Three-quarters of a century have passed. But her words in a confidential bureaucratic report to Washington still read like those of a latter-day Orpheus returned from a harrowing passage through the Lower Depths.
I returned late last night from a three-day trip into the desert. The
impressions I have brought back with me are somewhat confused
and not too cheerful. They consist of heat, depression, bitterness,
more heat, terrible poverty, confusion, heat again, and a passionate
longing for some sort of orderly plan.
The author of this uncommon bureaucratic prose was Lorena Hickok, a prominent journalist and New Deal investigator in the 1930s, whose life and intimate relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, America’s First Lady, was first recounted in Doris Faber’s biography, The Life of Lorena Hickok: E.R.’s Friend (1980). Two more recent, well-reviewed biographies –Maurine Beasley’s Eleanor Roosevelt: Transformative First Lady, and Hazel Rowley’s Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage— pick up the thread of this intense friendship with 21st-century candor.
In light of it, the language above, from an investigative field study by Hickok, also takes on a freighted, doubtlessly inadvertent, but no less striking double entendre as a reflection of its author’s own lonely emptiness and passionate longing. Objectively, the passage begins a report, dated July 1, 1934, from Hickok to Harry Hopkins, head of Franklin Roosevelt’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA): her first account of conditions in California’s Riverside and San Bernardino Counties during the Great Depression.
As I look back on it all this morning, I am inclined to believe that
everything I heard out there was affected by the heat and the
dust. . .
One of the best reporters in the business, “Hick” (as Eleanor called her) had quit the Associated Press a year before when her loyalty to the new First Lady –which had flowered in the months before FDR’s inauguration—overcame her journalist’s dispassion. Two days into what would become the longest single tenancy in White House history, Eleanor spoke to her “Hick darling” in New York by phone, then quickly wrote, regretting (her son Jimmy being near) that she
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.
The new First Lady kept Hick’s picture near her desk, and wrote that she kissed it every morning and evening.
Shortly afterward, Hickok moved to Washington –into Eleanor’s third-floor sitting room in the White House, in fact— and joined the New Deal. Eminently qualified, she was appointed chief field investigator for Hopkins at FERA, the agency that was about to revolutionize America’s conception of relief for the poor. Under Hopkins’ leadership, a cadre of writer-investigators (Martha Gellhorn among them) would crisscross the country to monitor local relief efforts. Their reports, long ago stored in the Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, New York, are among the most vivid accounts we have of that time of not-so-quiet desperation. They describe pleas for shoes and medicine in Pennsylvania, tell of Communist agitation and recipes for thistle soup among the farmers of South Dakota, of fistfights over a few available jobs in Sioux City, food allowances of 39 cents a week and prostitution at a dime a throw in Houston, the all-pervading smell of defeat in Massachusetts, Georgia, West Virginia, Utah . . . . Hickok’s reports are compiled in a volume entitled One Third of a Nation: Lorena Hickok Reports on the Great Depression.
From the “relief angle,” Hopkins’ agency had identified Los Angeles as “the blackest spot in the United States.” So the assignment –and the attendant journey across the continent—went to Hick. She would be away from Washington, and from Eleanor, for weeks, away from the dear friend to whom she had recently written: “At times life becomes just one long, dreary ache for you.”
There was, however, as Hazel Rowley sees it, a problem of the heart more profound for Hickok than mere distance and longing: Eleanor and the President had much earlier, after thirteen years of marriage and six children, established a chaste but intensely co-dependent partnership that “was strong enough to withstand betrayal, polio, and the White House.” Both “had other intimate companions, other loves,” facts that each accepted about the other. Their bond, nourished by the rarefied political air they breathed –and for which Hickok had done so much to groom the naturally shy First Lady-- was finally unbreachable. Hick complained angrily to Eleanor, then apologized (“Oh, I’m bad, my dear, but I love you so.”). She worried over gossipers; her notes became maudlin:
I’ve been trying today to bring back your face. Most clearly I
remember your eyes, and 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.
Her love letters, and Eleanor’s loving reciprocations, are gathered in a volume called Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, which saw the light of publication only long after, in 1998.
Once in California, three thousand miles away from the White House, Hickok found both economic stagnancy and political turmoil. The state’s Democrats were badly split, positioning uneasily –and without FDR’s support—behind the socialist candidacy of Upton Sinclair and his ill-fated EPIC campaign to end poverty in California. Republicans were countering with blitzkrieg. Among their prime targets were the New Deal’s federal relief program in Los Angeles, and the First Lady herself, whom they reviled for her well known sympathies to labor unions, civil rights and women’s equality, and her antipathy to corporate highhandedness and the monopolies her uncle Teddy had so effectively combatted three decades earlier. Hick was emotionally engaged.
After a few days in the desert counties outside Los Angeles (and beginning, as always, “Dear Mr. Hopkins”), she reported her belief that the major problems in California were water, naivete, and exploitation.
Some smart businessmen went out there and bought up a lot of
desert land, with its water rights. They developed some sort of
irrigation system, just enough probably to bring water in, probably
not enough. . . if the land was ever actually settled. Then they
persuaded a lot of poor suckers to come out there. . . . They
formed the victims into “irrigation districts,” cooperative organi-
zations, so to speak. These organizations bonded themselves to
pay for the land and water rights. Bonds were unloaded on another
bunch of suckers who, by buying the bonds, furnished the money
to pay the company that started it all.
It was intensely felt, and hardly your standard, governmental bureaucratese.
The company slid gracefully out of the picture then, leaving two sets
of poor suckers –the farmers and the bondholders. . . . [Then] the
power companies got in. . . setting their own price for the distribution
of the precious water. . . . A lot of poor fools, head over heels in debt.
They are our relief load.
Hick’s intimacy with the First Lady also enabled some uncommon candor about her own employers, and what she saw as their innocence as communicators. She was, as she reminded Hopkins, a creature of the press.
We, and I mean by that the entire administration as well as FERA,
depend too much on the newspapers to get our ideas across. The
newspapers of the United States are largely hostile to the program,
unintelligent about it and, if not openly hostile, indifferent.
Her wake-up call to Hopkins did not exempt the agency’s own wordsmiths:
[T]oo many bulletins –mimeographed stuff. It’s badly written, for the
the most part. Clumsy. . . dammit, I get great big brown envelopes
from our office all the time. I can’t make head nor tail out of most
of it. . . . [W]hen you consider the fact that out in the hinterland, in
the California desert for instance, they are read by people who can
barely read anyway. . . .
Her report, just one of a number, ran to more than 4,000 words –written in a shrewd, yet compassionate prose with not a single circumlocution, buzz word, agency euphemism, or clot of polysyllabic jargon to clutter it. Hickok’s voice on paper is tough yet vulnerable, energetic, and lonesome. It’s a colloquial voice, straightforward, at points naive, always resourceful, and thoroughly, deep-rootedly American. Her reports were a cry of sorts. She’d confronted head-on an evil in the land, her land, and it vexed her. It was crippling America. (She did, however, say about California, “Goddam it, I think we ought to let Japan have this state.”)
Once finished with her California assignment, Hick had a vacation coming. She’d be spending it with Eleanor in Nevada, Yosemite and San Francisco. It would be the last time the First Lady tried travelling incognito. She had earlier tried to assure Hick, when their affair began, that the gossip didn’t bother her.
I am always so much more optimistic than you are. I suppose
because I care so little about what “they” say.
The closeness of the two women endured. But the eighteen months or so of most intense mutual need was about to end. Eleanor had become resigned to her own celebrity, and was beginning to flourish in it. Hick stood aside as the First Lady’s momentous career took shape. Away from the limelight, she continued her work for the Roosevelt administration and the Democratic Party straight on through the war years.
After Eleanor was widowed in 1945 and departed the White House, Hickok, now slowed and suffering from diabetes, followed her to Hyde Park, where she continued to write --among her books, The Story of Helen Keller, The Touch of Magic (about Anne Sullivan Macy) and, not surprisingly, The Story of Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor herself went on to a distinguished and immensely visible second career at the United Nations, and as columnist, lecturer, international advocate for women’s rights, and Democratic Party power broker.
When, after seventeen years of prominent widowhood, the former First Lady died, she was honoured with a virtual state funeral on the Hyde Park estate, graced by the attendance of three American presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, and the incumbent John Kennedy). She was memorialized there by Adlai Stevenson, who asked in a moving eulogy: “What other single human being has touched and transformed the existence of so many?” One of those so touched, herself now quite ailing and deeply distraught, stayed away from the funeral. Instead, she had a friend, who was known to the guards at Hyde Park, drive her at midnight to the burial site to say a private goodbye. She left wildflowers at the grave.
Six years later, Hickok herself succumbed. She was cremated, but there were no friends to claim her ashes, which were buried in an unmarked grave alongside other unclaimed remains at the Rhinebeck Cemetery nearby. She had willed her priceless trove of personal papers, including copies of those impassioned 1934 reports, to the Franklin Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, where they remain.