born march 7, 1893 east troy, wisconsin
died may 1, 1968 rhinebeck, new york
news journalist, investigator
"What I want you to do is to go out around the country and look this thing [New Deal programs] over. I don't want statistics from you. I just want your own reaction, as an ordinary citizen."
harry hopkins speaking to lorena hickok from one third of a nation
Although her adult life was closely associated with Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962; see entry), wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45; see entry), Lorena Alice Hickok independently overcame in-grained sexual discrimination in the male-dominated field of newspaper journalism. She became an outstanding reporter and investigative writer.
Hickok's talent was first recognized and rewarded in the early 1920s at the Minneapolis Tribune, where she rose to the position of general news reporter. In 1928 Hickok was one of the first women reporters hired by the Associated Press (AP). Working in the AP New York City office, she covered politics and sensational stories. She achieved a status with AP that no other woman had reached. During the 1932 U.S. presidential election Hickok developed a lasting friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. Hickok was the first reporter to recognize Eleanor's ability to make news and pursue issues in her own right. Hickok would serve as a supportive friend and adviser to Eleanor. During the mid-1930s Hickok worked for Harry Hopkins (1890–1946; see entry), Roosevelt's chief administrator of federal relief programs. She traveled through approximately thirty-two states, meeting with people from all walks of life and reporting back to Hopkins on how the New Deal relief programs were being carried out. The New Deal was a series of programs instituted by the Roosevelt administration to bring relief, recovery, and reform to the United States, which was suffering through the worst economic crisis in its history, the Great Depression.
The confidential, insightful reports Hickok sent to Hopkins and the letters she wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt provide one of the best historical accounts of how the Depression affected the lives of Americans. From her fact-finding travels, Hickok ultimately sent back 120 reports to Hopkins, and she kept up a daily correspondence with Eleanor.
Born in East Troy, Wisconsin, to a traveling butter maker, Addison J. Hickok, and a dressmaker, Anna Waite Hickok, Lorena was the oldest of three girls. Lorena's childhood was marked by physical abuse at the hands of her father, who had been abused when he was a child. He repeatedly whipped Lorena, most likely because of her defiant attitude toward him. Lorena would never give in to him. Later she recalled that her mother had tried—generally ineffectively—to protect her from his abuse. Lorena's father also whipped her puppy and threw a kitten against a barn door, causing its death.
The Hickok family moved from Wisconsin to Illinois to Minnesota to South Dakota because of Addison's temper and inability to hold a job. Lorena never had time to make any friends. When Lorena was a thirteen-year-old eighth-grader, her mother died. At that time the family was living in Bowdle, South Dakota. Soon after Anna Hickok's death, Lorena's father told her to find another place to live. As a result, from age fourteen to sixteen Lorena worked as a live-in "hired girl," doing domestic work, cleaning, and child care for various families. She changed families frequently, working for at least nine families in that two-year period. At age fifteen and a half Lorena managed to return to school as a ninth-grader at Bowdle High School. Living with one of Bowdle's more prosperous families, she often scrubbed clothes until late at night, but she still found time to complete homework. Her talent for writing emerged, and she won every essay contest at the school.
During this time, Lorena was hired by Mrs. O'Malley, the colorful seventy-year-old wife of Bowdle's first saloon owner. For the first time, someone took an interest in Lore-na's future. Mrs. O'Malley contacted Lorena's Aunt Ella in Chicago, Illinois, and explained the plight of the teenager. Aunt Ella was Lorena's mother's sister. Before long Lorena was on the train bound for Chicago and Aunt Ella. Shortly thereafter, Aunt Ella arranged for Lorena to move in with another relative in Battle Creek, Michigan, where she lived until she finished high school. She was a big, lumpish girl who wore unbecoming clothes and showed no interest in social events. Nevertheless, her intellectual talent was clear: She made almost all As on her report card. Following graduation, Lorena entered Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, in the fall of 1912. Self-conscious about her size—5 feet 8 inches tall and 200 pounds—she felt like a misfit and stayed only one year.
Begins career as a journalist
Returning to Battle Creek, Hickok took her first paid job as a reporter for the Battle Creek Journal. As a cub reporter she wrote about train arrivals and ice cream socials for seven dollars a week. In 1915 she took another job as a society editor of a large city paper, the Milwaukee Sentinel. She loathed society reporting and longed to impress the city editor with her writing skills, but at that time, society editor was the only reporting job open for a woman. Hickok made fifteen dollars a week, lived at the YWCA, and ate beans to stretch money between paychecks. She nevertheless found her way almost daily to a European-style coffeehouse where she enjoyed creamy hot chocolate and pastries and listened to other reporters talk about their work. There she began to learn how journalists lived and worked in the real world.
Hickok's most striking physical characteristic was her blue eyes, which revealed much of her thoughts and personality. Acquaintances always remembered her eyes, full of humor, pain, pleasure, or piercing understanding. Hickok was coming into adulthood, and she was developing not only a "nose for news" but personality traits that endeared her to many.
It was at the Sentinel that Hickok first broke into general news coverage. Her break came when she wrote a humorous story about her attempts on a rainy day in Milwaukee to interview Geraldine Farrar (1882–1967), the most famous opera singer of the day. The story so amused the city editor that he placed it on the front page. However, restless for big-time reporting, Hickok headed for New York City, only to be overwhelmed by its enormity. At this time Hickok decided she must have a college education, so at the age of twenty-five she went back to the Midwest to the University of Minnesota in 1918.
To support herself Hickok worked as a night rewriter for the Minneapolis Tribune. Her hours were 7:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. She took down the stories reporters called in from their assignments in the evening. If a big story such as a fire or a trolley accident broke, she had to know the right person to call to get the best information. Soon Hickok became known simply as "Hick" and fit well into the newsroom full of men. Hick's stories caught the spirit of events whether they were happy or tragic. Hickok's news-gathering career took off, and she quit school for good. She continued to work for the Tribune and lived in Minneapolis with Ellie Morse, a wealthy young woman with a sunny disposition. Hickok and Morse lived as companions for the next eight years.
In 1923, Hickok wrote a story for the Tribune about the funeral train bearing the body of President Warren G. Harding (1865–1923; served 1921–23) through Iowa. The story won an Associated Press award. Hickok's stories soon regularly appeared on the front page. Hickok was also assigned to cover the football games of the University of Minnesota Gophers and had great fun doing it.
Hickok gave credit to the Tribune's managing editor, Thomas J. Dillon, for teaching her the newspaper business and assigning her varied stories. On her way to becoming the Tribune's top reporter, she had taken to drinking straight whiskeys and constantly smoking cigarettes. She was a perfectionist in her work. If she made a mistake or realized she had violated the journalistic code of conduct, she could fall into
an emotional slump for days. In 1926 Hickok was diagnosed with diabetes and told to take a rest.
After a disastrous attempt at writing fiction in San Francisco, California, Hickok headed back to New York City and in 1927 worked for the Daily Mirror, a newspaper published by ultraconservative William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951). Then in 1928 Hickok was one of the first female reporters to be hired by the Associated Press (AP). Hickok was assigned to cover the Democratic National Committee headquarters located in New York City. From 1928 to 1932 she covered the activities of Franklin Roosevelt, who was governor of New York at that time. Although she had met Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor, Hickok avoided doing any stories on her. She was afraid that such writing would only end up on the women's pages.
Hickok's social life was nonexistent in New York. In the evening, she wrote, and she focused all her emotional expression on her new German shepherd puppy named Prinz. Prinz remained Hickok's faithful companion for fifteen years.
Friendship with the Roosevelts
In 1932, when the United States was deeply mired in the Great Depression, Hickok, like many Americans, tried to tell herself that economists would somehow figure out what was wrong and fix it. Hickok had already taken one 10 percent pay cut and was expecting another. However, she had also been given a prestigious assignment: covering Democrat Franklin Roosevelt's campaign for the president of the United States. Hickok was the only woman in the country assigned this coverage, and thanks to the assignment, she and Eleanor Roosevelt struck up a friendship. Eleanor increasingly chose Hickok to accompany her on the campaign trail. In October 1932, AP asked Hickok to specifically cover Eleanor's activities. Hickok had already come to understand Eleanor's potential to do great things. She persuaded Eleanor to hold weekly press conferences for women reporters only. Her stories about Eleanor were flattering, and she always cleared them first with Eleanor or Louis Howe, an adviser to the newly elected President Roosevelt. Realizing that this practice violated journalism's rule of reporting without bias—positive or negative—Hickok left her groundbreaking post at AP in mid-1933. By this time Hickok and Eleanor had become close friends. Eleanor confided all to Hickok, and Hickok carefully advised her. In July 1933 the two women took off on a holiday together through New England and the Canadian peninsula of Gaspé. Upon returning from the month-long road trip, Hickok began a job that Eleanor had secured for her. Hickok would work under Harry Hopkins, administrator of the newly created Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA).
Investigator of the New Deal
On May 22, 1933, Hopkins had been given the title of Federal Emergency Relief Administrator and $500 million to provide immediate relief to struggling Americans living in the financially strapped states. He had set up a nationwide organization to run the program but needed a chief investigator to find out how the relief programs were being administered by state and local officials and how the programs were being received by the people. That investigator would be Lorena Hickok. Hopkins did not want statistics; he wanted firsthand reports of the conditions Hickok found. Hickok began her investigative travels across the United States immediately. Her reports could be angry or amusing in tone but were always insightful and to the point. Hickok had no patience for government inefficiency and sharply criticized it when she found it. In a matter of minutes, she could correctly interpret the needs and mood of a community. Her reports were secret, read only by Hopkins, Eleanor, and President Roosevelt. While on this assignment, Hickok corresponded daily with Eleanor. She also frequently traveled with Eleanor on similar fact-finding trips. When Hopkins became administrator of two more relief programs, the Civil Works Administration (CWA) in the winter of 1933–34 and the Works
Hickok Paints A Picture With Words
Hickok's first report to Harry Hopkins was written August 6, 1933, and reprinted in One Third of a Nation: Lorena Hickok Reports on the Great Depression, published in 1981. In the report Hickok apologizes for its great length and detail. Hickok then ends the report with "Don't tell me to leave it all out, please, because I like this job. Believe me, it's absorbing."
The reports were exactly what Hopkins wanted. They were focused, highly readable, and riveting, and they told Hopkins how the American people were faring. He always wanted to hear more, not less. President Roosevelt often asked Hopkins or Eleanor if Hickok had sent anything back lately that he could read. Hickok's captivating reports no doubt helped shape New Deal policy. Her writing style is well illustrated in the following description, reprinted from the 1981 book, of the ordinary people she met in her travels, people from walks of life she had never before experienced.
one by one, sometimes bold, sometimes hesitant, sometimes demanding, sometimes faltering, they emerged—individuals. people, with voices, faces, eyes. people with hope. people without hope. people still fighting. people with all courage squeezed out of them. people with stories.
there was the negro woman in philadelphia who used to walk eight miles every day over the scorching pavements just on the chance of getting, perhaps, a little cleaning to do, at 10 cents an hour.
there was the chauffeur in new york who, on the day before he reported for the first time to work as a laborer on a park project, stood about for hours watching how the other men handled their picks and shovels, so he would "get the hang of it and not feel so awkward."
there was the little mexican girl, aged 6, in colorado, who said, sure, she'd worked "in the beets." two summers already and, yes, sometimes she did get pretty tired."
Progress Administration (WPA) starting in 1935, Hickok served in the same investigative capacity. When she was not traveling, she lived at the White House in a room adjacent to Eleanor's. The two women, besides discussing all their activities, were fond of reading out loud to each other from poetry books.
In April 1936 Hickok had more health problems related to her diabetes. Her blood sugar had gone so far off normal that the doctor said she must take insulin daily for the rest of her life. Attempting to live a slower paced life, in January 1937 Hickok took a job as a publicity person for the upcoming 1939 New York World's Fair at a hundred dollars a week. In 1937 Hickok and her beloved Prinz moved into Aunt Ella's "Little House," located on 2 beautiful acres at Mastic, Long Island, New York. Little House would be Hickok's refuge from 1937 to 1955.
The Lorena Hickok Papers
As early as 1958 Lorena Hickok began to donate boxes of her letters to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York. Hickok stipulated that the boxes could not be opened until ten years after her death but then placed virtually no limits on their examination. By the time the staff of the FDR Library opened the papers in 1978, Eleanor Roosevelt had been dead sixteen years and Hickok ten years. The thirty-five hundred letters written between Eleanor and Lore-na and spanning their thirty years of friendship revealed a surprisingly close relationship. The letters spawned an ongoing debate about whether Eleanor and Lorena had a lesbian love affair or whether the relationship simply involved an exchange of affection between two women who had grown up without the love of their natural parents. Earlier while living at the White House, Hickok never publicized the fact that she was living there, and she kept a low profile going to and from work. The Roosevelt family consistently denied that a same-sex relationship existed. The Lorena Hickok Papers as well as the Harry Hopkins Papers, which contain many of Hickok's investigative reports for New Deal agencies, are both located at the FDR Library.
Return to the White House
In 1941 Hickok joined the staff of the Democratic National Committee. She would head the Women's Division and again live as a guest of the Roosevelt's at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House. Hickok's room was part of the Lincoln Suite in the northwest corner of the White House living quarters. The only meal she ate there was breakfast with Eleanor, if Eleanor was not traveling. Hickok continued to keep Little House in Mastic. In 1943 Prinz died at the age of fifteen, and her neighbors buried him, as instructed, wrapped in Hickok's old raincoat at the entrance to a favorite trail on the grounds of Little House.
Hickok remained at the White House for four years but decided to resign her Women's Division post in early 1945. After farewell parties Hickok returned to Little House on March 21, 1945. President Roosevelt died the following month on April 12, 1945.
For the next ten years Hickok led a quiet life. However, she did serve part-time on the New York State Democratic Committee from 1947 to 1952. In 1954 Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt published Ladies of Courage, a book about women in politics. By 1955 Hickok had a falling-out with Aunt Ella at Little House, and Eleanor sent her chauffeur to bring Hickok and her belongings to Eleanor's residence in Hyde Park, New York. Hickok remained there a year, then moved to other quarters close by. Eleanor persuaded her to write more, and Hickok produced six biographies for young readers, including The Story of Helen Keller.
In 1962 Hickok wrote and published Reluctant First Lady about Eleanor, who was by then seventy-eight and in failing health. Eleanor died that year. Hickok's health was also poor and her eyesight all but gone. She died on May 1, 1968.
For More Information
faber, doris. the life of lorena hickok: e. r.'s friend. new york, ny: william morrow, 1980.
lowitt, richard, and maurine beasley, eds. one third of a nation: lorenahickok reports on the great depression. urbana, il: university of illinois press, 1981.
roosevelt, eleanor, and lorena a. hickok. ladies of courage. new york, ny: putnam, 1954.