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Blanche Wiesen Cook.

"The best of the New Deal was because of Eleanor Roosevelt's activities. She always said, `Government exists for one purpose: to make things better for all people.'"

When Blanche Wiesen Cook published her 1992 biography, Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume I, 1884-1933 (Viking), she was accused of transforming an icon of American liberalism into something in her own image. Members of the Roosevelt family were outraged; other Eleanor Roosevelt biographers screamed. The controversy was something akin to the current row over the Ronald Reagan biography Dutch (Random House, 1999), by Edmund Morris--with one big difference: Cook hadn't made anything up.

During her research, Cook discovered evidence of a passionate friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and a woman journalist named Lorena Hickok--and she wrote about it. Suddenly, the biography was a scandal. But what Cook really did was perform an act of feminist historiography. She looked at Eleanor Roosevelt as a political figure but also examined her personal life, taking seriously the feminist adage "the personal is political." She showed how this woman took the unhappiness of a lonely marriage and transformed it into a passion for social justice. As a reviewer in The Washington Post wrote, "Cook has resurrected a woman who changed the lives of millions."

Cook, an out lesbian and a professor of History and Women's Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University in New York, created a template of how a woman's life should be studied. Now Viking Penguin has just published Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume II: 1933-1938, to much friendlier comment. At a recent book party in Cook's honor, several members of the Roosevelt family were even seen in attendance.

Cook's other works include editing the book Crystal Eastman on Women and Revolution (Oxford, 1978), and writing The Declassified Eisenhower (Doubleday, 1981).

Cook and I are old friends, and we talked recently over lunch at an Italian restaurant near John Jay College.

Q: When did the life of Eleanor Roosevelt first become a passion for you?

Blanche Wiesen Cook: It was shortly after I finished my Eisenhower book in 1981. There was, at that moment, a very meanspirited book about Lorena Hickok that had just come out. This book said something like, "These two ugly, bucktoothed women were so homely they became friends." And that: was all! It really trivialized the relationship--and, indeed, the lives--of two women.

So I reviewed the book, and people said, "Why don't you write more about it?" And I told them, "I don't do that. I do military history and what we used to call foreign economic policy--international economics. That's my field. That's what I like to write about." Peace history is what I was doing.

But then I went to the FDR library, and I found an article Eleanor had written in the beginning of the 1920s that nobody had ever really dealt with or even referred to. She was a very important feminist who wrote incredibly popular articles for publications like Redbook, and she had her own magazine called the Women's Democratic News. She became part of an organization to get the United States into the World Court. She worked with a woman named Esther Lape, who was her best friend and adviser on political issues. There was a whole world of activism that folks really had not paused to deal with. And I thought, "Yes, OK, this is a subject."

Q: Did you immediately feel that, as with so many women, the real substance of Eleanor Roosevelt's life had been erased?

Cook: She had been presented to us as a devoted wife, as a helpmate, and not as an independent person. And what I discovered, which excited me, was that she was a real force early in the 1920s. She had become the leading woman politician in the Democratic Party. But more than that, she was a great bridge from the 1880s social-reform feminists--Florence Kelly, Jane Addams, Lillian Wald. She's the bridge and brings them and their vision directly into the White House in the 1930s. And so she's very involved in the great movements of the twentieth century, not as a long-suffering wife, but as an independent activist with her own network.

Q: So, what did this teach you about the way female historic figures have been treated in the past?

Cook: That we didn't look at their lives and their work. The great contribution from the feminist movement in the 1970s and 1980s was you look at women's lives and their work. To look at Eleanor Roosevelt is to see a woman who worked hard to live a full life. To trivialize that is just no longer acceptable.

However, that's an understandable attitude if folks were taking their lead from Eleanor Roosevelt herself. She said, "Nothing I ever did was important." She said that in her seventies. Well, that's just not true. OK, women in her time were taught to be self-deprecating. And they were self-deprecating. But if you look at the facts, you see that we don't have to believe them all the time. And it's up to us as biographers to give them full credit for what they actually did. In the case of Eleanor Roosevelt, she did so much.

She always said, "Government exists for one purpose: to make things better for all people." But you can't depend on politicians to do anything about that. You need to be part of a movement. And Eleanor Roosevelt was very proud to be part of many movements: the women's movement, the peace movement, the movement for racial justice. She was very close with the leaders of the NAACP. And she brought her allies right into the White House. So really, if you look at my book, you'll see the best of the New Deal was because of Eleanor Roosevelt's activities, and her efforts with the people who were involved in the movements.

Q: The first volume of your trilogy was sharply criticized because you alluded to the possibility that Eleanor Roosevelt had a varied sexual life--that there might have been a love affair between her and Lorena Hickok.

Cook: I was suggesting that Eleanor Roosevelt had love in her life. And I have to say, not everybody got hysterical. But people close to her got hysterical. And it amazes me that people who care about Eleanor Roosevelt prefer to turn their backs on what were very important relationships in her life.

Eleanor Roosevelt had this extraordinary marriage with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who first had an affair with Lucy Mercer, and they recovered from that. And then in 1920, FDR brought Missy Lehand into the Roosevelt hearth.

In 1923, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote an article called "The Women of Tibet," in which she said, "It has been brought to my attention that the women of Tibet have many husbands, which seems to me a very good thing, since so many husbands have so many wives." She was a very competitive woman. She loved the knockabout feel of sports. She hated to lose. She always advised her friends, "If you have to compromise, be sure to compromise up." And it seems to me perfectly understandable that, if he was going to have people in his court, she was going to have people in her court.

Q: But what you did in Volume I was indicate that she had male lovers, and possibly female lovers, at different stages of her life.

Cook: I don't call them lovers. I say that she had these important, abiding, intimate relations. I didn't make anything up. I didn't create conversations. I didn't make up letters that didn't exist. As historians are supposed to do, I quoted from this great resource she left us.

She decided that she was going to leave all of her papers, including her letters with Lorena Hickok, to history. She wrote her daughter, saying, "Anything you don't want history to know, you remove." And her daughter removed many letters. But Eleanor Roosevelt wanted this history known. And she left us letters. I think that if you read them with an open mind, you see that the letters to Lorena Hickok are absolutely love letters. If you look at her relationship with Earl Miller (a New York state trooper who was her bodyguard), there are no love letters. We have no way of knowing now what that relationship really was. Somebody got rid of those letters. I don't think Anna Roosevelt did, but somebody did. They come up again in 1948 when Earl Miller is being sued for divorce. His wife says she has letters, and she uses these letters in the divorce record, but we can't find them. So they're gone.

Q: A lot of reviewers went berserk when you wrote of Earl Miller and Lorena Hickok. Why?

Cook: In 1992, we lived in a world that had less imagination than it does now. When Volume I came out, I had hate calls on every single radio talk show I did. In 1999, when Volume Two came out, I had no hate calls at all. I think the world has really changed.

Q: Have we become more sophisticated about sexuality?

Cook: Our culture has become more sophisticated--and more accepting. And I think, frankly, several things have helped that. One is Oprah. Oprah makes it clear, you know, a dysfunctional family is a family with more than one member--and there's a lot of complexity in people's lives. And then there's Ellen DeGeneres, who brought onto network TV the very moral and ordinary lives of gay and lesbian people. Another factor is that while the right wing tried to use scandal to destroy the Presidency, it's clear the American people had a big heart. They didn't want a scandal to destroy a Presidency. Not a scandal of consensual sex. And the way we have been writing history for the past ten or twenty years has made a difference. So people were ready for what was in Volume II.

Q: So in eight years' time, society really did open up?

Cook: Yes, I think it's been changing. And the feminist movement and the gay and lesbian movement have contributed to that change over time. Now we see the results of that change.

But life is a daily struggle. Look at the social justice issues Eleanor Roosevelt addressed. Her first speech on segregation and education was May 11, 1934. She presented this speech at a moment when the educators of America condemned segregation for the first time, unanimously. Twenty years later, the Supreme Court agreed. But today, we're resegregating all over the country, and we're withdrawing funds for the first time from public education in a way that we have never done as a nation before. For people in the political movement, it's a daily, constant struggle until we have real justice and harmony in this country and on this planet. But I think there have been some great changes.

Q: As a historian, what do you make of the Edmund Morris book on Ronald Reagan?

Cook: I think what he did was so appalling. I mean, if he called his book on Reagan a biomythography, or fiction, that would be fine. But to present it as a biography is just grotesque. And I think it does cheapen the craft, because it raises the question, "What do you believe here?"

I worked very, very hard as a historian to get documents declassified. We're in a world of great secrecy. When I was researching The Declassified Eisenhower, everything about 1950s Guatemala, Iran, and Lebanon was all secret. And so we organized something called the Fund for Open Information and Accountability, FOIA, Inc., to keep the Freedom of Information Act alive. As a historian, my lifelong goal has been to open the closed doors to secrecy so we in a democracy can make informed decisions based on reality and not on myth. And, as a biographer, it seems to me so important to tell the truth as we know it. Not to make things up. There's always the question of interpretation, "How do you interpret these facts?" But don't create it! Don't make it up and really celebrate the fictionalization or the fraud!

Q: Can you possibly imagine what was on Morris's mind?

Cook: I think he had a nervous breakdown. And he shared his nervous breakdown with his readers. You know, trying to understand Ronald Reagan sent him over the edge. I mean, who was Ronald Reagan when he was President? Who was making some of those decisions? That's what I'd like to know. Morris tells us he doesn't want to deal with politics, so there's very little politics in the book. It's like dealing with a musician and not talking about the music. It's like writing a biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay and not writing about poetry. Excuse me?

Q: How did you feel after having finished your second volume of Eleanor Roosevelt?

Cook: I was really depleted after finishing this book. You're living somebody else's life. You're trying desperately to understand how that person thought, what was the impact of this or that. And you're not only writing about a life, you're writing about the times. And these were not very pleasant times--1933 through 1938. I must say, I am personally very grateful to Martin Gilbert, because after he wrote six volumes of his Churchill biography, which are so marvelous, he then wrote several volumes on the Holocaust. All the while I was writing Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume H, I kept thinking, "I have to write about the U.S. and Nazi Europe. That's what I really have to write about." And now I don't, because Martin Gilbert felt he had to do that after writing about Churchill.

But I have a very bitter chapter in my book called "The Silence Beyond Repair." It's almost impossible to understand: the silence, the prevarication, the fact that the U.S. supplied Nazi Europe with arms and ammunition and materiels for war. It's a very hideous story, really.

Q: There are many people who look at this part of the New Deal story and can't accept it.

Cook: Yes, it's amazing. Not only can't they see it, but they write absurd articles about how FDR did everything possible to save people, to condemn Nazism. And when you look at 1933 to 1939, well, it just isn't the case.

I think a context has to be considered here, and that is the Cold War context of the 1930s. Hitler said his first intention was to destroy communism, and, by the way, his second intention was to destroy Jews. There really was no American opposition to his idea of destroying communism--that seemed like a very good idea.

And then there's the political reality that fully 40 percent of the voting population of the United States in the 1930s was of German extraction. Jews made up less than 2 percent of the population. So, when you ask yourself why, in an election year, in October 1934, did FDR present greetings to the Nazi Bund at a rally in Madison Square Garden a month before the election, it's not irrelevant to look at the demographics.

But the real story here is on immigration. There's a book by David Wyman [Paper Walls (University of Massachusetts, 1968)] that is really an important historical analysis of what happened. From 1924 on, we had an immigration policy that was very meanspirited. During the height of the Great Depression, when so many people were unemployed and out of work and hungry and homeless, we did not want to open the doors to more immigrants. Even though these European immigrants would have started businesses. Which is something Eleanor Roosevelt actually argued: These are people who will generate work and hire other people. It would have been so easy to have saved people. At one point, I wasn't even going to finish this book.

Q: Because you were so disappointed in the Roosevelts?

Cook: Well, I was ... it was too depressing. There seemed to be no reaction at all to these enormous events happening in Europe. And it was very demoralizing to me. And then I started looking at refugee records. And once I looked at the refugee records, that's where I discovered Eleanor Roosevelt's great efforts to get people out, to get them visas, to find them sanctuary. She has this remarkable correspondence with college presidents: "I know this nice Jewish girl. Won't you take her into your school?" She really did an extraordinary amount. But always too little, too late.

Q: What are the difficulties a biographer faces when immersed in the life of another?

Cook: The greatest difficulty was time. Eleanor Roosevelt worked twenty hours a day. And she did so much every single day. To recreate her day meant that I was working twenty hours a day. I'm an activist anyway--but then I was stimulated to do the kinds of things that she did. So I was writing about her activism, and I was also trying to do it. It was exhausting trying to recreate her life.

She was a great outdoorswoman and a great athlete. So, with my partner, Clare Coss, we tried to go where she had gone. We rode horses and trekked, snowshoed, climbed mountains. We tried for three years, just the two of us, to hike the High Sierras. There's a marvelous lake, which is about 12,000 feet up, called Lake Roosevelt. Clare and I tried to go there ourselves. We were turned back one time by lightning bouncing off our boots. Anyway, we finally got to go with a woman named Betty Stone O'Neill, who's a biographer of Carl Sharsmith [Mountain Sage: The Life Story of Carl Sharsmith, Yosemite Ranger, Naturalist (Albicaulis Press, 1988)]. I called her and said, "We're trying to get to Lake Roosevelt, would you please come with us?" She said, "Who are you?" And I told her. And she said, "Well, I'm reading your book." And so she really made it easy for us to get to Carl Sharsmith, who had taken Eleanor Roosevelt around Yosemite. We forged a path up to Lake Roosevelt. That was our happiest moment.

Q: What was life like for your partner, Clare, while you were writing this eighteen-year thing?

Cook: I'm very fortunate to be with Clare because she's both a playwright and a psychotherapist. Her sense of drama and her keen understanding of human emotions have been very wonderful. She's been really the co-conspirator throughout and also the chief editor on Volume II. As a result of her work, she decided to write some ten-minute plays of hex own. And they are opening January 26 at Theater Four in New York City, co-produced by Julia Miles and Woody King. The performance is called Taking Our Place in Time: Scenes from the Twentieth Century. And that's just a great bonus of this book.

Q: How did you meet Clare?

Cook: At a Women's International League for Peace and Freedom meeting while we were both anti-war activists protesting the war in Vietnam. And we left our husbands for each other. Thirty-two years ago. It was a daring thing to do. But we fell in love, and I realized that was the first time I had ever really been in love. It was a very unique and different feeling.

I had been a lesbian from the time I was two--that's a joke. But I knew that I was a lesbian, even though in those days we all thought we had to get married. That's what lesbians did, at least in our crowd.

Q: What was the difference between being gay before the movement and after?

Cook: It was much more private. We had gay friends. We had a gay world to live in. You know, we had bars and dinner parties and our little circle of friends.

Q: Could you be publicly gay thirty-two years ago?

Cook: Well, not immediately. I think there was a great big closet back then. And it took a long time for folks to be public about who they were, and to enjoy the great diversity of being in our culture. The movement happened later. And then there was a network and books and great poetry. For some of us, it meant we didn't have to do it all anymore.

Young people are so much more fluid now as they explore who they are. There's more freedom to be who you really are, and not live a cramped and stingy life. And to get back to Eleanor Roosevelt, she tells us how not to do so. One woman in Colorado who interviewed me for a television show afterwards said, "If anybody says anything mean to you about Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, just remember: They're jealous. Women grow up to live such stingy, cramped lives." And that really gave me pause. Because, you know, women who went to college thirty, forty years ago had very few options. Today, we have many options. And we forget how we got this far. It happened because of a movement. It happened at The New York Times because they had a women's committee there, what was the name of that woman who was the editor of the Woman's Page in the 1960s and 1970s?

Q: Charlotte Curtis.

Cook: Charlotte Curtis. I just read a stupid review of a book that said she wasn't a feminist! Charlotte Curtis was a feminist, who called people like me up and said, "I want some women to write for The New York Times." And feminists like Charlotte made it happen. Look at how women-friendly and gay-friendly The New York Times is. Now that's a revolution.

Yet, there's still a struggle. I never thought I'd see the Taliban in Afghanistan. That's backlash. All over the world, there is backlash and violence against women. And we've got to fight the backlash. But today we're much better organized to fight.

Q: Hillary Rodham Clinton was rumored to have invoked the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt when she got blue or needed inspiration. Has Mrs. Clinton been in touch with you at all?

Cook: She has told me that she wants me to be involved with her Senatorial campaign, and I would like to be. I'd be very happy to write her campaign speeches if she wants to walk in Eleanor Roosevelt's shoes, because we know what Eleanor Roosevelt would say. We know what she did say. But Hillary Rodham Clinton really has to start taking some stands on the great issues if she wants to walk in Eleanor Roosevelt's shoes. She has to begin to think the way Eleanor Roosevelt thought.

Q: Well, I understand that Hillary Rodham Clinton has asked you about some of Eleanor's behaviors.

Cook: Hillary Rodham Clinton serves very exquisite food at the White House. And she did ask if it was true that Eleanor Roosevelt served gruel at White House dinners. I have a very interesting chapter which is called "Eleanor Roosevelt's Revenge: Henrietta Nesbitt." This is my attempt to understand Eleanor Roosevelt's colder aspects. She did get back at FDR on a regular basis by serving really dreadful food. I told Hillary Rodham Clinton my theory: that this was Eleanor Roosevelt's way to torment her gourmet husband on an almost regular basis. And she said, "Oh, I would never do that!"

So one can only assume she is more direct when displeased.

Claudia Dreifus's latest book is "Interview" (Seven Stories, 1997). She interviewed Julian Bond in the August 1998 issue.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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