Magazine article Newsweek

'White Houses' Author Amy Bloom on Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok's Secret Love Affair; "It's So Funny to Read Historians Claiming Eleanor Was a Sheltered Victorian That Wouldn't Know a Lesbian If She Fell across One, and I'm like, How Can You Imagine That to Be True, Given the Evidence of Her Life?"

Magazine article Newsweek

'White Houses' Author Amy Bloom on Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok's Secret Love Affair; "It's So Funny to Read Historians Claiming Eleanor Was a Sheltered Victorian That Wouldn't Know a Lesbian If She Fell across One, and I'm like, How Can You Imagine That to Be True, Given the Evidence of Her Life?"

Article excerpt

Byline: Mary Kaye Schilling

It's hard to upstage a figure as sainted as Eleanor Roosevelt, but author Amy Bloom has found a voice if not as saintly then certainly as memorable: Eleanor's onetime lover and lifelong friend, the tough-minded journalist Lorena Hickok. Their romantic relationship, actively erased by the press in their lifetime, remained in the shadows until Susan Quinn's 2016 dual biography, Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady.

Historical fiction is a favorite of Bloom's, as are explorations of sexuality and gender, and Hickok had the sort of picaresque life the author favors--like the 1920s adventuress fleeing the pogroms of Russia in 2007's Away or the half-sisters of 2014's Lucky Us, in search of fame and fortune in 1940s Hollywood. White Houses is historical in a different way; there's a real timeline and reported facts. But Hickok's life story has enough gaps that Bloom could play around. What's undisputed is her desperate girlhood in South Dakota and a career as a reporter for the Associated Press. By 1932, Hickok was the most famous reporter in America.

Hick, as many called her, first interviewed Eleanor for the AP in 1928. In the next few years, their relationship deepened to the point that she could no longer objectively cover the Roosevelts. When FDR was inaugurated in 1933, Hick got a job investigating his New Deal initiative--and a bedroom adjoining the first lady's in the White House.

Researching Lucky Us piqued Bloom's interest in the Roosevelts. "If you're looking in the '30s and '40s," says Bloom, "you can't escape them." That took her to the Roosevelt library and Eleanor's 18 boxes of correspondence with Hick--3,000 letters in all. "Somebody said to me, 'Why did you write a novel as opposed to a history?'" says Bloom. "Because I'm a novelist not a historian! It's like when people would say to Willie Sutton, 'Why do you rob banks?' It's because that's where the money is."

Newsweek spoke to Bloom about White Houses, now being developed into a TV series with Emmy-winning director Jane Anderson (Olive Kitteridge). "I love how Jane describes it," says Bloom. "It's the ragtag American version of The Crown."

Were you always an Eleanor Roosevelt fan? In the vaguest way. My parents were Democrats and Jews from New York, and so Eleanor Roosevelt was in the family stream, just like unions were in the family stream. But I must have skipped most of American history in high school because I knew nothing about anything, which is amazing. But happily, history obliges; if you missed it the first time around, you're definitely going to get to see it again.

That's never truer than now, but what specifically about the Roosevelts related to today? The vitriolic response to the Roosevelts reminded me of the response to the Obamas. It was deeply personal rage, disappointment, resentment and fear that went way beyond the political. FDR was hanged in effigy in country clubs all across America for being a traitor to his class; the rumor was that he was secretly Jewish--Franklin Delano Roosenfeld, as they used to write. That someone of his class would care about people who were suffering was otherwise inexplicable--inexplicable and sort of shameful.

Why did you choose Hickok to tell their story? I didn't want to take on the voice of a figure as well known as Eleanor. While I wanted to be inside the Roosevelts' story, I wanted the voice to be that of an outsider. Lorena describes the Roosevelts in the book as people who had silver; they never bought silver. A friend said that to me once to describe her husband's family, and I thought, Oh, that's very different. I needed a narrator who could be mindful of that, and also understand what it means.

And I was fascinated by the idea that Eleanor's relationship with Lorena had been erased from history. Hickok was cropped out of most of the press photographs that included her. …

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