Don’t Forget Me: Lorena Hickok’s Unsung Oral History of the Great Depression

March 7, 2018 | 10 min read

1.
In 1936, restless in her romantic relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt and eager to cement her identity as a writer, the journalist Lorena “Hick” Hickok began working on a book about her three years of travels across the country to interview regular people. Nurses, day laborers, miners, teachers, county administrators, housewives, and even children talked to Hick about their experiences of poverty during the Depression. The book was to be about them and for them: “the chiselers and the shovel-leaners; this is their story and to them it is dedicated, in all sincerity and humility.”

Hick planned to draw on reports she’d typed in dreary hotel rooms as she made her way across the country starting in 1933. Primed with bourbon and homesickness, she cabled her words each night to her boss Harry Hopkins, typically cc’ing Eleanor, who often shared them with the president. These collected reports constitute one of the most valuable oral histories of the Depression ever made. In breadth—covering every region of the country except for the Pacific Northwest—and depth—containing countless one-on-one conversations with individuals—they deliver a multifaceted chronicle, enlivened by Hick’s signature humor, eye for detail, and pathos to beat the band.

But Hick’s book was never published. Editors in New York, well aware of her special access to the first lady, were much less interested in a chronicle of Depression-weary Americans than they were in behind-the-scenes tales about the most famous woman in America. Of course, Hick would never write that book. She had promised long ago that she would never write anything that could hurt Eleanor; she kept that promise, though it cost her dearly.

And so when journalists and social scientists and historians began the scramble to shape the Depression into a story that could be told, Hick’s work was not among their sources. In 1936, just as now, some voices were valued and some were silenced. It was decades before academics excavated her reports and shed light on the role she played in not only capturing Americans’ experiences but shaping policy that in turn shaped lives. Though few seemed to be listening, Hick was telling these stories. And in doing so, she was attempting to tell her own.

2.
Hick’s childhood in the upper Midwest was, to borrow a phrase, nasty, brutish, and short. The Hickoks were dirt poor, and Hick’s father was a violent man who seemed to take sick pleasure in terrorizing Hick in particular, perhaps because she was sensitive and found relief from her social anxiety in spending time with animals. Once he used a horsewhip on her dog while she lay in her room listening to its howls. Another time, he dashed her new kitten’s brains out on the side of the barn and left its body where she would see it on her walk to school.

Hick left home at 13 and moved from one job to the next around Bowdle, S.D.—maid in an infested boarding house for railway workers, cook in a farm kitchen, dishwasher in a saloon. Her school attendance was spotty. When she could go, she stuffed paper in the toes of her ragged shoes to keep her feet from freezing.

Eventually, an aunt in Michigan took her in and she completed high school and went on to Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisc. But Hick struggled there, eventually flunked out, and took a job as a cub reporter for the Battle Creek Evening News in 1912. There Hick found her calling hunting down sources and capturing stories on the page. Later she would say that being a reporter was the only thing she was ever good at, and she used her signature irreverence to describe the tribe she treasured being part of: “We were a wild, boisterous, cynical, unmannerly crew. Only the bootleggers loved us.”

3.
Over five years as a reporter for the Associated Press, Hick rose from the women’s page pabulum she despised to writing bylined stories on political corruption, sensational crimes, and, finally, covering Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign. In late October 1932, as the whistle-stop tour chugged toward election day, Hick was assigned to interview Eleanor Roosevelt on an overnight train from Potsdam to Grand Central Station. Something happened in those hours of intense conversation, and by the time the train screeched into Manhattan the women had fallen hard for each other.

They spent the next few months in the flush of new love—going to the opera, dining together alone in Hick’s apartment, talking by phone each night. Hick gave Eleanor a ring that she wore for the rest of her life. And the women wrote letters, sometimes more than one a day. Hick had been assigned to cover the incoming president, to subject him and anyone in his circle to the hard-hitting coverage she was known for. But love had done her in. Her objectivity was compromised, her work suffered, and finally she was forced to leave the AP. Hick’s 21-year career in journalism was over.

Unlike Eleanor, who was a Roosevelt twice over—Franklin was her fifth cousin once removed—Hick had no gilded surname to see her through the dry spell. She needed to find a job, and quick. It was Eleanor who set her up with Harry Hopkins, the top administrator of the New Deal’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). In 1933, Hopkins was drowning in data. Charged with overseeing the distribution of $500,000,000 in federal aid money to local officials, Hopkins spent his days scouring statistical reports. The press, meanwhile, demanded to know whether the extraordinary sums being spent actually were making a difference. Statistical data alone could not answer this question.

Hopkins wanted a report on the human dimensions of the crisis, and for that he needed a different kind of expert—not a statistician, but a storyteller. Eleanor Roosevelt let him know that one of the best had just become available that summer.

Hopkins made Hick the first in his team of investigators, asking her, simply, to talk to people who had lost their jobs, savings, material comforts—and their hope. In the era before Medicaid or Medicare, before public housing and food stamps, school lunches for children or formula for infants, it was a marvel anyone was surviving. The life savings of middle-class families had been wiped out in a day, taking the hopes of the already-poor, who worked for them, right down the tubes too.

In each new town, Hick would meet with local officials who were charged with distributing federal aid. Surging rents and food prices as well as local politics and even personal grievances often clogged the pipeline, and officials would eventually break down and tell Hick the location of the worst suffering in their district. Then she would go there: in cities it was the slums, where priests begged her for medical supplies; in rural hamlets she would sometimes have to ditch her car to walk the impassable dirt roads on foot, going door to door, taking notes on the steno pad she kept in the pocket of her skirt.

On one of those roads in Kentucky, she met a barefoot old white woman the local people called “Aunt Cora.” Hick wrote that she was “half dead from pellagra,” the disease caused by lack of niacin. Hick stopped to talk to her and when they said goodbye, the woman put her hand on Hick’s arm and said, “Don’t forget me, honey! Don’t forget me!”

Hick was the ideal person for this job because she had spent half her life in poverty. Few journalists of the time with her contacts—a direct line to the White House, experience working with most of the top reporters in New York and DC—could say the same. Those years of deprivation shaped her thinking and her imagination, and the reports show that her firsthand experience shaped what she observed.

The men she encountered, she noticed, were haunted by what they saw as a failure to provide for their families, and wanted to keep the fact of their unemployment secret. But in order for a family to receive FERA aid for groceries and rent, a caseworker had to visit the home to fill out paperwork and gather demographic information. These jobs tended to be held by educated young women from the city, and when they knocked on a front door, curtains parted all along the street as neighbors took note.

The men’s shame about taking aid was compounded by their wives’ heartache at letting these women into their living rooms. The social workers arrived smartly dressed, one husband lamented, with “powder on, and lipstick, and pink fingernails.” It was unbearable for his wife to be reminded of all the accouterments of beauty she could no longer have—another mark, Hick understood, of the shame of being poor.

Because Hick knew the pain of being overlooked and dismissed, she made women a central focus of her reports, ensuring that Hopkins—and the president—could not ignore their plight. One woman in California even confided in Hick that she’d agonized about going without rudimentary birth control measures available in drugstores at the time. She was terrified of creating more mouths to feed, but abstinence was not an option. “You don’t know what it’s like when your husband is out of work,” Hick reported that the woman told her. “He’s gloomy all the time…You must try all the time to keep him from going crazy. And many times—well, that is the only way.” Birth control was not the kind of thing discussed in polite company in the 1930s, yet Hick courageously recorded the woman’s words. This, too, was part of the story of the Depression.

In another town, where truancy was rampant because of a lack of clothing, officials used some of the relief money to have donated fabric made into pants for boys to wear. But still the boys did not show up at school. After a single conversation with one of them, Hick understood why. The fabric had a distinctive pattern the other children recognized, and the boys didn’t want to be seen wearing government pants.

Hick’s genius was that she had both devotion to the voiceless and shrewd belief in the power of narrative to sway even the skeptical to take action. When she asked a North Dakotan farmer how his family was fixed for food and clothes for the winter, he broke down crying. Not only did Hick cry right along with him, she made sure to describe her own tears in her report. She knew exactly what she was doing.

Hick’s perspective was not objective, and some of her reports are laced with racism about black, Mexican, and native communities. She expressed fear about traveling alone in the South in predominantly black areas, and hauled out old tropes about physical differences, work ethic, and hygiene. Many of the New Deal programs introduced during her time on the road plainly favored whites. The 1935 Social Security Act, for example, provided the first-ever guaranteed income after retirement for millions of Americans, but it excluded domestic servants and agricultural workers, and the vast majority of black workers fell into those categories. The Federal Housing Administration, established in 1934, created an appraisal system that tied mortgage eligibility to race, codifying racism and segregation in federal law. It may have been above Hick’s pay grade to critique federal economic policy, but she saw evidence of the disparity on a daily basis and failed to question why some people were being left behind.

4.
As Hick spent night after night in those dismal hotels, scrounging up uninspired dinners and drinking too much, her only comfort came by mail: letters from Eleanor. “A world of love to you, darling,” Eleanor signed off on November 17. “I’m getting so hungry to see you.” The next day: “The 18th, less than a month till you return. Bless you & keep well & remember I love you.” Then, two days later: “Dear one, I’m tired but very well. I can’t bear to get no letters Friday or Saturday so I’m wiring you my address and from the 29th-3rd I’ll be in Warm Springs. I would give a good deal to put my arms around you and to feel yours around me. I love you deeply & tenderly.”

We mostly have to imagine how Hick replied to Eleanor’s loving words. We know that she did because Eleanor references Hick’s letters, but most of them are missing from the archive of their correspondence. In 1936 Hick began to reclaim letters she had written to Eleanor, and Eleanor obliged; when Eleanor died in 1962, Hick burned hundreds of letters, including almost all of her own and many of Eleanor’s from those first fervent months. Hick told Eleanor’s daughter Anna why: “Your mother wasn’t always so very discreet in her letters to me.”

But lest anyone think she wanted to keep their entanglement secret for all time, Hick made sure to donate the remaining trove to the Roosevelt Library, with instructions that it not be opened until 10 years after her death in 1968. Maybe she hoped that in some future time, as our country became a more progressive, open place, the world would be able to understand that she had been in love with Eleanor Roosevelt and that Eleanor Roosevelt had been in love with her. Hick could have burned every last page, but she didn’t. Just like the people she met on her travels, she wanted to be sure she wasn’t forgotten.

5.
The place that haunted Hick most of all was Scotts Run, near Morgantown, W.Va., where the coal mines were shuttered. Families who had come to the region decades before for work were now stranded in the hills, some living in company housing for which they still had to pay rent despite their unemployment, some living in tents. They used the creek polluted with mine runoff for drinking and bathing. Children ran around naked, some covered in sores. Diphtheria and dysentery were common, and many babies died of typhoid every year. People were so hungry they could not wait for the vegetables to mature in their gardens and dug up the tiny, bitter potatoes and ate them raw. Hick called Scotts Run “the worse place I had ever seen.”

Though she was well aware that her job was to take notes and leave the policy decisions to the experts, Hick was so upset by conditions in the mining camps that she called Eleanor long-distance that night from her hotel room in Morgantown and begged her to do something. To Hick’s amazement, Eleanor got in her car and drove herself to West Virginia the next day, and they toured the camps. Most of the people Eleanor talked to had no idea they were speaking to the first lady of the United States. She listened, took notes; she was already forming a plan.

Eleanor had a hunch that West Virginia would be the ideal place to try out a program she and FDR had dreamed up, a “back-to-the-land” initiative that would empower the rural (white) poor through decent housing, training in subsistence farming, and work in local industry. A year later, 50 homesteads stood on a 1,000-acre parcel the government had purchased and named Arthurdale. That was 50 families with running water, heat in the winter, and fertile land on which to grow food and raise animals. Soon the number of homesteads grew to 165, and Arthurdale included a clinic, a school, and a community center. Though Eleanor was derided in the press for her “socialist” aims, and despite huge cost overruns and the project’s ultimate demise, Eleanor never lost faith in Arthurdale. It changed the lives of hundreds of people and served as an important laboratory for programs that would be used in different forms across the country. And it all started because of Hick’s report.

6.
Eleanor’s letters to Hick never stopped, but they changed in tenor. As the first lady’s life grew increasingly more complex, her devotion to countless people, causes, and projects left little time for Hick. Hick’s life had evolved in the opposite direction as she saw key pieces of her identity slip away in the wake of the relationship—foremost, her job at the AP, but also her life in New York City and even her beloved German Shepherd, Prinz. Hick realized she’d been naive to believe that, if she sacrificed and was patient, she and Eleanor would really be able to make a life together as they’d promised in the early days of their romance. It was, they both had to accept, heartbreakingly impossible. And so things changed, and the once intense entanglement downshifted into fond friendship that lasted the rest of their lives.

Hick put 7,000 miles on her cars in the period she called a “three-year journey into every man’s land-and no-man’s land.” The information she collected in her reports validated Hopkins’s hunch that creating jobs that paid real wages would be a more successful form of relief, and he was able to lobby Congress to create the Civil Works Administration to do just that. Visitors to the White House were often astounded by FDR’s knowledge of conditions across the country, and much of the detail was gleaned from Hick’s reports.

Those reports represented years of work and risk—risk of physical harm and depression, and the even greater risk Hick had faced all her life, of being dismissed and forgotten. Hick was a woman with tenuous social standing: her gender, her class, and her sexual identity all made it likely she would be erased. She had to fight to be heard. Flawed though she was, Hick felt a solemn duty to let imperiled Americans speak for themselves, and she left behind a crucial record of some of their lives. “Don’t forget me, honey,” the old woman in Kentucky had begged her. Hick never forgot her, and, though our attention is overdue, she made sure we won’t forget her either.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

is the author of four historical novels. Her latest, Undiscovered Country, tells the story of Lorena Hickok, Eleanor Roosevelt, and a New Deal project in West Virginia called Arthurdale. She works as an editor and lives in Chicago.

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