Eleanor Roosevelt’s love life reimagined in Amy Bloom’s White Houses

In Amy Bloom's White Houses, the author sketches the different stages of the relationship between former United States first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok.
In Amy Bloom's White Houses, the author sketches the different stages of the relationship between former United States first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok.PHOTOS: ELAINE SEIBERT, GRANTA
In Amy Bloom's White Houses, the author sketches the different stages of the relationship between former United States first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok.
In Amy Bloom's White Houses, the author sketches the different stages of the relationship between former United States first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok.PHOTOS: ELAINE SEIBERT, GRANTA

FICTION

WHITE HOUSES

By Amy Bloom

Granta Books/Paperback/ 218 pages/$29.95/Books Kinokuniya/

4.5 stars


They became friends in 1932 on a long train ride and remained in each other's lives for decades, as revealed by some 3,300 letters between them that were found by researchers in the late 1970s.

The letters tell of the close relationship between United States first lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) and Lorena Hickok (1893-1968), an Associated Press reporter who was the first woman to have her byline on the front page of The New York Times in 1928.

Various books and shows have since been produced about the couple. One of the latest is Amy Bloom's White Houses, a fictionalised work inspired by their correspondence.

This poignant and poetic book is a cut above at least one other fictional work with the same concept, Loving Eleanor, by Susan Wittig Albert.

Loving Eleanor can be rather prosaic, for example, in stating the obvious - "Some of the story - the part that goes on behind closed doors, in private spaces, in our hearts - will always be wordless and must be imagined."

White Houses goes ahead and imagines. In a closing monologue, Hickok sees the departed Mrs Roosevelt everywhere: "You are the small fishing boat... You are the violet skies... You are the shells."

Both books have the lesser-known woman as the narrator, but Bloom, who has published three short-story collections and three novels, does better in re-creating the voice of the straight-talking reporter from South Dakota.

"We broke up and stayed friends of a certain kind (the kind where the person you've hurt gets happily married and comes to see you as a dodged bullet)."

Most people may know Mr Franklin D. Roosevelt only as a man who overcame polio to become US president and a key leader during War World II and his wife Eleanor as an active champion of causes.

But Bloom gives readers a glimpse of the other White House, where both the Roosevelts had affairs. Hickok, for instance, gave up her career for love and moved into The White House.

Bloom sketches the different stages of the relationship between the two women with a tender touch, be it the first blush, the stolen hours, the separation or the reunion.

As they reunite briefly after the president's death in 1945, Hickok recounts: "I bury my face between her shoulder blades. She reaches back to press my head to the base of her neck. This is the happiness I want. Not the tidal wave of early romance, swamping all the boats, carrying us to some impossible shore."

What is especially moving is that middle-aged women are not often thought of as having desires, if they are thought of at all.

But here, there is no mistaking how much they want each other. "Oh, Hick, she says, if you don't hold me, I will die."

The material may not be new, but White Houses breaks new ground with its sensitive portrayal of the love between Lorena and Eleanor, which may, in time, become as well-known as that between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf.

If you like this, read: Carol by Patricia Highsmith (Bloomsbury, 2014, $19.94, Books Kinokuniya), about a salesgirl in a department store who falls in love with a housewife, first published in 1952 as The Price Of Salt and under a pseudonym.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 05, 2018, with the headline 'Eleanor Roosevelt's love life reimagined'. Print Edition | Subscribe