The woman in the baggy linen suit has some stories she tells and others no one will ever hear. At some point she destroyed what might have been evidence, and let historical mystery linger like the aroma of burnt love letters.
Lorena Hickok, dead 32 years, will step onto a stage in Fells Point tomorrow evening and tell how she came to befriend and love Eleanor Roosevelt. She'll say just so much and no more, leaving the question open: What really went on between her and the woman who was once the most powerful in America?
The disagreement among historians about the precise nature of the relationship has political value. Note this by the poster hanging in the Provincetown, Mass., apartment of Marj Conn, who will portray Hickok in the 70-minute solo show at the Ground Floor on Thames Street. The poster announcing a "National Coming Out Day" declares that "History has Set the Record A Little Too Straight," and shows photographs of such notables as James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf and Eleanor Roosevelt.
On the other hand, Conn says, the pursuit of One Truth about Hickok and Roosevelt may be beside the point.
"I don't think we have to label anyone as being a lesbian," says Conn, who since 1994 has been performing "Lorena Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt: A Love Story," a play written by Pat Bond. "I think Eleanor Roosevelt had a lot of relationships. One of them was Lorena Hickok."
The two women met in passing in 1928 when Hickok was an Associated Press reporter in Manhattan and Roosevelt was the wife of the Democratic candidate for New York State governor. Eleanor's marriage to Franklin Delano had taken a bad turn when Eleanor learned of FDR's affair with her own social secretary, Lucy Page Mercer. By all accounts, Eleanor responded by stepping up her efforts to cultivate a life apart from her role as wife and mother. She asserted herself in public affairs, and developed a circle of friends that included a number of lesbian couples.
Hickok and Eleanor became acquainted in October 1932, after FDR became the Democratic Party's presidential nominee. The AP needed a woman to cover the candidate's high-profile wife. Hickok got the assignment, thus beginning a relationship that evolved from reporter-and-source to close friendship -- and perhaps beyond. The connection peaked early in emotional intensity, but continued until Roosevelt died at 78 in 1962. Six years later, Hickok died at 75.
As the two were often apart, much of the relationship was conducted through letters, more than 3,000 of which were released in 1978 by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, N.Y. The letters show that the women were attracted to each other physically as well as emotionally and intellectually.
"Most clearly I remember your eyes, with a kind of teasing smile in them," Hickok wrote to Roosevelt in December 1933, "and the feeling of that soft spot just northeast of the corner of your mouth against my lips."
"Oh, dear one," Roosevelt wrote to Hickok in January 1934, "it is all the little things, tones in your voice, the feel of your hair, gestures, these are the things I think about & long for. "
Over the course of several years, Hickok destroyed hundreds of letters, telling Roosevelt's daughter Anna in a 1966 letter that "Your mother wasn't always so very discreet in her letters to me." According to "Empty Without You," a volume of annotated Roosevelt-Hickok letters published by American University journalism professor Rodger Streitmatter in 1998, "Lorena burned the most explicit of the letters, dramatically dropping them, one by one, into the flames of a fireplace."
Some historians and Roosevelt biographers accept the existing letters as evidence that the relationship had a sexual dimension. Others say the correspondence merely reflects a tone common in friendships among women raised in what was essentially a Victorian culture.
Rumors questioning Eleanor Roosevelt's sexuality began circulating in the 1930s as a result of her many friendships with women who were in relationships with women. But she was also rumored to have had extra-marital affairs with men while she was first lady.
Hickok's sexual orientation was clearly established by the early 1920s. She had lived with a woman for years before moving to New York. As a woman ahead of her time in the news business, she embraced the affectations of an industry that still runs on megadoses of testosterone: She smoked a lot, drank too much and swore abundantly. She wore baggy suits and neckties, often complementing the rumpled ensemble with a dash of brightly colored lipstick.
Conn says that when she first started performing Hickok in 1994, the macho mannerisms tended to take over.
"I think when I first started the role I was trying to be too butch," Conn says. "Every time I do it, I think Hick becomes more real."
She plays Hickok's brashness and humor, but also her compassion and sensitivity, and her sadness that she and Roosevelt eventually drifted apart. When asked how she finds the emotional center of the character, Conn says, "Every time I go onstage I think it's her incredible loyalty to Eleanor Roosevelt."
Conn gives her age as "almost 60" and plays a senior Hickok reflecting on the experience of knowing Roosevelt. She walks the stage in a wrinkled, pale linen suit, white shirt and red necktie. For the sake of the audience's comfort and her own health, Conn sacrifices some verisimilitude and refrains from smoking onstage.
Educated as a speech pathologist and not as an actor, Conn has not heard tapes of Hickok's voice nor seen movies of her, if indeed any exist. She prepared for the part by reading biographies of Roosevelt and Hickok, and by visiting the Roosevelt Library several times to look at the letters. She also watched a videotape of the show performed by Pat Bond of San Francisco, who has died since writing the play in the early 1980s.
Conn's interest in the subject began when her female romantic partner gave her as a Valentine's Day gift Doris Faber's 1980 biography, "The Life of Lorena Hickok, E.R.'s Friend." Although Faber is among those who reject the notion that the relationship was sexual, Conn says the book was a revelation to her and her circle of women friends.
"To find out Eleanor Roosevelt had a relationship with a woman was very exciting to us," Conn says.
Gail Lynch, the executor of Bond's estate, says that Bond was born in 1925, grew up during the Roosevelt years, and had long embraced Eleanor as a hero. Bond wrote Hickok as the sole character because she looked more like Hickok than like Roosevelt, Lynch says.
As far as Conn knows, she is the only performer to whom Lynch has given permission to do the show. She's traveled with the show to New York and Florida and western Massachusetts.
As most audiences don't know what Hickok looks or sounds like, Conn says she often hears from folks who assume she is Lorena Hickok. But even those who knew Mrs. Roosevelt's confidante firsthand say she gets it right, that the Hickok spirit is afoot onstage, along with questions that in all likelihood will never quite fade away.