Sunday, February 10, 2013

Review: Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok by Eleanor Roosevelt, Rodger Streitmatter

Empty Without You:  
The Intimate Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok

By  Eleanor Roosevelt, Rodger Streitmatter

Oct 4, 2000
Da Capo Press
344 pgs.

 In 1978, more than 3,500 letters written over a thirty-year friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok were discovered by archivists. Although the most explicit letters had been burned (Lorena told Eleanor's daughter, "Your mother wasn't always so very discreet in her letters to me"), the find was still electrifying enough to create controversy about the nature of the women's relationship. Historian Rodger Streitmatter has transcribed and annotated more than 300 of those letters—published here for the first time—and put them within the context of the lives of these two extraordinary women, allowing us to understand the role of this remarkable friendship in Roosevelt's transformation into a crusading First Lady.

I love, loved this book. I’ve always had an admiration for Eleanor Roosevelt just in how she was a strong woman who I’d read did most of FDR’s leg work around the country and that she was somewhat running the country for a while. Reading this book though gave me a much more intimate look at who she was as a woman in both her private and public life.

This book is about Eleanor’s relationship with reporter and writer Lorena Hickok. Until I read this I had no idea that there was any hint that Eleanor might have been bisexual or even how progressive she was about sexuality, gender roles and the rights of just about anyone outside of the default white privileged male.

But for the purposes of this review I will stick with her love story with Lorena, which this book focused on. What I liked about this book is that it’s basically a collection of letters that were written between Eleanor and Lorena that span a 30 year time. So it’s an actual firsthand account by both parties involved, which is far more interesting than a biographer who might spin things with his or her own slant based on second hand accounts.

First I’d like to say that I thought the author did a great job of not interpreting or reading too much into the meaning behind certain “erotic” statements in many of the letters. He writes some background on both women, but the book is mostly the letters. He also gave some background information preceding many of the letters to give the reader a better idea of events that preceded things mentioned in the letters.  

I found the letters fascinating. If you Google Eleanor and Lorena’s love story there are many sites that have all the “juicer” quotes from the letters. I found them to be not as racy as many would suggest, but still very intimate and highly suggestive of a romantic/ physical relationship. Most of the more interesting letters were from the first few years of their relationship. They wrote very often after those years, but those letters from the earlier years contained a lot of expression of passion for each other.

Most of them are from Eleanor to Lorena although later years the letters are more from Lorena.  After FDR died, Eleanor hired Lorena to archive a lot of the correspondence and Lorena finding those letters between her and Eleanor decided to burn many of them. So we’ll never know the extent of their love story, if it was more or not.

While many suggest they had a full on romantic/sexual relationship based on those letters, others have said that the way Eleanor expressed herself was a reflection of the time she was brought up in and not suggestive of a romantic relationship at all.

I would say that other things that happened or were expressed showed more about how their relationship was more than just a friendship. Lorena expressed a lot of jealousy about the lack of time that Eleanor could share with her, especially when she and Eleanor arranged going off together by themselves away from everyone for holidays but then would have that interrupted by people recognizing Eleanor and wanting attention, or Eleanor herself including others unintentionally. 

They spoke, or Eleanor did, of sharing a house together one day and Eleanor even fantasized about what type of furniture they’d have and how they would read together in bed at night.

Eleanor constantly told Lorena she loved her in a more intimate way then one would say I love you to a friend, and expressed despondence if she had not received a letter from or heard from Lorena by phone for more than a couple of hours or a day, which tells me maybe something more than a normal friendship.

Also they discussed several times, particularly Lorena, being worried about the talk about their relationship. Eleanor seemed less concerned. But she did refrain from telling Lorena she loved her when talking on the phone because some family were present, suggesting that to do so would have shown the extent of her love of Lorena and that it was of a nature that others would find unacceptable.

Some of the letters do show that they were physical on some level. Whether it was more than some kissing or cuddling that was actually mentioned, it’s hard to say. Lorena was a lesbian. So it’s not a stretch that due to the women being so close that they wrote pages and pages of letters to each other daily expressing constant love for each other and desire to be together that Lorena might have seduced Eleanor and that Eleanor might have reciprocated.

Another thing that suggested they were more than just friends is how deeply both felt pain at not being able to be what the other needed or wanted. Particularly Eleanor often expressed sadness that she caused Lorena pain.

What I learned from these letters is that Eleanor was an extremely progressive and liberal minded woman, especially for her time. She was very close friends with two lesbian couples and spent a lot of time with them. So she wasn’t closed off to the idea of lesbian relationships.

Later on in their lives, as Eleanor’s duties as first lady took up most of her time and she became more public property as it were, their letters became less passionate and more about just love and support for each other. It’s clear that Eleanor felt responsible for Lorena and helped her to get jobs and even sent her money often to help her out. Lorena was not in the best of health and it was hard for her to make enough money to live on. And even though years after they met Lorena had an affair with a female judge, she always wrote to Eleanor that Eleanor was the one she loved the most.

Until the end they expressed their love for each other even if not as passionate as those first couple of years.

All around this was an amazing book. It’s just fascinating to think that a First Lady would have had as colorful a personal life while being First Lady and under the public eye and during a time period that were such relationships were more taboo. 

It was also a really sad book for me to read. It’s a kind of bittersweet love story because you know how it went and ended and I wonder if they would have had their love story if both were not in the public eye or lived under different conditions.

Rating: LOVED! 

1 comment:

Paisley Smith said...

Wow! I wasn't aware of this book. I have always loved movies and biographies of FDR and Eleanor. This will be a must read for me. Thanks for reviewing it.