The most interesting parts in Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” were her descriptions of life as it happened inside the White House. I did not know, for example, that the First Family must pay for any food they eat in the White House. Alas, this was about the juiciest gossip Obama would share about their 8 years as the First Family: unless Barack Obama spills some serious beans in his forthcoming biography, the Obamas must officially be the least goss-generating of presidential families.
I just finished reading Amy Bloom’s “White Houses”, a novel about Eleanor Roosevelt and her love affair with the journalist Lorena Hickok in the 1930s. While the book is work of fiction, the relationship did happen, actually for four years, and apparently there are thousands of letters in the national archives to prove it.
So, let’s just take a minute to reflect this: the First Lady having a semi-open lesbian relationship. Eleanor Roosevelt invited “Hick” to live with the Roosevelt-family in the White House, the two went for mini breaks together and were seen together socially for four years, all the while her husband Franklin was the POTUS and the World War was raging. Am I the last one to know about this??
The narrator of the book is Hick, who was an up and coming Associated Press correspondent, and changed jobs when she moved into the White House to be closer to Eleanor. While they tried to keep their relationship discreet, obviously the word spread. Franklin himself had a modest harem around him at all times, also post-polio, and Hick confronts one of his mistresses in the book:
“You had it much better than I ever did. You weren’t cropped out of all the photos. No one in the White House pretended not to know your name. Jesus Christ, Missy, I’ve come in more back doors and down more hidden staircases, with more fake names than a Russian spy but you, the attractive secretary and the dashing Great Man, especially dashing while in a wheelchair, everyone loved that story.”
The fact that the events took place decades ago gives White Houses certain depth, but obviously one does not read this for the historical references but for gossip. While Michelle described how the girls and the White House staff made cookies in the large kitchen and Barack had a penchant for expensive fish, things were different back in the day:
“One week we didn’t have eggs. Whatever the kitchen was calling hamburger, the President didn’t eat it and neither did I and neither did the dog. White House coffee was always weak and now it was even worse, and in smaller cups. Eleanor didn’t allow complaining. She pointed out that all other countries at war were truly suffering from privation. She flashed Franklin’s war rations coupon book whenever she could, fanning the pages out and saying, with real regret, Ours is such a small sacrifice.”
Why care so much about other people’s relationships? Good question. Given that we have been so thoroughly informed about the liaisons of politicians such Kennedy and Clinton that we can list their mistresses in alphabetical order, I find it interesting to read how women in powerful positions went about fulfilling their needs for sex, adventure and even love.
So if you are in for some well-written White House-gossip, consider White Houses. I’ll end with the hilarious description of Wallis Simpson (who married King Edward, who then abdicated because Simpson was a divorcée. Just like Meghan.):
“I’d met her twice. She wasn’t pretty. She was a skinny roughhouse from a shitbox Southern town but she had done a phenomenal job of remaking herself, vanquishing good-looking rivals, and turning a genial, not stupid, sort of spineless royal into her love-slave. Like a lot of rich people, she liked Nazis more than she liked Democrats and she was famous for kissing up and kicking down.”