America 1933: The Great Depression, Lorena Hickok, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Shaping of the New Dealby Michael Golay
During the harshest year of the Great Depression, Lorena Hickok, a top woman news reporter of the day and intimate friend of Eleanor
The first account of the remarkable eighteen-month journey of Lorena Hickok, intimate friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, throughout the country during the worst of the Great Depression, bearing witness to the unprecedented ravaged.
During the harshest year of the Great Depression, Lorena Hickok, a top woman news reporter of the day and intimate friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, was hired by FDR’s right hand man Harry Hopkins to embark upon a grueling journey to the hardest hit areas across the country to report back about the degree of devastation.
Distinguished historian Michael Golay draws on a trove of original sources—including moving and remarkably intimate almost daily letters between Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt—as he re-creates that extraordinary journey. Hickok traveled almost nonstop for eighteen months, from January 1933 to August 1934, driving through hellish dust storms, rebellion by coal workers in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and a near revolution by Midwest farmers. A brilliant observer, Hickok’s searing and deeply empathetic reports to Hopkins and her letters to Mrs. Roosevelt are an unparalleled record of the worst economic disaster in the history of the country. Historically important, they crucially influenced the scope and strategy of the Roosevelt Administration’s unprecedented relief efforts.
America 1933 reveals Hickok’s pivotal contribution to the policies of the New Deal, and sheds light on her intense but ill-fated relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt and the forces that inevitably came between them.
“During Lorena Hickok’s harrowing journey among angry farmers, defeated miners, and frightened shop owners, a desperate old woman took her arm and whispered: ‘Don’t forget me, honey. Don’t forget me.’ No one who reads America 1933 will forget her or the rest of them. There may be no finer documentary account of the Great Depression—not only the material deprivation but the psychic costs.”
“A vivid and event-filled snapshot of a pivotal year during some of the darkest days in U.S. history. With fluid and affecting prose, Golay looks at the role Eleanor Roosevelt and her intimate friend Lorena Hickok played in helping shape some of the most important aspects of FDR’s New Deal. America 1933 offers historical delights, outsized characters, wonderful vignettes, two seductive central characters, and a feeling that you are really seeing America as it was then. It is particularly resonant as the country once again tries to emerge from a profound economic crisis and its concomitant social unease.”
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Read an Excerpt
VIEW TO A NEW DEAL
June 1932–June 1933
Lorena Hickok drew two prime assignments from the Associated Press in New York in the summer of 1932. She would be among a dozen reporters covering Franklin Delano Roosevelt while the Democratic National Convention met in Chicago, and one of three AP reporters—and the only woman—attached to the nominee’s presidential campaign. As the summer advanced, though, Hickok found herself drawn more to the candidate’s wife than to the candidate himself. By autumn, the presumptive first lady would become her full-time beat.1
By custom, presidential candidates kept to the wings until the national party convention completed its business, and even then the winner would lie low until the party sent official notification of the nomination some weeks later. Roosevelt, his wife, two of their sons, and members of his brain trust monitored developments in Chicago from the governor’s study in the Executive Mansion in Albany. Roosevelt had gathered pledges from hundreds of delegates, but party rules required him to reach a two-thirds threshold to win the nomination. With his forces entering the convention around a hundred delegates short, the two-thirds rule gave his main rivals, 1928 nominee Al Smith, Texas congressman John Nance Garner, and Virginia governor Harry Byrd, a chance to stop his momentum and pick off his delegates.
Roosevelt may have been mindful of the two-thirds rule as he burnished his reputation for opacity in the months leading up to the convention. So enigmatic was he that his opponents, and even some of his friends, complained they could never be certain where he stood on a given issue. At one moment he would pledge unprecedented expansion of government power to attack the Depression and restore prosperity; at another he would promise economy in government and a balanced federal budget. Some of his pronouncements were visionary; others, such as his notion that joblessness might be dealt with by resettling city people on farms, cast a backward glance to an irrecoverable America. Roosevelt straddled the Prohibition issue too, at one point suggesting the federal government should allow the individual states to decide the question.2
The influential political commentator Walter Lippmann confessed he found the candidate difficult to read and limited in political understanding. “Mr. Roosevelt is a highly impressionable person, without a firm grasp of public affairs and without very strong conviction,” Lippmann wrote. “He is a pleasant man who, without any very important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president.” Still, Roosevelt had been clear enough in articulating his broad political philosophy: unrestrained capitalism had failed, and the national government’s resources must be used to repair the damage and rebuild the shattered economy. And he promised to be creative and improvisational. He had told graduates of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta in May, “The country needs—and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands—bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”3
The Democratic National Convention opened in hot, airless Chicago Stadium on June 27. The radio in FDR’s Albany study crackled and droned, the candidate tracking events up to the minute via a direct long-distance wire to Louis Howe, his political mastermind, operating from a suite on the seventeenth floor of the Congress Hotel in Chicago. Organizational matters, platform debates, and nominating speeches for Roosevelt and his rivals consumed the convention’s first three days. On the first ballot, recorded just before daybreak on July 1, Roosevelt collected 666 of the 770 votes needed to win the nomination. He kept a careful tally as he chain-smoked in an armchair next to the radio. The key was to maintain an aura of invincibility. With James Farley and his lieutenants working the convention floor, FDR picked up eleven votes on the second ballot, while Smith lost six. Imperturbable on a sofa opposite the governor, Mrs. Roosevelt knitted away at a sweater for the near-invalid, gnomelike Howe, with whom she had enjoyed a long, beneficial association. Roosevelt gained a net of nine votes on the third ballot, and Garner began to contemplate releasing his delegates to the front-runner, a move that might send others to Roosevelt and break the deadlock. The convention adjourned at breakfast time. The delegates, jaded, blue-chinned, reeking of tobacco, sweat, and liquor, strung out from lack of sleep, scattered to their hotels. They would return to settle the business at 8:30 in the evening.4
Hickok and the rest of the Albany press pool had passed the night in a garage behind the Executive Mansion, their improvised newsroom equipped with a radio, telephones, and a telegraph link. Toward midnight Mrs. Roosevelt looked in briefly, then ordered coffee and sandwiches for the reporters. Early on July 1, Hickok and a colleague, Elton Fay, the AP’s Albany Bureau chief, encountered Mrs. Roosevelt on the lawn; she waved them onto a screened side porch with an invitation to breakfast. She struck Hickok as distracted, pensive. The nomination remained in the balance, Hickok knew, with Howe and his operatives in high anxiety as Garner weighed his options, but she sensed something more. As they moved off, she turned to Fay and said, “That woman is terribly unhappy about something.” A dozen hours later, on the fourth ballot, the Chicago convention awarded the Democratic nomination to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and second place on the ticket to Jack Garner. Next day, breaking precedent, Roosevelt flew from Albany to Chicago—a long, turbulent voyage into fierce headwinds—to claim the nomination in person. In his acceptance speech, he pledged “a new deal” for Americans, coining the happy phrase that would define an era.5
Roosevelt regarded the nine-hour flight to Chicago as a stunt, even though America’s pioneering airlines were transporting more than half a million passengers a year by 1932. The railroads were the candidate’s preferred mode of travel, and he chose them for the most important initiative of the campaign, a late-summer tour of the western half of the country. The seven-car special steamed out of Albany just before midnight on September 11, Roosevelt in his private car, Pioneer, with a son, James, and a daughter, Anna Dall, in the entourage. (Mrs. Roosevelt stayed behind to settle their two younger sons into boarding school at Groton in Massachusetts and would board in Arizona on the return.) Press secretary Marvin McIntyre, brain trust chief Raymond Moley, twenty-four reporters, among them Lorena Hickok, and twelve photographers were berthed in three Pullman cars. The three-week trip would cover 8,900 miles and traverse twenty-one states. Roosevelt called it a “look, listen and learn” tour, but he also planned to deliver major speeches on the farm crisis, railroads, electric power, industrial policy, and the tariff. The special raced through the Midwest, stopping only for an equipment change in Indianapolis, where FDR confined himself to a wave in the direction of a delegation of Indiana Democrats gathered under the soot-blackened train shed. Serious campaigning commenced west of the Mississippi. He seemed most to enjoy the prairie town whistle-stops, where he found the crowds large and enthusiastic. Amateur bands struck up “Happy Days Are Here Again,” and the paraplegic Roosevelt would appear on the rear platform in shirtsleeves, supporting himself on a set of upright bars upon which loudspeakers were rigged, “cheery and chatty with all comers” in the September dust and heat.6
The governor delivered the farm speech early in the sun-blasted afternoon of September 14 on the grounds of the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka against a backdrop of acute crisis and intermittent violence in the countryside. America’s 6.3 million farms, most of them of a hundred acres or fewer, supported fully a third of the nation’s population of 123 million. “We have poverty, we have want in the midst of abundance,” Roosevelt told the crowd in what Time magazine called his “bland, cultured voice”; with agricultural prices at historic lows, “the farmer misses not only the things that make life tolerable but those that make decent living possible.” The Kansans were noncommittal, wrote Hickok. “They did not applaud. They just stood there in the broiling sun, listening.” Roosevelt went on to propose national planning for agriculture, vast forestation projects on surplus land, reduced taxes, federal credits to banks that rallied to help farmers avert foreclosure, and tariff adjustments favoring farmers. Short on specifics, the speech nevertheless received passable reviews, although The Nation found Roosevelt nebulous and observed that Topeka “seems to confirm what his adversaries have charged—that he has a confused mind which has not thought things through, and therefore has no clear remedies to suggest.” But by consensus, Roosevelt at least avoided any major blunder with the farm speech.7
It wasn’t clear, though, how the address would play in the Middle Border. In mid-August 1,500 farmers in western Iowa had launched a strike that aimed to force processors and distributors to pay higher prices for their milk, corn, and hogs. Picketers established a cordon along the eastern approaches to Sioux City, where they spoke defiantly of the Boston Tea Party and renamed Highway 20 “Bunker Hill 20.” Iowa country people were approaching the end of their endurance. Reporting for Scribner’s Magazine, Josephine Herbst, a native of Sioux City, interviewed a striker who collected a pittance selling cucumbers out of his kitchen garden. “No one had money and he would even take an old pair of shoes,” she wrote. “Other day he took a corset. He didn’t know what he could do with it, but he took it.” Another striker resolved that with hogs at 2 cents a pound he’d experiment to see how big he could grow one. “I got some 600 pounds right now, eating their heads off,” he told Herbst. He had plenty of corn—he couldn’t get a price for corn either—and figured the hogs might as well consume it.8
The strikers halted milk trucks, spilled the contents into the road, roughed up uncooperative drivers—and reduced the flow of milk into Sioux City by 90 percent. Prepared for violence, they armed themselves with billies and old shotguns. “The first day the deputies drove through, the boys scattered through the corn,” an old man with a white moustache and fluffy white hair told Herbst. “They wouldn’t do that so easily now. Look how tall that corn grows. It’s as good to fire from as to hide in.” The insurgents were big weather-beaten men in loose denim, faded blue shirts, and slouch hats, and to Herbst they carried themselves with an air of desperate dignity, as though they had retreated to the last ditch. With breezy cynicism, Time called them a scruffy lot, “shiftless, debt-ridden, many of them with no underwear beneath their ragged blue overalls.” (This prompted a tart rejoinder from Iowan F. B. Taylor, who wrote, “Where on earth do you get the idea that Iowa farmers are shiftless? They not only have shirts but generally keep them on.”) In early September the strike spread south to Council Bluffs, opposite Omaha, Nebraska. The sheriff, a veteran of the World War named Percy Lainson, mobilized a hundred citizens at $3.50 a day and armed them with baseball bats and pick handles. The strikers’ lines held against a night assault with tear gas bombs that yielded sixty arrests. Farmers in the Sioux City area eventually won concessions, gaining a price rise of a couple of cents a quart. In Council Bluffs, farmers and the authorities fought to a drawn battle, so that one could hardly tell whether farmers unable to sell or city folk unable to buy were the worse off.9
The Democratic presidential special rushed west at a steady sixty miles an hour. In the baggage car, the reporters skimmed the local newspapers, played cards, smoked, and tapped out stories to be filed at the next stop. The train carried FDR from Topeka to Denver overnight, arriving in the Colorado capital on the morning of September 15. Crowds lined the downtown pavements three and four deep as the governor motored slowly to the Brown Palace Hotel. In a brief speech there FDR, who would direct the most active, interventionist federal administration in the nation’s history, promised a return to the minimalist governing principles of Thomas Jefferson. After midnight the special bore north and west for Cheyenne and Laramie, then due west to Salt Lake City for a twenty-four-hour layover on September 17–18. In a speech before a crowd of eight thousand in the Mormon Tabernacle and a much larger audience listening to stations of the NBC and CBS radio networks, the candidate addressed the troubles of America’s sickly railroads, again emphasizing the importance of national planning.10
In Seattle seventy-five thousand people cheered FDR’s motorcade and another thirty thousand, equally divided between the city’s auditorium and an adjacent loudspeaker-equipped baseball park, heard his call for tariff restructuring to spur world trade. The special moved on to Portland for the utilities speech on September 21, then finally to San Francisco for a two-day stop. There, at a Commonwealth Club luncheon on the 23rd, FDR delivered what historian Kenneth Davis would call “the least characteristically Rooseveltian” speech of the entire campaign, a somber address to two thousand Bay Area businessmen. Doleful, drained of his natural optimism, the speech emphasized the tension between aspirations for equality and the protection of property, a preoccupation that dated to the era of the Founders. Conflict between two sets of rights, two contrasting definitions of liberty, two notions of individualism, Roosevelt suggested, had intensified as unfettered capitalism fostered vast concentrations of wealth and power that, used irresponsibly, led to the colossal economic collapse of 1929–30 and brought misery to every part of the land.11
The time had come, Roosevelt told the Commonwealth Club, for “a reappraisal of values.” The economy had matured; the boom times were gone, probably for good. Equality of opportunity no longer existed in America. New economic realities had hobbled the Titan and his day was over. Roosevelt stopped short of calling for a new economic order, though he argued for every man’s “right to make a comfortable living” and to provide for his dependents and for sickness and old age.12
“Our task now is not discovery or exploitation of natural resources, or necessarily producing more goods,” Roosevelt said. “It is the soberer, less dramatic business of administering resources and plants already in hand, of . . . meeting the problem of underconsumption, of . . . distributing wealth and products more equitably, of adapting existing economic organizations to the service of the people. The day of enlightened administration has come.”13
The San Francisco business elite responded politely, and at times with applause. Still, according to James Hagerty in The New York Times, “silence followed some of the most striking passages in the governor’s discussion of economic problems and remedies.” Hagerty wondered whether the audience fully comprehended the drift of Roosevelt’s thinking. A. A. Berle, an economist, Columbia Law School professor, and member of FDR’s brain trust, had written the first draft of the speech in New York City, forwarding it via airmail to overtake Raymond Moley aboard the campaign train. The speech reflected the bleak views of some New Dealers: the United States had entered a postindustrial era of overproduction, underconsumption, and high structural unemployment. It would powerfully shape the thinking of key Roosevelt advisors and heavily influence policymaking in the early New Deal.14
The campaign train jogged southward to the Republican bastion of Los Angeles on September 24, where a crowd of 200,000 lined the route of FDR’s motorcade from Central Station to the Biltmore Hotel. A delegation of thirty men in tattered clothing greeted him with a banner that read, “Welcome to Roosevelt from the Forgotten Men.” Mayor John Porter, a Republican, snubbed the candidate at the depot, then evidently had second thoughts after FDR called briefly at City Hall. Porter ran, panting, to catch up as the motorcade sped away. Roosevelt addressed an enthusiastic gathering of twenty-five thousand at the Hollywood Bowl that evening, walking slowly to the podium on the arm of son Jimmy. Time assessed the far western stages of the long trip this way: “If September crowds and applause mean November votes, the Pacific Coast was in the bag.” Finally, just after midnight on the 25th, the special turned east for Williams, Arizona, south of the Grand Canyon. Eleanor Roosevelt joined the entourage there.15
Admiring her intelligence and poise, Lorena Hickok had long wanted to know Mrs. Roosevelt better. “But she always kept me at arm’s length—and her arms were very long,” Hickok recalled. Now the long hurtle through the lonely wastes of the West presented an opportunity for a closer engagement. It began inauspiciously, with a complaint from Hickok that Mrs. Roosevelt had given the press pack the slip—that is, except for the Chicago Tribune’s John Boettinger—when she left the train at Williams for an overnight stay with a friend, Isabella Greenway; they were girls at school together, and Greenway had been a bridesmaid at Eleanor’s wedding. Boettinger, a junior member of the press corps, had penetrated the circle of two of the Roosevelt children, Jimmy and Anna, and so cadged an invitation to join the excursion. ER assured Hickok the visit was purely social and therefore no harm done, but the next exclusive invitation, a tour of a cattle ranch, went to Hickok. “The story didn’t amount to much,” Hickok wrote later. “I saw some cowboys roping steers and trying to stay on bucking broncos, and I ate some barbecued beef.” Afterward, though, Mrs. Roosevelt came to sit with her alone for a time and spoke of personal matters, the beginning, perhaps, of an amitié that would ripen over time.16
Mrs. Roosevelt left the special at Colorado Springs for an early Christmas shopping trip, the subject of an Associated Press dispatch by Hickok. The brief article noted that ER maintained more than three hundred names on her Christmas list, but it was first thing in the morning, few shops had opened, and she made off with only three Indian dolls and three bracelets, gifts for her three grandchildren. The caravan moved on, east and north through Kansas and Nebraska, the mountains receding in the campaign special’s wake. The train paused at Waterloo, Nebraska, for a Roosevelt appearance at the 1,200-acre farm of Gus Sumnick: a chicken dinner on trestle tables set up on the lawn and a brief speech in which Sumnick announced in German-accented English that since 1929 Hoover farm policies had cost him $75,000 to $85,000 in receipts for his corn and hogs. Mobile and energetic, Mrs. Roosevelt ranged over the Sumnick farm as though to the manner born, nimbly surmounting barbed-wire fences while Hickok trailed along, wheezing and drenched in sweat.17
After a brief stopover in Milwaukee, a crowd estimated at 200,000 turned out for a torchlight parade in Chicago’s Loop on the night of September 30, a “wild, roaring welcome” for Roosevelt, the Tribune reported under John Boettinger’s byline. The New York Times’s Hagerty judged it “one of the greatest demonstrations ever accorded a candidate.” Next day the Roosevelts took in game 3 of the Yankees–Cubs World Series at Wrigley Field. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig each hit two home runs, and the Yankees won 7–5; they would complete the four-game sweep with a 13–6 win at Wrigley the next day. After a last stop in Detroit, where FDR vowed modestly to abolish poverty, they were home at last in Albany on October 3.18
Hickok had taken on the Eleanor Roosevelt beat by default, and in mid-October her editor, W. W. Chapin, made it official. “She’s all yours now, Hickok,” he told her. “Have fun!” In an extraordinary lapse of journalistic standards, she promised Louis Howe she would file nothing important without showing him the copy in advance.I In turn, Mrs. Roosevelt granted Hickok exclusive access. ER had been skeptical at first, protesting she wouldn’t make good copy, but she opened up to Hickok almost at once. In one interview, Mrs. Roosevelt, who turned forty-eight on October 11, said, “I’m a middle-aged woman. It’s good to be middle-aged. Things don’t matter so much. You don’t take it so hard when things happen to you that you don’t like.” Hickok turned over the comment in her mind. Roosevelt’s long-ago affair with Lucy Mercer had devastated ER, changed her—and her marriage—forever. The remark seemed to Hickok to explain a lot.19
Hickok continued to compromise her journalism as her intimacy with Eleanor Roosevelt grew. In an early note to “Dear Mrs. Roosevelt,” she sounded less like a news hawk than a press secretary. “About those reporters and cameramen,” Hickok wrote before ER boarded a train for Boston, “if there are any at the station I can probably get rid of them without any hard feelings if I tell them you’ll see them when you get back from Cambridge. Would that be too awfully bad? Anyway, I’ll do whatever you say.” And she signed the note “Hicky.”20
Mrs. Roosevelt played an offstage role in the 1932 presidential campaign. Early in their acquaintance, her lack of style had taken Hickok aback. She favored frumpy dresses and hair nets, and, according to Hickok, “Somebody remarked that her hats looked as though she had rushed in and bought them while the bus waited for the traffic light to change.” Nor did she have much of a presence in front of a crowd, in spite of her queenly carriage. “She was not a good speaker,” Hickok wrote. “Her voice would become shrill . . . and she hated making speeches.” All the same, Mrs. Roosevelt set out in late October on a five-day vote-getting swing for New York’s lieutenant governor, Herbert Lehman. Typically working past midnight, she kept to a punishing schedule of meetings, interviews, correspondence, and telephone conversations. The journalist filed admiring stories. “She is never hurried,” Hickok wrote in an October 30 dispatch, “apparently never harassed, and is seldom, her secretary says, even slightly irritable.” Mrs. Roosevelt retained a degree of anonymity too. When she entered the busy dining room of a Massena hotel, reported Hickok, nobody looked up.21
By the end of October the Roosevelt campaign had relaxed, all but certain of the election result. Mrs. Roosevelt had given a great deal of thought to what an FDR victory would mean for her—and for the country. Late on the rain-swept night of November 6, election eve, she drove from Hyde Park to New York City with Hickok in the passenger seat. “Of course Franklin will do his best if elected,” she said, giving voice to her musings. “He is strong and resourceful. And he really cares about people. The federal government will have to take steps. But will it be enough? Can it be enough? The responsibility he will have to take is something I hate to think about.” She hosted an Election Day buffet at the family’s town house at 49 East Sixty-fifth Street before moving on with her husband to Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Biltmore Hotel to monitor the returns. By midnight the big board in the Biltmore’s ballroom told an astounding tale. FDR had captured 57 percent of the vote and carried forty-two of the forty-eight states, and the Democrats gained heavy majorities in the House and Senate.22
Hickok filed a three-part profile of Mrs. Roosevelt with Bill Chapin in the New York Bureau on November 9, 10, and 11, the harvest of several weeks’ reporting. The articles emphasized ER’s “strict and conventional” though privileged childhood, her physical stamina, her fondness for children and animals, her frugality (she bought her dresses off the rack), and the perfection with which she played the traditional part of the great man’s wife. Hickok presented an idealized portrait, perhaps, but also a revelatory one, for ER briefly drew aside the veil to show a profound ambivalence about leaving behind the rich, rewarding private life she painstakingly had built for herself. “If I wanted to be selfish,” she told Hickok for the record, “I could wish that he had not been elected. . . . I never wanted to be a president’s wife, and I don’t want it now.”23
* * *
A crowd of John Hansel’s neighbors in Doylestown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, turned out for the sheriff’s sale in early January 1933. The auctioneer called first for bids on Hansel’s plow horse; someone offered a nickel. Bids for a Holstein bull and three hogs topped out at a nickel. “Tough-muscled farm boys circulated to make sure that no outsider thought the hogs were worth more than 5 cents, or two calves worth more than 4 cents,” Time magazine reported. The sale netted $4.18 for Hansel’s creditors. But nobody took anything off the place, and the neighbors collected $25 for Hansel and his three motherless children.24
In Logan County, Iowa, dozens of rustics pushed into the county treasurer’s office to discourage the sale of some two thousand properties on the block for delinquent taxes. “None was bid on, none bought,” according to Time. In LeMars in Plymouth County, a center of Iowa unrest, eight hundred farmers, their leaders twirling a rope, rallied on the courthouse steps to save the John A. Johnson place. Herbert S. Martin, a lawyer for the New York Life Insurance Company, the mortgage holder, offered $30,000 for Johnson’s 320-acre farm—$13,000 less than the balance on the mortgage. “Lynch him!” the mob howled. Martin raced to the Western Union office to wire a plea to headquarters for permission to increase the bid: “RUSH ANSWER MY NECK AT RISK.” And at a foreclosure sale in Bowling Green, Ohio, in early February, Wallace Cramp’s neighbors bought his stock and implements for $14 and deeded them back to him.25
Fears of a rural uprising spread during the first weeks of 1933. “The biggest and finest crop of revolution you ever saw is sprouting all over the country right now,” John A. Simpson, president of the National Farmers Union, told the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee. The head of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Edward A. O’Neal III, seconded Simpson: “Unless something is done for the American farmer we’ll have revolution in the countryside in less than twelve months.” In Bismarck, North Dakota, a state legislature debated secession for the first time since 1861. State Senator William Martin, eighty-three years old, proposed that North Dakota and thirty-nine other states separate from a union dominated by Wall Street, the six New England states, and New York and New Jersey. The editors of The Nation regarded the potential for revolution as far-fetched, though they acknowledged that two elements were already in place: defiance of the law and apathy and contempt for the government.26
Prices continued to plunge in February, intensifying farmer anger: cotton to 5.5 cents a pound (the average before the Great War was 12.4 cents); corn to 19.4 cents a bushel (prewar, 64.2 cents), wheat to 32.3 cents a bushel (prewar, 88.4 cents), hogs to 2.9 cents a pound (prewar, 7.2 cents). When the veteran journalist Oswald Garrison Villard toured the middle parts of the country by bus and train for The Nation early in the new year, he found a lone island of prosperity in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. “Everywhere else I went there were the same stories of blasted homes, ruined banks, wrecked existences; men and women who have seen the labors and savings of a lifetime go to nothing as if overnight,” Villard wrote. “A terrible feeling of fear and insecurity has come over the great rural stretches.” He met no one who would tell him things were getting better. Trains ran virtually empty; the highways were long deserted ribbons of gravel or concrete. Villard met a farmer who had made a good crop of corn in 1932, but he had burned it for furnace fuel because it would cost more to ship to market than he expected to receive for it.27
Private and public, responses to the farm crisis failed to match its urgency. The Prudential Insurance Company announced an indefinite suspension of foreclosures on $209 million worth of mortgages on thirty-seven thousand U.S. and Canadian farms. A number of smaller insurance companies moved to suspend foreclosures in Iowa, the most heavily farm-mortgaged state in the country. But while these palliatives eased farmer anxieties, they delivered yet another shock to the financial system, especially to small banks and insurers. With hundreds of thousands of defaulters, millions of skittish depositors, and fatally weakened banks, the states finally began to act. Its signature auto industry moribund, Michigan declared an eight-day bank holiday in mid-February, closing 550 banks. The action extended and deepened the nationwide financial crisis as state after state followed Michigan’s example.28
Ill-judged loans, questionable, careless, or inept practices, bad luck, and panicked depositors withdrawing their little all led to a renewed rush of bank failures (nearly four hundred in the first two months of the new year alone), and proliferating bank holidays in turn led to a virtual collapse of the credit system in the winter of 1933. Businesses couldn’t pay wages, buy materials, or borrow money. Individual depositors couldn’t draw on their assets. The former stockbroker Matthew Josephson found himself down to a last $10 in cash to support his family of six. “The land of the almighty dollar had run out of dollars,” he remembered. Even sound banks buckled under the demand for withdrawals. By early March all the banks in thirty-two states had closed, most were closed in six others, withdrawals were severely restricted in ten states and the District of Columbia, and the New York Stock Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade had suspended operations.29
Meanwhile, Roosevelt set out on a pre-inaugural vacation, a dozen days at his trim white-frame cottage on the lower north slope of Pine Mountain in Warm Springs, Georgia, and another dozen fishing and basking in the sun off the Florida coast aboard Vincent Astor’s yacht Nourmahal. In New York City, Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt were much together, either at the Roosevelt town house or in Hickok’s midtown apartment at 10 Mitchell Place, a living room with an alcove for a bed, a dressing room, a kitchen, and a small balcony. By now the friendship had become charged with tremendous emotional power. The extent to which a physical relationship advanced is a matter of conjecture; there can be no certainty, only more or less informed speculation: some historians suggest one thing, others another.II It’s clear, though, that the emotional intimacy ran deep.30
ER had revealed to Hickok details about her miserable childhood, ravaged by an adored father’s alcoholism. Born into privilege in New York City in 1884, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt grew up plain, awkward, and solemn, so unprepossessing a child that her mother called her “Granny.” Her father, Elliott Roosevelt, a drunk, an opium addict, and a misfit, held an exalted place in his daughter’s memory all the same. She could not have seen much of him, yet she embalmed him in her memory as loving and nurturing, a dazzling figure who fired her imagination. He died when she was nine, and the family kept her away from his funeral.31
She spoke, too, about finding the love letters that betrayed Franklin’s affair with Lucy Mercer, and about the physical and emotional distance that opened out between the Roosevelts as they dealt with middle age in their varying ways. The marriage survived the Mercer affair but only just, and in a profoundly altered form. In the assessment of Blanche Wiesen Cook, ER’s biographer, the Roosevelts were “endlessly embattled but irrevocably united . . . in a marriage of remarkable and labyrinthine complexity.” They liked and were affectionate with one another. They were both devoted to large and intimate circles of family and friends. But in essential ways they lived apart. Eleanor developed personal and professional interests quite distinct from Franklin’s, including close friendships with women with emotional and physical preferences for their own sex. That said, the Roosevelts shared a powerful commitment to service through politics. After all, it had been Eleanor in alliance with Louis Howe who insisted her husband continue his political career after polio felled him in 1921.32
For her part, Hickok spoke about her own harrowing childhood with a monster of a father (some sources say she told ER he had raped her) and of the sudden, shattering end to her live-in arrangement with a young woman in Minneapolis. Born over a creamery in East Troy, Wisconsin, in March 1893, she was the first child of Addison Hickok, a butter maker, and his wife, Anna. Her mother’s people were prosperous farmers in the Heart Prairie region. She evidently married down, for Lorena memorialized her father as ill-starred, coarse-grained, and sadistic in his ungovernable rages. Anna Hickok couldn’t, or wouldn’t, stand up to him, not when he horsewhipped Lorena’s collie pup, nor when he dashed out her cat’s brains on the side of the barn, nor yet when, to break the little girl of the vile habit of chewing her nails, he forced her fingers into her mouth and with his large, powerful hands clamped her jaws shut until the tears streamed down her cheeks.33
As a rule, the memoir form is to be approached with caution.III In Hickok’s attempt, detailed but incomplete and unpublished, there is scant evidence of a working over of material for literary effect; the language is plain, the descriptions precise and matter-of-fact, the anecdotes, most of them, raw and unadorned. She recalls that she was slow to talk, so slow it occasioned comment in the family. She was awkward, shy, conscious of her lack of charm, uneasy in her own skin. Her sisters, Ruby and Myrtle, with their golden curls, were the adorable ones. Lorena preferred animals to people. In her own pitiless evaluation, she was “aloof, inarticulate, defiant . . . and thoroughly disagreeable” as a child. She lists Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the first book she read on her own and Theodore Roosevelt as her childhood hero. When she first met Eleanor Roosevelt, Hickok remembered, what most interested her was the fact that she was TR’s niece.34
The Hickoks migrated to South Dakota in the fall of 1903 after an interlude in Elgin, Illinois, where her father failed at running a barbershop. Now he tried traveling sales; his daughter remembered him as a forbidding if faintly ludicrous figure in his drummer’s tan suit, stiff white shirt, and brown bowler hat. The family drifted from one town to the next, Milbank first, an overgrown village on the Milwaukee Railroad a dozen miles west of the Minnesota line. Fresh surroundings did nothing to sweeten her father’s disposition. In her recollection, she impassively accepted the beatings he delivered regularly. She had always feared him, but in early adolescence fear turned to loathing. “My hatred of my father made me dislike and distrust all men,” she would say. She became increasingly self-conscious about her height and weight. She took pride in her singing voice, though; low for a child, it would mature into a rich contralto. Despite encouragement, she refused to sing in public; music became her secret language. “Music has run through me . . . a kind of soundless music, vibrating behind my vocal cords,” she wrote. Outwardly, she remained remote, wary, and taciturn.35
From Milbank the family moved down the Milwaukee line to Summit and then to Bowdle. Anna Hickok died in Bowdle midway through Lorena’s thirteenth year, and the widower arranged for a housekeeper to move in and look after the girls. Soon it became clear she was more than a housekeeper, and in due course Addison Hickok married her. By the autumn of 1907 her stepmother had let Lorena know she wanted her out of the house. Now fourteen and—though she couldn’t know it yet—wholly on her own, she found a temporary home as a hired girl with an Irish family in Bowdle. They treated her considerately, but the arrangement didn’t last. Over the next two years, she shifted from one family to another in Bowdle and nearby towns. Some employers were kindly, others cruel. More than once she was fired. She moved as far afield as Aberdeen, finding work as a scullery maid in a boardinghouse there. “I lived at the kitchen sink,” she recalled. But it wasn’t the drudgery that threatened to crush her spirit. “I could not have put it into words at that time, but I think now that what I really wanted was self-respect,” she would write. “Lonely as I was, I did not expect love or affection from anyone.” Somehow during those years she managed to attend school intermittently. She even found a way, briefly, to overcome her paralyzing shyness and sing in a Methodist church choir.36
Hickok caught a last glimpse of her father, conspicuous in his tan suit and brown derby, on the train from Aberdeen to Bowdle. She avoided an encounter. She was fifteen and soon would leave Dakota for the semblance of a normal life with kin in Battle Creek, Michigan. She enrolled in the high school there in September 1909, earned mostly As, conceived a schoolgirl crush on her (female) English teacher, graduated with the Class of 1912, made unsuccessful attempts at college, and went to work as a police beat reporter for the Battle Creek Journal for $7 a week. Years later word reached Hickok that her father had taken his own life. Her sister Ruby wired her for help with the burial expenses.
“Send him to the glue factory,” she replied.37
The Michigan experience prepared Hickok for her first significant job, reporting for The Milwaukee Sentinel. By March 1917 she had migrated to Minneapolis. Her stay was brief; full of illusions, she left for New York City in hopes of catching on with a news organization that would send her to Russia to report on the October Revolution. Instead, she spent six nerve-wracking weeks on the New York Tribune. She wasn’t ready for the stresses of big city journalism; the Tribune fired her, and in July 1918 she returned to Minnesota.38
The Tribune of Minneapolis took Hickok on, assigning her at first to the nightside rewrite desk and then appointing her Sunday editor, a demanding job that took her away from daily reporting.39 She kept her hand in by working the Minnesota college football beat, covering the Golden Gophers for a full season, traveling with the team and meeting the football legends Knute Rockne and Red Grange along the way. For a change, her personal affairs turned satisfactory too. She met Ella Morse in 1918, and soon they were living together. The two hardly could have been less alike: Hickok a scuffler, broad, mannish, careless of her appearance; Morse an heiress, a Wellesley College dropout, dreamy, petite, and elegantly turned out. For several years they shared a three-room suite in the Leamington Hotel—a “Boston marriage,” in the euphemism of the era. Morse inherited $750,000, a fortune in those days, on her father’s death in 1926, and in August that year the couple moved to San Francisco, where Hickok hoped “to write.” It didn’t go well. She missed the excitement and instant gratification of the news, and anyhow her talents proved ill-suited to the long form. Mercurial, chronically afflicted with the blue devils, she tried Morse’s patience, and finally Morse decided she’d had enough. She rekindled a friendship with an old Minneapolis acquaintance, a man named Roy Dickinson, and they decided to elope. Hickok turned east again, to give New York a second try, landing a job on the women’s pages of William Randolph Hearst’s Daily Mirror. By the end of the decade she had moved beyond the soft stuff and established herself as one of the stars of the AP’s New York Bureau.
* * *
With FDR vacationing, Hickok and Mrs. Roosevelt regularly dined out and attended concerts and lectures. They were spending the chilly evening of February 15 together (dinner at an Armenian restaurant, an ER speech to film executives at the Warner Club), when a young anarchist named Giuseppe Zangara stepped out of a Miami crowd and fired five shots toward the president-elect’s open car as it drew up to the bandstand in Bay Front Park. An agitated butler delivered news of the assassination attempt to Mrs. Roosevelt when she returned home. A call to Miami went unanswered; finally, at 10:40 p.m., Roosevelt came through on the long-distance wire and spoke briefly with his wife. “He’s all right,” she announced. “He’s not the least bit excited.” Zangara had missed Roosevelt, but five others were wounded, one mortally—Anton Cermak, the mayor of Chicago. Zangara himself would die in the electric chair on March 20.40
The next day, a calm, fatalistic Eleanor Roosevelt delivered a scheduled speech before a Farm-and-Home Week crowd of three thousand at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “If they want to get you, they can,” she said, “and so the only thing you can do is just go along and not think about such things any more than you have to.” That weekend she and Hickok traveled by car to the Groton School, a quick trip to reassure the two Roosevelt younger sons. By now the tensions growing out of her friendship with ER were threatening to wreck Hickok’s career. She knew a great deal about the private troubles of the two rackety adult Roosevelt children, and anything about the first-family-in-waiting graded as news. Like so many Depression-era men, though perhaps for different reasons, their son Elliott had abandoned his family and struck out for the West. Hickok refused to provide details or even confirmation when her AP colleagues pressed her for information. When daughter Anna Roosevelt Dall left her unsatisfactory stockbroker husband (and later took up with John Boettinger, the Chicago newspaperman), she kept that confidence too.41
Before she and ER left for the trip to Massachusetts, Hickok laid out the rules of engagement for Bill Chapin in the AP’s New York newsroom. “I believe the understanding is I don’t have to put out anything unless a really good story breaks,” she wrote him. “About the only good stories I can think of are: an automobile accident, attempted kidnapping of her, or something of that sort: or a folo from her should anything happen to the governor or her family. . . . She understands that, if anything of the sort happened, I would of course have to get on it.” The bureau, she emphasized, should make no effort to get in touch with her over the weekend through officials at the school.42
Professional pressures intensified for Hickok: love versus duty. ER acknowledged the conflict and its traumatic effects. “When you haven’t the feeling of responsibility to the AP you have a happier time with me,” she wrote her. Hickok continued to file soft stories about Mrs. Roosevelt: features on Major, a German shepherd with the security corps; Meggie, a Scottish terrier (ornamental detail: Meggie disliked baths); and Dot the saddle horse. She did offer occasional insights into ER’s mood, her apprehensions about her new role, and her determination to preserve her privacy. “I have realized all along,” she told Hickok for the record, “that I shall have to give up a good many things on March 4. Some of them do not matter. Some of them mean a good deal to me.” She trusted Hickok, and Hickok never failed her. In return, ER continued to grant Hickok extraordinary access, and late on the blustery, overcast afternoon of March 2 she boarded President-elect Roosevelt’s Baltimore & Ohio special in company with Mrs. Roosevelt, bound for Washington and the inauguration.43
An atmosphere of gloom enveloped the Hoover White House, palpable to the Roosevelts when they paid a ceremonial call on the outgoing president on the afternoon of March 3. Snappish and fault-finding, Hoover had even turned on the staff, to Eleanor Roosevelt an unforgiveable lapse of noblesse oblige. “We were told afterwards how difficult it had been for him to say good-morning or smile at the people of his household,” she wrote later. Hoover’s relations with the president-elect were frigid. Since early February he had been pressing FDR for joint action to deal with the banking crisis—more precisely, for Roosevelt to lend his name and landslide-victory prestige to Hoover’s policies. Hoover’s advisors urged the president to declare a national bank holiday, but he refused to act on his own. Reasoning that Hoover offered him responsibility without power, FDR declined to go along. In their last brief encounters, a petulant, resentful Hoover found it difficult to look his successor in the eye.44
The departing president sought, too, to extract a promise from Roosevelt to keep the United States on the gold standard. Hoover maintained an unshakable faith in gold, “the mechanism,” say the economists Barry Eichengreen and Peter Temin, “that turned an ordinary business downturn into the Great Depression.” In practice, the gold standard’s deflationary pressures meant wage reductions, an insufficiency of money in the hands of consumers, and tight credit. FDR would effectively abandon the gold standard in early June, three months into his administration.45
As Hoover importuned Roosevelt, the political press prepared a detailed to-do list for FDR’s first weeks in office. Nobody knew quite what to expect of him. The literary critic Malcolm Cowley recalled that Roosevelt had delivered twenty-seven major speeches during the campaign, more or less outlining the leading features of the New Deal. “But the suggestions were expressed vaguely, so as to hearten the radicals without frightening the conservatives,” he wrote. The Nation, a left-leaning weekly, proffered detailed advice: “He must be prepared to render emergency relief to the millions in actual physical distress. He must be prepared to create jobs for the millions who are able to work,” to inflate the money supply, and to “correct the appalling maldistribution of wealth which makes millionaires of a few and paupers of a majority.” A growing number of commentators, among them Walter Lippmann, believed Roosevelt would need to claim unprecedented executive authority. “The situation is critical, Franklin,” Lippmann had told the president-elect at Warm Springs in early February. “You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers.” Lippmann regarded FDR as “a kind of amiable boy scout,” so perhaps he could be trusted to dictate judiciously. As usual, The Nation offered a dissenting view: “Do we need a dictator? Emphatically not!” The country needed a better, wiser leader in the White House, and the latest dictator to bully his way onto the scene, Adolf Hitler, already had shown how abruptly and savagely individual rights and liberties could be mauled. Anyhow, The Nation went on, “nothing in Mr. Roosevelt’s record warrants the belief that everything he recommends will be completely wise.” The New Republic echoed The Nation: “The extent to which the hopes of a large part of the entire world are centered upon [FDR] is a pathetic reminder of how desperately the people are seeking a Messiah, some mystic and powerful savior who will put everything right.” The Nation, The New Republic, and others joined in calling for a massive public works program to provide jobs, direct federal relief to millions, and redistribute income.46
Late on the evening of March 3, FDR sent a final draft of his inaugural speech to his wife for her comments. ER read it aloud to Hickok, who probably also knew of the late-night phone calls from Hoover to Roosevelt, last-ditch efforts to persuade him to collaborate on banking policy. That night in the presidential suite of the Mayflower Hotel opportunity beckoned for the scoop of a lifetime. “There I was, right in the middle of what was the biggest story in the world,” Hickok wrote afterward. “And I did nothing about it. . . . Scoops and my career did not seem important that night, even to me. That night, Lorena Hickok ceased to be a newspaper reporter.” Later, when she took her troubles to Louis Howe, himself a former journalist, he showed scant sympathy. “A reporter,” he told her stiffly, “should never get too close to the news source.”47
On Inauguration Day, March 4, 1933, a Saturday, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the oath of office outside the Capitol. Skies were leaden, with cold gusts of wind sweeping over the crowd. He was the sunny Roosevelt at first: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But toward the end he hinted that a suspension of the Constitution might be required—“a temporary departure from [the] normal balance of public procedure,” he put it delicately. If there were delays, if the legislature or the courts were dilatory, he would act: “I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” And then it was over. The applause swelled, Roosevelt waved, threw back his head, and smiled his famous smile, and a jubilant crowd of 500,000 gathered along the curbs for the Inaugural Parade.48
Hickok arranged a final exclusive interview with Eleanor Roosevelt before responsibility for coverage of the first lady passed to the Associated Press bureau in Washington, the first White House interview ever granted a reporter. They met on Inauguration Day afternoon in Mrs. Roosevelt’s second-floor sitting room in the private quarters, a high-ceilinged chamber with tall windows and a long view southward toward the Washington Monument. As so often had been the case, their conversation was personal as well as professional. For the inaugural ceremony ER had worn a sapphire ring, a gift from Hickok. Both women knew they soon would part. The radiator thumped and wailed but failed to take the chill off the room. ER sounded troubled by the facile talk of dictatorship and perhaps by the martial imagery and authoritarian implications of parts of the inaugural speech. In the Election Eve drive to New York City with Hickok, she had expressed the fear that Americans, desperate and bereft, would be prepared to give up too much for a sense of safety and security. “The responsibility he will have to take is something I hate to think about,” she had said then. Now, during the interview, Hickok asked for her impressions of the inauguration.49
“It was very, very solemn and a little terrifying,” Mrs. Roosevelt said. “The crowds were so tremendous, and you felt that they would do anything—if only someone would tell them what to do. . . . One has the feeling of going it blindly, because we’re in a tremendous stream, and none of us knows where we’re going to land.”50
* * *
Hickok left Washington the day after the inauguration, the parting with Eleanor Roosevelt infinitely painful, to return to her apartment in Mitchell Place and the New York Bureau. From the White House ER wrote, “I felt a little as though a part of me was leaving to-night, you have grown so much a part of my life that it is empty without you even though I’m busy every minute.” Resistant to the changes that were sweeping over her, the first lady managed to evade the Secret Service detail early in the evening and see her two youngest boys to Union Station for the return trip to Groton, her “first assertion of independence” as the president’s wife. But as she, and Hickok, soon would learn, life as she had known it had changed forever.51
The constraints were powerful. Mrs. Roosevelt’s days were crowded with commitments public and private, a gladiatorial social and personal schedule that would severely strain her relationship with Hickok. She outlined a marathon March 6 in a letter to Hickok. She arose at 7:15, walked Meggie the terrier, received word of Anton Cermak’s death from FDR’s private secretary, unpacked and moved furniture, accompanied the president to the funeral of Senator Thomas J. Walsh, moved furniture, attended a luncheon for a delegation of governors and their wives, moved furniture, attended a National Women’s Press Association tea, had tea with her mother-in-law, dined with her old friend Isabella Greenway, put through a long-distance call to Hickok, and retired to bed after midnight.52
By background and temperament superbly equipped for the role, Eleanor Roosevelt served that spring as Hickok’s emotional anchor, confidante, job counselor, and medical advisor—and as a prop to her self-esteem. “I want to put my arms around you, I ache to hold you close,” she wrote Hickok on her birthday, three days after the inauguration. “Your ring is a great comfort, I look at it & think she does love me, or I wouldn’t be wearing it!” She fussed over Hickok’s health; her friend was overweight (200 pounds, but only 5 feet 8 inches tall), a heavy smoker, diabetic, and her teeth gave her a lot of trouble. “Stick to your diet, lose twenty pounds more & you’ll forget you are forty & please go see the doctor next week,” she wrote. Powerful forces were acting upon Hickok, as ER knew: “I felt I had brought you . . . almost more heartache than you could bear.”53
Hickok and Kent Cooper, the AP’s general manager, had fallen out over a conflict of interest involving the first lady (“keeping a confidence,” she put it), and bridging the divide between the personal and the professional had become all but impossible for her. She sensed that her life had come upon the turn, and she would cry herself to sleep with grief over the slow-motion dissolution of her reporting career. Journalism was her living and also her identity, the vocation that brought her in from the margins, gave her a sense of self-worth, provided companionship and bonhomie (if rarely intimacy) in a lonely world. “I do understand your joy and pride in your job, and I have deep respect for it,” ER wrote her in early April. “I know I’d glory in the newspapermen.” But Hickok realized her time with the AP was nearly up, and with ER’s encouragement she began to cast about for freelance magazine work. In 1933, though, writers were as likely to turn up in the soup kitchens as members of any other profession, probably more so. Resourceful, self-sufficient Lorena Hickok now acknowledged the AP paycheck to be a fragile stay, all that separated her from millions of decent, willing, and perfectly capable Americans set adrift without a livelihood or any prospect of it.54
Hickok would receive her last AP assignment in May 1933. The bureau had fitfully covered the scandal enfolding financier Charles E. Mitchell, the chairman of National City Bank, the country’s largest. At hearings in February in Washington, Chief Counsel Ferdinand Pecora and the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency had roughed up Mitchell, certainly a soft target in hard times, with charges that his extensive securities speculations helped materially to bring about the 1929 stock market crash. Mitchell’s extravagant compensation ($3.5 million over three years), antic management practices, and high living (his nickname: “Sunshine Charley”) made him easy to caricature. With Mitchell’s tax evasion trial opening on May 11 in New York City, Chapin turned to Hickok. “We had an early story on Mitchell,” he told her, “but it will never win the Pulitzer Prize so you start your own running at earliest possible moment.” Hickok dutifully turned up at the Federal Building on Varick Street every day and worked hard on the story, but if Chapin meant to give her an opportunity to reclaim her place as “just about the top gal reporter in the country,” the offer came too late.55
Mrs. Roosevelt knew that Harry Hopkins, the just-appointed head of the newly created Federal Emergency Relief Administration, was on the scout for an experienced investigator to travel the country and report to him in detail how ordinary Americans were experiencing the Great Depression. She strongly recommended Hickok to him, and by mid-June she had ventured the irrevocable step, leaving the AP just ahead of Charley Mitchell’s surprise June 22 acquittal.56
“Poor Hick,” Eleanor wrote her, “I know how you hate to leave Bill and the life. I do hope there will be enough interest in the next few years to compensate.”57
* * *
With his offer to Harry Hopkins to head the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, President Roosevelt laid down two imperatives: rush help to people in need and avoid entanglements with politicians. An Iowa-born social worker who had directed Governor Roosevelt’s innovative welfare operation in New York State, Hopkins joined the administration on May 22, 1933, the eightieth day of the unprecedented detonation of government activism known as the Hundred Days. When Hopkins reached his tenth-floor headquarters in the dilapidated yellow-brick Walker-Johnson Building an hour after the swearing-in at the White House, the staff hadn’t turned up and the movers were manhandling an oversized desk from the hallway into his uncarpeted office. Ignoring the dust, disorder, and peeling paint, he started spending right away. Within two hours telegram flimsies were sailing out of Hopkins’s dingy room, authorizing more than $5 million in relief to desperate Americans in eight stricken states—the first installment of the $500 million in aid Congress had approved ten days earlier.58
Bureaucratically speaking, Hopkins had moved with astonishing speed. “The half-billion dollars for direct relief to the States won’t last a month if Harry L. Hopkins maintains the pace he set yesterday,” The Washington Post reported. That day, May 22, as many as 16 million Americans subsisted on what social workers called “the dole,” and millions more were suffering because no help had reached them. Hopkins calculated it ultimately might be necessary for the relief program to sustain 50 million people. While he deplored the expense, he said, “We will not forget that there are a lot of people to be taken care of, and that the government is going to keep people from going hungry.”59
County “poor boards,” vitiated by patronage and political feuding, continued to act according to the old Poor Law principles of the Age of Elizabeth, dealing with destitute Americans as though they were paupers in sixteenth-century England. Conventional social worker thinking held that cash grants encouraged sloth and dependency. The theory, as Matthew Josephson explained it in The New Republic, “is still that of charitably helping ‘bums’ and weaklings over the rough places rather than masses cut down by a kind of economic massacre.” A nobler vision inspired Hopkins: relief wasn’t charity, Roosevelt had said in a memorable 1931 speech, it was a social duty. FERA would help anyone in need—not only the jobless but the underemployed too, men (and women) whose earnings were barely sufficient to sustain life. Time magazine would call Hopkins “the greatest disburser of cash in the nation’s history.” His approach cut against the grain of three centuries of American social practice, challenging the sink-or-swim tradition of rugged individualism and self-help. Sharp and shrewd, he expected, perhaps even courted, resistance to the scale and speed of the relief effort.60
“I’m not going to last six months here, so I’ll do as I please,” he said.61
Forty-three years old in 1933, Hopkins was the son of a harness maker father with a gambler’s instincts and an austere and principled Methodist mother with teetotaler convictions and an impulse for good works. He inherited a raffish streak and “champagne appetites” from the one, an ambition to put the world right from the other. The elder Hopkins was unpredictable and shiftless, a glad-hander with a roguish charm. A skilled enough bowler to supplement an erratic income by betting game to game, he won $500 one night and showed the windfall to the boy on the understanding he wouldn’t mention it to his mother. “She would have made Dad give it away to church missions,” Hopkins recalled. New Dealers would remark upon how comfortably Sunday School pieties and a taste for low living coexisted in Hopkins.62
A 1920s social work colleague recalled Hopkins as “an ulcerous type,” lath-thin, sharp-featured, edgy. “He was intense, seeming to be in a perpetual ferment,” Dr. Jacob Goldberg wrote, “a chain-smoker and black coffee drinker.” He kept late hours and was a bit of a taverner. Careless of his appearance, he had been known to wear the same shirt three or four days in a row. Like his father, he developed an affinity for a regular flutter—in his case, the $2 window at the racetrack. (Hopkins’s friend and biographer Robert Sherwood reported that he used to conduct important FERA staff conferences in his car as it sped to and from the Maryland tracks closest to the capital.) With a presidential brief to establish the nation’s first public welfare agency, Hopkins prepared to venture into the unknown. “It was almost as if the Aztecs had been asked suddenly to build an aeroplane,” he said later. He was in a perpetual lather, he did not waste a moment, and he gave his staff the impression they were “fighting a holy war against want.” He seemed to regard money, his own as well as the government’s, as an article to be spent as quickly as possible. Hopkins spent it on relief, though, not on administration. He had taken a salary cut to come to Washington, and FERA employed only 121 staffers at headquarters, at a modest monthly payroll of $22,000.63
Candidate Roosevelt had promised action, and in the spring of 1933 President Roosevelt delivered. Hopkins submitted a draft federal relief program in a late December letter to FDR, and in mid-March he joined the new labor secretary, Frances Perkins, and William Hodson, a senior New York City relief official, in drawing up the formal proposal that would establish FERA. The new administration addressed the banking crisis first; FDR declared a four-day national bank holiday on March 5, the day after the inauguration. In some quarters, anyway, the shutdown really did evoke a holiday feeling, especially after Roosevelt addressed the nation in the first of his soon-to-be-famous Fireside Chats. “In this hour of universal misfortune people were not only unaccountably cheerful, they were positively kind,” Josephson remembered. “The voice of the new president came over the radio, very clear, very calm, telling what was happening and why.” A few days later, hastily adopted emergency legislation extended Hoover-era federal aid to banks, with new provisions for close government supervision of faltering banks.64
The president took the first steps, too, toward bringing the experiment of Prohibition to an unlamented end, signing legislation that amended the Volstead Act to allow the sale of “nonintoxicating” 3.2 beer and light wines. (“Now let’s all have a beer,” an effervescent FDR said after the signing.) After the banks and, perhaps, beer, Roosevelt’s brain trust regarded agriculture as the most pressing of the nation’s problems. The Agricultural Adjustment Act, passed in May, asked farmers to voluntarily limit production in seven basic commodities—corn, wheat, rice, hogs, cotton, tobacco, and milk—in return for government subsidies. In theory, this would reduce supply and push up prices, though farm leaders were doubtful. “What we have is overproduction of empty stomachs,” John Simpson, the National Farmers Union head, told the Senate Agriculture Committee. Finally, the omnibus National Industrial Recovery Act of mid-June sought to boost recovery through planning; curbs on competition in basic industries; regulation of wages, hours, and child labor; and guarantees of union bargaining rights. Business, consumers, and labor would negotiate voluntary codes governing output, prices, wages, and working conditions, all with the benevolent and expert guidance of the federal government.65
Roosevelt had launched the New Deal, but the crisis remained acute. The Commerce Department announced on May 1 that unemployment had reached an “all time peak” of 16 million, 25 percent of the workforce. By a (probably conservative) New Republic calculation, unemployment directly affected 37.5 million men, women, and children. When he arrived in Washington to take up the FERA post, Hopkins asserted that the peak had passed and that the number of jobless would begin to decline. A promising forecast, especially in the context of the hope-stirring hundred-day flurry of executive orders and congressional legislation, but help couldn’t come soon enough for those without work—or for Chicago schoolteachers, Iowa farmers, or Pennsylvania loom girls.66
In April, Chicago high school students had gone on strike to demand back pay for their teachers, fourteen thousand of whom had received a total of two weeks’ salary in cash since June 1932. Ultimately fifty thousand Chicago students and teachers went truant. In Grant Park, according to Time, five thousand strikers “burned in effigy a wicked banker who would not buy city tax warrants so teachers could be paid.” Marchers from Englewood milled about the home of acting mayor Frank T. Coon, carrying banners with the slogan “Sixty million dollars was paid to the unemployed. What did teachers get?” The school superintendent, William J. Bogan, attributed the unrest to the spring weather and Communist agitators.67
Disorder flared anew in LeMars, Plymouth County, Iowa, when men in rough overalls and others who “looked like black-shirted hoodlums” crowded into Charles C. Bradley’s courtroom on April 27 to observe the day’s foreclosure proceedings. They were yokels, mostly; they wore blue bandanna masks, they were impertinent, and they vibrated with anger. They were about to carry out what one contemporary with a background in early American history called a “miniature Shays’s Rebellion.” (Daniel Shays, a Revolutionary War veteran, led a violent uprising of farmers and debtors in Massachusetts in 1786–87.) Judge Bradley moved to silence a farmer who demanded to speak. “Next thing he knew,” Time reported, “Bradley was being yanked off his bench and dragged out to the courthouse lawn.” When the mob instructed him to swear he would sign no more foreclosure orders, the sixty-year-old bachelor judge refused. Somebody slapped him; still he refused.68
Farmers surged forward, seized Bradley, wrestled him onto the flatbed of a truck, and drove him to a country crossroads a mile outside of town. Rough hands pulled off his trousers. Someone slung one end of a rope over the crosstrees of a telephone pole and looped the other end around the judge’s neck. Again the men insisted that Bradley, now blindfolded, vow not to grant any more foreclosure motions. Again he refused. Pray, the farmers advised. “O Lord, I pray thee, do justice to all men,” Bradley whispered. Suddenly the crowd’s fury seemed to abate. A couple of men dumped a hubcap filled with grease on Bradley’s head and left him dazed, half-naked, and filthy along the edge of the road.69
The next day, Governor Clyde Herring declared a state of martial law in Plymouth County and sent 250 National Guardsmen to LeMars. Sixty farmers were arrested and held in a stockade on the edge of town for transport to Sioux City for a military trial on charges of contempt of court and conspiracy to hinder the law. In the event, Judge Bradley, a decent man who lived modestly on a salary of $5,000 a year, declined to prosecute or even to identify any of his assailants. With LeMars peaceful again, Governor Herring lifted martial law on May 11.70
In Washington, Roosevelt signed the Agricultural Adjustment Act on the 12th, a stroke of the pen with an immediate emollient effect: Jesse Reno, the Iowa frontman for the Farmers’ Holiday Association, agreed to call off (or anyway postpone) a farm strike promised for Saturday, May 13, market day. Meeting in Des Moines a week earlier, delegates from eighteen states claiming to represent 15 million farmers had voted to strike unless Congress approved agricultural price supports and the refinancing of farm mortgages at 1.5 percent. The new law contained provisions for emergency mortgage assistance along with the crop reduction and subsidy scheme. It appeared to palliate the farm belt, although an intermittently violent dairy strike continued in Wisconsin, where pickets halted delivery trucks and emptied enough milk into roadside ditches to push Chicago milk prices up a penny a quart.71
Factory laborers were restless too. Sweatshops in eastern Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley employed 200,000 men, women, and children in 1933, many of them in conditions of Dickensian squalor. In Northampton in early May, four hundred strikers, including dozens of children ages thirteen to eighteen, walked the picket lines outside the D&D Shirt Company to protest starvation wages (as little as 3 cents an hour for cutters) and, ominously, “immoral conditions.” The “children’s strike” in Northampton attracted a high-profile picketer, Cornelia Bryce Pinchot, the flame-haired wife of Pennsylvania’s governor Gifford Pinchot. She walked seven circuits around the mill with the strikers, wearing a bright red coat festooned with a white streamer bearing the word “STRIKER.” Fifteen-year-old mill hands told the star picketer they worked ten hours a day, six days a week; one girl took home 57 cents for a week’s work, another $2.50. “Also,” Time reported, “they told of ‘weekend trips to New York with their bosses,’ which, it was understood, were compulsory on pain of losing their jobs.” Mrs. Pinchot pledged she would see all the teenagers back in school before she stopped working on their behalf. Then she moved on to Allentown, where she chatted up eighty strikers in front of the Morris Freezer shirt factory and declined Freezer’s offer to meet with girls working as strikebreakers, saying she couldn’t support two sides at once.72
Tall and slender, the daughter of a friend of Theodore Roosevelt’s, the vivid, powerfully intelligent, and socially prominent Cornelia Pinchot spoke with candor, held views that shaded toward pink, and campaigned with the aplomb of a veteran politician.
One of the girl strikers asked, “Is it ladylike to picket?”
“Well, it’s a matter of noblesse oblige,” the governor’s wife replied. “You are obliged to do it out of consideration for the many others who are suffering from low wages if not for yourselves. Our ancestors fought their revolution. We must fight our economic revolution now.”73
Cornelia Pinchot’s presence doubtless built momentum for a settlement, though it would turn out to be a temporary victory for the mill hands. Strikes at four Allentown factories ended on the evening of May 10 with an agreement with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America that included a pay increase and a minimum wage. But in late July some seven hundred workers in Allentown and Northampton would return to the picket lines when management failed to honor agreements raising wages and recognizing the union.74
By then Lorena Hickok had quit the Associated Press for the investigative job with Harry Hopkins that would take her into the depths of the Great Depression and give her an unusual if not unique perspective on the suffering of millions of Americans. She accepted Hopkins’s offer partly to please Mrs. Roosevelt. But Hopkins would have made a compelling case during the interview, and she could hardly complain about the salary: $5,000 a year plus expenses. “What I want you to do,” Hopkins told her, “is to go out around the country and look this thing over. I don’t want statistics from you. I don’t want the social worker angle. I just want your own reaction, as an ordinary citizen. Go talk with preachers and teachers, businessmen, workers, farmers. Go talk with the unemployed, those who are on relief and those who aren’t.
“And when you talk with them,” he went on, “don’t ever forget that, but for the grace of God, you, I, or any of our friends might be in their shoes. Tell me what you see and hear. All of it. Don’t ever pull your punches.”75
I. In fairness, Hickok’s close-ups with Eleanor Roosevelt are of greater historical importance than her work with the Associated Press, as is the investigative assignment she carried out for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration after she left the AP.
II. Their correspondence is warm, intimate, and inconclusive. Hickok later destroyed an indeterminate number of letters between the two.
III. Hickok’s is undated, but circumstantial evidence suggests 1949 or thereabouts.
Meet the Author
Michael Golay teaches history at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. He is the author of a number of books, including A Ruined Land: The End of the Civil War, a finalist for the Lincoln Prize in American History, The Tide of Empire: America’s March to the Pacific, and Critical Companion to William Faulkner. He lives in Exeter and Old Lyme, Connecticut.
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