Did Ken Burns “in” Eleanor Roosevelt?

I watched Ken Burns’ wonderful documentary “The Roosevelts” last week, and I finally understood why there are all those rumors about Eleanor Roosevelt being gay.

Eleanor has some quite intimate friendships with other women, including a lesbian couple. And while that doesn’t make her gay any more than it makes my straight friends gay for knowing me, if you have any gaydar at all, it likely was set off, at least a bit, by Burns’ telling of it.

The thing is, Burns didn’t mention the rumors. While he did mention Franklin’s youthful indiscretions, at length. Which raises a few questions. But let me first quote Mike Signorile, who had the same thought I did, and wrote about it today:

It’s long been discussed that Eleanor Roosevelt had a close and deep relationship with the Associated Press reporter, Lorena Hickok, with whom she went on a road trip, alone, across the country, and who even had a room in the White House for a time — and those facts are included in the series. Also included is the fact that Eleanor had friends and colleagues with whom she organized on women’s issues who were lesbians, some of them in deeply committed relationships.

Eleanor Roosevelt. Photo by Underwood & Underwood, via the Library of Congress.

Eleanor Roosevelt. Photo by Underwood & Underwood, via the Library of Congress.

But the way Burns treats all of this is to discuss Eleanor and Hickok as close and intimate “friends” — he has Doris Kearns Goodwin telling us Hickok was “in love” with Eleanor, almost as if it was one-sided — but never using the “L” word, or even raising the possibility of sex, seeming to view that as sleazy.Burns even admitted as much, reiterating what he’d said in a talk at the Television Critics Association in July, in an answer to a question at a discussion at the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago in September:

I assume when you say a relationship you are assuming that there was a sexual relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. We have no evidence whatsoever of that, and none of the historians and experts believe it. This is an intimate [look at the Roosevelts] not a tabloid and we just don’t know … We have to be very careful because sometimes we want to read into things that aren’t there.

Tabloid? Franklin’s extra-marital affairs are fair historical game, but Eleanor’s would be “tabloid”? Other than the fact that Eleanor had six children, you’d never even know from the documentary that she’d ever had sex — in contrast to the treatment of Franklin.

As an aside, you can read on Wikipedia, and elsewhere, more information as to why some scholars, including one who was interviewed by Burns on the show, think Eleanor had a sexual, or lesbian at least, even if it wasn’t sexual per se, relationship with other women.

I understand to a degree why Burns said “tabloid,” though the word stil strikes me as offensive. It still is quite an allegation to suggest publicly that a famous American is gay, when they’ve never acknowledged the fact. It’s a much bigger deal than simply talking about Franklin’s opposite-sex affairs (especially since the affairs are already known). So, the fact that A) it’s still not publicly acknowledged that Eleanor was in fact gay, and B) such an acknowledgement would be big news, both require, perhaps, a higher threshold of reporting than simply circumstantial evidence. Perhaps.

But why? Isn’t any exploration of history a compilation of circumstantial evidence? Surely, there’s direct evidence — the writings or recordings of the individual in question, or even their admissions to trusted third parties. But we also look at the totality of the experience and evidence, and attempt to deduce more about the person.

Burns’ documentary definitely attempted to deduce a lot of what was going on in the heads of Teddy, Eleanor and Franklin. Burns even looked into the issue of “why” Franklin was so enamored with certain of his paramours. Is it that far a leap, then, to have a respected historian opine as to Eleanor’s perhaps non-platonic extramarital motivations as well?

Are we still at the point where deducing that someone is gay — or at least dabbled — is sensational?

Official White House portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Official White House portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Look at how the press treats the question as to whether non-admittedly-gay members of Congress are gay? They avoid it all together, as if it’s something far too personal and salacious to ever even consider discussing. This, even though the members of Congress in question — Lindsey Graham and Aaron Schock come to mind as two who have long been the subject of rumors — are decidedly anti-gay in their public person, which would make their being gay, were they gay, not just news, but intensely relevant.

It’s almost a homophilic-homophobia guiding the media and the historians. They’re so pro-gay, they’re almost anti-gay. They treat being gay as something salacious, something “tabloid.” And then justify their silence, in many cases, by a sense that they’re actually protecting the gay person in question, and all gays, by not talking about how gay they really are, because that would be bad, even though they think it’s actually quite good.

The logic is convoluted, and painful; and ultimately I suspect, unhelpful.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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  • Moderator3

    Full disclosure: many of our regular commenters are straight.

  • B McFick

    Full disclosure: I’m straight, and I only found out about this blog post by Googling “was Eleanor Roosevelt gay” after seeing most of the Ken Burns documentary and wondering if everybody but me already knew for a fact that she was gay (or bisexual to be more accurate).

    So take my opinion for what it’s worth to you – I don’t encounter the daily bias that I’m sure you face as a homosexual, so it is a possibility that I’m simply not as attuned to recognizing that bias.

    But I still want to say that I don’t see the offenses that you’re seeing here. As I have said, I have watched most of the documentary now, certainly the parts concerning the close relationships both Franklin and Eleanor had with other women, and I honestly don’t understand why you think the treatment of Eleanor’s relationships has been any different than the treatment of Franklin’s. From what I’ve seen, in both cases the documentary has stopped short of explicitly claiming that either had sex with other women. In both cases, the documentary has presented quotes from letters to or from their potential lovers, has mentioned when they stayed alone in a home with potential lovers, and has otherwise discussed their relationships in the same manner. The only real difference I can see is the initial incident in which Eleanor found out that Franklin was seeing her former social secretary, and her reaction seemed to indicate strongly that the relationship was a sexual one. I am not saying that the documentary treats this incident any differently than the rest of the evidence that Franklin and Eleanor had extramarital affairs with other women – I am saying that this is an added piece of evidence revealing the probably that Franklin had affairs while there is no such equivalent incident to indicate that Eleanor had affairs.

    I also think it’s possible you’re reading too much into the “tabloid” comment Ken Burns made. I don’t think he was referring to the possibility of Eleanor’s homosexuality as something so scandalous that only some sleazy, sensationalistic tabloid would cover it. I think what he was saying was only that as a historian, he feels a responsibility to present only what is known without conjecture. A tabloid reporter is free to report his own interpretation of the facts and not the facts alone. Ken Burns is saying a historian shouldn’t do that, but should rather report the facts and leave the interpretation up to the audience. Personally, I think that is just what he has done for both Eleanor and Franklin.

  • rerutled

    I think the distinguishing consideration would hinge on the contents of their love letters – since these are largely the surviving evidence on which the basis of a sexual vs. non-sexual relationship question turns. What is required would be a textual comparison between the love letters between Franklin and Lucy (for example), and those between Eleanor and Lorena. If there is little textual difference, then there really is no basis for concluding Franklin was in a sexual relationship with Lucy, while not concluding the same regarding Eleanor and Lorena. From what is presented of these letters in the Burns documentary, it seems to me Burns has made an historical mistake.

  • dcinsider

    Did we ever see FDR have sex with anyone? Are there pictures that the two had sex? In other words, aren’t FDR’s sexual relationships just as speculative as Eleanor’s?

  • dcinsider

    Well said.

  • jomicur

    Antonia Fraser, no slouch as a historian/biographer, posited in her biography of James I that if there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence that a given figure was gay, we should accept the fact that he/she really was gay or bi until convincing evidence to the contrary emerges. That has always struck me as a reasonable, common sense approach to the issue. Quite obviously there is no 100%hard, irrefutable evidence, e.g. a sex tape, for any historical figure, but in many cases there is quite a preponderance of evidence.

    But even in cases where there is fairly firm evidence, a great many historians (not all of them straight) try to argue it out of existence. To take one example, there exists a letter from Henry James to Hendrik Andersen that contains the following: “I think of you yearningly, helplessly… My weak arms can still enfold you close, I am yours, dearest Hendrik, immensely.” That appears to be pretty strong evidence of an erotic relationship between the two men, yet large numbers of “James scholars” insist rather vehemently that the man wasn’t gay, couldn’t possibly have been gay, that they were just “great and good friends.” Of course, if you accept that kind of argument, then NO historical figures were ever gay, which is self-evident nonsense.

    Straight is always the default position. And in the case of historical figures, we’re fighting an uphill battle.

  • GarySFBCN

    What evidence?

    March 9, 1933, Eleanor wrote from the White House to Lorena: “My Pictures are nearly all up & I have you in my sitting room where I can look at you most of my waking hours! I can’t kiss you [in person] so I kiss your picture good night and good morning,”

    December 5, 1933, Lorena wrote to Eleanor: ” Most clearly I remember your eyes, with a kind of teasing smile in them, and the feeling of that soft spot just northeast of the corner of your mouth against my lips.”

    See what I posted below. It is because of homophobic historians that the myth of Eleanor not being lesbian or bi-sexual persists.

    If it walks like a duck…

  • Who said Lindsey Graham deserves his privacy?

  • But we speculate about history all the time. There was a lot of speculation in that show, about Teddy’s and Franklin’s and Eleanor’s motivations for the various things they did. Eleanor had some very unusually close relationships with women, for a first lady. Sleeping together in a dorm-room style bungalo? I thought that was a bit odd. As was traveling around the country together for a month. Free-spirited, Thelma and Louise ish, yes. But still a bit odd.

  • markpkessinger

    Franklin’s extra-marital affairs are fair historical game, but Eleanor’s would be “tabloid”?

    I don’t think that’s really the issue. There is simply much more evidence of the fact that Franklin’s ‘friendships’ with various other women were, in fact, extra-marital affairs. With regard to Eleanor and ‘Hick,’ while there is certainly a strong case to be made, that case is still, strictly speaking, a speculative one.

  • GarySFBCN

    I saw a great play about this: “Hick: A love story.” I was written, produced and acted by members of a small, women’s theatrical company (Crackpot Crone)s and it was very informative. Much of the dialog was 100% unedited words from 2,336 letters that Eleanor wrote to Lorena, most of which are public.

    Here is a short video about the play:

    http://youtu.be/qeND1a38FcQ

    And here is a sample of one letters from another site, Eleanor to Lorena:

    “Hick darling,

    All day I’ve thought of you & another birthday I will be with you, & yet tonite you sounded so far away & formal. Oh! I want to put my arms around you. I ache to hold you close. Your ring is a great comfort to me. I look at it and think she does love me, or I wouldn’t be wearing it.”

    http://www.sappho.com/letters/e_roosevelt.html

    And yes, it is homophobia. And while I’m ranting, I think Ken Burns is overrated. While I’m happy with the subjects he chooses and some of his research, the tired formula needs new direction.

  • GlendaCBush

    my best friends sister got yellow Mercedes-Benz G-Class G63 AMG by working part-time off of a macbook. why not try this out genuinemoney.com

  • Hue-Man

    Does PBS have a gay problem? I complained last year that “The Ghost Army” had all these creative young soldiers, including Bill Blass, doing creative things to creatively mislead the Germans about Allied military strength and locations yet didn’t say the word “gay” even once in the documentary. I felt the same way watching The Roosevelts, that somehow if PBS said lesbian or gay that it would make it so (BTW, I detest their constant use of “partner”). Burns could have taken the approach suggested here: have a talking head address the L-word issue by saying ER had close relationships with lesbians but there is no evidence in the historical record that she herself was a lesbian (or something like that).

    Completely opposite, tonight’s The Boomer List had three out people – Rosie O’Donnell, Peter Staley, and David LaChapelle – frankly telling their stories including the impact AIDS had on their lives. The only way I can explain the PBS schizophrenia is that they believe that there were no LGBT people in existence before 1980….

  • caphillprof

    A friend’s mother lived to 103. She was a putative Christian Scientist but the kind of Christian Scientist who would accept the intervention of doctors as a last resort but then would deny the intervention and insist that she was cured by prayer. In her later year she had anemia and after a passage of time would become rundown. They’d take her off to Sibley Hospital, she’d be given a blood transfusion and in a few days would be back to normal. This occurred multiple times in the last decades. But if you asked she’d tell you that the doctors and Sibley had nothing to do with it; her return to health was prayer.

    There is this double standard which we cannot even now overcome–in journalism, in academia, in politics, in many, many places. You cannot prove to many folk that someone is or was homosexual regardless of the evidence presented. During the decades of U.S. military witch hunts, heterosexual men could be labelled successfully as homosexual and mustered out, while outrageously homosexual guys would be retained. Western academics so thoroughly censored out the love that dared not speak its name that the in the 20th century it became a cottage industry resurrecting the Greek classics and Attic art–all those vases hidden away in the storage closets of the Met. Yet even then academics would go to their graves in denial. You simply cannot read Whitman and not know his physical love for young men and yet it’s still controversial to speak of Whitman as homosexual.

    At some point we need to turn the table and pillory certain folk for their inability to conclusively proof their putative heterosexuality.

  • jamesnimmo

    Convoluted is certainly the right word. Our enemies try to put us back in the closet by saying they’re protecting us from unwanted publicity. We can decide for ourselves what’s wanted and unwanted.

  • MerryMarjie

    Although we have no public information about the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, I remember reading several books about the Roosevelts and it was said that when Eleanor discovered Franklin’s infidelity, she agreed to stay with him but she never again allowed him in her bed. I’m sure she was bound by convention at the time (no divorce, ever, in “nice” families) and understood the political ramifications of a divorce in FDR’s career, and so she turned to women friends for the lost affection. Whether it was sexual or not may never be known, but she was as human as any woman and probably had no inclination or desire to have an affair of her own with a man. I think that in those days, women together weren’t “suspect” in any way because homosexuality was not freely discussed, and so she was unconstrained in creating satisfactory relationships outside of marriage with her own gender.

    In all honesty, she made a remarkable career for herself during Roosevelt’s time in office, and later after his death. I’ve read all the jokes and personal digs about her and yet I do so admire that woman. None of her personal life means a whit to me, but her accomplishments will live forever.

  • Indigo

    There were rumors . . . but not much has been made of them over the years. Possibly, she was bisexual but more importantly, she was deeply committed to women’s rights. (Why must every strong woman be lesbian, after all?) At the other end of that spectrum, I think the narrator should have mentioned those rumors, they buzzed around even in those days, suggesting she was romantically involved with other women. But no, he edited it out and in that sense, I’m with John in saying that he “in’d” her.

    But in the “in-ing” closet, I’ve heard American literature professors vehemently denounce as “schizophrenic nonsense” the mere suggestion that Walt Whitman was gay, ignoring the textual evidence of many sermons of the day denouncing him as a “sodomite” in no uncertain terms. Even now, there are professors who read “Leaves of Grass” but do not pick up on the homophilia packed into poem after poem after poem.

    So yes, the professoriate “in-s” and “out-s” with little regard for factual evidence. Fortunately, contemporary Gay Studies programs have made an effort to rescue Walt Whitman from the closet, although not yet entirely successfully. For reasons I don’t pretend to understand, the same cannot be said for Eleanor Roosevelt in the Women’s Studies programs.

  • larry longmore

    Except for the Trump level of ridiculous his combover has achived Will was a lot less objectionable than I expected. I only wanted to punch my TV a couple of times. Alterman though, that F’er damn near cost me a new TV when he so badly misunderstood (Oh, I believe he understood it but chose to misrepresent it) FDRs “The only thing we have to fer is fear itself” as proof that FDR was out of touch with the very real problems of average Americans.

  • larry longmore

    So Lindsey Graham deserves his privacy but Elenore does not? Is that because she is dead? FDRs affairs were admitted to by contemporaries (and in truth Burns ignored several obvious ones that were not admitted) had Hick left a diary or they had been observed by some third party that recorded the event then I’d agree it was history. But the difference is not gay/straight it is admitted/conjecture.

  • Bubbles

    I think it would have been a distraction. All the things she did and accomplish and all people would be talking about is whether or not she was gay. I don’t think it would serve her.

    There was also an incident with a guy that worked for Roosevelt, Sumner Welles I think, who was gay, and FDR had no problems with this, and was quite angry when someone threatened to “out” him. We didn’t hear that story either. Again, it’ would be a distraction.

    There were some minor problems with “The Roosevelts”. At one point they claimed that allies had crossed the Rhine, before the battle of the Bulge. The history was a little shakie.

  • nicho

    Yeah, Wills was a huge turd in an otherwise fine punchbowl.

  • Quilla

    Here’s a different perspective: Many, many women find deep friendships with other women after having children and/or growing tired of their husbands that are not necessary lesbian in nature. I’m glad Eleanor had her passions, good works and women friends, and whether she were gay or not is of no concern to me. I did not see from Burns’ documentary nor read in multiple bios that she was ever anti-gay; quite the opposite. So, meh, who cares?

    The hours I spent watching this amazing family were well worth it but, must confess, used the mute button whenever George Will or Eric Alterman were puffering…

  • S1AMER

    I’ve long been convinced that Eleanor and Hickok were lovers in every sense of the word. But I also know that we lack positive proof of that. And, further, I know that it’s usually a major mistake to read personal letters of the past through the prism of current sensitivities.

    I have no problem with the way Burns covered the two. He avoided talking heads debating “was she?” or “wasn’t she?” But he let Eleanor’s words speak to us, and let us know how important Hickok was in her life at the time. We can imagine events beyond that as we choose.

    No Burns didn’t “in” Eleanor. Nor, really, should he have “outed” her, unless we have some actual recorfd or even serious hint of multiple relationships that had a profound impact on the public and political Eleanor. Hickok and an actual lesbian couple were extraordinarily important to her and in her life, obviously — but, historically speaking, the most important thing to remember about Eleanor is what she did with and through her husband, and on her own in her later years. She could have left Franklin, but she chose to use the public attention his position gave her to work for other women, and for minorities, and later for peace in the world.

    To me, watching 14 hours that necessarily omit so much from the story of these three lives, I’m impressed mightily by how much Burns was able to cover.

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