White Houses

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White Houses
320 pages
In the vivid and tender White Houses, two women step into a pale blue convertible and hit the road. The older one, her hair wrapped in a scarf, takes the wheel, while the younger entertains her with racy stories. It could be a frame straight out of Thelma & Louise—except the women aren't just friends, they're "in love, in rapture." There's one more difference: This adventure was inspired by true events. Wearing the scarf is Eleanor Roosevelt; her sidekick is Lorena "Hick" Hickok, a brash lesbian journalist whose hard-up background contrasted strikingly with Eleanor's genteel one. The road trip, in the summer of 1933, is an unofficial "honeymoon," a first escapade in their 30-year liaison.
Over the last two decades, the facts of this affair have emerged in multiple biographies informed by thousands of letters the pair exchanged. While these accounts tend to focus on the first lady, Bloom—interweaving fact and fancy—lavishes attention on the second, bringing Hick, the novel's narrator and true subject, to radiant life.
The women become friends during FDR's first presidential run, in 1932, when the Associated Press assigns Hick the wife-of-the-candidate beat. Bloom's reporter quickly captivates Eleanor with stories of her hardscrabble South Dakota girlhood. At 13, she suffered the loss of her mother, then was raped by her father. Striking out on her own, she found work and camaraderie among circus freaks (far less monstrous than her family) and eventually became a successful journalist and noted raconteur—always with "good-looking women sitting on my knee." After FDR's win, Hick moves into the White House, living in a bedroom that adjoins Eleanor's. Years later, she awaits Eleanor's arrival in Manhattan, recalling their inaugural assignation: "We kissed as if we were in the midst of a cheering crowd, with rice and rose petals raining down on us." Deprecatingly, she declares that "Eleanor and I were no one's favorite secret." But White Houses gainsays such humility: Bloom makes Hick and Eleanor each other's favorite secret. In private, Hick confides, "We were beauties. We were goddesses. We were the little girls we'd never been: loved, saucy, delighted, and delightful."
— Liesl Schillinger