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The rumors about Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickokthe First Lady and the reporter who may or may not have been her lesbian loverhave been floating around the tabloids, and even gracing serious historical articles, for years. But shockingly enough for our sex-, scandal-, and celebrity-crazed era, it took until this fall for a book to be written exclusively about the intricacies of their enigmatic relationship. (Well, at least an open-minded book; an earlier bio of Hickok was deeply skeptical of any claims of homosexuality.)
What’s odder still is that Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, by American University journalism professor Rodger Streitmatter (Free Press), relies on 3,500 letters that have been completely open to the public for the past 20 years, at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt presidential library in upstate New York. How could such juicy material have been overlooked for so long? Not even Streitmatter has a solid answer. “I really think part of the reasonand this seems sillyis that Eleanor’s handwriting is so bad that it’s incredibly difficult to transcribe her letters,” he says.
Streitmatter only used 300 of the lettersless than 10 percentyet it still took him a full three years to edit Empty. “In the most intense period, 1933 and 1934, both of them would write one letter every day,” he says. “Some days they would write two in the same day. It’s a remarkable quantity of correspondence.”
If Streitmatter’s book breaks new historical ground, it may be in the letters’ portrayal of Eleanor Roosevelt as a womanat least in that early perioddeep in the throes of codependence. Lorena usually seemed to give Eleanor far more emotional support than her husband did.
“What surprised me was the amount of influence Lorena had over her,” Streitmatter says. “You usually think of Eleanor being this incredibly strong, competent, and accomplished woman, yet it was often Lorena who called the shots, making suggestions and influencing what she decided to do. Often Eleanor seems to lack confidence and be insecure. That’s not the Eleanor Roosevelt I think of.”
Though Streitmatter, 49, has by now read thousands of Eleanor-Lorena letters, he still isn’t sure whether they actually went as far as having sex. “The advantage of editing and reproducing these letters is that you allow the readers to come to their own conclusions about the intensity and dimensions of [the] relationship,” he says. “I could select 15 to 20 letters, and based on those, I think anyone with an open mind would conclude that there absolutely was a sexual relationship between the two of them. Or I could select 10 to 15 other letters and the reader would probably have a very different conclusion,” he adds. “I have to say that I am still somewhat conflicted myself.”Louis Jacobson