When AP political reporter Lorena Hickok—Hick—is assigned to cover Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the wife of the 1932 Democratic presidential candidate, the two women become deeply, intimately involved. Their relationship begins with mutual romantic passion, matures through stormy periods of enforced separation and competing interests, and warms into an enduring, encompassing friendship that ends only with both women’s deaths in the 1960s—all of it documented by 3300 letters exchanged over thirty years.
Excerpt from Loving Eleanor, Chapter 4, “Orbit,”
It was a gray, misty afternoon, the sky weeping softly over the late autumn trees, and Mrs. R was pensive. We went to a quiet café for supper, where she talked about personal things she’d never spoken of before, about the way she and the children, and Missy [LeHand] too, had ordered their lives around FDR.
“Like little moons,” she said soberly, “all orbiting around a giant planet.” She sighed. “Some of us might escape into outer space if we could. We might like to be somebody else. But of course we can’t. The pull is too great.” She paused. “Even poor, sweet Missy. She’s tried to leave him a time or two, you know, to escape. But she can’t. She has no more choice than I do.”
I held my breath. She hadn’t said, “Off the record, Hick,” because she wasn’t thinking of me as a reporter who might use her words. She was speaking to me as a woman, as a friend, as someone who understood, and I thought, quite suddenly, that I did—more than she might guess, perhaps.
“Who would you be, if you could?” I asked quietly.
There was a moment’s silence. “Just . . . myself,” she said, “although I don’t think I know what that means.” Her little laugh was self-conscious. “I suppose I would be just Eleanor Roosevelt. That was my name before I married Franklin, you know. If I were not Mrs. Roosevelt, of the Hyde Park Roosevelts, I would still be Eleanor Roosevelt, of the Oyster Bay Roosevelts.” She raised a hand, let it fall, and her face darkened. “There. You see? I can’t escape, either.”
Yes, I thought, the name hanging on her like an albatross, a millstone, a curse. I rephrased my question. “What would Eleanor Roosevelt do?”
She was unhesitating. “Oh, that’s easy. I would live very quietly. Read, write letters, garden. Learn to cook, enjoy a few friends. Travel. But no politics at all, ever.”
Was that a true answer? I think it was, then, or at least a wistful, wishful answer, one that might have been given by the young Eleanor, before she fell into her Uncle Teddy’s orbit, or her husband’s, or both.
She turned to me. “And you? Who would you be, if you could, Hick? What would you do?”
It was if she had opened a door and invited me inside. Her blue eyes were intent on mine, and a new thing somewhere inside me seemed to open up, to lean forward, toward her. I tried to speak, couldn’t, and tried again.
“I’m not sure,” I said finally, feeling breathless. In all my life no one, not even Ellie, had ever asked me those questions. Who would I be, if I could? What would I do?
“I . . . I love my work,” I managed, still held by her gaze, as if in an embrace. “I would always want to do that.”
She turned away. “That’s the difference between us. You have important work, work that matters. You do it very well, and you’re rewarded. I don’t do . . . anything of consequence, except perhaps for teaching, which only matters to a few girls.” Her voice flattened. “When Franklin goes to the White House, I won’t even do that. I will put on a gown and white gloves and stand in a receiving line and smile and say silly things to silly people. That’s what I will do.”
“I’m sorry,” I said inadequately.
She gave me a regretful smile. “So am I. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”