by Amy Bloom
“I loved being the brave and battered little dinghy. She loved being the lighthouse. It worked for both of us.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the 32nd President of the United States, a fact I’m sure all good American school children could instantly spout, should they be asked. Even as a British citizen born 20 years after his death, FDR was a familiar historical figure, along with his wife Eleanor, because of the central role they played in the Second World War.
Naturally, I knew all about Winston Churchill, our Prime Minister during Britain’s darkest days, though he had died the year I was born, but Hitler, Roosevelt, Stalin and Mussolini were commonly known personalities from the past. More surprisingly, perhaps, was that a Welsh child of the 1970s could identify a former US President’s spouse. With the exception of Jackie Kennedy, these women were almost invisible, not sufficiently recognisable for us even to describe them as their husband’s sidekicks. At best they were viewed by the wider world as simpering subservients, if we bothered to think about them at all. Not so, Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a ‘character’ – a feisty, indomitable, outspoken woman who worked tirelessly for the underdog. Even I knew she was a person held in high regard.
Born in 1884, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (she preferred to use her middle name) was the daughter of New York socialites and a niece of President Theodore Roosevelt. Her family was immensely rich and privileged, but she lost her mother to diphtheria at the age of only eight, and her alcoholic father died two years later after throwing himself from a window during a fit of delirium tremens. She was raised in the household of her maternal grandmother, where she was starved of affection and criticized for being unattractive, which left her prone to depression for the rest of her life. However, by the age of 14, she had obviously realised that physical beauty wasn’t everything. She wrote: “no matter how plain a woman may be if truth and loyalty are stamped upon her face all will be attracted to her.” She was right. Eleanor went on to be a successful politician, diplomat, activist and the longest serving First Lady of the United States of America. Many believe Franklin couldn’t have done it without her.
In her novel, White Houses, Amy Bloom explores a close friendship that developed between Eleanor and the journalist Lorena Hickock, the daughter of a dressmaker and a dairy farmer, who was raised in East Troy, Wisconsin. She had endured a childhood of isolation and abuse, but defied all odds, and by 1932 was the nation’s best-known female reporter, having beaten down a great many barriers that had traditionally kept women out of the industry. In 1928, she was assigned by Associated Press to interview Eleanor Roosevelt, and went on to cover FDR’s presidential campaign from his wife’s viewpoint. The women began a long, loving and (according to Bloom) deeply intimate relationship, the true nature of which has long been subject to debate.
So how authentic is the narrative of White Houses? Well, in the author’s own words she: “worked from the particulars and facts of geography, chronology, customs, and books by actual historians.” She does nevertheless stress that the book is complete fiction.
As to the likelihood of a passionate relationship developing between the women, we know, for instance, that Roosevelt was close friends with a number of lesbian couples; that she wore a sapphire ring Lorena had given her; and kept her friend’s picture on the wall in her study. It is also known that the women loathed to be parted, and that Lorena (who had enjoyed physical relationships with a number of women during her life) adored Eleanor. Indeed, the letters they exchanged when apart appear to leave little doubt that they were lovers.
As to the novel itself, it is narrated in Hickock’s (‘Hick’ to her friends) unique voice, switching between her colourful early life, The White House years, and eventual old-age leading to loss. We are carried along by the flow and rhythm of the women’s conversation, which is sometimes immensely funny and upbeat, occasionally sad, bitter or angry, but mostly affectionate and respectful.
White Houses is a remarkably intimate, deeply sympathetic portrayal of a forbidden love that flourished directly under the disapproving noses of the Establishment. It’s an incredible yet perfectly credible story. I found it well researched, perceptive and a pleasure to read.
Many thanks to Granta Publications for providing an advance review copy of this title.
“You are the dark and sparkling sea and the salt, drying tight on my skin, under a bright, bleaching sun.”