Eleanor Roosevelt’s relationship with Lorena Hickok has been a source of controversy since the days it was happening in real-time. Were they secret lovers? Merely close friends? The topic has been endlessly debated. White Houses assumes that they were lovers, which seems reasonable, and purports to tell the story of their relationship. And it does, but not in the way one supposed and not as directly as one might have expected.
White Houses is much more a fictionalized version of Hickok’s life. It tells the story of her abusive childhood and her mother’s death, continuing into her work as a housekeeper before escaping her father once and for all to strike out on her own in the world. Bloom inserts an odd interlude where Hickok literally runs off with the circus. There, she has a bit of an affair with an intersex circus worker and feels intrigued by a girl with lobster hands. Bloom intends to suffuse the circus’ freak show with Hickok’s sexual awakening as a lesbian, but the whole affair (no pun intended) feels both glaringly unsubtle and alarmingly out of place.
Eventually, Hickok becomes one of the nation’s most famous journalists following her work on the Lindbergh family kidnapping case. She meets Eleanor when she is assigned to cover Franklin’s run for president, and instead of running with the theory that the two became fast friends, Bloom plays up their sexual attraction–making their meeting a somewhat deliberate flirtation. And when Franklin becomes president and it becomes clear that Hickok’s relationship with the new first lady is now a conflict of interest, Hickok resigns her post at the Associated Press to take a government job and live in the White House.
Part of the problem I have with White Houses is that Bloom skirts a lot of the issues. Was Eleanor conflicted about her sexuality? She doesn’t appear to be here. Did her relationship with Hickok strain her relationship with Franklin? It does not appear so at all. We know that Franklin was busy with his own affairs of the heart during his White House years (and before), but would he really not care at all that he was being cuckolded in his own house in full view of his administration and children? Bloom imagines Hickok and Franklin having a sort of buddy-buddy relationship, which seems inexplicable.
Bloom’s portrait of the Roosevelts and Hickok is something of a utopia. There is no conflict about sexuality (in a time when homosexuality was considered abnormal and sinful, no less). There is no conflict about the existence of an open marriage in the White House (in a time when marriage was considerably more sacrosanct compared to the modern day, no less). Eleanor and Franklin are free to do whatever they feel is right so long as they are able to keep it out of the papers. Is this true, or is Bloom sanding out the complications in order to tell a simple story?
Well, she’s not entirely sanding them out. She inserts a fictitious, closeted gay Roosevelt cousin named Parker Fiske to play out the complications that might have been present within her main romantic triangle. Parker is an able, well-liked man in government who isn’t as successful at keeping his private affairs a secret, leading him to attempt to blackmail Hickok into helping him keep his secrets lest he reveal hers.
The problem as I see it is that this fictitious storyline is completely unnecessary. Bloom treats Fiske like an essential plotting device–complicating the love affair between Eleanor and Lorena and helping to bring it to its climax–but is it unreasonable to assume that the climax would have come about without Fiske’s interference? After all, it did in real life. Weren’t there enough obstacles to their love affair without imagining one? Fiske brings a clichéd sense of intrigue the novel would have been just fine without.
White Houses is at its best when it is simply about Lorena Hickok. Bloom does a great job making Hickok a vibrant being, which makes it all the more unfortunate that most of the rest of the book doesn’t quite hold up. Eleanor, in particular, feels flat in comparison–which is something we definitely know isn’t accurate historically. Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the nation’s most outspoken and active First Ladies–despite growing up insecure and wanting a quiet life out of the spotlight. That conflict is almost entirely absent from White Houses.
Bloom is an exceptional writer. Her description is wonderful and her tone is consistent throughout. It’s the structure that lets her down here.