Where were you when you first learned of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s queerness? Maybe you first heard a women’s studies professor mention it offhandedly, as if it were the commonest of knowledge, as I did. Maybe you learned it right here on Autostraddle. Maybe you had a super awesome high school history teacher who broke away from the confines of state-sanctioned education and actually acknowledged that not all of U.S. history’s influencers were heterosexual. If that’s the case, I’m jealous. I went to a public high school in Southern Virginia, and even though it was an arts school with a few openly gay teachers, queer history certainly didn’t come up in my social studies classes.
But thanks to some intense Googling after my women’s studies professor blew my mind, I self-taught a crash course in Eleanor Roosevelt’s personal life: her merely political marriage to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (very Mellie and Fitz of them), her circle of close friends who all happened to be out lesbians, and most importantly, Lorena Hickok. Known as “Hick” to all her friends, including the First Lady, Lorena was the first woman to have her byline featured on the front page of the New York Times. She was a tough and smart journalist, writing about sports and news and covering some of the country’s top political stories for the Associated Press in the late 20s and early 1930s. By 1932, she was the most successful female reporter in the nation. She also dated women.
Hick came into Eleanor’s life in September 1928. Hick was covering FDR’s bid for governor of New York, but she purposefully avoided taking on assignments centered on Eleanor. The boundary-breaking reporter didn’t want to be confined to covering the lives of politicians’ wives. She knew that a story about the wife of the Democratic candidate for governor of New York would never make the front page. While she continued to cover FDR’s campaign and his tenure as governor, she deliberately avoided stories about Eleanor.
In 1932, things changed. Eleanor had emerged as one of her husband’s top political advisors. She was more than a politician’s wife, and Hick saw it. She suggested to her editors that a reporter specifically be assigned to the presidential candidate’s wife for the first time ever. That assignment ended up going to Kay Beebe, another reporter at the AP. But that year, Hickok sat down for her first official interview with Eleanor, and a spark ignited. Usually a perfectly professional reporter, Hickok received a prescient note from her editor: “Don’t get too close to your sources.”
But Hick wasn’t going to get away with following that rule if the source had anything to do with it. Eleanor increasingly picked Hickok out of throngs of reporters, favoring answering her questions over others. She asked Lorena to ride with her in a private car, eventually asked her to have a one-on-one breakfast with her in her hotel room. After FDR won the election, Eleanor and Hick were both living in New York and spending most of their time together, attending concerts and plays and talking politics over late-night dinners. Sometimes, Hick made steaks for the two of them in her one-room apartment in midtown. Their close friendship was quickly reaching gal pal status.
In 1978, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library uncovered 18 boxes of letters exchanged between Eleanor and Hick. During the 30 years they knew each other, the two women wrote nearly 4,000 letters to each other. After my crash course in Eleanor Roosevelt’s queerness in college, I knew plenty about Hick, but I didn’t realize at the time that so many of their letters had been preserved or that their content would be so explicit and definitive of their relationship. It wasn’t until later, in the fall of 2014, when I was sitting in my bed in Los Angeles, watching all 14 hours of Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts for work when I first heard a complete excerpt from one of the letters Eleanor wrote to Lorena. It was a small part of the documentary, but it gave me a rush. Eleanor’s words to Lorena were clear, passionate, unsubtle.
This year, I bought Empty Without You, a collection of over 300 letters exchanged between Eleanor and Lorena — mostly during E.R.’s years as First Lady — with annotations by editor Rodger Streitmatter. My mind was blown once more. Eleanor’s words to Lorena were more than just clear, passionate, unsubtle. They were visceral. They were sexy. They were… weirdly relatable? The letters don’t read like some subtextual lesbian romance buried under layers of insinuation and euphemism. They read like a modern-day romance. They read like text messages my girlfriend and I exchanged when we were long distance in the first several months of our relationship.
And with that, I present to you some of the gayest and most romantic excerpts from the letters in Empty Without You. (Some of the most explicit letters Hick and Eleanor exchanged are lost forever, because Hick pulled an Eliza Schuyler and burned them.)
1. Eleanor to Lorena, March 5, 1933
“Hick my dearest, I cannot go to bed to-night without a word to you. I felt a little as though a part of me was leaving to-night, you have grown so much to be a part of my life that it is empty without you even though I’m busy every minute.”
Most of Eleanor’s early letters to Hick as First Lady followed the same format. They began with some personal words to Hick, followed by a very detailed account of everything she had done that day, closing with some more personal words to Hick, usually about how excited the First Lady was to see her next. Eleanor’s fastidious recaps of her day suggest how desperate she was to let Hick know what she was doing at all times. I can only imagine what Eleanor and Hick’s Snapchat snapstreak would look like were they alive today.
2. Eleanor to Lorena, March 6, 1933
“Hick darling, Oh! how good it was to hear your voice, it was so inadequate to try & tell you what it meant, Jimmy was near & I couldn’t say ‘je t’aime et je t’adore’ as I longed to do but always remember I am saying it & that I go to sleep thinking of you & repeating our little saying.”
Our little saying. OUR LITTLE SAYING. For those of you who don’t read French, their little saying means “I love you and I adore you.” Eleanor often spoke to Hick on the phone and often made references to those phone conversations in her letters. Apparently, on this particular phone call, she didn’t feel comfortable uttering her affections, because Jimmy — her son, James — was around. But she repeated it like an incantation as she went to bed.
3. Eleanor to Lorena, March 7, 1933
“Hick darling, All day I’ve thought of you & another birthday [when] I will be with you, & yet to-night you sounded so far away & formal, oh! I want to put my arms around you, I ache to hold you close. Your ring is a great comfort, I look at it & think she does love me, or I wouldn’t be wearing it!”
This was written to Hick on her 40th birthday. The two women were apart, and Eleanor was clearly having a rough time of it. She sounds a little insecure talking about how Hick sounded distant on the phone. Often in her letters, Eleanor would remark if she hadn’t received a letter from Lorena that day. I get it. I get stressed when someone doesn’t text me back right away, especially if I’m romantically involved with said person. Can you imagine the stakes of that anxiety back in the days of snail mail?! Oh also, she’s writing about a ring Hick gave her here, a ring that reminds her of Hick’s love for her whenever she looks at it. As a bonus, that same letter also says: “What shall we read Hick? You choose first.” Here, Eleanor’s alluding to how she and Hick planned to read books simultaneously and then discuss them. THEY HAD A TWO-PERSON BOOK CLUB. And Eleanor even lets Hick choose the first book, because she’s a good and generous girlfriend.
4. Eleanor to Lorena, March 9, 1933
“My pictures are nearly all up & I have you in my sitting room where I can look at you most of my waking hours! I can’t kiss you so I kiss your picture good night & good morning!”
I am just picturing Eleanor Roosevelt making out with a literal photograph.
5. Eleanor to Lorena, March 10, 1933
“Remember one thing always, no one is just what you are to me. I’d rather be writing this minute than anything else & yet I love many other people & some often can do things for me probably better than you could, but I’ve never enjoyed being with anyone the way I enjoy being with you.”
This is actually the excerpt from their correspondence that is included in The Roosevelts, the excerpt that launched my obsession with these letters.
6. Eleanor to Lorena, March 11, 1933
“I miss you greatly dear. The nicest time of the day is when I write to you. You have a stormier time than I do but I miss you as much, I think. I couldn’t bear to think of you crying yourself to sleep. Oh! how I wanted to put my arms around you in reality instead of in spirit. I went & kissed your photograph instead & the tears were in my eyes. Please keep most of your heart in Washington as long as I’m here for most of mine is with you!”
In Hickok’s letters and some of Eleanor’s, it’s clear that Lorena struggled with anxiety and volatile mood swings. Here, E.R. suggests her love is having a rather tumultuous time during their long periods apart. Again, BEEN THERE, GIRL.
7. Eleanor to Lorena, November 17, 1933
“I’m getting so hungry to see you.”
Eleanor and Lorena were both fiercely anticipating seeing each other over Christmas. Throughout the late fall, their letters burst with longing for their reunion. This is one of the times when Eleanor’s lust makes it onto the page.
8. Eleanor to Lorena, November 27, 1933
“Dear one, & so you think they gossip about us. Well they must at least think we stand separation rather well! I am always so much more optimistic than you are. I suppose because I care so little what ‘they’ say!”
Hick had apparently expressed concerns about people whispering about the very close relationship between her and the First Lady, but Eleanor apparently gave zero fucks.
9. Eleanor to Lorena, November 29, 1933
“I wish you were going to spend Thanksgiving here, it surely would be Thanksgiving, wouldn’t it?”
10. Eleanor to Lorena, December 3, 1933
“Darling, I feel very happy because every day brings you nearer. I love you deeply & tenderly & oh! I want you to have a happy life. To be sure I’m selfish enough to want it to be near me but then we wouldn’t either of us be happy otherwise, would we?”
I have never read anything gayer in my whole dang life.
11. Lorena to Eleanor, December 5, 1933
“Only eight more days. Twenty-four hours from now it will be only seven more—just a week! I’ve been trying today to bring back your face—to remember just how you look. Funny how even the dearest face will fade away in time. Most clearly I remember your eyes with a kind of teasing smile in them, and the feeling of that soft spot just northeast of the corner of your mouth against my lips. I wonder what we’ll do when we meet—what we’ll say. Well—I’m rather proud of us, aren’t you? I think we’ve done rather well.”
Hick is quite familiar with the anatomy of Eleanor’s face… also, she’s literally writing about kissing Eleanor on the mouth, so anyone who doubts the physical nature of their relationship is a fool. Empty Without You contains significantly fewer letters from Lorena, as most of them were burned. It’s a shame, because she has a much more engaging writing style, and also because she writes more explicitly about mouth kissing. From that same letter: “Good night, dear one. I want to put my arms around you and kiss you at the corner of your mouth. And in a little more than a week now—I shall!”
12. Eleanor to Lorena, December 9, 1933
“Hick dearest, I can’t help wondering if my pencil note will reach you which I sent off last night! No letter from you to-day but I had two yesterday so I am just expressing a longing not a complaint!”
It’s safe to say at this point that Eleanor Roosevelt had no chill in the early days of her relationship with Hick. But again, I feel for her. No read receipts, no iMessage, no means of constant, uninterrupted communication. Dating in 1933 sounds hard as fuck.
13. Eleanor to Lorena, February 4, 1934
“Hick darling, I just talked to you, darling, it was so good to hear your voice. If I just could take you in my arms. Dear, I often feel rebellious too & yet I know we get more joy when we are to-gether than we would have if we had lived apart in the same city & could only meet for short periods now & then. Someday perhaps fate will be kind & let us arrange a life more to our liking for the time being we are lucky to have what we have. Dearest, we are happy to-gether & strong relationships have to grow deep roots. We’re growing them now, partly because we are separated, the foliage & the flowers will come, somehow I’m sure of it.”
Confusing punctuation aside, this is one of the more beautiful passages Eleanor ever wrote to Lorena. She insinuates their relationship was strengthened by the fact that it was long distance. Because Lorena and Eleanor spent such long periods of time apart, when they were together, they were really and truly together. They carved out time for each other. It’s not like if they lived in the same city they’d be able to live together, and so, the imperfections of their situation actually worked out. Still, Eleanor longed for more.
14. Eleanor to Lorena, February 4, 1934
“I dread the western trip & yet I’ll be glad when Ellie can be with you, tho’ I’ll dread that too just a little, but I know I’ve got to fit in gradually to your past & with your friends so there won’t be close doors between us later on & some of this we’ll do this summer perhaps. I shall feel you are terribly far away & that makes me lonely but if you are happy I can bear that & be happy too. Love is a queer thing, it hurts but it gives one so much more in return!”
The “Ellie” Eleanor refers to is Ellie Morse Dickinson, Hick’s ex. Hick met Ellie in 1918. Ellie was a couple years older and from a wealthy family. She was a Wellesley drop out, who left college to work at the Minneapolis Tribune, where she met Hick, who she gave the rather unfortunate nickname “Hickey Doodles.” They lived together for eight years in a one-bedroom apartment. In this letter, Eleanor is being remarkably chill (or at least pretending to be) about the fact that Lorena was soon taking a trip to the west coast where she would spend some time with Ellie. But she does admit she’s dreading it, too. I know she’s using “queer” here in the more archaic form—to signify strange. But please make me a t-shirt that says “Love Is A Queer Thing” on it right this second.
15. Eleanor to Lorena, February 12, 1934
“I love you dear one deeply & tenderly & it is going to be a joy to be to-gether again, just a week now. I can’t tell you how precious every minute with you seems both in retrospect & in prospect. I look at you long as I write—the photograph has an expression I love, soft & a little whimsical but then I adore every expression. Bless you darling. A world of love, E.R.”
Eleanor ended many of her letters with “a world of love.” Other sign-offs she used included: “always yours,” “devotedly,” “ever yours,” “my dear, love to you,” “a world of love to you & good night & God bless you ‘light of my life,’” “bless you & keep well & remember I love you,” “my thoughts are always with you,” and “a kiss to you.” And here she is again, writing about that photograph of Hick that serves as her grounding but not-quite-sufficient stand-in for Lorena. But I have buried the lede… this letter also includes a rare post-script from Eleanor that simply reads: “And will you be my valentine?”
16. Eleanor to Lorena, March 26, 1934
“Hick darling, I believe it gets harder to let you go each time, but that is because you grow closer. It seems as though you belonged near me, but even if we lived to-gether we would have to separate sometimes & just now what you do is of such value to the country that we ought not to complain, only that doesn’t make me miss you less or feel less lonely!”
Perhaps the most striking thing about these letters is Eleanor’s level of emotional honesty. These letters show Eleanor at her most vulnerable, her most undone, her most familiar. She’s unflinchingly earnest. These letters have a diary’s candor.
17. Eleanor to Lorena, April 4, 1934
“Dearest, I miss you & wish you were here I want to put my arms around you & feel yours around me. More love than I can express in a letter is flying on waves of thought to you.”
18. Eleanor to Lorena, April 9, 1934
“This will be just a note to tell you I love you.”
19. Eleanor to Lorena, April 18, 1934
“My dearest one, I got in early & then came at 8:30 to breakfast & I looked at all the new models. One corner cupboard I long to have for our camp or cottage or house, which is it to be? I’ve always thought of it as in the country but I don’t think we ever decided on the variety of abode nor the furniture. We probably won’t argue!”
Here, Eleanor is fantasizing about living with Hick. The models she’s referring to are furniture pieces from Val-Kill, the factory she established with her friends Caroline O’Day, as well as Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, who were on-and-off girlfriends for decades.
20. Eleanor to Lorena, February 12, 1935
“May the world be full of sunshine,
And our meetings frequent be
Hours of joy & quiet time,
Take us over life’s rough seas”
The poem above was handwritten by Eleanor on the back of a valentine card to Hick. On the card, a black and white puppy was holding a heart that had “To My Valentine” inscribed on it. The last line of the verse hints at the rough patch Eleanor and Hick’s relationship went through in 1935, when their letters became less frequent and Hick expressed agitation over the First Lady making less and less time for her. Yikes. They weren’t all #couplegoals all the time.
21. Eleanor to Lorena, January 14, 1936
“Dearest, Darling, you were low & I know that in some way I hurt you & I am sorry & I wish I had not but all I can say is, I really love you.”
Indeed, the First Lady and her gal pal were growing apart. It’s unclear exactly what prompted the above apology, but Eleanor wrote the letter the day after she and Hick had lunch together in New York City. Clearly, it wasn’t the greatest lunch.
22. Lorena to Eleanor, December 27, 1940
“Thanks again, you dear, for all the sweet things you think of and do. And I love you more than I love anyone else in the world except Prinz—who, by the way, discovered your present to him on the window seat in the library Sunday.”
Though they continued to grow apart—especially as World War II unfolded, forcing Eleanor to spend more time on leadership and politics and less time on her personal life—Hick and Eleanor still wrote to one another and sent each other Christmas presents. Prinz, by the way, is Hick’s dog, who she loved like a child. Eleanor loved him enough to buy him a present, too. GAY!
23. Lorena to Eleanor, October 8, 1941
“I meant what I said in the wire I sent you today—I grow prouder of you each year. I know no other woman who could learn to do so many things after 50 and to do them so well as you, Love. You are so better than you realize, my dear. A happy birthday, dear, and you are still the person I love more than anyone else in the world.”
If Hick and Eleanor were indeed broken up at this point, they sure are fulfilling the stereotype of lesbians hanging onto their exes. In 1942, Hick started seeing Marion Harron, a U.S. Tax Court judge ten years younger than her. Their letters continued, but much of the romance was gone and they really did start to sound like old friends.
24. Eleanor to Lorena, August 9, 1955
“Hick dearest, Of course you will forget the sad times at the end & eventually think only of the pleasant memories. Life is like that, with ends that have to be forgotten.”
Hick ended her relationship with Marion a few months after FDR died, but her relationship with Eleanor did not return to what it was. Hick’s ongoing health problems got worse, and she struggled financially as well. By the time of this letter, Hick was merely living on the money and clothing Eleanor sent to her. Eleanor eventually moved Hick into her cottage in Val-Kill. While there are other letters they exchanged leading up to Eleanor’s death in 1962, this feels like the right excerpt to end on. Even in the face of dark times for them both, Eleanor remained bright and hopeful in the way she wrote about their lives together. Never one to want to share her beloved Eleanor with the American public and press, Hick opted not to attend the former First Lady’s funeral. She said goodbye to their world of love privately.