On March 4, 1933, the day Franklin Delano Roosevelt took his first oath of office as president, his wife Eleanor wore a ring she had recently been given by journalist Lorena Hickok. A couple of days later, after the two women chatted by phone, the new first lady wrote to her friend:
"Ah, how good it was to hear your voice … Jimmy [her oldest son] was near and I couldn't say je t'aime et je t'adore [I love you and I adore you] as I longed to do, but always remember I am saying it, that I go to sleep thinking of you."
Eleanor Roosevelt wrote more than 2,300 letters to Hickok over three decades, letters the recipient donated to the National Archives, along with more than 1,000 of hers to Roosevelt. This correspondence trove forms the foundation of "Hick: A Love Story," which opens this week at Baltimore Theatre Project in a production from the Lilith Theater of San Francisco.
"The evidence is in the letters that Eleanor wrote," says Terry Baum, who wrote and stars in the one-woman play, portraying Hickok. "She and Hick [the journalist's nickname] had a sexual relationship. When they were lovers, her bedroom at the White House was in Eleanor's dressing room. Later, she had a bedroom across the hall from Eleanor."
To the Los Angeles-born, San Francisco-based Baum, there is no doubt about any of this, no reason to tread delicately around the subject.
"Eleanor Roosevelt was, in my opinion, the greatest American woman of the 20th century," says Baum, 69. "But because she's thought of in this saintly way, some people have said it's wrong to talk about her private life in public. Or they say there's no real evidence of a lesbian affair. It's homophobic to say this besmirches Eleanor's reputation. I think it's the exact opposite."
The letters certainly are vivid.
At one point in 1933, when the women were apart, Roosevelt wrote: "I can't kiss you so I kiss your picture good night and good morning." A year later: "I wish I could lie down beside you tonight and take you in my arms."
And to Roosevelt from an out-of-town Hickok: "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 ... I want to [kiss you there]. And in a little more than a week now — I shall!"
As Jonathan Ned Katz wrote in his 1983 book "Gay/Lesbian Almanac," "If two men were known to have engaged in exactly the same activities, and written the same love letters, there would be no question about the appropriateness of the label 'homosexual.'"
But a quick trip to a library or a little spelunking through Google quickly turns up cases of historians and biographers steering well clear of that label.
For a long time, the standard line was that the Roosevelt/Hickok friendship merely demonstrates a later-in-life version of passionate, but innocent, schoolgirl crushes like those in Victorian times, when both women were born.
In the past couple of decades, there have been books that more directly acknowledge the closeness of the relationship, but still stop short of acknowledging that anything sexual could have happened.
Two books published in 2010, Hazel Rowley's "Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage" and Maurine H. Beasley's "Eleanor Roosevelt: Transformative First Lady," went much further.
Reviewing them for the New York Review of Books, Russell Baker wrote: "That the Hickok relationship was indeed erotic now seems beyond dispute considering what is known about the letters they exchanged."
As voluminous as the correspondence was, they are not complete.
"Hick burned a lot of the letters," Baum says. "We don't know if they were more explicit."
Enough was apparent when the friendship was at its peak during the 1930s to generate gossip, which Roosevelt shrugged off, telling Hickok: "I care so little about what 'they' say."
Other than a few hints — a 1934 Time magazine piece, for example, noted Hickok's "husky voice" and "baggy clothes" and said she had "gone around" with the first lady — discretion ruled in the press.
"There were boundaries the press was not willing to cross in the 1930s," says Johns Hopkins University history professor Angus Burgin. "Today, there is a willingness to scrutinize every aspect of the private lives of public officials and consider those aspects newsworthy."
Although contemporary politicians might get that scrutiny, those from the past can still get a pass. In his recent TV documentary "The Roosevelts," Ken Burns mentioned the "intense" friendship but skirted the matter of Roosevelt and Hickok's relationship, which set off a flurry of Internet chatter about his attempt to "in" Eleanor, as opposed to "outing" her.
"Ken Burns said in an interview there is no evidence of anything sexual, and to talk about that possibility would be 'tabloid history,' but he covered FDR's affairs with women," Baum says. "That makes me angry."
Daniel Schlozman, assistant professor in the department of political science at Johns Hopkins, appreciates Baum's anger.
"There is a double standard," he says about political biographies. "Male heterosexual infidelities are deemed OK, and lesbian relationships are not."
Still, Schlozman does not sound quite ready to embrace Baum's view of Roosevelt and Hickok.
"From what I know, it is unclear exactly what went on in the bedroom," he says. "And categories of sexuality we're using now were not the ones they were using then. The more complicated question is: What is the relationship between the public and the private person, and to what extent can we assume the private explains everything about the public person?"
Eleanor Roosevelt's private life doesn't fit any one scenario neatly. She remained married to a husband she knew was unfaithful (they had six children together). And she expressed considerable affection for at least a couple of men, including her bodyguard.
Some writers even suggest that Roosevelt was sexless, incapable of physical pleasure. Such analysts include men who "choose to deny her life-long quest for personal happiness," Roosevelt biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook wrote in the 1990s.
Then there is the reaction of Doris Faber, who, in preparing her 1980 book "The Life of Lorena Hickok," expressed shock at discovering the letters between the two women. Faber's disapproval carried over into the text.
That's one more reason why Baum was determined to produce a work that would allow people to hear the words exchanged in writing between the first lady and her close friend.
"Hick" also adds to Baum's longtime effort to increase a genre of theater.
"When I came out as a lesbian, I wanted to fully explore that aspect in my work, but there was almost nothing from a lesbian's point of view in movies, television or theater," Baum says.
She went on to collaborate on several lesbian-centric plays, including "Dos Lesbos," which drew a disapproving notice from the Vatican when it was staged in Rome in 2000. One of her colleagues on that work, Carolyn Myers, is the director of "Hick."
"I truly felt called to write this play and felt called to be Hick onstage," Baum says. "It's my own special journey. People really dig this play. And the scandalous aspect tends to put butts in seats."
The piece, which includes some incidents imagined by Baum, also provides an opportunity to put the remarkable Hickok back in the spotlight.
"Hick was the most famous woman journalist of her day, the first woman to get a byline on the front page of The New York Times in 1928," Baum says. "She gave all that up to be with Eleanor. She had to — her AP editor would not stop hounding her for inside scoops."
After leaving the newspaper business, Hickok, at the first lady's suggestion, worked for FDR adviser Harry Hopkins, a chief architect of the New Deal. She traveled the country to report on how average Americans were faring.
Hickok advised Eleanor Roosevelt on several matters and is credited with getting her to write her famous "My Day" column that was published nationally. The women remained friends long after the White House years (Roosevelt died in 1962, Hickok in 1968).
"Eleanor was a person who wanted to experience everything," Baum says. "Life was a great adventure to her."