Eleanor Roosevelt is gay icon in ‘HICK: A Love Story’

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Did you know Eleanor Roosevelt secretly dated the female journalist who was covering the 1928 election for The Associated Press? Neither do most people.   

In the theater production “HICK: A Love Story,” based on the true story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, viewers are sent on a journey of love and discovery, as the two women communicate via letters sent back and forth over the course of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency. A story told by women, about women, “HICK” unveils the heartwarming (and pleasantly shocking) romance between the two lovebirds.     

Running as part of the 28th annual San Francisco Fringe Festival, this production brings to light a relationship that wasn’t in the public eye until long after Eleanor passed away. It was only when Hickok, who was generally referred to as “Hick,” donated every letter between Eleanor and herself to the National Archives and Records Administration that the excavation of the women’s “friendship” was undertaken by the public.  

Terry Baum, playwright of “HICK” and starring actress as Hickok herself, gives an outstanding performance throughout the hour-long play, never ceasing to both convey palpable emotion and use the scope of her talents to fill the otherwise uncongested stage. As Hickok, Baum steals the show — partly because she is the show. 

Commanding the stage for most of the performance, Baum channels every ounce of passion, longing, power and poise one would need to guide the audience through this rollercoaster of a romance. 

To keep the audience following every up and down, the story is occasionally narrated by Tara Ayres, who keeps the pace moving forward as the relationship blossoms. Ayres is also given the opportunity to show off her impressive vocal abilities, as she sings heirloom election ballads to transition between scenes.  

Loretta Janca only has a brief part in the play, acting as Eleanor for just the second half of the production (when the first lady finally makes her first stage appearance). Her presence adds a realistic flair as the authentic love letters are read onstage, the audience witnessing a long-distance relationship happening from opposing sides of the stage. In “HICK,” Baum and Janca expertly exhibit the trials of a written affair. 

Considering Hick’s place as one of the greatest journalists of her time (she was the first woman to get a story on the front page of the New York Times), the letters are patently poetic in essence and beautifully capture the emotions that once traversed the White House hallways. The story is in every way empowering, showing Hick as the star of her newsroom no matter what strife she faced as a woman working in a pre-World War II era.  

Baum’s comedic quips are timely, the character initially imagining asking Eleanor questions such as, “Do you have any idea what a homosexual is?” Once the love between the women is actually sparked — soft hand-holding and an arm slipped around the waist — Hick proclaims, “If I burn in hell for it, so be it,” addressing her “unnatural love” for the first lady. This moment is a powerful turning point in the show, allowing the gravity of the relationship to truly settle in.  

But beneath the story, partnered with laughter and romantic crooning, the question of “Where is FDR in this?” is an underlying vein that goes largely unaddressed. Until finally, toward the middle of the play, it is revealed that FDR cheated on Eleanor throughout his presidency. Unfortunately, rather than this pushing Eleanor into a happily ever after with her own lover, the rocky marriage led not to divorce, but instead to a halt in intimate relations between the president and first lady.   

If there’s anything “HICK” teaches us, it’s that Eleanor was not one to be messed with, and Hickok seemed to be the only other person to understand that. Hickok was a strong woman stuck madly in love throughout her days spent reporting on the first lady’s experience. Between recounting the naughty times in press bathrooms and the eventual falling out the women faced later in life, “HICK” shares the story that both Hickok and Eleanor always wanted to share with the world — a powerful, tear-jerking ending to a powerful love story.   

In the words of Hickok herself in the play, “Once you’ve been had by Eleanor Roosevelt, you stay had.”

Contact Skylar De Paul at [email protected]. Tweet her at @skylardepaul.