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The White House, 1940s (Photo by Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

The House of Scandal

Essay | 10 minute read
It is the seat of American power but has a rich history of sexual misadventure. Amy Bloom reflects on the fame, and infamy, of the White House

Who doesn’t love a scandal or a secret, from early on? (‘Franny’s mother wears a wig! She’s completely bald! Uncle Basil is really a cousin/an aunt/your brother. Your big sister was born 9 June 1975. Mum and Dad were married 3 April 1975. You do the math.’)

There is no family and no person without a secret. In America, we don’t even pretend otherwise. We have hours of programming devoted to it. We love when that stuff is unearthed. (Sol Wachtler was a famously upright Chief Justice in New York. He was found guilty of extortion, blackmail and racketeering and, even worse, he had dressed up and adopted a fake accent to pretend to be a private eye and intimidate his mistress. My father laughed his ass off over that for months, and he had liked Sol Wachtler.) It balances neatly with another great love, the Redemption Rondelay (if you think you’ve seen the last of Charlie Rose or Mario Batali, you are not an American).

In American politics, we have a history of going after secrets and scandals and sometimes we really pull it off (Monica Lewinsky!) and sometimes we fall a little short (Stormy, can you hear me?). We like the rapid descent and the reveal of all human vices. Greed – currently a major theme in our White House, but barely a secret and only a scandal for non-Republicans – as well as its sidekick, corruption. Greed and corruption are fun to watch from our imaginary high ground, when the wheels come off and the non-disclosure agreements are torn up, but we save our deepest excitement for sex.

Former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton at a White House function; submitted as evidence in documents by the Starr investigation and released by the House Judiciary committee in September 1998

We love the movie stars who not only cheat but cheat so widely, or so baldly, or so stupidly, that even those of us who have flirted a little bit more than we should can shake our hair back and think, I wouldn’t do/put up with that (looking at you, Ben Affleck, Brad Pitt, Charlie Sheen – a man who offers a complete amusement park of schadenfreude). We attentively followed Anthony Weiner, whose great error in judgement was a wild, unfathomable self-righteousness despite having sexted pictures of his private parts to young women, who did not ask him to. When Governor Sanford of South Carolina ditched work to spend time with his mistress (foreign, another fillip), his staff said that he was ‘hiking the Appalachian Trail’, which became a hilarious euphemism and an emblem of his dopey, inept and misguided efforts to govern. He resigned and The New York Times published a rhapsodic account of his former wife’s new marriage to a man who was emphatically and repeatedly described in the article as ‘honest and caring’.

We enjoy seeing other people get caught; it emphasises our innocence, even while we can identify, so easily, with the self-deception and wilful blindness of the scandalisers. The scandalisers and secret-holders perform on the public stage, and we shake our heads or throw stones (depending on our nature and relationship to social media) and imagine that we are impervious, which is, of course, the thing that tripped up so many of the scandalisers in the first place.

Almost all White Houses have scandals. For many years, corruption was the major scandal. Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, was notoriously corrupt. An opposing congressman said, half-heartedly: ‘Well, I don’t think he would steal a red-hot stove.’ When Cameron demanded an apology and retraction, the congressman said: ‘I believe I said that Cameron would not steal a red-hot stove. I will now take that back.’ Most of the time, when American politicians (almost all male, though occasionally a married woman has an affair with some guy) get caught in sex scandals, which they do, constantly, they lie about it, run out of lies and resign or are forced out of office. Not everyone gets a wife like Marilyn Quayle, who said, in defense of her husband, vice president Dan Quayle, when he was accused of a attending a prostitute-filled golfing trip, ‘Everyone knows Dan would rather golf’, which may have been rough to hear but helped him weather the crisis, while the other men involved resigned from Congress.

All of which makes it hard to understand how the Roosevelt White House, all twelve years of it, managed to be the source of more scandal than a season of Scandal and have so much that was known forgiven and so much else successfully hidden.

Eleanor Roosevelt was the child of wealthy, feckless, awful people. Her mother criticized her appearance constantly and her father, Elliott Roosevelt, was a drunk and a womanizer. When he fathered an illegitimate child, his brother, President Teddy Roosevelt, insisted that he separate from his wife and children and tried – several times – to get Elliott permanently committed to an asylum, so the scandal wouldn’t affect his next run for the presidency. Elliott Roosevelt drank himself to death. Eleanor Roosevelt, a grieving orphan, went to live with her grandmother and locked her door every night to prevent further harm at the hands of two other drunk and dangerous uncles. She forgave her beloved Uncle Teddy; he officiated at her wedding. The Roosevelts knew all about scandal.

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1946, during a conference at the temporary UN headquarters at Lake Success, New York (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

FDR’s long-running relationships with his mistresses, his flirty friendships and excessively close cousins, somehow never became a scandal. His first – and only – great love affair, after Eleanor, with whom he had been very much in love, was with Lucy Mercer, Eleanor’s close friend and her secretary. When Eleanor discovered the affair, she offered him a divorce, saying that if he loved Lucy, he should be with her. FDR waffled about before his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, intervened. There would be no scandal in this house; if Franklin left Eleanor, he would have no political future and she’d cut him off without a cent. Scandal averted and goodbye, Lucy!

FDR’s long affair with his secretary, Missy Le Hand, was an open secret in Washington, D.C., if not in America. (She was on the cover of TIME magazine). The largely male press, even the married ones, even the religious, even the Catholic ones (and Missy was Catholic) didn’t object. He was a great man, married to a great lady and, as seems clear from the coverage that FDR and Eleanor received, the press admired her and adored him. No reporter begrudged the exhausted FDR his comfort – not even Eleanor, who had selected Missy from a pool of secretaries years before, when FDR was governor of New York. She knew, she said, what her husband needed.

There were two great secrets kept in the second Roosevelt White House, and they relied in one instance on people seeing what they wished and needed to see, and in the other on the American preference for simplicity over complexity.

Franklin Roosevelt couldn’t walk. Americans did not want a person with a disability (or, as we liked to say back then, a cripple) as president. People with polio were wan, hopeless creatures bound to wheelchairs and incapable of leading full lives. Franklin Roosevelt was a big, handsome, broad-chested man with a movie-star smile. He travelled bare-headed in storms. He skippered a boat up and down the East Coast with his three fairly attractive sons beside him. He lounged poolside. He fished and drank rum. He drove a car. Therefore, he was not a polio patient. He had suffered some polio, sure. It had affected his ability to walk. He now walked, as all America was given to understand, with difficulty.

This was the big lie, the ‘splendid deception’, as his biographer Hugh Gallagher called it. FDR could no more walk than I can flap my arms and fly. The lie was ‘with difficulty’. He had a powerful upper body and he had learned to swing his legs forward from his hips so that, if he was holding on to an arm or a railing, he could give the impression of walking.

Photographers were instructed never to take pictures of the president being carried in the arms of a strapping Secret Service man, as was sometimes necessary, when the stairs to a building were too much and a ramp could not be arranged. Almost always, the press abided by the rules and America believed that their president had had a struggle with polio and triumphed. And finally, the scandal we wouldn’t allow: Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, First Lady and First Friend. This is one we couldn’t bear. Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, two smart, middle-aged women, who were not expecting a great passion to disrupt their lives, fell madly in love in 1933, after becoming friends in 1932. They travelled together, without Secret Service, for weeks. They slept in the same hotel room wherever they went. When at home, in the White House, they slept in adjoining rooms. Lorena Hickok was present, often right next to her beloved Eleanor, at hundreds of formal and informal White House occasions and, routinely, the White House Press office cut her image out of the photos. She lived in the White House. She was a devoted Democrat, an admirer of President Roosevelt and his wife’s lover.

The Roosevelts riding in car on the President’s third inauguration day

Even among the press, there was no appetite for outing the First Lady and Lorena Hickok. ‘Lesbian’ was was too awful a thing to say; so awful that to even be the kind of person who could know about and contemplate such a thing was to declare yourself to be a degenerate. So, no one said it. Journalists and historians went right on not saying it, until 1978, when Lorena Hickok’s correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt was finally unsealed in the Roosevelt Library. You might think that 3,000 letters (not to mention the hundreds that Lorena burned because, as she told Eleanor’s daughter, ‘Your mother wasn’t always discreet’), many of them frank and passionate (‘I long to kiss you on the southeast corner of your lips’; ‘I look at the ring you’ve given me and I think, she must love me or I wouldn’t be wearing it’) would clear up whatever mothballed mystery there might have been, but no. Otherwise perfectly reasonable male and female historians argued – with straight faces – that these were letters that clearly could not possibly mean what they said.

They interviewed Roosevelt’s grandchildren, who reported that Granny Eleanor didn’t seem like a lesbian to them. Several historians argued that since Eleanor had stopped sleeping with her husband after he cheated on her, she would obviously never again want to have sex with anyone, QED. This was not met with howls of laughter. This was met with a lot of serious nodding.

Finally, Blanche Weisen Cook wrote the great biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, in which she said that although one can never know for certain, the many letters, which she had read, and the photos and the accounts of others less invested than the Roosevelt grandchildren all indicated, very persuasively, that the two women had had a passionate affair which eventually became a life-long, passionate friendship. When the book came out, Cook was excoriated by other historians, accused of having a lesbian agenda and besmirching Eleanor Roosevelt’s good/straight name. Within about five years, all of those historians put down their torches and pitchforks and read the 3,000 letters. All of those historians then managed to apologize and to agree with Cook’s conclusions… privately.

I wrote White Houses because I was fascinated by this story literally cut out, because I found myself thinking about people erased, about what it would be like to flip through your family photo albums albums and see that although you knew you’d been there, right behind that armchair, there was no sign of you.

White Houses is a novel, an exploration of the intimate and the epic, an appreciation of history and a love story of the most common and uncommon kind.

Amy Bloom’s new novel is White Houses (Granta)

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