I was talking recently to a group about my upcoming book, Loving Eleanor and a woman asked, "Where did you get the idea? What made you think of writing this book?" She paused, then said, thoughtfully, "There's been a lot written about Mrs. Roosevelt. I wonder why this story hasn't been written before?"
I don't always remember the genesis of a book, but, in this case, I do, quite vividly. In 2008, I was researching another Depression-era project (A Wilder Rose) when I read about journalist Lorena Hickok in Blanche Weisen Cook's wonderful two-volume biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. Lorena—everybody called her "Hick"—was not just a dear friend, it turns out, but an intimate friend, with whom ER exchanged letters for 30 years. The correspondence was "erotic and romantic," according to Cook, and the letters reveal an intensely passionate relationship.
My first, surprised thought was, "Why haven't I heard about Hickok before now? Who was she?" My second thought: "Why hasn't somebody written about these women?" My third thought: "Duh. Women loving women—of course. It's one of those stories that's always buried in the slush pile. Not to mention that one of the women is one of the most famous women in the world." It's a tricky subject, isn't it?
My curiosity about Hick immediately sent me in search of the single biography, The Life of Lorena Hickok, ER's Friend, written by Doris Faber and published in 1980. Faber, the author of several children's books, intended to write a children's biography of ER. She happened to visit the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library in 1978, shortly after a large collection of ER's and Hick's letters—nearly 3400 of them—was made public. Hick, who died in 1968, had donated the collection with the stipulation that it could not be opened until ten years after her death. Faber abandoned her plan to write a biography of ER and focused instead on Hick.
But the book she produced is quite astonishing. "This isn't a biography," I thought as I read. "It's a hatchet job." Faber was extremely uncomfortable with the idea that the two women might have been more than "just friends" and went out of her way to create an unattractive, unpleasant image of Hick. In her biography, Hick is an overweight, clownish woman who was emotionally unstable and pathologically needy and dependent. The image was deliberately crafted to be so unappealing that readers could not believe that the First Lady of the World could love such a person. The biography was received as enthusiastically as its author had hoped, with reviews in all the major publications. Faber's depiction of the friendship as platonic and maternal on ER's part was successfully imposed on the American public.
I was briefly tempted to undertake another biography, this one with more attention to Hick's many achievements. But I'm a novelist, not a biographer. And the compelling story, the real story, wasn't in the facts of Hick's life but in the reality of her long and intimate relationship to Eleanor. What brought them together, I wondered? What held them together over thirty tumultuous years? What needs did each satisfy in the other? What were they—together, as a pair of friends—that they weren't, as individuals?
That's the story I wanted to tell. It's the story that became Loving Eleanor (now available for pre-order, in both ebook and print on Amazon). You can read an excerpt here. Check back on that page in the next few days--I'll be posting a Pinterest board for the chapter soon.
Reading note: My dear, if you meet me, may I forget there are other people present? Or must I behave! I shall want to hug you to death. I can hardly wait. A world of love to you and good night and God bless you, light of my life. —Eleanor Roosevelt to Lorena Hickok, March 9, 1933