Books

book review

A hidden chapter in FDR’s White House

Eleanor Roosevelt (left) with Lorena Hickok in July of 1933.
National Archives/Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum
Eleanor Roosevelt (left) with Lorena Hickok in July of 1933.

Novelist Amy Bloom is no stranger to historical fiction, but it usually takes the form of rough, rollicking picaresque odysseys.

Her 2007 novel, “Away,” featured a 1920s adventuress fleeing the pogroms of Russia to reinvent herself raffishly in the New World, while “Lucky Us” (2014) told the tale of two parentless half-sisters from small-town Ohio who try their luck in 1940s Hollywood, London, and other locales.

White Houses” — Bloom’s latest work of fiction — is something different, however.

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It sticks closely to the historical record as it recreates the ardent friendship and on-again-off-again romance between first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and journalist Lorena Hickok. This unlikely liaison was superbly chronicled in Susan Quinn’s recent dual biography, “Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady.” Bloom comes at the story more subjectively as she evokes the sometimes swaggering, sometimes insecure voice of Hickok (“Hick” to her colleagues) on the page.

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“White Houses” is a memory book framed by a narrative set in late April 1945, just weeks after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. Within that framework, it moves fluidly back and forth across time, taking in Hick’s grim girlhood in rural South Dakota, her career as a reporter (“I was the Associated Press’s top dog for the Lindbergh kidnapping”), and the steps by which her coverage of Eleanor Roosevelt during the 1932 presidential campaign turned into deep personal connection.

Their intimacy starts when Eleanor invites her to join her on a train trip that combines personal business with political. (“We can go see where they want to put the St. Lawrence Seaway”).

“I was between girlfriends and between dogs,” Hick recalls. “I packed my bag.”

As that response suggests, Bloom’s Hick is frank, funny, and irreverent. Her first reaction upon meeting Eleanor is: “Who in the name of Christ has dressed you?” Her “cheap, sensible serge dress and flat shoes” don’t strike Hick as suitable for someone heading to the White House.

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Strong sympathies soon emerge between the two. They may come from wildly different backgrounds, with Roosevelt’s wealthy upbringing in stark contrast to Hick’s childhood poverty. But both suffered early losses of a parent, and both have an intense commitment to exposing and fixing social and economic injustices in Depression-battered America.

The problem in pursuing their relationship is one of logistics. Hick, quitting her AP job after growing too close to Roosevelt to cover her objectively, moves into the White House. But even the private quarters of the White House can turn abruptly into public space. And Eleanor’s instinctive, unstinting generosities toward family, friends, and strangers often rub Hick the wrong way, in part because she thinks these people are using the first lady.

“Eleanor’s love was like some shabby old footstool,” Hick reflects. “Everyone used it without wanting it and no one ever gave it a moment’s thought.”

Of course, Hick would like more of that attention for herself.

The idea of an extramarital lesbian affair being conducted in the White House while FDR himself carried on flirtations (and more) with younger female employees who adored him has proved a bit of a head-spinner to later generations. A tacit gentleman’s agreement prevented the press from exposing FDR’s infidelities, but how on earth did Hick and Eleanor get away with it?

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“We kept ourselves to ourselves,” Hick explains, “and mostly people thought of us whatever people think of middle-aged ladies and that’s all.”

In Bloom’s hands, Hick’s voice alternates between self-deprecating gusto (“I sound like the hayseed I am and the smoker I was and the drinker that I expect I’ll continue to be”) and clear-eyed skepticism about the marriage of the woman she adores (“Eleanor was a Great Lady and what man . . . wanted to be married to that?”).

“White Houses” examines the way that a public life can intrude upon and damage a private life. It addresses the unreliable nature of memory: “We think we’ll remember it all and we remember hardly anything.” It acknowledges the sobering gaps that can arise between expectations and reality: “It is not true that if you can imagine it, you can have it.”

Bloom’s fresh, feisty portrait of FDR is another big attraction of the book.

“He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day,” Hick declares. “He broke hearts and ambitions across his knee like bits of kindling, and then he dusted off his hands and said, ‘Who’s for cocktails?’ ”

Bloom’s details on the wretched shape so much of the country was in during the 1930s have grim impact, too. Some of her flashbacks to Hick’s girlhood feel overlong, coming as they do right after she’s stirred your curiosity about the suddenly deepening connection between Hick and Eleanor.

But the book’s final passages — with their focus on the way “All fires go out, goddamnit” (Bloom puts those testy, melancholy words in FDR’s mouth) — are profoundly affecting.

“White Houses,” by seeing the Roosevelt era through the most unlikely of outsiders-turned-insider, brings a hidden chapter of East Wing history to life.

WHITE HOUSES

By Amy Bloom

Random House, 240 pp., $27

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Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former Seattle Times staff book critic. Visit him at www.michaelupchurchauthor.com.