Eleanor Roosevelt's gal pal
by Richard Dodds
Was it an "unusually belated schoolgirl crush," as one biographer insisted, or was it a full-throttle erotic lesbian affair? The letters between Eleanor Roosevelt and journalist Lorena Hickok certainly indicate at least a "hugs and kisses" relationship, but the consensus among historians is that its full extent remains inconclusive. Playwright-performer Terry Baum sees nothing inconclusive about it, as she lays out in her solo show Hick: A Love Story.
The play, now at Eureka Theatre, was inspired by the thousands of letters that the two shared between 1933 and Eleanor Roosevelt's death in 1962. We are told that the words we hear in Paula Barish's voice-over recitations come verbatim from Mrs. Roosevelt's letters, but they serve really as accent marks to Baum's monologue as Hick, taken from historical records, correspondence, and, to a large degree, Baum's liberal dramatic license.
Because this significant player in the early days of the Roosevelt administration was largely erased from history, the story is intriguing just for illuminating a world unknown to most of us. But thanks to Baum's skill as a performer and a writer, and to Carolyn Myers' lively direction, Hick (with additional writing by Pat Bond) has dramatic worth beyond the novelty of its story. In a series of scenes set mostly between 1932 and 1934, we learn about this pioneering "gal" reporter who broke gender barriers at the Associated Press. Described by Time magazine at the time as "rumpled, fat, and masculine," Hickok never came out of the closet because she never went in. Not that she was unaware of societal taboos.
"God forgive me for taking my unnatural love to her," Hick says of ER, the nicknames they had for each other. Or at least that is what Baum has Hick saying of ER. When Hick says, "I was born this way," it sounds awfully close to the title of a recent song adopted by the LGBT community. While we hear in one of ER's actual letters that the first lady kissed Hick's photo every night before bed, the play takes the not-unreasonable leap that good old sex was involved. "I'm not just close to the center of power," Hick tells us. "I'm sleeping with the power's wife."
But there is an arc to the story that goes between epistolary sweet nothings and claims of something more. Hick gets too close to the center of power and resigns her beloved job at the AP. And then she alienates ER by becoming too possessive, at one point berating tourists who want to take the first lady's photo, and the burning heat of their relationship is reduced to a simmer – one, however, that continues right up to ER's death in 1962, as she writes a last letter from her hospital bed. A final scene brings us up to 1968, the year of Hick's death, as she weighs what she lost and what she gained from her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt.
Thanks to Baum's strong and inviting performance, we feel we are a party to this intriguing sidebar to history. We now live in a time when kiss-and-tell gossip is a common political pastime, but nobody much seemed to care whom Eleanor Roosevelt was kissing. At least not until now.
Hick: A Love Story will run at Eureka Theatre through July 27. Tickets are free, but reservations must be made at (800) 838-3006 or crackpotcrones.com.