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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