A Colorless Portrayal of Two Vibrant and Influential Women
“In bed, we were beauties. We were goddesses. We were the little girls we’d never been:
Amy Bloom’s historical novel, White Houses, proclaims itself to be an intimate look at the relationship between Lorena “Hick” Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt. The story takes place over a weekend in April 1945, shortly after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt and just months before the end of World War II. In the novel, Eleanor has summoned her former lover to her Greenwich Village apartment after an eight-year separation. The two women quickly fall into a comfortable routine as Hick reminisces about their love affair.
The strength of the novel is in Bloom’s willingness to portray the intimate nature of the bond between these two remarkable women. Historians have traditionally been reluctant to pronounce Hick and Eleanor lovers, insisting on the possibility that they were simply dear friends. This reluctance to question or discuss the sexual orientation of a renowned First Lady intensified in 1978 when much of their correspondence was made public.
In 1958, Hick donated more than 3,000 letters to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York. Although the collection is extensive, it is not a complete record; it was carefully curated by Hick, who destroyed an unknown number of letters. Those that remained came with two conditions: first, the entire collection was to remain unopened until 10 years after her death; and second, the library’s director was to withhold any letters that might cause embarrassment or injury to a living person. Several letters were withheld until 1988.
Bloom celebrates the love between Hick and Eleanor and she unabashedly glories in the bodies of middle-aged women:
In an age when middle-aged women are nearly invisible in literature, on the stage, and on the screen, and are rarely seen as sexually desirable, this recognition is refreshing.
One of the great pleasures of historical fiction is the depth, complexity and meaning it adds to the historical record. History helps us understand what happened in a particular time and place; historical fiction provides additional context to those events and allows us to experience and understand the emotional impact it has on the lives of the characters. Done well, historical fiction can reveal a deeper and more complex truth than non-fiction.
But if that’s what you’re looking for, you won’t find it here.
In the author’s note, Bloom acknowledges the difficulty in balancing fact and fiction and offers us some assurances: “To the best of my ability,” she writes, “I have worked from the particulars and facts of geography, chronology, customs, and books by actual historians.” She then adds an important caveat: “That said, this is a work of fiction, from beginning to end.”
Much of the first half of the book is focused on Hick’s dismal childhood in South Dakota. The oldest of three girls, she was the target of her father’s sexual abuse. When she was fourteen, her mother died and she was forced to leave home and earn her own living. Over the next two years, she worked for nine different employers as a housemaid or cook. Her last employer, a kindly older woman shunned by her community, arranged for Hick to live with her mother’s cousin in Chicago so she could finish high school.
Bloom recounts select portions of Hick’s past before concocting a story about Hick working for a traveling circus, where she has sex with an intersexed person born with both male and female genitalia. In an interview with Newsweek, Bloom explains her decision to fabricate this element of Hick’s story:
Aside from her own desire to write about the circus, Bloom’s rationale doesn’t bear scrutiny. Hick had plenty of experience being an outsider. She was forced to leave home at fourteen, became an investigative journalist when women were typically relegated to the society pages, was a lesbian at a time when homosexuality was illegal, and was close friends with the patrician Roosevelts.
Hick knew what it was like to be an outsider.
As a novelist, you might argue that Bloom has the right to fabricate as much of the story as she wishes. But when the story centers around a real person, the author also has a responsibility, ethical if not legal, to that person. Moreover, if you’re going to use a real-life person as a character in your novel, the character must be at least as dynamic, interesting and compelling as her real-life counterpart.
And that is the problem with White Houses.
What I found most disappointing about this book is not what Bloom fabricates, but the true stories she fails to incorporate or edits to such an extent that they are no longer compelling. Bloom briefly covers Hick’s career as a reporter, but she glosses over Hick’s many accomplishments, turning her into milquetoast.
In 1928, the real-life Hick was hired by the Associated Press as an investigative reporter. That same year, her story on the sinking of the SS Vestris was picked up by the New York Times and published on the front page under her own byline, making her the first woman to have her byline appear in the paper. That is also when she first met Eleanor Roosevelt. The AP had assigned her to interview Eleanor, whose husband, Franklin, was a rising star in the Democratic Party and the Governor of New York.
Four years later, fresh off the Lindbergh kidnapping, Hick was assigned to cover Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign. By then, according to a 1934 article in Time, Hick was “one of the country’s best female newshawks.”
Bloom skips over most of this history to recount the 1932 train ride where Hick and Eleanor first came to know one another. While Bloom does chronicle some of their travels in the early days of the affair, Eleanor is almost an afterthought and we are never really given the opportunity to get to know her. The quiet moments they shared—going to the opera together or dining alone in Hick’s apartment—are also left out. The character of neither Hick nor Eleanor is well-developed, and the story falls flat.
Given the rich material Bloom had to work with, the resulting novel is especially disappointing. She conveys none of the lush complexity of these real-life protagonists.
In 1933, at Eleanor’s urging, Hick quit working for the AP. She could no longer report on the Roosevelts objectively, and her twenty-one-year career in journalism was over. Eleanor suggested that she work for her husband’s administration and helped her secure a position as the Chief Investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), where she worked until 1936.
Hick’s job was to determine if the New Deal’s federal aid programs were having an impact. FERA had plenty of statistical reports but needed to understand the real impact of the crisis and the administration’s efforts to address it. Hick interviewed men and women around the country, asking them to share their stories. Once impoverished herself, she understood the shame of poverty. In her reports to FERA, which she routinely shared with Eleanor, Hick carefully crafted each story, adding her own observations and serving as the voice of those who had none. Her work informed much of Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, and the impact she made on the lives of everyday Americans is inestimable.
In 1936, as her Diabetes worsened, Hick resigned from FERA. By then, her romantic relationship with Eleanor was also cooling into a friendship that would last the rest of their lives. But this turn of events doesn’t suit Bloom’s purposes. In her novel, Bloom depicts Hick as a heartsick and broken woman, lost without Eleanor. The weekend Hick and Eleanor spend together is portrayed as an aberration after an eight-year absence. Eleanor summons Hick to her side, and Hick dutifully obeys, but she also must leave by midday Sunday. The implication is that they will never see one another again.
In truth, there was no eight-year separation between Hick and Eleanor. And contrary to Bloom’s depiction, Hick didn’t move into the White House until 1941, after her love affair with Eleanor came to an end. By then, she was the executive secretary of the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee and she was seeing Marion Janet Harron, a United State Tax Court judge. She left the White House, and her position with the Democratic National Committee, in 1945, shortly before Franklin D. Roosevelt passed away.
A few years after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, Eleanor invited Hick to move to a cottage on the Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park. The two women remained close friends for the rest of their lives. They collaborated on a book called Ladies of Courage, which profiled several remarkable women. Hick continued to write and published several books, including Reluctant First Lady, a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, and six biographies for children.
Eleanor died in 1962. Hick had reclaimed many of the letters she had written to Eleanor in 1936 when their romantic relationship came to an end. After Eleanor’s death, Hick burned hundreds of letters. Most of her own letters were destroyed, along with many of Eleanor’s letters from the earliest years of their relationship. In a 1966 letter to Eleanor’s daughter, Anna, Hick explained her decision to destroy so many of Eleanor’s letters: “Your mother wasn’t always so very discreet in her letters to me.”
Hick continued to live at the Roosevelt estate until her death in 1968. No one claimed her ashes, so she was buried in the unclaimed remains area at Rhinebeck Cemetery. More than twenty years later, one of the neighbors learned where Hick was buried and raised the money needed for a proper burial. The fundraising effort was so successful that scholarships were established in Hick’s name at Vassar College, Marist College and SUNY New Paltz for women going into journalism or women’s studies.
Had Bloom’s protagonists been fictional, the novel would still suffer from a disjointed, repetitive narrative lacking in focus. Bloom never fully develops any of the storylines she puts forth.
Her invention of Parker Fiske, Eleanor’s apparently fictional cousin, does not help matters. A closeted gay man with a job at the State Department, we first meet Fiske when he threatens to expose Hick as a lesbian if she doesn’t help him save his career. Towards the end of the novel, he appears again, first in the form of a multi-page letter he has written to Eleanor and finally when he and his lover appear at the Greenwich Village apartment to ask for Eleanor’s help as they attempt to flee the country.
In many ways, Fiske is a better-developed character than Eleanor Roosevelt. We understand his motivations and get to know him as an individual. But he has no discernible purpose, and so he becomes yet another distraction, taking away from instead of adding to the narrative.
In an interview with The Advocate, Bloom notes that she had been thinking of writing a book about Hick and Eleanor for some time. “It seemed like absolutely wonderful material that had not really been explored.” Given the subject matter and the richness of available materials, White Houses had the potential to be extraordinary. Instead, it falls flat.
The true subjects of Bloom’s novel were strong, intelligent, passionate, and opinionated women who made sure their voices were heard, even in spaces dominated by powerful men. It is the right of a novelist to take liberties with the truth, but when a historical novel is centered around real people, the writer has an obligation to treat those people fairly. In that regard, Bloom failed. She used Hick and Eleanor as props, turning them into paper-thin caricatures of themselves. Her story is filled with falsehoods that not only take away from the book but diminish the legacies of two extraordinary women.
White Houses, a novel by Amy Bloom, published by Random House in 2018.
This book review is presented as part of my personal challenge to read and write a thoughtful review of at least 30 books in 2018. To learn more about this challenge, the books I have selected, and my imperfect rating system, click here.