanor Roosevelt (1959), and several more.

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