White Houses

A Novel

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For readers of The Paris Wife and The Swans of Fifth Avenue comes a love story inspired by “one of the most intriguing relationships in history”*—between Eleanor Roosevelt and “first friend” Lorena Hickok.

Lorena Hickok meets Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 while reporting on Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign. Having grown up worse than poor in South Dakota and reinvented herself as the most prominent woman reporter in America, “Hick,” as she’s known to her friends and admirers, is not quite instantly charmed by the idealistic, patrician Eleanor. But then, as her connection with the future first lady deepens into intimacy, what begins as a powerful passion matures into a lasting love, and a life that Hick never expected to have. She moves into the White House, where her status as “first friend” is an open secret, as are FDR’s own lovers. After she takes a job in the Roosevelt administration, promoting and protecting both Roosevelts, she comes to know Franklin not only as a great president but as a complicated rival and an irresistible friend, capable of changing lives even after his death. Through it all, even as Hick’s bond with Eleanor is tested by forces both extraordinary and common, and as she grows as a woman and a writer, she never loses sight of the love of her life. 

From Washington, D.C. to Hyde Park, from a little white house on Long Island to an apartment on Manhattan’s Washington Square, Amy Bloom’s new novel moves elegantly through fascinating places and times, written in compelling prose and with emotional depth, wit, and acuity.

Advance praise for White Houses

“Amy Bloom brings an untold slice of history so dazzlingly and devastatingly to life, it took my breath away.”—Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife

“A novel of the secret, scandalous love of Eleanor Roosevelt and her longtime friend and companion Lorena Hickok, who relates the tale in her own, quite wonderful voice.”—Joyce Carol Oates

“Lorena Hickok is a woman who found love with another lost soul, Eleanor Roosevelt. And love is what this book is all about: It suffuses every page, so that by the time you reach the end, you are simply stunned by the beauty of the world these two carved out for themselves.”—Melanie Benjamin, author of The Swans of Fifth Avenue*

Under the Cover

An excerpt from White Houses

Chapter 1

Luck Is Not Chance

In 1932, my father was dead and my star was rising. I could write. People looked for my name. I’d gotten a big bounce from The Milwaukee Sentinel to New York because I was the only woman to cover Big Ten football playoffs and the excellent Smith scandal (idiot corset salesman and buxom mistress cut off the head of her husband and hide it in the bathtub). I had hit it hard in Brooklyn, at the Daily Mirror and moved on to the Associated Press. I had a small apartment, with a palm-­sized window and a bathroom down the hall. I owned one frying pan, two plates, and two coffee mugs. My friends were newspapermen, my girlfriends were often copy editors (very sharp, very sweet), and I was what they called a newspaperwoman. They ran my bylines and everyone knew I didn’t do weddings. It was good.

The men bought me drinks and every night I bought a round before I went home. They talked about their wives and mistresses in front of me and I didn’t blink. I didn’t wrinkle my nose. I sympathized. When the wives were on the rag, when the girlfriend had a bun in the oven, when the door was locked, I said it was a damn shame. I sipped my Scotch. I kept my chin up and my eyes friendly. I didn’t tell the guys that I was no different, that I’d sooner bed a dozen wrong girls and wake up in a dozen hot-­sheet joints, minus my wallet and plus a few scratches, than be tied down to one woman and a couple of brats. I pretended that even though I hadn’t found the right man, I did want one. I pretended that I envied their wives and that took effort.

(I never envied a wife or a husband, until I met Eleanor. Then, I would have traded everything I ever had, every limo ride, every skinny-­dip, every byline and carefree stroll, for what Franklin had, polio and all.)

It was a perfect night to be in a Brooklyn bar, waiting for the snow to fall. I signaled for another beer and a young man, from the city desk, stout and red-­faced like me, brought it over and said, “Hick, is your dad Addison Hickok? I remember you were from South Dakota.”

I said, Yes, that was me, and that was my old man.

I’m sorry, he said, I hear he killed himself. It came over the wire, there was a rash of Dust Bowl suicides. Traveling salesman, right? I’m sorry.

Don’t you worry, I said. I couldn’t say, Drinks all around, because my father’s dead and I am not just glad, I am goddamn glad. No man drinks to a woman saying that. I left two bits under my glass and made my way home, to find a letter from Miz Min, my father’s second wife, asking if I might send money for the burial expenses. I lit the envelope with my cigarette and I went to New Jersey.

I was the Associated Press’s top dog for the Lindbergh kidnapping. We were all racing to tell the story and the Daily News got there first, with an enormous, grainy photo of the baby and the headline “Lindy’s Baby Kidnaped,” which was clear and short, and the Times’s “Lindbergh Baby Kidnapped from Home of Parents on Farm Near Princeton” was more exact but not first. They avoided vulgar familiarity but really, who cares whether the baby’s taken from a farm or a ranch or a clover patch.

(The Daily News, March 2, 1932.)

The most famous baby in the world, Charles A. Lindbergh Jr., was kidnaped from his crib on the first floor of the Lone Eagle’s home at Hopewell, N.J., between 7:30 and 10:30 o’clock last night.

The flier’s wife, the former Anne Morrow, discovered at 10:30 that her 20-­months-­old son was missing. Her mother, Mrs. Dwight W. Morrow, who disclosed that Mrs. Lindbergh is expecting another baby, feared that the shock might have serious effect.

Anne immediately called Col. Lindbergh, who was in the living room. The famous flier, thinking that the nurse might have removed the child, paused to investigate before telephoning the State police.

As rapidly as radio, telephone and telegraph could spread the alarm countrywide, the biggest police hunt in history was under way.

Seventy State Troopers from Morristown, Trenton, Somerville and Lambertsville hopped on motorcycles and in automobiles and began to race over the countryside for a radius of a hundred miles around Princeton, which is ten miles west of the Lindbergh residence.

At midnight the teletype alarm had been spread over five States. Commissioner Edward P. Mulrooney, aroused from sleep, personally took control of the New York City search, which included scrutiny of all ferries, tunnels and bridges. Police in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Connecticut were also spreading a gigantic net.

Child Carried Through Window

The Lindbergh baby had been dressed in his sleeping gown by his nurse, and was asleep in the nursery on the first floor of the country mansion when he was kidnaped. The child was taken out of a window, through which the kidnaper or gang of kidnapers apparently entered the home.

A note, contents not disclosed, was found on the second floor of the home. Whether this was a demand for ransom could not be learned - although that was the assumption in some quarters.

This went on for a few more columns, bringing in the neighbor with the green car (who had nothing to do with anything) and recounting the loving, playful disagreement the Lindberghs apparently had over what to name the baby in the first place, using sentiment (What shall we name the Little Eaglet?) to underscore the strong and irresistible likelihood of tragedy.

I was sliding through dirty New Jersey snow, looking for footprints, happy as a rose in sunshine. I got a byline every day. Every morning, I crawled out of my miserable motel bed and sang while I got dressed. I brought doughnuts and cigarettes and dirty jokes wherever I went and when reporters were getting shut out of Hopewell, New Jersey, I was not one of them. I sat over a typewriter in a freezing room, still wearing my coat and hat, and banged out story after story and chased clue after clue. It was as good a serial as you could find on the radio. Thirteen ransom notes and a host of screwy characters, including John Condon, a high school principal, who popped up out of nowhere to offer himself as an intermediary between Lindbergh and the kidnappers. John Condon seemed serious, modest, distraught and I think he was the best con man I ever saw. None of us ever figured out what his long game was. If poor Richard Hauptmann, the kidnapper, had been as clever as John Condon, he wouldn’t have got the chair. And if poor Richard Hauptmann hadn’t been German, the press wouldn’t have tagged him with the nickname “Bruno” and we wouldn’t have had to pretend that the two eyewitnesses against him were anything but blind and broke. I could write anything, take up any crazy clue (a scrap of blue fabric in Maryland, a mystery man in Rhode Island), as long as the root of the story was untouched: American hero and wife search for missing baby.

Every suspicion we had of corruption and desperation on the part of the cops and J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, we kept to ourselves. Lindbergh was untouchable. (Never mind his “America First” speeches, blaming Jews for anti-­Semitism. Never mind that famous, boyish grin flashing when he got the Commander Cross of the Order of the German Eagle from Göring in Berlin in 1938, with Hitler’s best wishes. And most of all, never mind that just four months before the kidnapping, Lucky Lindy had taken his baby and hidden him in a linen closet while his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, searched the house weeping hysterically. Then he handed her the baby. What a card.)

I believed Lindbergh hired John Condon. I thought Lindbergh killed the baby by accident and built a cover-­up with the bravado and precision he was famous for. And when the poor little baby was found, four miles from the house, head staved in and decomposing, poor German Richard Hauptmann didn’t have a chance.

I didn’t write the story I wanted to and everyone knew it. My boss said to me, Give it up. Go cover Eleanor Roo­sevelt for a change, her old man’s heading to the White House. I didn’t say no. Albany was a one-­horse town and Eleanor Roo­sevelt might be dull and pleasant, which is what I’d heard, but I was pretty sure she hadn’t killed her own baby and sent an innocent man to fry for it.

She was dull and pleasant for the first five minutes. I sat right next to her in a faded velvet chair, in the old-­fashioned drawing room of the Governor’s Mansion on Eagle Street, and looked at her cheap, sensible serge dress and flat shoes and thought, Who in the name of Christ has dressed you? I looked closely, to make notes, and then I looked away to be polite. She poured tea and I did notice her beautiful hands and her very plain wedding band, a little loose on her finger. We chatted. We sipped. I made some remarks about Republicans and she laughed, and not politely.

She asked me about the Lindbergh case and I told her about what I’d seen and she shook her head over Lindbergh. I prefer Amelia Earhart, she said. You know, she was a social worker, before she was a pilot. That’s not all she was, I thought, but I ate a cookie.

We talked about the great state of New York and the needs of its people and then it was time for dinner and we had a sherry-­spiked mushroom soup I can still taste. We ate and talked until late. She told me that her husband believed that the role of government was to help people. I nodded. All people, she said. She told me about Louis Howe, Governor Roo­sevelt’s campaign manager, whom she had come to admire. I didn’t at first, she said. She said some people thought he was a Machiavelli. She said he was coarse and direct and deeply, deeply political. But Louis Howe is also, she said, the kindest, most loyal, most decent person I know. When my husband got polio—­she put her hand over her mouth. Please don’t write that, she said. That is not the kind of thing I wish to discuss, in the newspapers. I made a big show of striking a line. We’ll go with Louis Howe and his fine qualities, I said. Now, give me something uplifting, so we go out on a positive note about the governor and his race for the White House.

“The function of democratic living is not to lower standards but to raise those that have been too low.”

“That’s very good,” I said.

She rang a bell and said, Would you care for a sherry? Her eyes were light blue, then dark blue, lake blue. I saw a quick flare, a pilot light of interest come and go.

I put away my notebook and we sat, sipping sherry, listening to opera, until a maid came in and asked if she should get my coat.

I said, Mrs. Roo­sevelt, I hate to go, but I have a story to file. She said, Don’t make me sound like a fool, Miss Hickok. I said that I couldn’t if I tried and she said she thought that was the first lie I’d told her. We both stood up and she helped me on with my coat. We looked at each other in their grand, gold-­framed mirror and she adjusted my hat. Then she said, We’re grown women, both doing our jobs. Call me Eleanor. I smiled all the way home.

We saw each other every week of the campaign and I liked what I saw so much, I offered to cover her full-­time for the Associated Press as Roo­sevelt’s race for the White House heated up. My editor liked the pieces and every once in a while he’d say, Your lady’s got some good lines. I liked her height and her energy. I liked her long, loose stride and her progressive principles. She insulted conservatives and cowards every time she opened her mouth and I wrote it all down. She smiled when she saw me coming and I did the same. When we had breakfast together, I sometimes took a sausage off her plate.

She called me at the end of October and told me that Franklin’s secretary’s mother had died. I’d already met Missy LeHand, the governor’s executive secretary, his lodestar of competence and tact and likely something more. Dozens of reporters, including me, saw Missy sitting very close to Governor Roo­sevelt, late at night, rubbing his shoulders. Eleanor said she didn’t want to make the trip to Potsdam, New York, with just dear, bereft Missy and Franklin certainly wasn’t going to attend that shit storm of weeping, hopeful women (which was not how Eleanor put it). She said, Won’t you come with us, Hick? It’s quite a long ride, we’ll get better acquainted and then we’ll tour a power plant. We can go see where they want to put the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

I was between girlfriends and between dogs. I packed my bag.

Before we got on the train, we stopped in a department store, for her to get some handkerchiefs. Only a few heads turned. I said I could use a new scarf. We walked through together and for a minute we linked arms, like lady shoppers with time on their hands. We got her plain linen hankies and I picked up and put down a red silk scarf. Very racy, she said. You should get it. We sat, side by side, in the department store café, which would have been heaven to me when I was growing up, a clean place to eat, drinks brought to you by tidy-­looking women, surrounded by silk flowers. I ordered a grilled cheese-­and-­bacon sandwich and wished they served beer. Eleanor, who liked to pretend she didn’t care for anything self-­indulgent, had a bowl of split pea soup. It came with oyster crackers and after she had dumped her packet of them into the bowl, she looked to see if I might have some, next to my sandwich.

“Why don’t you just ask for some more crackers,” I said.

“This is fine. This is what they gave us,” she said.

I gave the waitress a little wave and a big smile. When she came by, I asked for three more packets of crackers. Eleanor clasped her hands in irritation and then she turned it on.

“The crackers are so good, miss,” Eleanor said. “If it is extra, please just put it on our bill.”

- About the author -

Amy Bloom is the author of Come to Me, a National Book Award finalist; A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Love Invents Us; Normal; Away, a New York Times bestseller; Where the God of Love Hangs Out; and Lucky Us, a New York Times bestseller. Her stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Short Stories, The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, and many other anthologies here and abroad. She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Vogue, Slate, Tin House, and Salon, among other publications, and has won a National Magazine Award. She is the Shapiro-Silverberg Professor of Creative Writing at Wesleyan University.

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White Houses

A Novel

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White Houses

— Published by Random House —