'White Houses' Review
Eleanor Roosevelt had an affair with a woman, who knew? Apparently, it’s not so common, common knowledge. In “White Houses,” Amy Bloom tells a fictional story about the real-lif romance between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. “White Houses” fascinated me, but not it the way you might guess.
“White Houses,” though it chronicles a love affair between a famous, married woman and a reporter, isn’t as scandalous as you’d think. This wasn’t some tawdry affair. More important, “White Houses” is as much about Lorena Hickok’s childhood as it is about the affair. And Hickok’s childhood was tragic.
Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of “White Houses” in exchange for an honest review.
“White Houses” and Eleanor Roosevelt’s Not So Shocking Affair
In “White Houses,” Bloom portrays Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickock (or Hick as the Roosevelts call her) as both dear friends and lovers. It’s their friendship that gives “White Houses” its depth. On the romance side, I found Eleanor and Hick to be quite cheesy. Judging by the quotes I found from their real-life correspondence in Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings article, “Eleanor Roosevelt’s Controversial Love Letters to Lorena Hickok,” they may have actually been a bunch of cheese balls:
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.
At the beginning of the book, Hick resigns from her job at the Associated Press. She is so in love with Eleanor that she can no longer report on her. She then takes a job with the White House. “Franklin said, Much better to have you inside the tent, Hick, and pissing out.” Hick moves into the White House and her affair with Eleanor continues, which is about all I can say about it because the lesbian affair was the least interesting part of “White Houses.”
“White Houses” and Hick’s Heartbreaking Childhood
The most interesting part of “White Houses” for me was Hick’s heartbreaking childhood, which was full of abuse and instability. After her mother dies, Hick works as a “hired girl,” or nanny/maid. Her revolting father pops up in the book now and again, and every time, I wanted to punch him. Hick goes to college, but can’t cut it. Instead, she gets a job with the Battle Creek Evening News. She works her way up from there. I appreciated that “White Houses” told Hick’s personal story, albeit fictionalized. Hick carved her own place in the world despite her unfortunate circumstances.
The History in “White Houses”
Let’s talk about history! Amy Bloom's writing style in “White Houses” is so matter of fact it’s hard to remember that you’re reading a work of fiction. I felt like I was reading a diary or memoir. But fiction it is, so here are two historical facts to keep you grounded while you read the book.
It’s well-known that FDR was unfaithful to Eleanor Roosevelt. In “White Houses,” Bloom implies that he had affair with his secretary, Marguerite LeHand, known as Missy. But in “How Marguerite LeHand Shaped the Franklin D. Roosevelt White House,” published in The New York Times, Sam Roberts writes, “No one claims to have witnessed an affair between Roosevelt and LeHand (although Roosevelt’s son Elliott wrote that they had been lovers). [Karen Smith, author of The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR, and the Untold Story of the Partnership that Defined a Presidency] concludes that while they were devoted and affectionate companions, enjoyed each other’s company immensely, and had an intimate understanding of each other’s minds,' other factors 'argued against sexual intimacy.’” So, we don’t actually know whether Roosevelt had an affair with Missy LeHand.
Someone really did kidnap and kill Charles Lindberg's baby. In “White Houses,” Hick’s theorizes, “I believed Lindbergh hired John Condon. I thought Lindbergh killed the baby by accident and built a cover-up with the bravado and precision he was famous for. And when the poor little baby was found, four miles from the house, head staved in and decomposing, poor German Richard Hauptmann didn’t have a chance.” The FBI's Famous Cases & Criminals article on the Lindbergh kidnapping, however, doesn’t even mention this theory. But, it does acknowledge that the evidence against Hauptmann was circumstantial. Hickok wasn’t alone in believing this theory although it is unlikely. Her recounting of Lindbergh’s “‘America First’ speeches, blaming Jews for anti-Semitism,” is unfortunately true though.
Insightful quotes in “White Houses”
Hick was a good journalist. Writing for The New York Times, Deirdre Carmody explains that when the AP received a tip that Lindberg’s baby was found, Hickok and a photographer braved the woods in a blizzard to check the situation out for themselves. In “Letters by Eleanor Roosevelt Detail Friendship With Lorena Hickok,” Carmody writes, “Miss Hickok, on her hands and knees, crawled close to the house, peering into windows until she was able to assure herself that the vigil was still on and that the rumor was untrue.” Journalists are astute observers and in “White Houses,” Bloom portrays Hick as such:
At one point Hick describes her experiences as a journalist during the Great Depression. She explains, "I had my nose rubbed in my own racialism so often, and so hard, by meeting colored people who were so much worse off and had been hard done by for so much longer. Negro men and women, working from can to can’t, surrounded by a sea of hungry, wide-eyed children and at least one rail-thin, night-dark old lady in the corner, sitting like a seer in her one dress, all knowing that their suffering registered less, that their dead weighed less, that there was less chance they could climb out of this terrible canyon, and fewer people to reach for them as they did."
When FDR dies Hick remembers, “He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day. His charm and cheer blinded you, made you deaf to your own thoughts, until all you could do was nod and smile, while the frost came down, killing you where you stood.”
“White Houses” Review
“White Houses” is worth checking out (literally or figuratively). Although I divided the two main parts of the book (Hickok’s relationship with Eleanor and Hickok’s childhood) into two sections, Bloom interweaves them. Sometimes I found it a little confusing. But “White Houses” still sucked me in. I still think about Hick’s tragic upbringing. The “White Houses” version was on par with the childhoods of Jeanette Walls and J.D. Vance and at times much worse. If you’re an Eleanor Roosevelt fan, interested in badass women in history, or fascinated by train wreck childhoods, “White Houses” is definitely for you. And if you’re interested in seeing some of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok’s real-life correspondence as well as Eleanor Roosevelt’s “My Day” columns, visit The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project.
Finally, after you read “White Houses,” and you should read “White Houses,” let me know in the comments which parts struck you as particularly interesting.
By Amy Bloom
Random House. 240pp.