Blanche Wiesen Cook caught hell from a disbelieving public when she wrote in a 1992 biography about Eleanor Roosevelt’s love affair with journalist Lorena Hickok. But since Viking’s release of the highly acclaimed second volume of her three-volume ER biography this past July, Cook says she’s found out just how much the world has changed in seven years.
“Between Oprah, Ellen and the Clintons,” says Cook, “our culture has just gotten used to the fact that lives are very complicated.” Reactions have been glowing, except for occasional jabs—like the one from a reviewer who criticized Cook’s “determination to remodel the subject as a sapphic icon.” Last month, at Hofstra University’s Eleanor Roosevelt conference, Cook came up against a granddaughter of ER’s who said she refuses to read the book and covers it up whenever she sees it. “Your grandmother,” Cook told her, “didn’t believe in censorship.”
Cook, 58, has also produced a praised biography of Dwight Eisenhower, but she has spent the past 18 years of her life with Eleanor Roosevelt, to the point where the distinctions between her and her subject are sometimes blurry. It’s a case of one uppity activist studying another. Cook has waded through, among many other documents, the FBI’s thick file on ER. She has followed in ER’s footsteps around the country, conducting interviews and gathering factoids that she can churn out at a moment’s notice. She can practically channel ER, producing a nearly perfect version of her proper, faintly British speech. She certainly shares her views on social justice.
“Here we are in 1999, and no money has been put into housing starts since Ronald Reagan came into office,” says Cook. “We need to jump-start a movement.” Known as a fiery and passionate advocate as well as a scholar, she has taught history at John Jay College for 33 years and she doesn’t miss a chance to advocate, rather than just analyze.
Splitting her time between Manhattan and East Hampton, Cook is part of a close-knit community of feminists who migrated to the East End about 20 years ago. She’s often spotted at strategy meetings and progressive events, a Southwestern-style figure in trademark cowboy boots and low-rider blue jeans and vests. This afternoon, lunching on tempeh and Middle Eastern salads at Babette’s, she’s in red pointy cowboy boots and jeans and a purple shirt over a turquoise one. A beaded necklace made by the late New York poet laureate Audre Lorde—a close friend—hangs around her neck. A strong, animated presence, her eyes widen when she reveals ER facts and squint when she points out problems with politics. Well-armed with a sense of humor, she laughs in joyous bursts. Acquaintances slide by the table to pay homage, saying they just saw her on TV or read a review in the paper. She tells restaurant owner and fan Barbara about an upcoming Newsday article that will be a letter from Eleanor to Hillary Clinton, urging the latter to be more like the former. “It’s time,” Barbara says earnestly. “This is not a time to hold back on anything.”
Just as Cook refused to hold back when faced with ER’s correspondence with veteran journalist Hickok. And just as ER herself did when she left those letters to the public domain.
“She wanted people to know,” Cook says. There’s little other proof that the women were lovers, and Cook ultimately leaves it up to her readers to decide. “If you want to say, ‘I can’t stand to believe it,’ I’ll leave that up to you.” But, she says, “Thereno doubt in my mind.”
The love between ER and Hickock isn’t Cook’s only focus. She’s won kudos for good research and fine writing. And Cook didn’t fawn—she took ER to task for, among other things, failing to speak out about the Holocaust.
Born in Flushing, Cook comes by her own progressivism honestly, though she notes that her father went both ways. “The day my father died,” she recalls, “he told me to go vote for Nixon.” Not likely. She has spent more than half her life as a progressive activist. In recent years, Cook fought to shut down the Shoreham nuclear plant and has rallied against Brookhaven National Lab’s tritium leaks. In East Hampton, she belongs to the NAACP and EEGO (East End Gay Organization). She won’t pass up an opportunity to go off about health care, the housing crisis, the “degrading of the UN” and racism in the prison system. The latter issue prompted Cook to teach prisoners and to organize a conference last year on prison education.
Cook never even meant to be a historian, but rather a physical education major. As a teen gymnast, though, she tore ligaments in a leg. Thanks to a professor, she discovered a love of history. During the Vietnam War, she met the love of her life, playwright and psychotherapist Claire Coss, at a meeting of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. “We left our husbands for each other,” Cook says with a grin.
While ER stuck by FDR, her strongest passion seemed to be for the woman she called “Hick,” says Cook. ER, the classic liberal when liberalism held a strong following, read poetry at women’s prisons, rallied for the poor and fought for fair and affordable housing and against racism. And, wouldn’t you know, ER and Cook even shared a passion of sports. ER once wrote that the happiest moment of her life was when she made the field hockey team in school.
To Coss, Cook is Eleanor Roosevelt’s “emissary.” But Cook says Coss “was really the guide and the editor. All of the agony that a writer feels—to be able to talk about it with someone who’s a working psychotherapist is a real blessing.” As a result, Cook’s long and intense affair with ER hasn’t come between herself and Coss.
“If she had worked on Eisenhower for 18 years, well… ” Coss says, laughing. “But not Eleanor. She is a constant inspiration. I feel I know her very well.”