Pushing the Envelope

Eleanor Roosevelt, one of America's enduring heroes, is credited with transforming the office of the first lady from a largely ceremonial post into an activist pulpit. Yet, as a new collection of letters between Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok reveals, Hickok may well have been the driving force behind this revolutionary change. As Rodger Streitmatter puts it, Hickok was in many matters, the "woman behind the woman.""I think the book establishes that Lorena Hickok was a major influence on Eleanor Roosevelt and therefore had a significant secondary role in helping to redefine the role of the first lady," says Streitmatter, the editor of Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok.The personal correspondence between Hickok and Roosevelt first became public in 1978. It revealed that the women, who first met in 1933 when Hickok was a Washington-based Associated Press reporter, had shared an intense, intimate relationship that was physical and passionate as well. Since then, says Streitmatter, scholars have used nuggets from the letters both to confirm that the two women were lovers, as well as to dispute the same.The some 300 letters in Empty Without You span the course of three decades. "What I was trying to do with this book was get beyond the dribs and drabs of the quotations and really provide the full conversation that these two women had between 1933 and 1962, when Eleanor died."Streitmatter, a professor of journalism at American University, is also the author of Mightier Than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History; Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America; and Raising Her Voice: African-American Women Journalists Who Changed History. He will be in Madison Oct. 13 to deliver a lecture on the history of the gay and lesbian press (Special Collections Department, UW-Madison Memorial Library, 4:30 p.m.). Later that evening, he will sign copies of Empty Without You at Canterbury Booksellers, where UW-Madison drama professors Karen Ryker and Patricia Boyette will read a selection of letters. Streitmatter spoke with Isthmus early this week from his campus office in Washington, D.C.Davidoff: What got you interested in the letters of Eleanor and Lorena?Sreitmatter: It's a combination of two things. One, I teach a course on women in journalism, so I always had an interest in Lorena Hickok, and I knew that there were suggestions that there had been a lesbian relationship between Lorena and Eleanor. But when I tried to find more about Lorena's life, there just wasn't much out there. I kept getting dribs and drabs, parts of the letters.Besides that, I am a gay man, so there was always the intrigue of whether or not Eleanor Roosevelt was indeed a lesbian, and I was interested in finding out more about that. But again, you run into these very limited sources because there are just a few quotes that are quoted and requoted and requoted but never the full comprehensive sense of what the relationship was all about.Is the title Empty Without You a direct quote from one of the letters?In the first paragraph of the first letter that Eleanor wrote, she uses the phrase "empty without you." ("Sunday night, March 5th: Hick, my dearest, I cannot go to bed tonight without a word to you. I felt a little as though a part of me was leaving tonight, you have grown so much to be a part of my life that it is empty without you....")I was looking for a statement that suggests more than just the romantic or passionate part of the relationship but that speaks a little bit to the substantive part of the relationship. And I think their relationship was both.For the most part, biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt present her as the visionary who changed the role of the first lady forever, yet you suggest in the book that Lorena was really the mastermind behind many of the innovations.Sometimes I find it a bit frustrating that when I look in books about the first lady...there is no mention of Lorena, and I really believe that Lorena did make significant contributions to the evolution of Eleanor Roosevelt. Her idea of Eleanor holding weekly press conferences and inviting only women was a stroke of genius. She knew Eleanor was only going to get positive news stories. Many of these women were only hired because news organizations had to have one woman on their staff to cover these press conferences. And so these reporters knew that if they said negative things about Eleanor, the Roosevelt White House might decide not to continue these press conferences and then they'd be out of jobs. And it was a wonderful stage for Eleanor. She held 348 of these press conferences during her 12 years in the White House. News organizations had to hire women reporters specifically for these press conferences?Yes, so it was really a watershed event for women in journalists. For the first time every major news organization in Washington had to hire a woman. It was a significant breakthrough. Now granted, it was only one woman, but it enabled at least a small cadre of women to prove themselves, which was significant because it proved that women could indeed cover major events. Today we think that's silly, but at the time there were really serious suggestions that women were too emotional, they couldn't really control their emotions enough to cover real news. And it was also Lorena who suggested that Eleanor write her own syndicated news column, which was very successful. She did it for 27 years, six days a week. The only day she didn't write one was on the day Franklin died.What else do the letters tell us about Eleanor?Because she thought this was more of a private diary--she never thought these letters would be published--the letters really reveal some sides of Eleanor that I don't think have been widely seen before. Sometimes you see Eleanor being a bit catty or snide--a human being like the rest of us.What has been the reaction to the book so far? When news first broke in 1978 that Eleanor Roosevelt and the journalist Lorena Hickok may have had a lesbian relationship, some historians like Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Joseph Lash did their best to refute the possibility. Have there been any Schlesinger-like responses to the publication of Empty Without You?There have not been. I have already appeared on the Matt Drudge Report, and his opening line was, "Hold on to your bonnet," and he went on from there to say this was a tell-all book that holds nothing back. In a way I guess that's true. It does provide a full rendering of the letters between these women, some of which are quite intimate and erotic in nature.Personally, some of the things that I like about the book are that it also shows the depth of the relationship that these two women had. The only really passionate part was in 1933-34, but after that the letter-writing continued. Lorena was very supportive of Eleanor and very encouraging of her to redefine the role of the first lady. They wrote a total of about 3,500 letters to each other. My book includes a little more than 300. Lorena destroyed what I believe were about several hundred letters. She later wrote Eleanor's daughter, Anna, that she destroyed them because Eleanor was not always as "discrete" as she should have been.You quote Eleanor's granddaughter, Eleanor Seagraves, as saying she doesn't believe that Eleanor and Lorena were lovers.She believes that Eleanor became asexual after finding out that [Franklin Delano] had had an affair. The letters certainly show that [Eleanor and Lorena] had a physical relationship--lying down next to each other, kissing, etc.--but I'm certainly not suggesting that there was genital contact. We don't know that. We do know that it was intimate and that for a period of time they were the most important people in each other's lives. And I think anyone who reads those letters from 1933 would certainly understand that. This article originally appeared in Isthmus.

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