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Romancin’ the White House

Forty years after the release of love letters between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok comes a historical novel about their romance.

A silhouette of a same-sex couple looking toward the water
White Houses by Amy Bloom Book Cover depicting two women in 1930s clothing on the front porch of a house

Title

White Houses

Author(s)

Amy Bloom

Genre

Historical Fiction | LGBTQIA+

Amy Bloom’s White Houses is a savory historical novel about the affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. It centers mostly around the 12 years FDR was president. Although numerous books have been written about these two,  none are quite as provocative as this one.

Written in Hick’s voice, the two women spend the last weekend of April 1945 in Eleanor’s New York City apartment. Bloom expertly weaves in factual historical accounts throughout this weekend with refreshing, poetic prose.

Historical background

In 1958, Lorena Hickok donated 18 boxes of correspondence to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library. In them were more than 3,300 letters the two wrote to each other during their 30-year relationship. The box remained sealed until ten years after Hickock’s death. However, as evidenced by these love letters, scholars have refused to go so far as to affirm their relationship was sexual in nature.

This was not Eleanor’s first brush with lesbianism or lesbians in general. Eleanor developed several crushes on her classmates when she was in a French all-girls boarding school in England. This included the headmistress herself, Mademoiselle Souvestre. And in the 1920s, lesbian couples were common in Eleanor’s political and friendship circles. By then, she had already discovered Franklin’s affair with Lucy Mercer, her secretary. While the couple remained married, they led separate lives.

Hick was also experienced in same-sex dalliances. After all, when she met Eleanor, she was getting over a relationship with a woman who threw her over for a man. Dejected, she runs straight into Eleanor’s waiting arms.

The setting

The novel opens 14 days after FDR is laid to rest in Hyde Park. Hick prepares Eleanor’s Washington Square apartment in New York City to spend the weekend together, away from prying eyes. It’s been a while since they’ve been together and Hick is nervous they’ll have difficulty getting reacquainted.

Throughout their staycation-of-sorts, Eleanor reads through and answers condolence letters for her husband’s death. During their weekend, Hick presents their history as recollections, sometimes as it relates to these letters. 

This, while Hick attends to Eleanor’s every need during their weekend.

I pile her clothes on the wood chair. I put her black shoes in front of the fireplace. I hang her black coat in the closet, next to my navy-blue one, and my red scarf falls over them both. I’m sorry I’ve come.

The beginning

On Friday, while they’re lying in bed together, Eleanor is unwinding from the treacherous and emotional ordeal of burying her husband, who dies in the company of Lucy Mercer. Hick tells us about her and Eleanor’s happiest time. It was during the lame duck session, before FDR’s inauguration, and the two travel through New England together. 

Riding around the northeast in Eleanor’s blue Buick roadster, they observe the living conditions of their countrymen during the Depression. Hick had quit her job with the Associated Press and worried about her future. Following this adventure, Eleanor invites Hick to move into the White House; she also sets Hick up with a job at the Federal Emergency Relief Administration.

Lesbians of the twentieth century

Bloom is masterful in creating compelling and three-dimensional characters. We’re treated to Hick’s self-deprecating wit and candor, as well as her insecurity and feelings of inadequacy. Eleanor keeps busy to feel useful and doesn’t want to come across as bourgeois; her children accuse her of not having emotions. Despite her wealth, Eleanor is austere and promotes conservation. On their first meeting at the Governor’s Mansion in Albany, Hick discovers a much more nuanced individual than she’d imagined in Eleanor. 

“She was dull and pleasant for the first five minutes.” But there’s a spark, and Hick realizes she’s captured Eleanor’s attention. The spark eases into a simmering flame throughout this first encounter, and by the time the sherry is served – “I saw a quick flare, a pilot light of interest come and go,” Hick says. Eleanor is likewise besotted.

Although from opposite sides of the tracks, a dirt poor Hick and a wealthy Eleanor seem to understand each other’s plight. Or, at least they did in the beginning of the relationship. Acknowledging their homely appearances, they each long for affection.

Their relationship seems to be passionate, if tumultuous. During the early years, Hick is tasked to report on the conditions of the poorest Americans. This is when their letters confessing their longing for each other begin.

Diving into their past

Each of the novel’s four parts slowly unveils the labyrinth that was their, in many instances, a long-distance relationship. Told while the two are on the train to Potsdam, part one dives into their childhood. They accompany Missy LeHand, an FDR mistress for more than 20 years, to her mother’s funeral. It was 1932, and they’re in the midst of the first presidential campaign. Hick had nothing better to do as she was “between girlfriends and dogs.” This is when their connection develops. It’s when they realize how much they seek each other’s company.

Their backgrounds are diametrically opposed and it’s more obvious to Hick during their fictional last weekend together in April 1945. But it’s a point of contention throughout the novel. While Eleanor thinks she can empathize with Americans in deplorable conditions, her wealthy upbringing emphasizes her cluelessness. During their childhoods, Eleanor cavorts with other wealthy girls, and Hick is on her knees scrubbing other people’s floors. 

In part two, Bloom dives head-first into the relationship between Eleanor and her daughter, Anna. On various occasions, Anna arranges for Lucy Mercer to visit her father in convenient locations but mostly in Warm Springs. Anna fails to erase Mercer’s presence at Warm Springsrives when Eleanor arrives. So, Hick spends considerable time consoling Eleanor’s feelings of betrayal during their weekend.

A lover for all occasions

Another nugget alluded to over their weekend is however romantic, their relationship was anything but monogamous. And Hick, an expert at dating married women, had Marion Harron, a tax court judge, waiting in the bullpen. In fact, Hick is coming into this weekend with Eleanor, freshly single, or, at least, unattached to Marion. And Eleanor, as Bloom infers, carries on with her private secretary Malvina Thompson (Tommie Tompson). Bloom’s relentless research of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok has proven thoughtful here. And if not entirely acknowledged by historians, it makes for entertaining reading.

[Eleanor] “Dearest, Tommie will be here bright and early Monday morning. Early.”

“I won’t linger,” I say.

“You’re insulted,” she says.

Damn right.

“I could stay on,” I say, just to see.

Eleanor says, “That would be hard on Tommie, wouldn’t it?”

There’s an underlying juiciness to it all. 

But the dichotomy between two of FDR’s long-term mistresses is most fascinating. Eleanor turns a blind eye to his relationship with Missy LeHand, often seen sitting on his lap. She was desperately in love with FDR. And while reading condolence letters from Missy’s nieces, Elenor and Hick ruminate about her significance at the White House.

Eleanor shows compassion for LeHand, much more than she’d ever shown Mercer. Although Missy had an ongoing romantic relationship with FDR, he ultimately cared little for her. After her stroke, he brushed her aside and moved on to other companions. “He hates illness,” Eleanor says. It was Eleanor who arranged her care, Eleanor who visited her sickbed and paid her funeral expenses. 

Lucy Mercer, however, was a pebble in Eleanor’s sensible walking shoe. Possibly because she learns of the affair early into their marriage, she feels betrayed by her husband. Or possibly, she feels betrayed because he reciprocates Lucy’s feelings for him. She’s no longer merely a flirtatious companion; he loves her. Although he had promised Eleanor never to see Mercer again, there she is, accompanying him everywhere after the death of her husband.

A tough conundrum

Because the novel is set over one long weekend, days after FDR’s funeral, the narrative only covers Hick and Eleanor’s first twelve years. We know from the letters Hick donates that their relationship lasted right up until Eleanor’s death. Whether it was an intimate relationship after 1945 is anyone’s guess. But in the novel, we understand that their story ends when Monday and Tommie arrive.

They lived during a very complicated time, notwithstanding, when their relationship had a probable expiration date. Being the First Lady, and a popular one at that in the 30s and 40s, there was no privacy. Eleanor accompanies Hick on some of her assignments and, trying as they might evade the media, they’re discovered. Their letters kept the relationship going, feeding the fire with every signal of yearning for the other. When they finally did get time alone, Eleanor’s harried schedule kept their visits short. 

Ultimately, it’s a touching novel about two women who sought happiness together. This story has fictional twists, but that’s what makes it a novel, after all. But there’s a certain diversion in deciphering truth from fiction.

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About the author(s).

Amy Bloom: Author of three New York Times best-sellers and three collections of short stories, a children’s book and a ground-breaking collection of essays. Bloom has been a nominee for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and numerous anthologies here and abroad. She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, O Magazine and Vogue, among many other publications, and has won a National Magazine Award for Fiction. Her work has been translated into fifteen languages.

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