The story of the close friendship between Lorena Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt began when Hickok, a crack street-wise reporter for the Associated Press covering Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential campaign, became the friend of the unsure, ungainly, and naive soon-to-be first lady.
It ended some 30 years later with the death of Eleanor Roosevelt after she had become the pre-eminent woman of her time, and Hickok, ill and poor, looked back at a career in shambles.
Hickok was an intense part of E.R.'s life only for a short period of time. By E.R. was the singluar person in Hickok's life for three decades.
The story of the extraordinary friendship of these two women surfaced when Doris Faber, commissioned to write a biography of E.R., discovered some 3,000 letters exchanged between the two. The correspondence and other papers were donated by Hickok to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park N.Y., to be opened, by her stipulation, ten years after her death. The material was made available in 1978.
Mrs. Faber found the letters highly personal, depicting a deep emotional attachment between the two women. According to Mrs. Faber, she decided to write the book, realizing that the letters were bound to come out and, printed out of context, the implications of the relationship could severely compromise a great woman's reputation.
Besides the 3,000 letters, Mrs. Faber has drawn on interviews with people who knew Hickok and her relationship to E.R.
Mrs. Faber has threaded her way carefully through fact and inference insofar as it was possible. The book is serious biography, not pulp disclosure. Those reading it for sensationalism will have missed the point.
Lorena Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt came from the opposite ends of town, but their needs were alike.
Lorena from a poor, itinerant Midwestern family, was beaten by her father, and at 13, after the death of her mother, she was hired out as a servant.
In 1932 she was 41 years old, a large woman, smart-mouthed and "world weary" but honest. Loneliness was a fact of life.
Eleanor Roosevelt, from wealthy East Coast gentility, had a peaceful but virtually loveless childhood. And at the time she and Hickok became friends, she and her husband were polite strangers living in the same house.
She was shy, unbeautiful, and longed to escape the inanities of public life.
Even as middle-aged women, the need was for love and mothering. Reading the letters with their frank, almost schoolgirlish declarations of affection, in the context of the "liberated" '80s, is startling until it is remembered that the bulk of the correspondencce was written in the mid-'30s, by two women who grew up in the shadow of the Victorian era, when expressions of love between women were rarely suspect.
On E.R.' part, her whole life and moral posture mitigates against the possibility that she could have indulged in an illicit relationship. She had no truck with immorality. Both FDR and their daughter, Anna, as well as many others were well aware of the friendship.
Mrs. Faber indicates that companionship was the key to E.R.'s involvement: ". . . E.R. not only told Hick often what a perfect companion she was. E.R. also described Hick that way to her husband. From Maine during July 1933, addressing the President of the United States as (Dearest Honey,' his wife had scrawled '. . . It has been a wonderful trip & Hick is grand to travel with, nothing bothers her, she isn't afraid, she doesn't get tired & she's always interested.'"
For Hickok it was another matter. She was obsessed with E.R. and it destroyed her life.
Her career as a serious journalist ended, in effect, when her professional relationship with E.R. became personal. As soon as it was discovered that she was a close friend of E.R.'s she was expected to report inside information about the first family. That, of course was impossible. She quit the AP soon after E.R. moved into the White House.
After that with E.R.'s help, she obtained various jobs (and wrote a few books) but her only position of relative importance was as an investigator providing on-the-spot-reports around the country for Harry Hopkins, FDR's Federal Emergency Relief Administrator.
The reports were pungent but moving accounts of a country in distress. They were sent on to FDR who knew and respected Hickok's judgment and professionalism.
Struggling with her overwhelming need to be near E.R., and knowing that the relationship was destroying her career, Hickok made a half-hearted attempt to salvage her journalistic respectability. She toyed with the idea of becoming a war correspondent in Europe. But E.R., not understanding that it might also mean emotional independence for Hickok, indicated she hoped her friend would not go that far away.
Instead of becoming a war correspondent, Hickok, at E.R.'s suggestion and as a result of her well-placed phone call, became a publicity writer for the New York World's Fair.
For a woman who had done investigative reporting on the lindbergh kidnapping case, writing publicity handouts must have been galling.
Later, says Mrs. Faber, E.R. probably realized that Hickok was caught in a "moth and flame" relationship with her and that she had made a mistake in discouraging the war correspondent job. E.R. wrote to Hickok in what Mrs. Faber calls, ". . . perhaps the most revealing passage in the entire correspondence":
"It won't help you any but I'll never do to any one else what I did to you. I'm pulling myself back in all my contacts now. I've always done it with the children & why I didn't know I couldn't give you (or anyone else who wanted or needed what you did) any real food I can't now understand. Such cruelty and stupidity is unpardonable when you reach my age. Heaven knows I hope in some small unimportant ways I have made life a little easier for you but that doesn't compensate.'"
In proportion as Hickok's career ebbed, E.R.'s blossomed. With Hickok's endless encouragment and professional advice (and no doubt others' help) E.R.'s own superb qualities and talents began to emerge.
She wrote a daily syndicated newspaper column and a best-selling autobiography, and became a more assured speaker. She championed a parade of just and humane causes and people throughout the country responded to her concern for them.
Now there was less time for Hickok. E.R.'s early dependence on her friend waned. But her mothering -- she worried about Hickok's health, her money problems, her loneliness -- and occasional need for her companionship continued.
Throughout the 30 years of the relationship, Hickok's overriding concern was to protect the first lady from even a wisp of scandal.
During the four years she lived at the White House, if dining out with friends, she would ask to be dropped off the Mayflower Hotel, as if she lived there. After her friends had gone, she would take a taxi to the White House
Similarly, Hickok's book, "Eleanor Roosevelt, Reluctant First Lady," published just before E.R. died in 1962, is a simple study in Hickok's deferential respect for her friend.
Why then would Hickok voluntarily turn over 3,000 of their letters to public scrutiny, even after E.R. had expressly asked her to remove anything personal from the correspondence?
Perhaps as Mrs. Faber suggests, Hickok's determined: I'm going to make a name for myself" overcame a lifetime of devotion.
The history of what Eleanor Roosevelt accomplished can never be diminished. Now, whenever her life story is written, it will include the name Lorena Hickok -- but at what a price.