WHITE HOUSES, by Amy Bloom. Random House, 218 pp., $27.
In 1932, journalist Lorena Hickok accompanied the final push of Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential campaign. She’d been assigned by The Associated Press to cover Eleanor Roosevelt. Quickly, the journalist and the future first lady became friends, likely lovers.
Roosevelt biographers have long tussled with the exact nature of their enduring connection. Was it sexual or just deeply romantic? There’s a book devoted to the letters that passed between the two: “Empty Without You.” Susan Quinn’s “Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady” was published in 2016.
Amy Bloom’s new novel, “White Houses,” is a fictional re-imagining of the relationship, written from Hickok’s perspective. Readers drawn to the novel hoping to learn something fresh about the New Deal power couple — or how the “closet” has often been a tricky notion in LGBT history — may leave unsurprised. What is unassailably deft is the way Bloom’s Hickok moves between her pre-Eleanor past and their post-affair present with mournful appreciation of and practical wisdom about the arc of love.
A prologue is set in 1945, shortly after the death of FDR, as Hickok and Eleanor reunite in New York City. Hickok arrives before the grieving, exhausted widow. “I sit down on the living room couch to wait,” Hickok says. “I used to be able to read Eleanor’s heart, when I saw her face, and I worry that I can’t anymore.” Hickok is inevitably drawn back to memories of their very first encounter, 13 years earlier. The future first lady “was dull and pleasant for the first five minutes,” she recalls. They may not have met cute, but soon they were smitten.
As ethical conflicts mounted, the journalist quit her Associated Press job. She also moved into the White House. With the First Couple’s urging, she became the chief investigator for Harry Hopkins’ Federal Emergency Relief Administration.
Writing a faux memoir is a thorny gesture. It’s known, for instance, that Hickok’s father — a Wisconsin dairy farmer who moved his family to South Dakota — was abusive. Bloom adds a sexual assault to Hickok’ hardscrabble childhood. Bloom also imagines a time when, as a teen, Hickok escapes her dead-end circumstances when she hooks up with the circus.
There she bunks with Lobster Girl, of the claw-like hands, and Alligator Girl, whose body is covered with thick scales. “We’re a comfort, we are. God’s conspicuous errors,” Maryann of the reptilian stage name tells Hickok about “freaks.” It’s during her time with the circus that she becomes aware of her sexuality.
Once a practicing psychotherapist, Bloom uses “freaks” and a rape to fill out the psychological biography of her lesbian protagonist, an unsubtle move. More intriguingly, she devises a cousin for Eleanor: Parker Fiske. A closeted gay man with a successful role in the State Department, he’s vulnerable to political strong-arming.
“White Houses” gently relishes the carnal, recounting Hick and Eleanor’s hungering attraction. But the richest writing comes as Hickok describes traveling for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. “A girl, skinny and still flat-chested, saw my fedora and my coat and smelled my cigarette. She said, Mister, I costs you a dime. I said, It was all right, I’d give her a dime if she went home. She put out her filthy hand for the dime and walked up to the next corner, making sure I wasn’t following and cutting into business.”
This may be Bloom’s finest act of restoration: giving Hickok — and us — a version of her authentically wrought voice. In this ongoing era of psychosexual speculation about powerful couples and their liaisons, it is this voice, with its observations about class, power, country, that feels most revelatory, most tantalizing.