We all know about the dalliances of some of our most respectable Presidents — think Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But have you heard about the affairs of the First Ladies? Arguably the more interesting of liaisons, simply by the fact that it is rather unheard of and what a scandal that would be?
From the prolific Amy Bloom, “White Houses” is a historical fiction that explores the relationship of one of the most famous First Ladies. The novel tells of the romance between Eleanor Roosevelt and journalist Lorena Hickok. This relationship has been speculated about for years and is still debated by historians. Personally, I think this is because a lesbian relationship of one of the most influential American women is too taboo to discuss within the very puritanical lens of American history that still sometimes plagues us.
At this point, it seems especially evasive to deny their relationship in light of the very personal letters — we’re talking thousands of letters — exchanged between the two women. The letters plainly speak to the love between them. The same historians debating over this affair often talk of the Roosevelt marriage being more of a partnership rather than a passionate relationship, maintained out of political and societal necessity. Franklin’s affairs have been widely discussed and reported, but Eleanor’s relationship is constantly swept into the corners of history.
Their story is told through the narrative voice of Hickok, the “First Friend.” She begins just days after FDR’s passing in 1945. Eleanor calls “Hick,” as she is often called, to come back to her. At this moment in time, the relationship has long been over. Hick, still loyal and still loving, comes immediately. The coming back together isn’t about a rekindling of the relationship though, it’s more about comfort and support. The story shifts then into the reaches of Hick’s memory, reminiscing about the past and the complex on-again-off-again relationship of the two women.
This of course, is a fictionalized account of their time together. Events and locations are pulled from history, but Bloom picks up her artistic license to delve into what sort of relationship these two women could have had. At the heart of it, “White Houses” is a love story. I think what is rather noteworthy is that it is a love story between two late middle aged lesbians. Neither admit to having been any great beauty. But yet, these are our heroines.
These unconventional character types are a welcome reprieve from stereotypical characters which we typically see within the heteronormative and youth obsessed media. Bloom provides a space where she can explore freely and openly a love that never gets too much page time (or screen time). The glimpses provided into the sex life of the First Lady and First Friend are written with tenderness. Hick’s narrative acknowledges that while what they have may not be conventional beauty — to her, it is divine. This type of language of is used when discussing both their minds and bodies. It is refreshing to see this representation, as many times when I have come across unconventional character types, we may get the message that they too deserve love, but we hardly see that they too, embody beauty.
While this is a love story, we know that it isn’t going to have a fairy tale ending. There is no settling down in the cozy cottage at Val-Kill or escaping to endless road trips through Maine or picnics beneath trees. The end of their relationship has as much to do with society’s acceptance, as it does the individual women themselves.
Lorena Hickock singularly, out from under Eleanor’s shadow, was a force of nature. From humble beginnings, to a prominent journalist with the Associated Press — covering major stories like the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby — to a published author, she lived how she wants and demanded a seat at the table. It is no wonder she would not sit idly by Eleanor’s side, regulated to the corners of the White House and then to the shadows of Eleanor’s public life, settling for coming in second to Eleanor’s delicately crafted public persona.
This dynamic between them essentially becomes the critical obstacle of their relationship. These moments are poignant, as Bloom is able to to paint a picture of intense love and an underlying sadness. There is plenty of loyalty and love, but there isn’t a chance for them to live fully within their relationship. When the relationship continues with neither willing to break away, the narrator laments, “We were determined to be the people we wanted to be and not the blind, desperate people we were.”
This theme echoes through the novel. Leaving the reader to digest the reality of a love affair that would never work, however intense the passion and strong the love. Because of the limitations of time, place, and people they were designed to be, they were never allowed to be the people they were.
There is plenty in the novel to be skeptical about, where you can argue Bloom’s artistic license starts to stretch thin. However enjoyable these may be to imagine: scenes between Hick and FDR, as he attempts to give her advice on her relationship with the missus; speculation on weather Charles Lindbergh killed his own baby, etc. hardly seem likely.
The one take away for this novel, is that these women are more than the sum of their parts. They are not their names, their age, their physical description, or their spouses. They are complicated and cannot be fit tidily into our collective historical memory. They built successful careers at a time when it was difficult for women to be taken seriously. They had lived, experienced pain and suffering, and overcame many obstacles. They found, supported, and loved each other even though their time together was short. We can learn lessons from the lives they led, and too, from the love they shared. We should respect these women for who they were, not just for who they pretended to be.