Hyde Park, N.Y.
Eleanor Roosevelt home
Intrepid First Lady, women’s rights activist, and humanitarian Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was most at home here at her private retreat, Val-kill, named after the stream that ran beside it. Orphaned as a child, Eleanor was raised by a grandmother and educated in England at a girls’ academy. At 20, she married her fifth cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, and for the next dozen years was a “proper” wife to an aspiring politician, living mostly in homes owned by her controlling mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt. But after Eleanor discovered Franklin‘s affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, she offered him a divorce, and they reached the turning point of their marriage. The ambitious Franklin opted for his wife and children – and his political ambitions. Not long after, he contracted polio, which Eleanor nursed him through and which threatened to cut short his career. While he was recovering, Eleanor kept the Roosevelt name alive by making public appearances and speeches and becoming involved in Democratic politics herself. Within the party, she made many good friends, among them the lesbian couple, Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman.
In 1924, Franklin offered Eleanor, Nancy, and Marion (“the girls,” as he called them) some wooded land on the Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park, on a rocky stream called Val-kill, where they could build a house and enjoy the serenity of the place without being at the large, imposing Roosevelt mansion two miles away. By 1925, a stone cottage in the Dutch colonial style (now called “Stone Cottage”) was built on the site, and Nancy laid out the grounds and gardens. Nancy and Marion began living at the cottage full time that year, with Eleanor visiting them on weekends and during the summers. According to historian Blanche Wiesen Cook, Franklin teasingly dubbed the place “The Honeymoon Cottage,” and Eleanor embroidered the linens “E.M.N.,” the women’s three initials.
After a year, the trio (with another Democratic Party friend, Caroline O’Day, a former companion of Lillian Wald) had a second cottage constructed on the grounds for Val-kill Industries, an experimental business designed to provide work for local residents. A furniture factory trained artisans to create high-quality early American reproductions, but it folded ten years later under the financial pressures of the Depression. Nancy and Marion continued to occupy the Stone Cottage until 1947, and Eleanor had the factory remodeled into her own home (now “Val-kill Cottage”), the first and only house that belonged to her. After Franklin‘s death in 1945, Val-kill became Eleanor’s permanent residence. Now operated by the National Park Service and open to the public, Val-kill Cottage is a cozy, unpretentious house filled with comfortable furnishings (most made by Val-kill Industries) and decorated with photographs of Eleanor’s friends and family. You can almost see her in the warm pine-paneled rooms, relishing her independence and freedom from the Roosevelt family.
Eleanor has largely been constructed by history as an unattractive, asexual woman whose main function was to further her husband’s career. But Blanche Cook’s biography shows Eleanor in a different light, revealing her activity within the women’s committee of the Democratic Party, her feminist activism, her circle of lesbian friends, and most importantly, her decade-long intimate relationship with reporter Lorena Hickock, nicknamed Hick. At Val-kill, however, you won’t hear even a hint about Eleanor’s lesbianism in the official Park Service interpretation and film, in which Nancy and Marion are painted as “good friends,” and Hick – one of the major relationships of her life – isn’t mentioned at all.