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It was during a rainy October night 82 years ago aboard a 20th Century Limited train returning to Washington, D.C. that the love between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena “Hick” Hickok got started.
Their love would last for 30 years and go the full distance of their busy lives. (Ken Burn’s current TV series, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” is receiving rave reviews by viewers and entertainment critics.)
Eleanor – soon to become America’s First Lady, and later in her long life, America’s Ambassador to the United Nations – had asked Ms. Hickok, an AP journalist covering Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1932 Democratic presidential campaign, to keep her company in Eleanor’s private compartment. She was returning from a friend’s funeral and didn’t want to make the sad journey alone.
As the 20th Century Limited whistled through unseen towns and sleepy villages, quiet twilight hours, they each spoke of hidden hurts and cautiously Hicks shared her secret shame. She was raped by her father and kicked out of the house at age 14.
(Perhaps Eleanor spoke of her husband’s philandering, and FDR’s love affair with Eleanor’s social secretary Lucy Mercer. Divorce was not an option, so she remained FDR’s wife in name only.)
At Christmas time, Hick gave Eleanor a gift of a sapphire and diamond ring. The ring was given to Hick by the world famous soprano, Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink, in appreciation for a musically sound newspaper interview. Eleanor would find the treasure to be a lasting comfort. That and Hick’s requisite kiss on her cheek.
Truth to tell, Eleanor and Hick were something of odd ducks together. Eleanor was taller, rather plain. Hick was stout and rather butch. Eleanor didn’t smoke or drink. Hick took gladly to cigars, whiskey, four-letter fustian. Little wonder! Her great grandfather was Wild Bill Hickok. (In passing: Detroit’s out Congregational Church pastor, Rev. William “Will” Lange, is related to both Wild Bill and Hick.)
The first woman to earn a New York Times byline, Hick’s beats included sports, crime, government. “Everybody loves Hick,” said a journalist coworker. (The same coworker, by the way, that Hick once tried to seduce.)
Hick was not Eleanor’s only lesbian contact. Eleanor had a business partnership with a Greenwich Village couple. The three friends made furniture for sale and ran a school for young women. “No form of love is to be despised,” was Eleanor’s progressive opinion.
Hick was a catalyst. She encouraged Eleanor to hold press conferences (358 in all), to write for newspaper syndication (8,000 My Day columns) and to earn financial independence by writing for magazines. Each exposure added to Eleanor’s political and intellectual stature, and so importantly, to her self confidence.
Soon, however, the duties of First Lady took precedence over intimacy. Meetings with Hick and their circle of closeted lesbian friends became fewer; hand holding less. Their relationship continued mostly by hastily whispered, “Je t’aime.” President Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented four consecutive terms. He died in office on April 12, 1945, four months before World War II ended in Europe (I was 9 at the time. In our Burton School piano class, we sang patriotic songs to mourn him.)
When the Eleanor/Hick correspondence became public in 1978, an astonished America learned that Eleanor’s idea of her husband’s Democratic New Deal policy included a bright touch of lavender in the Oval Office.