Time first wrote about Lorena Hickok (“Hick” to her friends) in 1934: “She is a rotund lady with a husky voice, a peremptory manner, baggy clothes. In her day one of the country’s best female newshawks, she was assigned to Albany to cover the New York Executive Mansion where she became fast friends with Mrs. Roosevelt.” Imagine reading that description of yourself–and imagine seeing your lover described as your “fast friend.” Hard knocks for Hick.
Amy Bloom has done just that kind of imagining in White Houses, creating a novel out of the long-standing affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and Hickok, which was an open secret inside the White House (as was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s affair with his secretary Missy LeHand). Historians have debated the nature of their relationship, but it’s now generally thought to have been a deep romance. It cost Hickok her job as a reporter for the Associated Press, where she had covered national stories like the Lindbergh kidnapping. But once she fell in love with Eleanor, she couldn’t report objectively on the First Lady. The Roosevelts found her a job as chief investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration; when she wasn’t on the road observing the New Deal at work, she was sleeping in her own room in the White House.
Although their romance was hush-hush in their lifetimes, a trove of correspondence made public late in the 20th century illustrates a deep intimacy. “Oh! I want to put my arms around you. I ache to hold you close,” Eleanor wrote in 1933. These artifacts allowed Bloom to inhabit the mind of a historical figure, somewhat like the could-be Laura Bush in American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld (who is at work on a book imagining Hillary Clinton as never having married Bill). That is the joy of books like these: we can air out the stories history packed away in a dusty attic, try them on for size and experiment with alterations.
“I never envied a wife or a husband, until I met Eleanor,” Bloom’s Hickok says. “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.” Eleanor’s vulnerabilities are brightly imagined, as are her strengths, including that unique capability for compassion that made her so magnetic. But this version of Hickok also sees the imperious side of Eleanor. “It was like having the Statue of Liberty watch you have one beer too many … When I wasn’t the victim, I loved it.” Bloom creates an Eleanor whose pretenses of simplicity–old clothes, rationed food, uncomfortable furniture–signal self-righteousness. For the Hickok character, who in real life grew up in poverty, watching a wealthy woman behave this way produces complicated feelings. But it’s part of their dynamic: “I loved being the brave and battered little dinghy,” Hickok says, looking back on the affair. “She loved being the lighthouse.”
White Houses (which refers to both 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and Hickok’s Long Island cottage) is an unconventional love story. It lacks a happily-ever-after–Bloom does not allow her Hickok and Eleanor to have the public partnership that history denied them–and it centers on a romance between not only two women, but middle-aged ones who are “not conventional beauties,” as Hickok puts it. Yet they feel beautiful when they are together. This makes it all the more painful when the relationship goes on hiatus late in FDR’s presidency. “All fires go out,” Hickok says, explaining her lingering feelings to Franklin. “It doesn’t mean that we don’t still want to sit by the fireplace, I guess.” In White Houses, Bloom has built up exactly the sort of blaze that will draw readers to linger.
This appears in the February 26, 2018 issue of TIME.