Today we cover one of the most well known feminist icons of the 20th century; First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. She was by far one of the most influential and active partners of any sitting president. She also held the title of First Lady longer than any other individual since her husband was the only president to ever serve more than two terms. Due to their power, prestige, and 12 years in the White House, the Roosevelts have long been viewed as a form of American royalty. And with their distinction follows the usual amount of rumors and gossip which people have passed along for decades. While we may not have kings and queens in America, we still love to speculate and dish on the rich as much as any other nation. And few families have ever provided so much fodder for the gossip columns as the Roosevelts.
One of the biggest questions posed has been whether Eleanor Roosevelt was a lesbian. Though we can’t quite slap that label on the former president’s wife, we can tell you one thing; Eleanor Roosevelt once fell in love with a woman. And their affair would forever shape both of their lives. But what did it mean? How did they fall in love? Was this Eleanor’s only female romance? What did it mean for the Roosevelts marriage? As always, we’re here to answer those questions the best we can. But before we go any further, we would like to acknowledge our main source. Eleanor and Hick; The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady by Susan Quinn
Born on October 11, 1884, Ann Eleanor Roosevelt grew up in wealth and notoriety. Her parents were New York aristocrats who both came from affluent and powerful families. As evidenced by the 1901 presidential election of Eleanor’s uncle, Teddy Roosevelt. Her mother was incredibly beautiful and seemed ashamed of her daughters plainness. At least, that is how Eleanor remembers her mother’s perception of her. Probably because Anna Roosevelt called her daughter “Granny” due to the child’s constant seriousness. Her father Elliott was much more charming and tender with his little girl. However, he was an alcoholic and often sent away or simply disappeared for long periods of time.
And though she was certainly privileged in almost every sense of the word, Eleanor was not above hardship and pain. By 10 years old, both of her parents had died. Anna Roosevelt passed away due to Diptheria, a disease that swells the throat and tonsils and causes respiratory issues along with heart failure and other complications. Elliot Roosevelt died due to his alcoholism. After being locked away in a sanitarium, a common treatment for alcoholics until the 1960s, Eleanor’s father threw himself out of a second-story window to stop his withdrawal tremors. It is important to pause here and remind folks that alcohol is the most dangerous substance to detox alone, followed by opiates and benzos. If you are trying to get sober, please make sure you reach out and get some help. Call 800-662-HELP or you can text RecoveryNow to 839863 and let someone guide you through the early stages.
With the passing of both of her parents, Eleanor was sent to live with her grandmother, Mary Livingston Ludlow. Mary, like her daughter Anna, was distant and struggled with intimacy and affection. As a result, Eleanor often felt she was neglected and cast aside. Even in her mother’s death she still competed with Anna Roosevelt’s beauty and Eleanor referred to herself as the ‘ugly duckling’ of the family. She also fought bouts of depression which seems understandable due to the deep loss of her parent’s death. As a response, she relied on her other strengths. She was incredibly smart and quickly learned from those around her. She knew also that there was much more to life than just her looks. Even as young as 14 she wrote in one of her diaries: “no matter how plain a woman may be if truth and loyalty are stamped upon her face all will be attracted to her.” Her struggles to accept herself caused her to be much more aware and empathetic than many of her fellow socialites.
In 1902, a year after her uncle’s election to the presidency, Eleanor had her coming-out party. No, not the one you’re thinking of. She made her social debut after returning from 3 years of study abroad in London’s Allenswood Academy. Though on the outside it was a finishing school, meant to turn Eleanor into a refined and respectable lady, it was also one of the most progressive places Eleanor had ever been. The rumors swirled that the headmistress, Marie Souvestre, was a lesbian. She founded Allenswood with love interest Caroline Dussaut and later lived on-site with her long time partner Paolina Samaia. Marie was also the inspiration of a famous lesbian novel of the time, Olivia. Which told the story of a young student who has a major crush on her headmistress.
Whether this was the first lesbian influence in Eleanor’s life we do not know. But at Allenswood she found freedom and purpose she had never known. The women there did much more than polish their social graces. They protested the injustices they saw in the world and took action to make a difference. Though it would be years before Eleanor would see herself as a suffragette or feminist, she did become more involved in social justice. And therefore she became more involved with lesbians, forming many deep friendships with women along the way. Though her grandmother summoned her away from Allenswood in 1902, Eleanor would continue writing headmistress Souvestre. And when Marie passed away in 1905, Eleanor began to keep a picture of the headmistress on her desk. Clearly this was a person who made a deep impact on the young woman’s life.
After arriving back to the States, Eleanor began a courtship with her fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There seems to be a lot of controversy and discussion over why the two eventually wed. It does seem that they were very fond of each other and probably in love. However, there were also practical reasons behind the marriage. Franklin was looking to get into politics and that meant he needed to fit the image of the day. Eleanor was classy, refined, and exceptionally wealthy. They both saw the benefits of their union and became engaged in November of 1903.
Yet not everyone was pleased, Franklin’s mother Sara Delano absolutely hated Eleanor. It was because of her protests that the couple waited a year and a half to finally get married. On March 17, 1905, the couple wed in a grand ceremony with President Teddy Roosevelt walking his niece down the aisle. The wedding made all the front-page news and the couple captured the imaginations of people across the country. When asked what it was like for a Roosevelt to marry a Roosevelt, Franklin quipped “It’s a good thing to keep the name in the family”.
As the couple settled down, Franklin’s career shot off and Eleanor relatively faded from the spotlight. Though she carried the so-called prestige of Franklin Roosevelt’s wife, she was given little freedom to do anything outside the home. Sara Delano was controlling and belittling, micromanaging every element of Eleanor’s life. In addition, Eleanor became a mother to 4 children in the first 5 years of marriage. And as Franklin climbed the social and political ladder, Eleanor often felt trapped and alone. She struggled with her lack of maternal desires and it wasn’t helped by the fact that Sara Delano declared herself the children’s true mother. These years were especially hard and dark for Eleanor.
In 1911, a break came when Franklin was elected to the New York Senate. Eleanor and the children were able to move away from the controlling thumb of Sara Delano. A few years later, the family moved again when Franklin took a job on the administration of President Woodrow Wilson. This was Eleanor’s first real introduction to Washington D.C. And though it was a bit of a shock, in time she found that she quite enjoyed being a part of the political scene. Along the way, Eleanor had borne two more children bringing the grand total to 6. She took her role as wife and mother in stride and although she was not very happy, she did find solace in her ability to help Franklin. She provided an image and a life for him and felt that was enough. But in 1918 she would learn that her sacrifice was in fact not enough for the aspiring politician.
One day while unpacking his luggage from a recent trip, Eleanor came across a packet of love letters between Franklin and his secretary Lucy Mercer. The betrayal was more than she could bear. Thirteen years she had stayed at home; bearing him children, rearing their children, portraying the perfect image he needed to succeed in the world of early 1900’s politics. And in return, he had left her alone, disregarded her needs, and now cheated on her with his secretary. It wasn’t even the fact that Franklin had slept with another woman. In truth, Eleanor once confessed she didn’t care much for sex at all. But rather the betrayal of their commitment to their future. Franklin was planning to leave Eleanor for Lucy Mercer.
But the divorce never happened. Sara Delano was not about to let her son throw his future in the trash. She threatened to disinherit him if he left Eleanor. Political advisors warned him that the move would be career suicide. And no doubt, there were the other social implications of the day. In the end, Franklin stayed. But their marriage was never the same. And though the scandal broke Eleanor’s heart, in many ways it also freed her. From that point on she no longer felt confined to her role as a wife and mother. She began to seek new hobbies and interests and became involved in the D.C. political scene. She also made new friends.
Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman were a couple and two of Eleanor’s dearest friends for many years. Together, the three women often lived together at one of the Roosevelts smaller properties, Val-Kill. It was a cozy cottage that lay in the much larger Roosevelt estate known as Hyde Park. And it was the only property that Eleanor ever owned completely to herself. It was also the first site of her own businesses venture when she, Nancy, Marion, and Caroline O’Day started Val-Kill Industries. A small handcrafted furniture business that became moderately successful over the next 20 years. As such, Val-Kill was Eleanor’s true home. A world where her friends saw the real Eleanor and allowed her normalcy she did not get in everyday life. Whether or not there was more to the friendship we do not know, there is not evidence. However, Eleanor Roosevelt’s life was FULL of gays and lesbians and she always seemed her most comfortable in the middle of a queer crowd.
She would need her support system even more in 1921 when Franklin contracted polio and nearly died. Eleanor nursed him back to health but he would never walk again. Discouraged by his paralysis and encouraged by his mother Sara to quit politics, Franklin Roosevelt almost walked away from everything. But Eleanor would hear of no such thing. Though their marriage was now a formality borne solely on friendship, Eleanor knew that Franklin was meant for greatness. She convinced him to continue fighting for his political dreams. And while he took his time recuperating, Eleanor set out on her own journey into politics.
In 1924 she campaigned for Democrat Al Smith against her very own cousin, Republican Theodore Roosevelt Jr. The family was aghast at the scandal, but Eleanor was no longer a timid housewife constrained by her societal ties. Four years after the upset, she took the position as head of the Women’s Division of the Democratic Party. That same year, Franklin was making his own comeback by winning the governorship of New York State. Though Eleanor never liked the duties thrust upon First Ladies (of either the governor’s mansion or the eventual White House) she did love the politics of it all. Together she and Franklin were making quite a political powerhouse. So when FDR decided to run for president in 1932, Eleanor joined him with only slight hesitation.
The 1930s brought a series of personal and political ups and downs. It was the decade that began to define and solidify the Roosevelt’s legacy. A decade which brought them both much pain as well as triumph. And the beginning of one of Eleanor’s deepest and most exciting affairs. It all started when a young reporter named Lorena Hickock, Hick for short, was assigned to do a piece on the potential first lady. Eleanor Roosevelt had been in the public’s mind since her grand wedding to Franklin 17 years prior. In addition to being the former governor’s wife, she had also begun to make a name for herself as a woman’s rights and civil rights advocate. The editor of the Associated Press thought it would be a good idea to get a story on Eleanor and the etiquette of the time demanded that a woman would be more suited for the job. This was due to the nature of the job as it would require long hours and intimate moments with the first lady. So Hick packed her duffle and spent the next several months traveling the country with Eleanor on Franklin’s campaign trail.
Lorena Hickok was short, feisty, and meant to be a reporter. In many ways, the two women were so different and yet had so much in common. Raised on a dairy farm in Wisconsin Lorena never had any money and often struggled to eat. Her mother, also named Anna just like Eleanor’s, died when Lorena was 13. Her father was an alcoholic but unlike Eleanor’s father, he was never loving or charming and instead beat Lorena mercilessly. When she was 14 her stepmother threw her out onto the streets and Lorena learned how to fend for herself. She caught a bit of a break in her late teens when an Aunt took Lorena to live with her in Chicago. At an early age, Lorena knew she was a lesbian, and like many poor queer people, she found a home in the underground scene. No doubt she quite enjoyed the queer life of Chicago during the late 1910s and into the roaring ’20s.
She went to college, but later dropped out. As smart as she was, Lorena never felt she fit in with society folks. She didn’t have a formal education, she swore like a sailor, and she was much more comfortable in a pair of men’s slacks and cap than she was in a dress and heels. Instead, she began to take odd jobs at rag magazines, building her skills as a writer and journalist. Along the way, she fell in love with gossip columnist Ella Morse. The two were together for 8 years before Ella suddenly left Hick and eloped with a former boyfriend. Devastated and in need of a change, Lorena moved to New Yor City and took a position at the New Yor Daily Mirror, before eventually landing a job with the notable Associated Press. Her work on the Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping catapulted her into notoriety and by the 1930’s she was the most well-know female reporter in the country.
Eleanor and Lorena were two women instantly drawn to one another who both admired and respected each other’s strengths. As different as they were there was a connection that would bind them for the next 30 years. Lorena saw a side of Eleanor that no other person ever had or ever would see. She perfectly balanced the job of reporting on the president’s wife, while also protecting Eleanor’s secrets and fears. Their affection for one another became so obvious and open that rumors and murmurings began to swirl. And it was becoming harder and harder for Hicock to remain objective in her reporting. She had fallen deeply in love with Eleanor and the feeling appeared mutual.
On March 5, 1933, Eleanor wrote the first of thousands of letters that would pass between the two women over the following decades. Her letters were extremely long (10-15 pages) so we won’t read the whole thing. Only a snippet to show the love that had developed between the first lady and the reporter. Eleanor writes:
Hick my dearest,
I cannot go to bed tonight without a word to you… 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…..All my love and 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 letters only deepened in intimacy over time. The women expressed a desire to hold one another and kiss each other. They both gushed about their affection and love for one another. “Remember,” Eleanor wrote to Hick “No one is just what you are to me. I’ve never enjoyed being with anyone the way I enjoy being with you”. They traveled up and down the east coast in Eleanor’s light blue Buick convertible. Escaping the crowds, and presidential rigamarole, and Eleanor’s security detail. Much to the chagrin of the secret service whom J. Edgar Hoover had put on Eleanor’s tail partly because he despised her liberal politics and partly because he was certain she was sleeping with Lorena Hickok. The little blue car gave the two women freedom and privacy. And for a few years, it was enough. But the demands of Eleanors schedule and the unrest of a country recovering from the Great Depression put a great strain on their relationship.
Hick had left her position at the Associated Press in order to be closer to Eleanor. In response, Eleanor got Lorena a post as Chief Investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Part of the FDR administrations New Deal Initiative to pull the country out of depression. Lorena’s job was to travel the country to the poorest and most vulnerable areas and report back her findings. Though most of her work wouldn’t get published until long after her death, and in fact, much still is unavailable to the public today. Still, Lorena Hickok presented some of the most detailed and thorough reports of the Depression ever written. In many ways, she often felt that her love for Eleanor had reduced her to a second rate reporter. But her talent and mastery show through in the reports she presented to the government. It was because of her findings that many, many areas unknown to the administration would end up receiving federal aid.
And while Lorena, was crisscrossing the country, Eleanor was hard at work as well. She’s most often remembered for her writings, a skill which Hick helped her cultivate. The first lady would author 6 books and write over 3,000 news articles including her daily column My Day which ran for 27 years. She was also the most politically active First Lady to ever fill the position. Though her presidential title often served as a conflict of interest and kept her from holding certain positions, she still remained active in social justice. Working with the Democratic Convention, the NAACP, and the National Urban League. When the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Black singer Marion Anderson to perform for their convention, Eleanor made a public show of resigning her position as the DAR and calling out their racism.
And it should be noted that despite their progressive values, there was still racism and bias in both Eleanor and Hick. However, 30 years of letters also show the evolution of two women who both had to learn to see past their privilege and ignorance. Eleanor was a very wealthy and powerful white woman who sometimes took her privilege for granted. And Lorena came from an uneducated and poor background and assumed that justified her use of slurs and derogatory remarks. We say none of this to justify those tones, only to point out how they both grew past their biased beliefs. And they both remained open to change and evolution, especially Eleanor.
Perhaps it was their desire to grow and evolve that kept their friendship so strong when others fell by the wayside. In 1947 Eleanor closed down Val-Kill industries and essentially ended her friendship with Marion and Nancy. There seemed to be many reasons for hard feelings that had built up between the three women. For one thing, Marion and Nancy both despised Hick and considered her too lowbrow for Eleanor. Yet it was their arrogance and self-absorbed attitudes as a whole that had worn on Eleanor. Her friends were the wealthy, white, gays that seemed only concerned with their problems and could care less if people of color were being denied rights. They saw the poor as a charity project but not as humans deserving of dignity. In a word, Eleanor had grown past her friends.
When Franklin died of a stroke in 1945, Eleanor grieved deeply. He was her closest friend and partner for 40 years and though they never had a perfect marriage, he always supported and encouraged her. In her grief, Hick was nearby as always. Their relationship had shifted and changed so much through the years and yet they were still a constant in each other’s life. Somewhere along the way, Hick had accepted the fact that Eleanor would never be hers alone. Ms. Roosevelt was too much a force of nature and had too much she wanted to do in this world. Instead, Hick settled for the daily letters and the moments when they could be together. She lived on-site at the White House for several years. Then briefly shared an apartment Eleanor rented in Greenwich Village. By the end of the war and Franklin’s passing, Lorena had bought herself a tiny cottage that Eleanor would visit when she could.
Over the years the two women were not committed in a sexual way. The terms of lack thereof in their relationship are lost on us. We know that in the early to late 1930s there was a passion and romance intermixed with sudden getaways and midnight rendevous. Then jealousy and public pressure pushed them apart in many ways, but never completely. No matter where they were or what they were doing, Eleanor and Hick always kept in touch and always looked out for each other. As the years passed, Hick took a few other lovers and Eleanor did her best not to let her jealousy show through. Hick, on the other hand, wasn’t so good at hiding her green monster. And she was open with her frustration at her temper. She wrote Eleanor once:
“All day I ‘sit on myself’ so to speak, disciplining myself, trying to control my impatience, my natural irascibility, my loathing of friction and disorder.”
The labeling of Eleanor Roosevelt as a lesbian or bisexual has caused immense argument among historians. Which is nothing new when it comes to queer history. However, the real discussion goes much, much deeper. Like many issues concerning the LGBTQ, the subject matter is reduced to sex. Did Eleanor have sex with Hick? How did they have sex and how extensive was their sex? Was Hick the only woman Eleanor had sex with? And as always, we are going to reiterate that it doesn’t matter. What is obvious from the thousands of letters is that Eleanor and Hick were in love, at least at some point in their lives. And what that looked like in the bedroom is between them. What is also obvious, is that Eleanor was in love with at least two men in her life. Franklin, and much later after his passing, David Gurewitch’s who Eleanor actually classified as the love of her life.
But there is another factor that is often ignored. Eleanor stated once that she did not enjoy sex. Her friends and family pointed out that she had an aversion to physical intimacy and it was actually a common argument in Eleanor and Hick’s early letters. If we were going to put a label on Eleanor Roosevelt, it would be Asexual, Bi-Romantic. Meaning she was asexual but still had romantic feelings and relationships with both men and women. Whatever the so-called ‘real’ label is, we’re keeping Eleanor with the queers. Her list of LGBTQ friends was probably longer than her list of straight friends. She felt most at home working and living alongside fellow queer individuals, and she tirelessly worked for the equality of all people.
Eleanor lived 17 more years after Franklin’s death. She continued to fight for justice and equality all around the world. She even chaired the United Nations Human Rights Commission and helped author the 1948 Human Rights Declaration. She fought Hoover and McCarthy all through the Red and Lavender Scare of the late 40s and 50s. And in 1960 she chaired President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women which published one of the first national studies on gender inequality in 1963. But Eleanor never got to see the nation’s reaction, or the rise of feminism, black power, and LGBTQ activism that all came about in the mid and late 1960s. She passed away from complications of tuberculosis on November 7, 1962, at age 78.
Hick always said that when Eleanor went she wanted to go to. She wrote to a friend “Grief can be a very debilitating thing, I haven’t had much interest of energy in anything”. But Lorena would pass for another 5 years. When her lifetime love died, Hick avoided the funeral. She despised such things. Instead a friend drove her to Eleanor’s grave late that night and Lorena brought a bouquet of flowers she had picked from the Val-Kill garden. She said her goodbyes and slowly walked away from the woman who had changed her life in so many ways. On May 1, 1968, Lorena Hickok died of complications from diabetes. Perhaps if you believe in a heaven or an afterlife you can imagine the anticipation of their soul’s reunion. Maybe it was a bit like an exchange Eleanor and Hick wrote to one another early in their relationship:
Eleanor: “Darling, the only real news is ‘I love you’ and two weeks and three days from now you will be here and it makes me all excited inside to think about!”
Hick: ‘Dear one! I want to put my arms around you and kiss you at the corner of your mouth. And in a little more than a week now – I shall!”
And if their story merely ends when it did, at least we can be grateful for a chance to peek into the history and romance of two of the most influential women in American history. Though Hick never got the accolades and biographies of Eleanor, her work and effort for women’s rights, civil rights, and more made a lasting impact on our policies today. Your recommended resource is the reference for this episode, Eleanor and Hick; The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady by Susan Quinn. We also encourage you to read other biographies about Eleanor Roosevelt or to read some of her own writings. Especially during Women’s History Month! And don’t forget to check out our merchandise and subscribe to our Patreon.
- Eleanor and Hick; The Love Affair that Shaped a First Lady by Susan Quinn
- Women’s History – https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/eleanor-roosevelt
- Wiki – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleanor_Roosevelt
- Biography – http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=33