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Book review: "Eleanor Roosevelt vol.3" by Blanche Wiesen Cook

Book Review: "Eleanor and Hick"

ERandHickThe first half of the book was an excellent read. Quinn compellingly brought Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok to life while maintaining the objective tone required of historians. I found the second half, when Eleanor and Hick lead mostly separate lives, less interesting because Eleanor seemed to have drifted away from Hick by that point, perhaps because of her First Lady duties. Quinn should also be commended for showing ER's insensitive side at times, instead of glossing over it or simply not mentioning it. ER remains very popular to date and it takes courage to show her in her less savory aspects. (She was only human.)

I had known about Eleanor and Hick through ER's biography by Blanche Wiesen Cook (volumes 1 and 2), so I expected that, but ER's "strong friendships" (infatuations? affairs? the book seems to be on the fence) with the much younger Joe Lash and David Gurewitsch surprised me. I felt ER was a bit pathetic in her pursuit of both Lash and Gurewitsch, whether it was out of a need for pure, platonic companionship or something more physical. (You'll notice that she didn't need Hick that much after FDR died but instead sought other travel companions.)

I was also quite disappointed by the contrast between ER's readiness to help her friends and her more lukewarm concern toward her own children, who were plagued by many emotional issues throughout their lives (many, many marriages, a fondness for alcohol, etc). I suppose that given their parents' marriage, you can't blame them for their complicated love lives.

Overall I liked the book but I also felt ER came across as quite indifferent to her children (admittedly grown) and masterful in shaping public opinion, writing bland columns and coming across as a dowdy matron while she loved a woman (Quinn does point out we'll never know if the relationship was physical or not) and then sought the companionship of younger men. It's an interesting facet of ER, for sure.

Finally, the subtitle "The love affair that shaped a First Lady" was probably chosen by the publisher, given that the love affair recedes in the background in the second half of the book and there isn't much discussion of how that love affair shaped ER, except that it made her happy at the time when ER and Hick were close.

Digression: When I read the part about Joe Lash, I kept thinking I had read that name before, until I realized he wrote the Pulitzer-Prize winning "Eleanor and Franklin" (1971) as well as "Eleanor: The Years Alone" (1972). I had never realized he had been much closer to his subject than is the norm with traditional biographers and I'll have to re-read the books to see if/how he tried to shape the ER legend after her death. Sometimes, even supposedly neutral biographers have less critical distance than you think.

Anyway, I found Eleanor and Hick to be an enjoyable read.


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