On International Women’s Day, a book about Eleanor Roosevelt seems appropriate, but Amy Bloom’s White Houses is more about Lorena Hickok, Eleanor’s companion and lover as she reflects an aspect of the great First Lady’s humanity and the inner self few knew. Although fiction, Bloom carefully contains the historical moments, referencing letters and research from historians bringing the famous friendship of two middle-aged women into the physical. With insights into their personal lives and sacrifices, Bloom creates an homage to two strong women who wrote a quiet but forceful chapter of American history.
Beginning with Hick’s introspection during the weeks after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, Bloom easily moves her story back and forth, offering biographical background on Hick’s miserable childhood, her days with a freak circus, and later as an upcoming reporter for the Associated Press. When Hick quits her job and moves into the White House, their affair seems unlikely to be kept from the public, yet this is the time when the press chose to ignore the President’s disability and quietly looked away from his many dalliances. Hick and Eleanor became “good friends” with only a few knowing their real relationship – one of them Franklin himself.
The affair goes in and out of favor as life, family, and politics intrude on Eleanor’s sense of responsibility to her causes and her exhausting schedule. Hick defers to Eleanor, but is the stalwart strength and support when needed, and always available when asked. In Bloom’s book, Hick is not cropped out of the picture, as she actually was in pictures of the New Deal White House. It would seem that with Franklin’s death, the two would frame a life together, but it was not to be. Eleanor had more to accomplish around the world and Hick had books to write.
Bloom’s portrayal of the rogue eccentric in Franklin Delano Roosevelt may be the most entertaining pieces in the book. Hick notes:
“He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day… He broke hearts and ambitions across his knee like bits of kindling, and then he dusted off his hands and said, ‘Who’s for cocktails?’ ”
Getting to know historic icons Franklin and Eleanor personally through the eyes of Hick, the outsider inside the White House, somehow opens them to more greatness. In White Houses, Bloom’s last pages emphasize the cruelty of mortality – “All fires go out…” – while offering quiet gratitude for the value of knowing someone intimately, something to save us in old age.
I savored the book, reading slowly, not only to know Eleanor Roosevelt better but also to appreciate the strength of accomplished women, despite the obstacles they faced.