Imagine what it would be like to love someone who belongs to the whole world.
When we fall in love, we always compete with other people and forces for our beloved's attention. Amy Bloom's smart and tender new novel, White Houses, takes us inside the experience of being in love with one of the most famous people on the planet.
Bloom, whose earlier novels include Lucky Us and Away, based this one on the real-life relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt, first lady from 1933 to 1945, and journalist Lorena "Hick" Hickok, a bond that lasted for three decades and was for some of that time a romance as well as a friendship. It has been documented, with varying degrees of discretion, in many Roosevelt biographies; hundreds of letters between the two women still exist.
Bloom's book is not biography but fiction, specifically a love story, and love stories are always about what difficulties the lovers must overcome to be together. In this case the roadblocks are enormous: Eleanor is not just married, but married to the president of the United States, who happens to be one of the most charismatic men in history; the two women's lesbian romance is totally socially unacceptable at the time; Hick's flourishing career as a reporter is derailed by her conflict of interest; Eleanor's social activism and fame increasingly keep the pair apart.
But love conquers all, at least some of the time. Bloom chronicles this complex affair, and in Hick, who narrates the book, she creates an engaging, poignant, self-aware character who's a delight to spend time with.
The novel begins with a reunion between the pair at Eleanor's New York apartment on Washington Square just after Franklin Roosevelt's death in 1945, years after their romance had burned out. The story will circle back many times to that moment in their relationship, Eleanor devastated, Hick determined to comfort her.
The outlines of Eleanor's life are well known; Bloom devotes much of the book to Hick's recounting of her own backstory. She stoically describes a childhood of grinding poverty in a tiny Western town, made worse by her mother's death and her father's abuse.
She makes her escape when she's barely an adolescent, hoping for a home with an aunt in Chicago. On the train, she's diverted when she meets an employee of L'Etoile du Nord traveling circus, who offers her a job. "I am almost fourteen years old and I got one dollar in my pocket," Hick tells us, so she agrees.
Soon she's sharing a train car with the Alligator Girl, who's as mean as her namesake, and the Lobster Girl, a ray of sunshine, and making the acquaintance of Gerry, known as "Brother and Sister in One Body," who will bring her an epiphany about herself. All of them — people who proudly call themselves "freaks" — teach her about confidence: "Carny people'd punch you in the face before they'd let you tell them your troubles and strangle their own selves before they'd tell you theirs."
Hick will move on, get an education and forge a career as a reporter — never mind that women didn't do such jobs.
By 1932 she's working for the Associated Press and assigned to cover the biggest story in the country: the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby son. "I was sliding through dirty New Jersey snow, looking for footprints, happy as a rose in sunshine. I got a byline every day."
She comes to her own conclusions about what happened — and about why "I didn't write the story I wanted to and everybody knew it." When she is assigned to cover Eleanor as Franklin makes his first run for president, Hick figures it will be dull work, but, she says, "I was pretty sure she hadn't killed her own baby and sent an innocent man to fry for it."
Hick does not find Eleanor to be dull. By the time Franklin is inaugurated, Hick is invited to move into the White House, where, Eleanor assures her, there is plenty of room. Hick has to resign her job, but Franklin obligingly gives her one with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. He also, even more obligingly, winks at his wife's new romance — in exchange for getting a pass on his own multiple affairs.
The two women take a camping trip — no Secret Service, no press gaggle — that Hick will forever remember as a golden time. "We had new love and this beautiful country, reckless and wide. We had Eleanor's very sporty light-blue Buick roadster and enough money for everything we wanted, or even were just in the mood for. ... We camped and talked. I sang to Eleanor, every hymn I'd ever learned and dirty songs to make her put her hands over her ears. (A lot of things rhyme with Hick.)"
As complex as the relationship between the two women is, the Roosevelts' marriage is much more complicated. It might not be a romance, but it is a marriage, and a friendship, and a power pact. As Hick tells us, "Eleanor made him look good on the left, and gave him wiggle room on the right, his whole political career. (Oh, well, that's my Missus, he'd say with a wink to some angry cracker in a white suit.)"
Hick might have joined the Roosevelts' inner circle, but she never turns off her reporter's skeptical eye. She cuts no slack for the first family's adult children, telling us that "the Roosevelt boys were spoiled and empty and endlessly wanting and Anna was pretty and shrewd. She could've been a cooch dancer at L'Etoile du Nord, if she'd had a stronger work ethic."
When Franklin quotes one of his favorite lines, "Humankind cannot bear too much reality," she drily notes, "We all knew that he'd heard that line from Winston Churchill, who learned it from Clementine Churchill, who had actually read T.S. Eliot's poems."
She is not immune to Franklin's charm and friendship, but she's unsparing in her account of the fate of Missy LeHand, for decades his executive secretary and mistress. Missy is utterly devoted to "F.D.," as she calls him. But when she suffers a devastating stroke, it's Eleanor who visits her and sees to her care. Franklin icily turns away, on to the next conquest.
Hick is almost always kind to her "Dearest" Eleanor, even when poking fun at her weaknesses: "Eleanor was always happy to help other lovebirds. If Al Capone had broken into the White House with a hot dame, Eleanor would have hustled them up to the third floor to give them a little privacy."
She and Eleanor share a sense of humor about themselves as well, joking that they're not "conventional" beauties. As Eleanor puts it, "Dearest, when one has buck teeth and a weak chin, one can hardly blame the photographer."
Bloom paints their happy times warmly, but she is just as deft at showing us Hick growing older, feeling her losses but still as self-sufficient as those carnival freaks: "I have been lonely in my life but never when drinking strong coffee, wearing my fleecy slippers, and standing in my own kitchen."
Hick has other loves, but none like Eleanor: "We used to say, we're no beauties, because it was impossible to tell the truth. In bed, we were beauties. We were goddesses. We were the little girls we'd never been: loved, saucy, delighted, and delightful."
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.