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A Career in Pursuit of the First Lady of Surprises

Books: Biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook continues to uncover facets of Eleanor Roosevelt.

July 27, 1999|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

By the time Blanche Wiesen Cook completes the final volume of her acclaimed three-book biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, she will have spent about 20 years writing about the former first lady.

The lure?

"This is the first time all of my interests come together. And Eleanor Roosevelt is really a woman for our time. Every issue on the agenda in her time is an issue on the agenda right now," says Cook, a diplomatic historian and peace activist.

She mentions specifically Roosevelt's advocacy of a national health care plan, a first-rate public education for all children, social justice and international peace. As Cook has toured the country promoting "Eleanor Roosevelt: Vol. 2" (Viking), she says she has found "people are really tired of the politics of cruelty. Everywhere I've gone, people have responded with such warmth to Eleanor Roosevelt's vision, which was to make things better for all people."

She quotes Roosevelt's denunciation of skimpy funding for the education of black children: "How stupid we are. We're all going to go ahead together, or we're all going to go down together." Cook adds, "I think that's the challenge for this moment in every community."

The 58-year-old biographer, a New York native and history professor at City University of New York's John Jay College, says she is encouraged by Hillary Rodham Clinton's planned run for a U.S. Senate seat in New York. When Eleanor Roosevelt was asked to run for office, Cook notes, "She said, 'I'd rather be chloroformed.' "

Still, Cook thinks Roosevelt would be "sort of delighted" to see Clinton run--now that there is an organized women's movement to provide support, something that didn't exist for Roosevelt.

A Woman of Uncommon Charisma

Cook and "ER," as Cook calls her throughout the books, met when Cook was student council president at Hunter College. The writer recalls, "This was the halcyon days of the civil rights movement. . . . She was very pleased and encouraged us to think about civil rights and to be activists"--and to support the antinuclear movement.

But what Cook remembers most clearly is "just her energy. She was 60 at the time and had the most luminous blue eyes, and when she entered the room the energy of the room actually changed, the level just zipped up. And when she was talking to you, she was talking only to you, and she was always so interested. She really had an incredible gift."

Vol. 1 was a bestseller, a fact attributable in some measure to its disclosure that Roosevelt may have had an affair with New York state trooper Earl Miller, who guarded President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and may have had a lesbian relationship with Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok. In Vol. 2, Cook further explores the Roosevelt-Hickok relationship, stopping short of characterizing it as sexual--"I leave it up to the readers."

Cook says, "Some people say to me, 'Well, these are Victorian women, or these are Edwardian women . . . [or] these letters don't mean what they seem to mean,' which seems a very silly idea to me because these are professional writers who are used to writing precisely what they mean to write. So when Eleanor Roosevelt writes, 'I can't wait to lie down beside you and take you in my arms,' I have no reason to believe that's some Edwardian code for something else. And if it were, what would it be?"

Roosevelt and "Hick" frequently vacationed together and exchanged voluminous correspondence. In one letter Roosevelt writes, "Hick darling: Oh! how good it was to hear your voice. It was so inadequate to try to tell you what it meant. [Eldest son] Jimmy was near & I couldn't say je t'aime et je t'adore as I longed to do. . . ."

Politics and Private Life Are Entertwined

Cook's interest, she says, is that of historian, not voyeur: "We didn't know that she had a private life. And one of the things that I discovered was that Eleanor Roosevelt worked very, very hard to have a private life. People always say, 'Why do you spend time on that? Why don't you just tell us about her wonderful politics?' It's really a strange thing to ask of a biographer.

"Eleanor Roosevelt's entire politics, which is so much why we study her, was fueled by love--and love is an experiential thing. It's not an abstraction. So it really matters that she had love in her life and a support network of people who were devoted to her. . . . FDR has his court. She has her court. He has his live-in companions; she has her live-in companions."

And the media of the time was discreet and respectful. Cook observes, "We've gone from the imperial Presidency to the captive Presidency," a hypocritical time of "demonization of consensual sex, a new level of politics that I think is frankly strange and really disturbing." She suggests most presidents have had extramarital alliances--except maybe Herbert Hoover, "and he weighed 300 pounds."

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