WHITE HOUSES: a novel

On a recent trip to Germany, I took two books with me for the long flights to and fro: White Houses by Amy Bloom and Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones. Loved them both.

My reviews usually begin with a quote and I had one all picked out for White Houses, when serendipity intervened. While preparing my review of Silver Sparrow, I discovered a recent interview by the New York Times with Tayari Jones in which she was asked:

[What was the last book to make you cry?]

“White Houses,” by Amy Bloom. At the center of this great American novel is the great American love story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. Eleanor is the name everyone knows, but after this book Lorena will be a name you will never forget. Love is always hard and always worth it.

That sums up the big picture nicely.

WHITE HOUSES

by AMY BLOOM

RANDOM HOUSE | FEB 2018
241 pages
FICTION : PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS
ADVANCED READER COPY FROM NETGALLEY

★★★★☆

I am willing to bet that today’s young adults know very little about our longest serving First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. Her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt served 4 terms in office (1933-1945).

Eleanor’s funeral in 1962, when I was 14 years old, honored a woman who could be known as the original Super Woman”. As First Lady, she fought tirelessly for labor and civil rights reform and was at the forefront of the women’s movement. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, she rose to the challenge of comforting the nation through action and words; never sitting still, always on the move, ever present where ever needed. Her flamboyant husband’s  larger than life personality was balanced by this engaged strong woman capable of challenging the world to seek its better angels.

In 1978, while commissioned to write a biography about Mrs. Roosevelt, Doris Faber (Eleanor Roosevelt: First Lady of the World and Life of Lorena Hickok, E. R.’s Friend) unearthed over 3000 letters written by Eleanor to her friend, Lorena Hickok. These letters, donated to the FDR library by Hickok, revealed a previously unknown and deeply intimate relationship between the two women. An unlikely bond; one born to abject poverty and the other to wealth and privilege. The surprising correspondence led to a deeper look at Lorena Hickok’s life story and to this surprising side to the First Lady.

Amy Bloom’s White Houses, is a fiction that turns, what was known about the FDR White House, in-side-out. The story is narrated by Lorena Hickok.

Using historical records and the Hickock letters, Bloom reveals the dichotomy of the official and the personal lives of the inhabitants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue during the Roosevelt years. With a wink and a nod, Franklin enjoyed close relationships with other women but no one gave a thought about two old women sharing time in each other’s company. Their lesbian relationship, housed in the most public of all homes, was fraught with danger of detection. Their discovery could disastrous in so many ways.

The book opens on April 27, 1945 in New York City. The radio blares, sharing news from the European war-front. It has been two weeks since President Franklin Roosevelt’s death. Lorena Hickok is expecting company; a friend that sent her away 8 years before and two weeks ago summoned her. Lorena wonders what to expect after the long absence? She has missed her friend and has longed for her company over the years. Has her friend missed her?

She flits about apprehensively checking every detail – the vases of flowers, the music, the food- will remind her guest of favored times together. The door bell rings and an ashen faced new widow and displaced First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt enters the room. Speechlessly she stumbles through the front door ignoring Lorena’s greetings and  heads toward the bedroom shedding hairpins and clothing as she goes. She calls out, “Oh, Hick. If you don’t hold me, I’ll die. Lorena thinks, here is the elephant in the room. Is she just being dramatic or does she really need me?

The atmosphere between the two women is different. Eleanor is not her usual self. Her grief hangs over her like a shroud. They will spend the next three days together, safe from prying eyes, safe to share their secret life. Over the next three days, Lorena does what she has always done: listen, encourage, and allow Eleanor to be free to let down her guard.

The setting stays in New York City, but almost without realizing it we travel seamlessly back and forth through time in Lorena’s memory. We cry with her when she is raped by her father. We marvel at her time in the circus (a fantasy addition to an otherwise accurate story). But without a doubt, the most endearing and yet heartbreaking memories are of her long-term relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt.

As a fly on the wall, we listen to the two women enjoy each other’s company. The first four years are passionate that slowly, over the years, becomes a slow burn that never dies.  As the glitter of Roosevelt life gilds Lorena’s life, she is always aware that she is a shadow in Eleanor’s life. When she is sent away, she tries to forge a new life, make new friends, but she never found her own identity and purpose; she never stopped obsessing over her one true love.

As this all sounds like doom and gloom, I can not end without assuring the reader that this book is full of life. Without a doubt, Lorena’s smartyalecky demeanor is refreshing staged against pomp and circumstance.

When Franklin was governor of New York, Lorena, then a prominent reporter, interviewed Eleanor.

I sat right next to her . . . in the old-fashioned drawing room. . .and looked at her cheap, sensible serge dress and flat shoes and thought, Who in the name of Christ dressed you.?

I loved the book. Recommended reading. Would make a great book club read.

Addendum:

Excerpt from 2016  New York Post article entitled: Eleanor Roosevelt’s “mistress” died heartbroken and alone

After Eleanor’s death in 1962, Hick lived for 5½ more years, worn down by blindness, arthritis and loneliness. She finally died of complications from diabetes at the age of 75.

With great ceremony, Eleanor was buried alongside Franklin at the Roosevelts’ Hyde Park estate in upstate New York; in addition to the ambassador to the United Nations and two former presidents, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, President John Kennedy attended her funeral, where she was remembered as “the First Lady of the World.”

In her anonymity, Hick was cremated. Her ashes sat on a shelf of a funeral home for 20 years before being interred in an unmarked grave at a cemetery in Rhinebeck.

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