Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters Of Eleanor Roosevelt And Lorena Hickokby Roger Streitmatter
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The relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok has sparked vociferous debate ever since 1978, when archivists at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library discovered eighteen boxes filled with letters the two women exchanged during their thirty-year friendship. But until now we have been offered only the odd quotation or excerpt from their voluminous correspondence.
In Empty Without You, journalist and historian Rodger Streitmatter has transcribed and annotated 300 letters that shed new light on the legendary, passionate, and intense bond between these extraordinary women. Written with the candor and introspection of a private diary, the letters expose the most private thoughts, feelings, and motivations of their authors and allow us to assess the full dimensions of a remarkable friendship. From the day Eleanor moved into the White House and installed Lorena in a bedroom just a few feet from her own, each woman virtually lived for the other. When Lorena was away, Eleanor kissed her picture of "dearest Hick" every night before going to bed, while Lorena marked the days off her calendar in anticipation of their next meeting. In the summer of 1933, Eleanor and Lorena took a three-week road trip together, often traveling incognito. The friends even discussed a future in which they would share a home and blend their separate lives into one.
Perhaps as valuable as these intimations of a love affair are the glimpses this collection offers of an Eleanor Roosevelt strikingly different from the icon she has become. Although the figure who emerges in these pages is as determined and politically adept as the woman we know, she is also surprisingly sarcastic and funny, tender and vulnerable, and even judgmental and petty -- all less public but no less important attributes of our most beloved first lady.
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Anna Eleanor Roosevelt Roosevelt was, by birth as well as marriage, a patrician--descended from one of the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence and married to a president of the United States. At fifteen, Eleanor was sent off to England to a proper finishing school where she learned to speak French and comport herself as an aristocratic lady. She returned to America, married her handsome and ebullient fifth cousin, and proceeded to fill the role for which she had been born and bred: producing the next generation of Roosevelts and standing dutifully beside her husband as his political fortunes lifted him to the pinnacle of American statesmanship. It was a pinnacle not unfamiliar to Eleanor, who had often visited her Uncle Teddy when he had resided in the White House some thirty years earlier. By 1933 when Eleanor became first lady, her five-foot-eleven-inch frame and bolt-upright posture made her the epitome of stately grace. She was not a natural beauty, but she was most definitely a lady.
The most that Lorena Hickok could claim in the way of lineage was that her great-granddaddy, according to family legend, might have been frontiersman Wild Bill Hickok. When Lorena was fourteen, her tyrannical father--an itinerant day worker--threw her out of the house; she then worked a succession of back-breaking jobs as a dishwasher and domestic. But through luck, pluck, and the ability to turn a graceful phrase, Lorena found her way into the rough-and-tumble world of 1920s journalism. A demon for work, she rose from sob sister to sports writer to news reporter. By 1932, Lorena--everyone who knew her called her "Hick"--was covering the top political stories in the country for the sprawling Associated Press while cutting a wide swath not only because of her hard-drinking, cigar-smoking, ribald-talking demeanor, but also because her 200-pound bulk carried on a five-foot-eight-inch frame commanded attention, even though her shoulders slumped forward and she tended not to walk so much as to trudge.
Unlikely friends, to be sure.
But in 1978 when the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library opened eighteen cardboard boxes filled with Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok's personal correspondence to each other, no longer did the two women--by that time Eleanor had been dead sixteen years, Lorena ten--merely make a couple that oldtimers remembered as a bit odd; they also provided the fodder for a vociferous historical debate. For the 3,500 letters that Eleanor and Hick had written during their thirty-year friendship--the first lady sometimes writing two letters in a single day--documented that these women had shared a relationship that was not only intense and intimate, but also passionate and physical.
When journalists learned that the correspondence contained dozens of erotic passages written both to and by Eleanor Roosevelt, they dutifully recorded--and helped provoke--the nation's collective gasp. The National Enquirer headlined one front-page scorcher "Secret Romance of President Roosevelt's Wife--The Untold Story"; the New York Post announced "The truth about Eleanor Roosevelt!" The nation's more august news organizations lifted an eyebrow and stuck to what they considered to be the obvious facts. The Washington Post reported that the letters revealed "clear implications of lesbianism," Newsweek labeled the relationship "a lesbian love affair," and the Los Angeles Times called the evidence of a same-sex relationship "incontrovertible." Even the New York Times felt duty-bound to acknowledge that the facts did, indeed, point to Eleanor having been involved in a "homosexual affair."
Such straightforward assessments prompted denials from several quarters. Eleanor had been "an emotionally dependent woman whose entire life was characterized by a hunger for affection," wrote historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., insisting that the letters reflected Eleanor's Victorian upbringing when women who had been denied the love of men wrote romantically to each other, even though their relationships were entirely platonic. Rhoda Lerman, who wrote a novel based on Eleanor's life, offered a modern parallel: "I suspect it is more a case of girl scout camp stuff--you know, where they all have names like 'P.J.'"
Since the debate took fire twenty years ago, a few scholars have mined the most titillating nuggets from the letters, each offering what he or she purported to be the definitive interpretation of the letters. In 1980, Lorena's biographer, Doris Faber, announced to the world--in a decidedly defensive tone--that the romantic language in the letters "does not mean what it appears to mean"; early this decade, Eleanor's most recent biographer, Blanche Wiesen Cook, tipped the balance in the other direction, quoting one of the most graphic letters in the correspondence to insist that Eleanor and Lorena most certainly had engaged in a fervent love affair--"A cigar may not always be a cigar, but the 'northeast corner of your mouth against my lips' is always the northeast corner."
Despite the passage of two full decades since the provocative correspondence became public, however, neither journalists nor scholars have offered the reader more than bits and pieces that have been quoted, requoted, and re-requoted. None has allowed Eleanor and Lorena to speak with their own voices and in the full context of their lives.
This book contains more than 300 of the letters that Eleanor and Lorena wrote to each other between March 1933, when Eleanor became first lady, and September 1962, two months before she died. It is an attempt to reproduce the rich and highly textured conversation as the two authors created it--letter by letter, day by day, year by year. It is necessarily only a portion of their total correspondence, which runs in its entirety to some 16,000 pages. I have concentrated on the years 1933 and 1934 when the relationship was at its most intense, and on 1935 when the relationship went through an important transition. I also have omitted letters in these years if they were not particularly substantive in content or vivid in presentation. Each decision I made while choosing and annotating the letters was guided by a single intent: to provide readers with the closest approximation possible to an unobstructed window into the lives and minds and hearts--perhaps, on occasion, even the souls--of the two women.
Eleanor and Lorena were both extraordinary. In the early 1930s, Eleanor was evolving into a woman who, before the phrase women's liberation had even entered the language, insisted on her right to self-identity. She became a woman of consummate power and courageous vision who today stands tall--with precious few, if any, peers--as a symbol of integrity and humanity. Lorena, also a woman before her time, became one of the first to succeed in the competitive, male-dominated endeavor of political reporting, while also daring to create her own unique style--wearing bright red lipstick and colorful silk scarves on the job, switching to flannel shirts and work boots on her own time.
Also remarkable was the world in which these women lived. Their most intense letters were written between 1933 and 1935, against the backdrop of three of the most monumental events in American history: the Great Depression, the New Deal, the first rumblings that ultimately led to World War II. During these days of unprecedented crisis, Eleanor and Hick were in the very eye of the storm, as both women were living at the White House. (In the summer of 1933, Lorena quit the Associated Press and became the federal government's chief investigator of relief programs. Between trips around the country, she slept on a daybed in a room adjoining Eleanor's bedroom.) So Eleanor and Lorena both had daily contact with FDR--who called Hick his wife's "she-man"--as he altered forever how the world's greatest democracy serves its citizens.
The letters are written with a degree of candor and introspection comparable to a private diary, allowing the reader to gaze into the innermost thoughts and feelings, fears and joys, insecurities and motivations of their authors. In those pre-television and pre-videotape days, the letters offer the single best way we have to gain a sense of the private side of these two women and their relationship.
Lorena was not the only person Eleanor wrote with ardor and affection. After their correspondence became public, ER biographer Joseph P. Lash was so appalled at the suggestion that the first lady may have engaged in a lesbian affair that he published two volumes of her most effusive letters. Lash reproduced more than 1,000 pages of letters--hundreds of them beginning with "Dearest" and ending with "Devotedly"--that Eleanor wrote to male as well as female friends--including Lash. None of those letters, however, approaches the emotional intensity found in Eleanor and Hick's correspondence; only these two women spoke of lying down together and kissing each other on the mouth.
One of the most intriguing themes in the correspondence is the glimpses it gives of an Eleanor Roosevelt who is strikingly different from the icon she has become. Many of her sentences ramble on and on and on with many twists and turns, comma splices, misspelled words, and challenges to coherence. More fundamentally, the figure who emerges from between the lines is not a paragon of virtue but a woman who could be not only sarcastic and funny, but also catty and judgmental, snide and petty. Of course this should not diminish Eleanor's stature, but rather should serve to reassure us that she was, like all of us, human. The first lady of the world had feet of clay.
The letters also reinforce the positive legends about this venerated figure. The daunting list of activities that she participated in day after day testifies to an incredible level of energy. The enormous number of African-American women and men whose careers and agendas she boosted--sometimes inviting musicians to the East Room to perform publicly, other times inviting political leaders upstairs at the White House to plan political strategies in private--speaks to her courage as a civil rights activist. The parade of political, intellectual, and artistic luminaries that Eleanor invited for weekends at the White House--Joseph and Rose Kennedy, Albert Einstein, Helen Hayes, Will Rogers--reminds the reader of the first lady's enormous breadth of interests and commitments. Her casual references to joining FDR and his top advisers to discuss political strategy demonstrate that her political acumen had gained her a level of respect that was unparalleled for a first lady--or any woman, for that matter--in the history of the presidency up to that point. In July 1936, for instance, Eleanor wrote Lorena, "I spent 2 hours with F.D.R., Jim Farley, [Charlie] Michelson, Stanley High & Forbes Morgan." During that session, on the heels of the Democratic National Convention where FDR had been nominated for a second term, the president developed the strategy for his re-election campaign. The letter shows us that FDR relied not only on four men to help him craft that strategy--but also on one woman.
Although the goal of this book is not to impose a particular interpretation of the nature of the relationship between the first lady and her first friend, I feel that I would be shirking some implicit duty as the editor of their letters--which I have become intimately familiar with during the last three years--if I did not share at least a few thoughts on the subject.
Regardless of the boundaries of Eleanor and Lorena's own relationship, there is no question that they both spent enormous quantities of time with women who loved women. Most Americans living in the early years of this century considered lesbians--or women living in "Boston marriages," as they were called then--to be loathsome creatures; Eleanor and Lorena did not. Throughout the 1920s, Eleanor spent at least one night a week, sometimes several, in the Greenwich Village home of Elizabeth Read, an attorney and scholar of international affairs, and her life partner Esther Lape, a college professor and successful publicist--having dinner, reading poetry out loud to each other, and talking about the world they dreamed of creating through the progressive social ideals the three women championed.
Eleanor's innermost circle of friends also included Nan Cook and Marion Dickerman, another couple who lived in the Village. ER's involvement with Nan and Marion evolved into a variety of interconnected activities. In 1924, they built a retreat together on the Roosevelt family estate at Hyde Park. Although FDR donated the land for the fieldstone cottage and built a swimming pool beside it primarily for his own physical therapy, he viewed Val-Kill--which he referred to as the "love nest" and "Honeymoon Cottage"--as the private domain of Eleanor, Nan, and Marion. When Nan crafted furniture for the house, she carved the initials "E.N.M." into the wood, and when Eleanor embroidered towels and bed linens for it, she stitched in that same monogram. In 1925, the three women founded the newsletter Women's Democratic News to galvanize the Democratic women of New York state. In 1926, they bought the Todhunter School for Girls in New York City, with Marion as principal and Eleanor as teacher. In 1927, they opened a factory at Val-Kill, with Nan as manager and Eleanor as sales agent for their hand-crafted reproductions of early American furniture.
These intense friendships with Elizabeth and Esther, Nan and Marion show that love between women was definitely not an alien concept for Eleanor. She was a professed believer in sexual freedom--including people acting on homosexual desires. In 1925, she wrote in her personal journal: "No form of love is to be despised."
Hick, meanwhile, had embraced her love of women unequivocally. In 1918, soon after she had begun reporting for the Minneapolis Tribune, she met Ellie Morse and entered into a same-sex relationship with her. Ellie, two years older and from one of the wealthiest families in the state, had dropped out of Wellesley College to take a lowly job at the Tribune. For eight years, Lorena and Ellie shared a one-bedroom apartment in the Leamington Hotel and became a classic butch/femme couple. Lorena--Ellie called her "Hickey Doodles"--was a head taller and sixty pounds heavier than the waif-like Ellie, whose feet were so tiny she had to have her shoes custom made. Lorena spent as little time as possible on personal grooming; Ellie had her hair curled and wore make-up even when she stayed in the apartment. Lorena covered her bulky body in shapeless shirtwaists; Ellie shopped for stylish fashions that emphasized her tiny waist. Lorena loved reporting so much that she spent far more than forty hours a week on the job; Ellie preferred to wile away her days reading poetry.
Eleanor and Hick's correspondence shows that these earlier friendships continued throughout their own relationship--Eleanor mentions Elizabeth and Esther as well as Nan and Marion dozens of times; Lorena does the same with Ellie. In her memoirs, Eleanor wrote of Elizabeth and Esther, "I have for years thought that Providence was particularly wise and farseeing when it threw these two women together, for their gifts complement each other in a most extraordinary way."
Another relevant point is that, by the time Eleanor and Lorena began the intense period of their relationship, they were worldly wise adults. In 1933, Eleanor turned forty-nine, Lorena forty. Fifteen years earlier, Eleanor had discovered that her husband was having an affair and had agreed to continue the marriage--but not sexual relations with her husband. Hick had felt the sting of betrayal as well; she and Ellie Morse had lived together as a loving couple for eight years until the day in 1926 when Ellie, frightened by Lorena's chronic depression and emotional flare-ups, had walked out. By 1933, Eleanor and Lorena both had loved--and both had lost.
The first two years of Eleanor and Lorena's relationship were the most intense. In one of the first letters in the collection, Eleanor showed that the friendship was too intimate to share even with members of her own family. Eleanor wrote that her son Jimmy, then twenty-five years old, had been near her during the telephone conversation she had just had with Lorena, so "I couldn't say je t'aime et je t'adore as I longed to do, but always remember I am saying it and that I go to sleep thinking of you and repeating our little saying." At some level, Eleanor and Lorena knew that theirs was a forbidden love.
Six months later, in November 1933, Eleanor wrote that the capital city was abuzz with gossip about her daughter Anna's affair with John Boettiger. Anna and John were both married at the time--but not to each other--and Eleanor told Hick that Washington wags were taking bets on exactly how soon after John's divorce became final that Anna would begin the proceedings for hers. The first lady noted, "One cannot hide things in this world, can one?" And then: "How lucky you are not a man!" If Lorena was not a woman, Eleanor clearly was saying, those same wags would have been gossiping about her relationship with her first friend.
Later that same month, Eleanor made clear her longing for physical intimacy. Eleanor and her friend Tiny Chaney had been cleaning and decorating a mutual friend's new home in upstate New York. "Sunday morning we worked till 1 a.m. but slept well. Tiny & I in her big double bed which was comfortable in the guest room only I wished it was you."
Additional evidence that the relationship was far more than a casual friendship came from a series of references that Eleanor and Lorena made to their plans to unite, at some point in the future, to blend their separate lives into one. Some of the comments came from Lorena; consoling herself about being hundreds of miles away from the first lady, she wrote, "We'll have our time together later on." But more often the comments came from Eleanor. After they weren't able to spend as much time alone together during a visit as they had hoped, Eleanor wrote, "We'll have years of happy times so bad times will be forgotten." On another occasion, this time after visiting an aging friend, she said, "It is sad to be helpless & poor & old, isn't it? I hope you & I to-gether have enough to make it gracious & attractive!" The most concrete of the references came in the spring of 1934, when Eleanor was in New York City and had just returned from looking at the models for the new pieces of furniture coming from the Val-Kill factory. "One corner cupboard I long to have for our camp or cottage or house, which is it to be? I've always thought of it in the country but I don't think we ever decided on the variety of abode nor the furniture. We probably won't argue!"
Other testimony to the intimate nature of the relationship comes from looking at how Hick altered the correspondence that creates the core of this book. In 1936, she began retrieving the letters she had written to Eleanor; between that year and 1968 when Lorena died (having stipulated that the Roosevelt Library could not open the letters until ten years after her death), she purposely destroyed hundreds of letters. In 1966, Lorena confided in Anna why she had done so: "Your Mother wasn't always so very discreet in her letters to me." Lorena burned the most explicit of the letters, dramatically dropping them, one by one, into the flames of a fireplace.
We can only imagine what has been lost. Because Lorena destroyed all of her own letters and most of Eleanor's from the first half of 1933, for example, the reader is left with only eight letters--all from Eleanor and one of them incomplete--from that crucial period. In addition, whenever Eleanor and Lorena spent time together--sometimes for long weekends, other times for vacations that extended for several weeks--they obviously had no reason to write letters. What's more, they often talked to each other by telephone. So the correspondence contains myriad statements of eager anticipation (even the counting down of days) before a particular rendezvous, followed only by vague references to what they did during their precious days together. On three occasions, these times together had such significant impact on their relationship that I have supplemented the letters with material from other sources in an attempt to fill these gaps. These summaries, like the letters, allow Eleanor and Lorena to speak for themselves, as they draw heavily from Reluctant First Lady, the biography of Eleanor that Lorena wrote in 1962, as well as Eleanor's own autobiography.
The biography that Lorena wrote about Eleanor is a major source for the prologue that describes how Eleanor and Hick crossed paths for the first time in 1928 and how their friendship escalated when Lorena was assigned to cover the soon-to-be first lady during the 1932 presidential campaign. That prologue carries the reader up to the day the correspondence begins in March 1933.
While I acknowledge that the question of whether the first lady and first friend's relationship was a sexual one is highly titillating, I believe that ultimately the far more important question is: What impact did the relationship have on each woman?
By the time Eleanor and Lorena began corresponding, they both had recognized that their emotional similarities, no matter the differences in their backgrounds, were striking. Eleanor and Hick were both strong-willed and built of sturdy intellectual timber, both possessed a zealous and passionate nature, both were endowed with enormous physical vitality (though Lorena squandered much of hers by smoking, drinking, and eating too much, while the abstemious Eleanor resolutely did not), both were intuitively compassionate and responsive to the moods and sorrows of others, both had been deeply scarred by past betrayals of male sexuality and yet still longed to give and receive a totality of emotional and physical commitment. For all these reasons, by the spring of 1933 Eleanor and Lorena's bond had grown so strong that it would stand firm for the rest of their lives.
At the time that their correspondence began, Eleanor was at one of the lowest points in her life. Although detached observers assumed that any woman would be delighted to become first lady, Eleanor was, in reality, deeply depressed. She feared, and with good reason, that moving into the White House would force her to abandon the social and political agenda that she had committed her energies to for the last fifteen years and, instead, to accept the frightfully limited role of the demure hostess whose most momentous decision of the day was whether lunch would consist of sandwiches filled with cucumbers--or watercress.
Lorena not only empathized with Eleanor's fears in a way that most people could not, but she also was a self-made woman who possessed the stunning combination of innate drive, professional expertise, and political sophistication. That combination enabled her to help Eleanor transform an ineffectual role that ER detested into a position of influence and impact far beyond anything that the thirty-three first ladies before her had ever imagined it could be. Lorena recognized that ER was poised to do great things, for herself as well as for American women writ large, so the hard-driving reporter became the behind-the-scenes catalyst helping to shape ER's decisions and activities that ultimately revolutionized the relationship between the first lady and the public. In matters of media coverage as in so many others that would evolve in the next several years, Lorena was, in short, the woman behind the woman. When Eleanor wrote Lorena that her life would be "empty without you," the most eminent American woman of the twentieth century was speaking not only of an emotional void but also of a substantive one.
It was Lorena who, much like the White House handlers who earn six-figure salaries for creating positive public images of their candidates today, introduced Eleanor to the American public by writing stories in decidedly rose-colored hues. Hick painted that flattering portrait while she was still on the Associated Press payroll, thereby violating journalistic standards of professionalism.
It was Lorena who persuaded Eleanor to become the only first lady in history to conduct weekly press conferences. Those sessions provided ER with a public venue to promote the social and political agenda that she had feared she would have to abandon. During a daunting 348 press conferences, Eleanor championed everything from establishing a minimum wage to capping the number of hours in a workweek and from enlarging the role of women to expending public funds for housing, education, and programs for the handicapped.
It was Lorena who suggested a way that Eleanor could finally achieve the sense of personal fulfillment and financial independence that she had desperately craved for many years; ER could attain that elusive goal, Lorena counseled, by writing magazine articles (which the former reporter spent hours on end editing before Eleanor actually submitted them) for the country's largest and best-paying magazines.
It was Lorena who helped Eleanor grow into one of history's most legendary humanitarians by giving this woman born to wealth and privilege a close-up view of the plight of the poor and the powerless; Lorena took ER to the West Virginia coal mines in the fall of 1933, propelling the first lady to become the point person for the government's subsistence homestead project that soon evolved into "Eleanor's Baby."
It was Lorena who suggested that Eleanor publish a syndicated newspaper column to communicate her vision for humanity to the entire country on a daily basis. "My Day" began in 1935 and continued until Eleanor died in 1962, allowing her to speak her mind in the form of a phenomenal 8,000 columns published in scores of American newspapers.
More important than all of these tangible contributions combined, it was Lorena who provided unflagging emotional support. Early in their relationship, Lorena offered Eleanor a love that was complete and absolute. Never before and never again would Eleanor, despite her social stature and her myriad accomplishments, feel the sense of being loved exclusively. On the strength of that love, Eleanor blossomed and thrived, grew and flourished--took flight. "Every woman wants to be first to someone in her life," Eleanor would later write. For Eleanor, being first in Lorena's life allowed her to transform the conventional role of president's wife into a public figure in her own right. Lorena's love allowed Eleanor to construct the kind of life she wanted even while living in the public fishbowl known as the White House. "Believe me," she wrote Lorena at Christmas 1933, "you've taught me more and meant more to me than you know." The next year, Eleanor expanded that sentiment, "You've made of me so much more of a person just to be worthy of you--Je t'aime et je t'adore."
For the remaining thirty years of her remarkable life, Eleanor lived according to a code of her own design, following the rhythms of her own needs and desires. She reinvented herself, she established a new paradigm for the American woman, and she stepped boldly onto the world stage to confront the most controversial issues of the day with a sense of honor and principle that has remained a model for the generations that have come after her. But if it had not been for the unconditional love and steadfast emotional support that Lorena had bestowed on Eleanor in those early months of her tenure at the White House, none of it may have happened.
Unfortunately, the profound role that the relationship played in Lorena's life proved not to be nearly so enriching. The euphoria that her relationship with Eleanor had initially brought soon turned to anguish. Soon after Eleanor moved to the White House, Lorena realized she could not abide the constant activity and public nature of living close to the first lady--Hick was an independent soul, an appendage to no one. So she accepted a job, which Eleanor secured for her, as chief investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, traversing the country to gauge the effectiveness of the nation's relief programs and then writing detailed reports on her findings. The major advantage of the job was that, between trips, it allowed Lorena to return to Eleanor and sleep in the White House within a matter of feet from the first lady. Still, the nomadic lifestyle was far from ideal. As Hick's letters from one lonely hotel room after another testify, when she was not with Eleanor, she felt restless and unhappy; the government work failed to give her the personal gratification that journalism had. Unwittingly, Lorena had allowed herself to slip into a role where she lost her sense of self, becoming emotionally (and eventually financially) dependent on Eleanor. No longer a successful journalist herself, she found it degrading when reporters described her solely in relation to the first lady, as if she were some pathetic sycophant. "I'm so fed up with publicity I want to kick every reporter I see," she raged in February 1934. "Why the Hell CAN'T they leave me alone?"
Ironically, as Eleanor was growing into the new type of first lady that Hick had helped her envision, the intensity of their relationship diminished. Because Eleanor now was embraced by the love and admiration of thousands, she no longer needed the private reassurance and emotional nourishment from Lorena that had sustained her in the anxious days before and immediately after she moved to the White House. Early in the relationship, it had been Eleanor who desperately needed support and encouragement from Lorena, a successful career woman who had accomplished so much in the world. But as Eleanor took flight, Lorena began to become not so much an inspiration as an albatross.
Sensing that she had sacrificed a career that she loved for a woman who was, each day, drifting further and further from her, Lorena became increasingly moody and sullen, demanding time alone with Eleanor away from the first lady's family, friends, and commitments. The loyal Eleanor tried to accommodate her first friend, but she repeatedly found herself apologizing to Lorena for including other people in their plans. "Anna said to-day she might want to go with us [to Puerto Rico]. I'd rather go alone with you but I can't hurt her feelings." Besides ER's daughter to consider, there were her many friends such as the women reporters who gathered adoringly around her each Monday morning for the weekly press conferences and the lunches that often followed, plus several feminist friends the querulous Hick refused to be in the same room with, and all the people the first lady worked with on her various social issues and political campaigns, plus her four sons--not to mention the president, who increasingly relied upon Eleanor's political instincts and affable nature to further his agenda. "You told me once it was hard to let go," Eleanor wrote Lorena, "but I found it was harder to let go & yet hold on. Love as much & yet share." Still, each time that the first lady disappointed Lorena, she felt guilty. "I went to sleep saying a little prayer, 'God give me depth enough not to hurt Hick again.' Darling, I know I'm not up to you in many ways but I love you dearly." By 1934, whenever either woman wrote of her love for the other, it seemed to be in the context of pain rather than pleasure. In February, Eleanor wrote, "Love is a queer thing, it hurts one but it gives one so much more in return!"
During the three remaining decades that the first lady and first friend would continue to correspond, they would experience many more ups and downs in their relationship--including a disastrous holiday on the West Coast in July 1934. But throughout those years, both women remained steadfastly concerned about the other's well-being, offering constant support and reassurance--a safe harbor whenever outside forces threatened them. Eleanor sometimes used Lorena to blow off steam, especially about her husband; when an incident with one of their sons angered the first lady to the point that she, at least momentarily, considered leaving her husband, she expressed her rage to Hick but then, in her next letter, acknowledged that divorce was out of the question--"I know I've got to stick. I know I'll never make an open break." For Lorena, the correspondence provided a venue for her to complain about her job--actually, a series of jobs, none of which came anywhere close to providing her with the sense of fulfillment she had known as a pioneering newswoman.
In the final years, the only point on which Eleanor and Lorena consistently seemed to disagree involved whose fault it was that the intensity of their relationship had not been sustained; each woman insisted on blaming herself. Eleanor wrote, "I never meant to hurt you in any way, but that is no excuse for having done it. Such cruelty & stupidity is unpardonable when you reach my age." Hick countered, "It would be so much better, wouldn't it, if I didn't love you so much." Perhaps the best coda to the relationship was written by Lorena in a letter in late 1940. "I'd never have believed it possible for a woman to develop after 50 as you have in the last six years," she said. "My trouble, I suspect, has always been that I've been so much more interested in the person than in the personage. I still prefer the person, but I admire and respect the personage with all my heart!"
The Pain of Separation
The eight letters in this chapter were all written by Eleanor, most of them in the days immediately after the inauguration while the nation's thirty-fourth first lady was settling into her new home and her new role. Unfortunately Lorena destroyed all of her letters to Eleanor written prior to November 26, 1933 (see p. 41).
Eleanor generally wrote her letters at the end of the day, often writing in bed by propping herself up on her down pillows. She used a fountain pen and elegant, creamy white stationery with "The White House" embossed in rich gold letters across the top.
The first paragraph of Eleanor's first letter provided the phrase that ultimately has become the title of this collection of letters: "Empty Without You."
With this first letter, Eleanor established the three-part organization that she would repeat hundreds of times. First came personal words to Lorena. Then came a recitation of the events that had occurred that particular day, almost as though she were copying them straight from her engagement calendar. And last came more personal words to Lorena. In this particular letter, the first lady ended with several lines of verse.
The White House Washington
Hick my dearest, I cannot go to bed to-night without a word to you. I felt a little as though a part of me was leaving to-night, you have grown so much to be a part of my life that it is empty without you even though I'm busy every minute.
These are strange days & very odd to me but I'll remember the joys & try to plan pleasant things & count the days between our times together!
To begin my diary, after you left I went to supper taking Fjr. [Franklin Jr., Eleanor and Franklin's third son] & John [Eleanor and Franklin's youngest son], Mama [FDR's mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt] & Betsey [the wife of James, Eleanor and Franklin's oldest son] & we were followed by F.D.R. & James just before the boys left. I went to the station with them & left the Secret Service man at home. (1st assertion of independence!) Saw the boys onto the train. Returned, had a short talk with F.D.R. James & Betsey. Tommy [Malvina Thompson, Eleanor's secretary] came & we arranged to-morrow's work. At ten Meggie & I took her to the gate & I thought of you & "Prinz" [Lorena's German shepherd]. She [Tommy] seemed very happy & said everyone had a grand time, also that you looked "stunning" dressed up! I then went back & devoted 3/4 of an hour to talking to Mama, then listened to F.D.R. broadcast, sorted mail & am now preparing for bed. So endeth my first Sunday.
I'll call you to-morrow night & this should reach you Tuesday a.m.
Oh! darling, I hope on the whole you will be happier for my friendship. I felt I had brought you so much discomfort & hardship to-day & almost more heartache than you could bear & I don't want to make you unhappy. All my love & I shall be saying to you over thought waves in a few minutes--
Good night my dear one
Angels guard thee
God protect thee
My love enfold thee
All the night through.
The White House
Hick darling, Oh! how good it was to hear your voice, it was so inadequate to try & tell you what it meant, Jimmy was near & I couldn't say "je t'aime et je t'adore" as I longed to do but always remember I am saying it & that I go to sleep thinking of you & repeating our little saying.
Well, now for the diary! Got up 7:15, walk with Meggie, breakfast in my room at 8 & suddenly Missy [LeHand, Franklin's personal secretary] appeared half asleep to announce [Chicago Mayor Anton] Cermak's death. Then she had breakfast in my room & I began to unpack & move furniture. Tommy & Nan [Cook, Eleanor's close friend and business associate] came about nine and I left them in charge and went off with F.D.R. & James at 9:45 to Sen. [Thomas] Walsh's funeral. I sat in the Senate Gallery & the coffin with the candles & lovely flowers looked impressive but I thought the service very unimpressive & the people in the gallery seemed to have come to a show rather than to mourn someone they cared about. I stopped to talk to the widow & daughter, saw [Secretary of Labor] Frances Perkins for a minute. She is a little startled to find how many purely social people write her for purely exhibition purposes.
Back by 11 & moved furniture till 12. Then press conference of which I told you. 1 p.m., all governors at conference [with FDR] & their wives to lunch [with ER], then a little more furniture moved & at 4:20 National Women's Press Association tea, then home to find a mixture [of people] at tea with Mama. 7:30 Isabella [Selmes Greenway] came to dine & we had a short talk about her children & Congress & Anna [Dall, Eleanor and Franklin's oldest child and only daughter] & Elliott [Eleanor and Franklin's second son]. At last 12:10, bed & a talk with you--the nicest time of the day. A week from to-morrow I came back from the telephone & began marking my calendar, Tuesday week is so much better than Thursday!
My room is nearly in order & my bed is in the little room & I can see the [Washington] monument from it--a great comfort the monument has always been to me. Why, I wonder?
Give Jean [Dixon] my love she is a swell person. No one is like you though. Hick--I love you & good night.
On the day that Eleanor wrote this letter, Lorena turned forty. The letter includes the first of Eleanor's many references to wanting to hold Lorena in her arms, as well as a clear statement about the importance that the first lady attached to the sapphire and diamond ring that Lorena had given her.
The White House
Hick darling, All day I've thought of you & another birthday [when] I will be with you, & yet to-night you sounded so far away & formal, oh! I want to put my arms around you, I ache to hold you close. Your ring is a great comfort, I look at it & think she does love me, or I wouldn't be wearing it!
Well here goes for the diary (let me know when you get bored!) Breakfast downstairs Nan [Cook] & I, joined very late by James. Then E.R. interviews Mrs. [Henrietta] Nesbitt & begins at the top of the house, meets all the domestics & talks over work, then with Tommy to meet secretarial force & 11:30 received [delegation of] Sioux Indians, at 11:45 the executive secretary of the "Girl Scouts" & must go to meeting (minus uniform) on Saturday at four. Then lunch & tour the White House, then take Mama to the train & had tea & took a party to the concert. There I thought only of you & wanted you even more than I do as a rule. Home at seven & Tommy & I worked till 11:15 & then I put all my children to bed. Elliott & Ralph Hitchcock [a friend of Elliott's] go west to-morrow a.m. Louis [Howe] moved in & Mary Howe [Louis's daughter] came to stay to-day--Missy [LeHand] moves in to-morrow.
By Saturday I hope to begin to read, & write, & think & feel again. What shall we read Hick? You choose first.
It is late 1:15 & I am very weary, so goodnight my dearest one. A world of love & how happy I will be to see you Tuesday.
Tuesday night or rather Wed. a.m. March 8th--Hick dearest I know just how unhappy you are & I'm glad you'll be with Jean [Dixon] tomorrow night & so glad you have Prinz. Give him my love--my thoughts are around you!
The White House
Dearest, Your two letters this morning were such a joy & I loved your letter to Miss [Bess] Furman. She was outside Justice [Oliver Wendell] Holmes' when we went there to-day & I walked Meggie home so she walked along with me & told me she was sending me your letter & you were coming on the 20th!
Just telephoned you, oh! it is good to hear your voice, when it sounds right no one can make me so happy!
Diary. 8:30 a.m. breakfast & saw Elliott & Ralph Hitchcock off for the West in a Plymouth roadster packed with bags so the top couldn't close! What a gamble it is, I wish I felt surer of Elliott. Saw the housekeeper 9:30 then about accounts at 10. Was presented by a California man named Staley with a box of dates at 10:45 in the red room & 11 the Cabinet ladies came. We agreed on no entertaining till autumn except for children's eggrolling at Easter & veterans garden party. I told them I would receive at tea once a week (Sat. p.m. we meet the diplomats) & otherwise we would only have people in informally & Mrs. [Etta] Garner [wife of Vice President John Nance Garner] was much relieved. At 2:45 Nan [Cook] & I went to Sloane's to choose some lamps [for the Roosevelt living quarters], then toured the town & back here for tea. At 5:30 Franklin, James & I went to Justice Holmes'. He is a fine old man with flashes of his old wit & incisiveness. We got back about the same time, though I walked Meggie & was almost rude to Miss Furman! She's nice though & likes you which melted my heart! We dined [at] 8 "en famille" between conferences & it is now 12 & I am going in soon to find out if F. is staying up all night or not! I think when things settle I'll have some privacy & leisure & I have better hopes than I had of getting away & of cutting red tape & pomp & ceremony! Perhaps we'll be almost human by the time you come!
I miss you so much & love you so much & please never apologize. I always know & understand, one does if one cares enough.
My dear, love to you,
At the end of the first paragraph of this letter appears Eleanor's first recognition of the fact that she can expand the role of the first lady in ways that could be meaningful and satisfying to her. In the third paragraph, Eleanor describes placing Lorena's photo in a strategic position where she not only can be reminded of Hick throughout the day but also can kiss the first friend's image as her first activity each morning and her last activity each night.
The White House
Hick dearest, It was good to talk to you & you sounded a bit happier. I hated to have Nan go to-night & yet it is rather nice to have a few hours alone, so I know how you feel but I shall miss Nan to-morrow. She has been such a help & apparently enjoyed herself. The one thing which reconciles me to this job is the fact that I think I can give a great many people pleasure & I begin to think there may be ways in which I can be useful. I am getting some ideas which I want to talk over with you--
Life is pretty strenuous--one or two a.m. last night & 12:15 now & people still with F.D.R. but this should settle things more or less.
My pictures are nearly all up & I have you in my sitting room where I can look at you most of my waking hours! I can't kiss you [in person] so I kiss your picture good night & good morning! This is the first day I've had no letter & I missed it sadly but it is good discipline.
Now for the diary! Out with Meggie as usual. Breakfast 8:30, 9:30 housekeeper, 10:30 got splint for my finger & went to kitchen. Put books ornaments etc. around left at 11:40 for Capitol, back at 1:40 for lunch & James brought a California congressman making us 10 instead of 8 at last minute which was good training in our ways for the staff! After lunch some went back to Capitol. I took Nan to Mt. Vernon, back 4:40 saw 2 ladies for 5 minutes each, one brought gifts, one wanted to reorganize all government cafeterias! Tea, took Louis [Howe] to garage to see his car back, dressed for dinner & to-night dictated to Tommy, signed oodles of mail, took Nan to train & Tommy home. Gus [Gennerich] paid me a long visit while I signed & now 12:35 & to bed!
Anna & the children left to-day at 2. So I have asked John [Boettiger] to go for a drive with me to-morrow a.m. Remind me to show you a note he wrote me, he is pretty sweet & I am so sorry for them [because they had to keep their love a secret]. James left at 3:30 by plane for Boston & returns with Betsey & Sara Saturday night. Betsey wired that Elliott has reached Little Rock! Here is the chronicle of my family, a bit varied, isn't it?
One more day marked off my dear. My dear if you meet me [in public] may I forget there are other reporters present or must I behave? I shall want to hug you to death. I can hardly wait!
A world of love to you & good night & God bless you "light of my life,"
The first paragraph of this letter contains one of Eleanor's many cryptic messages about her relationship with Lorena.
The White House
Hick darling, The air mail, special delivery letter has never come, but the next one came this morning & my dear I was glad. Remember one thing always, no one is just what you are to me. I'd rather be writing this minute than anything else & yet I love many other people & some often can do things for me probably better than you could, but I've never enjoyed being with anyone the way I enjoy being with you.
Diary March 10th 8:30 a.m. out with Meggie. A cold, clear, beautiful day. Breakfast in the west sitting room (hall) much brighter than downstairs, Louis & Missy & I. 9:30 Mrs. [Henrietta] Nesbitt, 10:10 Mr. [Ike] Hoover, 10:30 picture hangers & furniture movers. 11:25 went off from back door in my car & picked John [Boettiger] up at the Washington [Hotel]. He drove out to Elton Fay's for me as I wanted to leave some candy & tangerines. Back in time for lunch. Then Tommy & I moved books & furniture till four when we drove to the Congressional Club to meet the new Congressmen's wives & then I dashed in to see Elinor Morgenthau. Back here at five. F.D.R. appeared about 5:30.
The rooms begin to look homelike! 6:30 dressed & dined 7:30 just ourselves & had a movie of F.D.R. ...
The preserved copy of this letter ends abruptly in mid-sentence.
The second from the last paragraph of this letter contains one of the many sensual passages that Eleanor wrote to Lorena.
The White House
Hick my dear, The missing letter is still missing but I rejoiced over the Thursday evening one this morning. It is hard to decide what we shall read but let's try the essays. You can give them to me Wednesday.
We could lunch at the house Tuesday if Anna is out or if you don't mind having her with us but I thought you'd rather be alone in a crowd than have anyone else to talk to. It shall be just as you say dear. Stick to your diet, lose twenty pounds more & you'll forget you are forty & please go see the doctor next week.
Last night after I finished writing they called about Los Angeles & I woke & F.D.R., Louis [Howe] & finally poor Steve Early [Franklin's press secretary]. What a bad time the West Coast does have!
Diary. 8:30 Missy [LeHand] & I out with Meggie. A note announcing Forbes Amory & his brother downstairs so I reluctantly order 2 more places for breakfast making us five when the table only holds 4 comfortably. It finally is disclosed that Harry Amory wants to be an assistant Sec. of Commerce & I undertake to hide F.D.R. & get him out of seeing them! 9:30 Mrs. [Henrietta] Nesbitt. 10 Ike Hoover, then got most of F.D.R.'s pictures hung. 11 hair & nails done, signed old mail. Missy & I alone at lunch, more pictures hung, signed mail till 3, dressed, went to see Sen. [Thomas] Walsh's widow. She's much more composed & I like her. She told me all about this "romance," poor things! Four p.m. arrived at D.A.R. [Daughters of the American Revolution] building for my first go at the Girl Scouts (E.R. not in uniform!). Said a few words, lighted their cake, was photographed & left, got back at 4:20 to find numerous carriages already lined up [for the diplomatic dinner at the White House that night]. Then all Ambassadors & ministers being lined up according to precedence in the East Room. We were notified--Tommy & Missy rushed down & sat at their seats to pour tea & chocolate in the big dining room & we stood in the Blue Room F.D.R., E.R., the Sec. of State [Cordell Hull], Mrs. Hull, William Phillips, who is undersecretary. They shook hands & went on in for tea & then we went in & F.D.R. sat down & every ambassador was taken up to talk to him & the ministers & I walked all around the room & said sweet nothings to them. I think they enjoyed it, though it was stiff. You can't be anything else with complete strangers, can you? Tommy came through with flying colours [sic]! At six I was back in my room writing to you when Louis & Steve Early appeared, so I sat down & knit & chatted for an hour & now Tommy & I are dining alone by my fire. F.D.R. & Louis go to the newspaper correspondents dinner. I shall sign mail all evening or dictate to Tommy.
I miss you greatly dear. The nicest time of the day is when I write to you. You have a stormier time than I do but I miss you as much, I think. I couldn't bear to think of you crying yourself to sleep. Oh! how I wanted to put my arms around you in reality instead of in spirit. I went & kissed your photograph instead & the tears were in my eyes. Please keep most of your heart in Washington as long as I'm here for most of mine is with you!
A world of love & good night my dear one,
Eleanor and Tommy had flown to New York City on March 15 and had seen Lorena while they were there.
The White House
Hick Darling, I've just said "goodnight" & you are right we should not do it [talk on the telephone] every night. So I'll put a "special" on this [letter] & not call you to-morrow in the hope that I won't mind not hearing your voice when I know I'm going to hear it on Saturday. Oh! dear, I can hardly wait!
Well, we had a very bumpy trip but I was fine & poor Tommy suffered all day.
I had [Secretary of Labor] Frances Perkins, Elinor Morgenthau & Mary Miller to lunch. Saw a man about the welfare of mountain children, took Maude [Gray, Eleanor's aunt] to the Senate & heard some dull speeches on beer & listened to F's message on farm relief. It's not very profitable for me to go to the Senate or Congress as I hear so badly. Got home, dressed & received the Supreme Court & I think they enjoyed their tea. Had a talk with John Boettiger on the telephone, did some mail, dressed for dinner. Fred Hale (Senator from Maine [a Republican] & an old friend of Maude's) and Steve Early [came] to dinner and then were given a private showing of the movie "Gabriel Over the White House." Some of it is raw & silly but oh! some of it is swell & I have so much more faith in the people than the Fred Hale type [does]. He'd have the soldiers out if a million unemployed marched on Washington & I'd do what the President does in the picture! Some agreed & I finally took the dogs for their evening walk & we are going to bed after a good night to you.
I love you & seeing you again [yesterday] was such a joy. Bless you my dearest,
A Perfect Holiday
After living in separate cities from March to June 1933, Eleanor and Lorena arranged their schedules so they could go on a road trip together in July. They had no reason to write to each other during their shared holiday, but the biography the first friend later wrote about the first lady included detailed descriptions of the remarkable holiday. The adjective remarkable applies not because of any particular event that occurred during those three weeks but because absolutely no major events occurred; just two middle-aged women motoring through the northern United States and French Canada--unaccompanied and (even though one of them was by this time one of the most-photographed women in the world) unrecognized. Their vehicle was well beyond the ordinary, too, because Eleanor had selected as her personal automobile not a somber black Cadillac or Lincoln, like Grace Coolidge and Lou Henry Hoover before her, but a sporty light blue Buick roadster with a white convertible top. Complete with chrome headlights, chrome bumper, and chrome grill in the front and a jaunty rumble seat on the back, the car raised (with the Depression still holding the country tight in its grip) many a Washington eyebrow.
After spending the Fourth of July weekend at Val-Kill, the two women drove north and spent several leisurely days in the secluded woods of Vermont and New Hampshire. Eleanor next spoiled Lorena by picking up the tab for four glorious nights at the Chateau Frontenac, the majestic castellated hotel inside the old stone city of Quebec. After indulging in manicures, facials, and massages by the hotel staff and exquisite meals of escargot, vichyssoise, chateaubriand, and crepes from the hotel's world-class chef--this was a vacation, price be damned!--they proceeded north along the banks of the St. Lawrence. Finally they reached their destination proper: the rugged Gaspe Peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic beyond the northern tip of Maine. For the next week, they meandered along the 500-mile coastline with its breathtaking scenery and charming French villages. Then they stopped at the Roosevelt summer home on Campobello Island in New Brunswick before spending a few final days along the Maine coastline--where, for the only time on the trip, the first lady drew a crowd.
It wasn't the landmarks along the way or the number of days spent at each stop that the women remembered most, though, but a series of magical moments that blended humor and pathos and romance that they would treasure for the next thirty years. The first of the moments erupted the instant that Eleanor announced that she and Lorena were taking an extended motor trip--by themselves. When the head of the Secret Service, Bill Moran, got wind of the plan, he exploded. "The Lindbergh baby was kidnapped only a little more than a year ago," Moran barked. "I will not allow such a thing to happen to the president's wife--not on my watch." But ER barked back: "We're not infants." And then, without taking a breath, she adeptly turned the whole idea of an abduction into a joke. "If someone tried to kidnap us, where could they possibly hide us? They certainly couldn't cram us into the trunk of a car!" Lorena quickly chimed in. "The idea of anyone trying to kidnap two grown women, one nearly six feet tall and the other weighing almost 200 pounds, is ludicrous."
With ER and Moran at loggerheads, the issue was passed on to higher authority. And in this case, that meant high authority indeed. FDR ultimately was swayed neither by his wife nor the head of his security network, but by Lorena. For in addition to trusting and enjoying the company of the woman who had become the first lady's intimate friend, he had complete faith in the robust woman's ability to protect his wife as well as any bodyguard could. Case closed.
Though Bill Moran had no choice but to accept FDR's decision, he persuaded Eleanor at least to carry a revolver along with her. Details about that gun, however, would remain Eleanor and Lorena's secret. For Lorena admitted years later that, throughout the entire trip, the gun remained locked in its case "which in turn was locked in the glove compartment," unloaded and with no bullets anywhere in the car. If Moran had known exactly where ER kept the gun and that without bullets it offered her no protection whatsoever, he would have been furious--but probably not surprised.
Another memorable moment played out as the women were driving through the picturesque Adirondack Mountains in upper New York state. The resolutely disciplined Eleanor had decided, because this was a holiday, to give herself permission to adopt a trait that she previously had only read about; she was going to be impetuous. She'd been totally responsible for forty-nine years--why not? So even though her plan for the first day of the trip was to drive to Lake Placid and spend the night in a proper hotel there, when dusk came and she passed a cottage in the woods with a sign on the fence stating "Tourists Welcome," she slammed on the brakes. "Let's go back and try it. I've always wanted to stay in one of those places." For a woman accustomed to the finest accommodations that America and Europe had to offer, the novelty of spending a night in a private house by the side of the road was seductive.
The young couple who owned the cottage immediately admitted to their guests that the plumbing wasn't fully installed yet so there would only be enough hot water for one bath. It didn't matter, the travelers assured them. In her book, Lorena recalled telling Eleanor, after they retired to their tiny bedroom with its lone double bed, "You're the first lady, so you get the bath." Lorena then described a playful scene that readers familiar only with the public persona of Eleanor Roosevelt may have trouble envisioning. "Mrs. Roosevelt started thrusting her long, slender fingers in my direction. I was so ticklish that all she had to do to reduce me to a quivering mass of pulp was to point her fingers at me." A few moments later, the first lady, still in an impetuous mood, had Lorena "writhing out of control" among the pillows and blankets.
Another memorable moment evolved when Eleanor and Lorena stopped at the Shrine of Sainte Anne de Beaupre, the Roman Catholic memorial known for the mountain of crutches and canes left behind by the legions of pilgrims who have gone there in search of healing miracles. But when Eleanor and Lorena tried to enter the church, they hit a snag. To enter the Romanesque basilica, women had to have their heads covered; Eleanor happened to have wrapped a white silk scarf around her hair that day, but Lorena was bareheaded. Hick had a hat in the roadster, but they were a mile away from the parking lot and none too eager to walk that distance, and back again, just to get a hat. When she couldn't think of an immediate solution, Lorena became frustrated--this was precisely the kind of incident that could send her into an emotional tailspin. Fortunately, Eleanor reacted very differently. Like a magician, the first lady--with a playfully theatrical flair--extracted a white lace handkerchief from the depths of her huge pocket book and adroitly tied knots in each of the four corners and, with a fanciful flourish of her hands and a coquettish grin on her face, produced a few hairpins to secure the makeshift hat on the top of Lorena's head. Voila! Problem solved. In addition to getting the women into the church, ER's whimsical creation also produced a memorable image that neither woman would soon forget; Lorena finished her telling of the anecdote by focusing on Eleanor: "I must have looked funny, for I can still see her, laughing until she cried!"
When the roadster reached the Gaspe Peninsula, looped by a scenic highway where beetling precipices alternate with craggy beaches, the motorists felt like they'd stepped halfway around the world. "The whole landscape and atmosphere were those of a French countryside," Eleanor wrote in her memoirs. "The only road was dirt, frequented by comparatively few people." Neither woman had any complaints about the sense of isolation, though, as they both were pleased to have a respite from the crowds they were used to in New York and Washington. Basking in their temporary freedom, they picnicked in the woods, swam on secluded beaches, and took walks in the twilight. Another of their daily rituals was to lie in bed reading aloud from the books they had brought along.
Just how remote the peninsula was came home to them when they stopped to admire a tiny church along the road and accepted the parish priest's invitation to join him for lunch. It was only after they had consumed the freshly caught trout that the generous cleric asked his guests their names. The first lady later wrote, "When I gave my name as Eleanor Roosevelt, he asked: 'Are you relation to Theodore Roosevelt? I was a great admirer of his.'" Eleanor smiled and said, "'Yes, I am his niece.'" The fact that another Roosevelt was now residing in the White House--and that he had quite an adventurous wife--had not yet penetrated this part of the continent, and ER saw no need to inform him of that fact.
In several French Canadian villages, indeed it was not Eleanor who attracted attention, but her car. "My Buick convertible was so much admired that when I came out of church one Sunday," Eleanor later wrote, "most of the male population of the village was patting it and even the old cure came up and asked me about it and seemed awed at the idea that any woman should own anything so expensive and beautiful." The men were so eager to examine and admire the car, in fact, that none of them bothered to ask just who that female car owner might be--or who she was married to.
Only when Eleanor and Lorena crossed the border into Maine at Presque Isle did their idyllic getaway come to an end. ER wrote that, "To our horror, word of our coming had preceded us." For two travelers intent upon maintaining their privacy, that afternoon's "horror" came in the form of the townspeople putting together an impromptu parade. For as the roadster--with its convertible top down--entered town and moved unwittingly down the main street with a sunburned Eleanor behind the wheel and an equally sunburned Lorena sitting next to her, crowds of children suddenly appeared on the sidewalks, waving flags and cheering as if the women were conquering heroines returning from the Crusades.
So much for anonymity.
As soon as the roadster pulled inside the White House gates on July 28, Franklin immediately scheduled a private dinner with Eleanor and Hick so he, in his wife's words, "could hear the whole story while it was fresh and not dulled by repetition." It's hard to say who enjoyed that reunion dinner more--the returning adventurers or the president himself. Certainly Eleanor and Lorena relished reliving the magical moments of their carefree holiday. Eleanor's favorite anecdote was about the priest not knowing the name of America's new president; Lorena's was the first lady getting such a kick out of spending the night in a private "tourist home." That latter tale became FDR's anecdote of choice as well, Lorena writing, "Oh, how he enjoyed that story!" That wasn't the only time that evening that FDR threw back his great leonine head and laughed uproariously; Lorena wrote, "Several times the president's great, booming laugh filled the dining room."
Although the amusing moments were sheer delight that the women savored for the rest of their lives, the aspect of their escapade that elevated it from a pleasurable getaway to a personal triumph was the anonymity that the secluded northern woods and isolated beaches had offered them. For Eleanor, the trip proved her contention that she still could, with some thought and planning (she had replaced her District of Columbia license tags with New York ones for the trip), remain independent and even preserve a measure of true privacy; for Lorena, the enormous value she placed on their successfully evading both the public and the press was poignantly captured in how she chose to title the chapter that she wrote about the holiday: "Incognito."
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Meet the Author
Rodger Streitmatter is professor of journalism at American University, where he has taught for more than twenty years. He is the author of Mightier Than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History and Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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