Cook, Blanche Wiesen 1941-
COOK, Blanche Wiesen 1941-
PERSONAL: Maiden name is pronounced "Wee-zen"; born April 20, 1941, in New York, NY; daughter of David Theodore (a bus driver and union activist) and Sadonia (an educational and legal secretary; maiden name, Ecker) Wiesen; married Sam Cook (a librarian; divorced); partner of Clare Coss (a psychotherapist and playwright). Education: Hunter College (now Hunter College of the City University of New York),B.A., 1962; Johns Hopkins University, M.A., 1964, Ph.D. (history), 1969.
ADDRESSES: Office—John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York, 445 West 95th St., New York, NY 10019. Agent—Betty Anne Clarke, 28 East 95th St., New York, NY 10028. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Hampton Institute, Hampton, VA, instructor in American history, 1963-64; Yeshiva University, Stern College for Women, New York, NY, instructor in history, 1964-67; John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York, instructor, 1968-70, assistant professor, 1970-74, associate professor, 1974-80, professor, 1980-95, distinguished professor of history and women's studies, 1995—. University of California, Los Angeles, visiting professor, 1982-83; visiting professor at West Point and Hunter College. Consultant to Institute for World Order, 1971-76; WBAI and WKPFK Radio Pacifica, New York, NY, and Los Angeles, CA, producer and broadcaster of programs Women and the World in the 1980s, Activists and Agitators, Women and the World in the 1990s, and Broadsides, 1979-96. Appointed to committee on documents for foreign relations, U.S. Department of State, 1986-90. Member of board of directors, Women's Foreign Policy Advisory Council, and East End Gay Organization; member of board of directors and vice president, Conference on Peace Research in History; former member of board of directors, Institute for Media Analysis; vice president and cochair, Fund for Open Information and Accountability; member of Gay Women's Alternative, Biography Seminar of the New York Institute on the Humanities at New York University, Columbia University Seminar on Women and Society.
MEMBER: Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, American Historical Association (vice president for research, 1991-94), Organization of American Historians, American Studies Association, Peace History Society (executive secretary, 1969-73; vice president, 1976-78), Peace History Society of Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Women in the Historical Profession (president of New York chapter, 1969-71, member of coordinating committee), Society of Historians in American Foreign Relations, PEN (member, Freedom-to-Write Committee), Freedom of Information and Access Committee (cofounder and cochair), Berkshire Women Historians, Pi Sigma Alpha, Phi Alpha Theta.
AWARDS, HONORS: Faculty fellowships, City University of New York, 1978, 1984, and 1991; New York Times Notable Book designation, 1981, for Declassified Eisenhower; Los Angeles Times Book Award for biography, 1992, and New York Times Notable Book designation, both for Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume 1, 1884-1933; Breakthrough Award, Women, Men, and Media, 1992; Feminist of the Year award, Feminist Majority Foundation, 1992; Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Nonfiction, 1993, for Eleanor Roosevelt; Scholar of the Year, New York Council for the Humanities, 1996; Alumna of the Year, Hunter College Hall of Fame, 1999; Volumes 1 and 2 of Eleanor Roosevelt named best books by Christian Science Monitor, 1999.
(Editor) Bibliography on Peace Research in History, American Bibliographical Center-Clio Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1969.
(Editor, with Alice Harris and Ronald Radosh, and contributor) Past-Imperfect: Alternative Readings in U.S. History, Knopf (New York, NY), 1973.
Chrystal Eastman: On Women and Revolution, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1978.
Female Support Networks and Political Activism, Out & Out, 1980.
The Declassified Eisenhower: A Divided Legacy of Peace and Political Warfare, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1981.
Eleanor Roosevelt, Viking (New York, NY), Volume 1: 1884-1933, 1992, Volume 2. The Defining Years, 1933-1938, 1999.
Contributor to American Peace Movements, edited by Charles Chatfield, Schocken (New York, NY), 1973. Senior editor of "Garland Library on War and Peace" (360-volume reprint series), Garland, 1970-80, and Jewish Women's Encyclopedia. Contributor to column "One Woman's Voice," Anderson-Moberg Syndicates, 1974-77. Contributor to professional and feminist publications, including American Studies Journal, Feminist Studies, Radical History Review, Women's Studies Quarterly, American Historical Review, Signs, Ms., New York Times, Los Angeles Times, New Directions for Women, Women's Review of Books, Conditions, and Chrysalis. Member of board of editors, Journal of Voluntary Action Research, 1972-78, and Journal of Peace and Change, 1972—.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A third volume about Eleanor Roosevelt, covering the time from 1939 until Roosevelt's death in 1962.
SIDELIGHTS: Blanche Wiesen Cook is a professor of history and women's studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. Originally interested in foreign economic policy and military history and focusing much of her efforts on writings about former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the books Dwight David Eisenhower: Antimilitarist in the White House and The Declassified Eisenhower: A Divided Legacy of Peace and Political Warfare, Cook suddenly gained attention in the media when she decided to write about Eleanor Roosevelt and revealed a great deal of formerly secret information about the former first lady's private life. The first volume of Eleanor Roosevelt, which covers the years 1884 until 1933, was roundly criticized by many of Roosevelt's family members who were shocked about what Cook had to say about the lesbian relationship between the first lady and Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickock, as well as an apparent affair with state trooper Earl Miller. However, many critics have pointed out that Cook's book—the first of a planned biographic trilogy and itself a national bestseller—is significant for revealing Roosevelt, a figure already revered for her political activism and independent spirit, as a more complex person than commonly assumed.
Cook, a feminist historian, has a great deal in common with "ER" as the first lady is referred to in Cook's writing. An activist who has championed causes ranging from women's rights and pacifism to sexual freedom and environmentalism, Cook was a founding member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Council of Peace Research in History (now called the Peace History Society). Writing prolifically on these causes, she also produced radio shows about women's rights and social activism during the 1980s and 1990s. Cook has also fought to keep the Freedom of Information Act alive by being a cofounder and cochair of the Freedom of Information and Access Committee. Her concern about keeping government records accessible to the public came to the fore while she was researching The Declassified Eisenhower, a process during which she struggled to obtain documents from the government that were supposed to be in the public domain. Cook met with a similar veil of secrecy when she began researching her trilogy on the former first lady. She learned that family members had burned or otherwise destroyed many of Roosevelt's letters in order to hide some of her personal life. Nevertheless, the author was able to obtain extensive documents on her subject that had never before been revealed.
Cook was encouraged by friends to tackle the life of Roosevelt after writing a negative review on a book published about Lorena Hickock that she felt "trivialized the relationship—and, indeed, the lives—of two women," as she told Claudia Dreifus in an online Progressive interview. Initial research into her subject immediately revealed fascinating things about Roosevelt, who had become somewhat mythologized by historians since her death, and Cook decided to undo the myth and reveal the real person. "I went to the FDR library," she said, "and I found an article Eleanor had written in the beginning of the 1920s that nobody had every 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."
The first volume of Eleanor Roosevelt, as several reviewers noted, sparked a great deal of controversy. "To some readers," said Jennifer Schuessler in Publishers Weekly, "Cook had replaced a bloodless paragon of virtue with a full-bodied portrait of a woman who loved the world in more than the abstract. To others, she had misread the historical evidence in an effort to 'out' Mrs. Roosevelt." Volume one chronicles Roosevelt's attempts to discover her own identity at a time when Victorian values still reigned. The young Eleanor, the daughter of Teddy Roosevelt's younger brother and part of an elite and privileged class in America, had a difficult childhood, having lost her mother at the age of eight and consequently raised by her disciplinarian grandmother. Roosevelt first gained an inkling of freedom when she attended Allenswood, a progressive school in England that had a teacher she greatly admired and where she was allowed to be athletic and study politics. Her education continued when she met and married Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), who helped transform his young wife into a political activist. However, once her transformation had begun, Eleanor's liberal tendencies far exceeded those of her more cautious husband. Cook discusses Eleanor's radicalism, although she notes that Roosevelt almost always supported her husband's decisions publicly.
Although some critics felt that the political issues and history of the 1920s are related by Cook in a pedestrian manner, many point out that it is in exploring Roosevelt's private life that the first volume really shines. Cook's "revelations about FDR's and ER's sexual entanglements are not new," wrote New Republic contributor Christine Stansell, "but she weaves them into an interpretation of the marriage that is tinged with a bracing urbanity." Stansell continued, "Cook is at her best—and most convincing—in showing how entirely Eleanor came into her own after [her husband's infidelity in] the Mercer affair and how much her energies and novel sense of autonomy derived from a newly discovered sexual well-being. She probably had her first erotic experiences with women in the 1920s, after she became an intimate in the circle of lesbians—Nancy Cook, Esther Lape, Elizabeth Read, Marion Dickerman—who were her political associates in New York." While National Review writer Florence King maintained that "lesbianism is often on the author's mind and she goes out of her way to find it," other critics praised Cook's ability to reach past the Roosevelt myth. "The achievement in this volume," stated Joyce Antler in the Nation, "… is to deconstruct the myths of both the public and private E.R…., which have been framed by the media, historians and Eleanor herself. In their stead, Cook unveils a carefully nuanced, thoroughly researched and fully imagined portrait of an engaged and adventuresome activist, a woman who was politically ambitious and who in private life was nothing short of 'outrageous.'" Although Cook touts Eleanor's liberal activism, she does not shy away from the first lady's flaws, noting that she could often be cold and even malicious toward her husband. She was also not without her own prejudices, sometimes revealing an anti-Semitism, and although she often worked to help poor African Americans, she could be elitist as well.
The second volume of Cook's intended trilogy covers just the years from 1933 to 1938, which encompass FDR's first two terms as president. As NWSA Journal contributor Jean Fox O'Barr noted, Cook "switches her focus from ER's process of becoming, to her process of doing." Though Eleanor may not have stood up to the Nazi menace because she felt her country lacked the moral authority to do so due to its treatment of African Americans, it was during these years that the first lady evidently decided to put all other aspects of her personal life aside in favor of her political activism. She did so even to the detriment of her relationship with Hickock; though the two remained friends, Hickock was disappointed that Eleanor no longer had time for her and she moved on to other relationships. Meanwhile, the first lady let her voice be heard on almost every issue regarding FDR's New Deal social policies designed to combat the Great Depression. She urged the United States to join the World Court, she worked to make sure that women benefitted from the New Deal, and she initiated programs to help the poor, especially African Americans.
Critics were pleased by Cook's skill in "putting Eleanor's life in the context of the times," as Douglas stated, "both in the U.S. and in Europe….Thereader comes away not only understanding Eleanor better, but also an era." Advocate contributor Karla Jay similarly wrote that, "With a wealth of colorful detail and a vivid cast of historical figures, the book captures the first lady's battle for public health and education programs and her speaking out on behalf of those who were poor, black, rural, and homeless." "This is not hagiography," concluded Lessard: "we have a full human being here, capable of huge range, of tremendous coldness and insensitivity, fallible and painfully vulnerable. It's the fullness of the portrait that makes it so dazzling in the end."
Discussing the lack of controversy that greeted the second volume of her Roosevelt biography, Cook believes that during the intervening years of the 1990s American readers have become more understanding about matters of sexual preference. "Our culture has become more sophisticated—and more accepting," the author told Dreifus. Cook listed media figures such as Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres as helpful in making people more understanding, as well as the American public's lukewarm response to President Bill Clinton's sexual escapades. "And the way we have been writing history for the past ten or twenty years," she added, "has made a difference. So people were ready for what was in Volume 2."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Gay and Lesbian Biography, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Advocate, July 20, 1999, Karla Jay, review of Eleanor Roosevelt, p. 59.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 18, 1999, Bruce Clayton, "Heroine of New Deal: Biography's Second Volume Illuminates How Eleanor Roosevelt Redefined First Lady's Role," p. L10.
Booklist, May 1, 1999, Mary Carroll, review of Eleanor Roosevelt, p. 1556; April 1, 2000, Karen Harris, review of Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 1: 1884-1933, p. 1482.
Business Week, July 19, 1999, "First Lady, and No Second Fiddle," p. 18.
Chicago Tribune Book World, June 14, 1981.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), June 25, 2000, Paul Johnson, "A Spouse's Causes; Paul Johnson on Volume Two of a Daunting Biography of FDR's Wife"; July 15, 2000, Michael Shelden, "Hillary Clinton's Saint; Michael Shelden Finds an Admired First Lady Entombed in a Mind-Numbingly Detailed Biography." Entertainment Weekly, April 17, 1992, Lisa Schwarzbaum, review of Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 1, p. 50.
Houston Chronicle, November 21, 1999, Patty Gideon Sloan, "Eleanor Roosevelt's Causes: Blanche Wiesen Cook Finds a Seasoned Crusader for People,"p. 20.
Lambda Book Report, July-August, 1999, Sandra De Helen, review of Eleanor Roosevelt, p. 23.
Library Journal, June 15, 1999, Robert F. Nardini, review of Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume Two, p. 85.
Nation, July 13, 1992, Joyce Antler, review of Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 1, p. 58.
National Review, June 22, 1992, Florence King, review of Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 1, p. 51.
New Republic, May 25, 1992, Christine Stansell, review of Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 1, p. 36.
Newsweek, July 12, 1999, Evan Thomas, "The Private Eleanor: Behind the Scenes with a Legendary First Lady," p. 68.
NWSA Journal, fall, 2001, Jean Fox O'Barr, review of Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 1 and Volume 2,p. 199.
Off Our Backs, October, 1999, Carol Anne Douglas, review of Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 1, p. 12.
Publishers Weekly, February 3, 1992, review of Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 1, p. 68; May 10, 1999, review of Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 2,p. 48; July 5, 1999, Jennifer Schuessler, "Blanche Wiesen Cook: In the First Lady's Footsteps,"p. 42.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 4, 1999, Steve Weinberg, "Eleanor Roosevelt Creates Her Own Political Agenda," p. F10.
Sunday Times (London, England), July 9, 2000, Anthony Howard, "A Model First Lady," p. 42.
Time, July 26, 1999, Lance Morrow, "Angel on F.D. R.'s Shoulder: A Feminist Biography of Eleanor Roosevelt Sees Her As a Vulnerable, Tireless, Generous Pioneer," p. 73.
Times (London, England), July 5, 2000, Howard Temperley, "A Woman of Substance," p. 14.
Washington Monthly, September, 1999, Zuzannah Lessard, review of Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 2,p. 47.
Progressive Online,http://www.progressive.org/ (July 16, 2002), Claudia Dreifus, "Blanche Wiesen Cook" (interview).*