The Politics of Friendship
The Three Graces of Val-Kill: Eleanor Roosevelt, Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook in the Place They Made Their Own by Emily Herring Wilson
A Review by Pam Munter
As an outspoken First Lady, she was ridiculed, reviled and often imitated. Each year she lived in the White House, she was named one of the most admired women in America, encouraging young girls to fulfill their potential in spite of the oppressive sexism of the times. No, this isn’t about Hillary Clinton.
Author Emily Herring Wilson digs beneath what we already know about Eleanor Roosevelt in a revealing book about a uniquely joyful decade in her life. The Three Graces of Val-Kill: Eleanor Roosevelt, Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook in the Place They Made Their Own (University of North Carolina Press, 2017) focuses on the unlikely long-term friendship between three women.
Much of what has been written about ER, as her many biographers call her, portrays her as a sad but courageous woman, beleaguered by nearly a lifetime of distress. After surviving a childhood riddled with emotional abuse, she married a man who repeatedly cheated on her and shrank under the cruel domination of her mother-in-law. In most biographies, ER seems to come to life only after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death in 1945.
But this book tells a different story. In 1922, Eleanor was invited to speak at a Democratic Women’s fund raiser, hosted by activist Nancy Cook. They hit it off immediately, sharing a passion for liberal politics and women’s rights. ER began spending her time with Nan and her life partner, Marion Dickerman. After that first summer, Wilson writes, “Nan and Marion were Eleanor’s most intimate friends.” The women were frequent guests at the Hyde Park mansion in upstate New York where the Roosevelts lived. Franklin liked the women, too, and they shared an active, convivial social life. When the three women decided to build a summer cottage—Val-Kill—on the spacious grounds of the estate, Franklin offered his complete support, jokingly dubbing them “The Three Graces.” Perhaps he welcomed Eleanor’s escalating social life because he was having an affair with Eleanor’s social secretary, Lucy Mercer, and later with his own, Missy LeHand.
The early part of the book describes the colorful rolling hills of Hyde Park, the mansion located in the millionaires’ section, and the design and building of the cottage, itself only two miles from the main house. But the mere fact of Val-Kill’s existence is what is most stunning. After all, Eleanor was married with five children.
“Eleanor thought there was nothing unusual about sharing a cottage with two women recognized and partnered in an intimate domestic life. For their part, Marion and Nan likely discussed with one another what privacy they might be giving up in sharing a home and life with a married woman who had a large family.” In reality, the three women had invented a family of their own.
Wilson writes, they “delighted in sleeping in the same room dormitory-style, as if they were college girls.” They laughed often in each other’s company and together worked to support FDR’s political ambitions. Spending long nights sitting by the fire, Eleanor shared confidences in an unfamiliar atmosphere of trust. She was still reeling from her discovery of Franklin’s extramarital relationship with Mercer and felt she could confide in her friends. In a later book of her own, Marion wrote, “We never referred to it…(but) we were conscious of the depth to which she had been hurt.” The three sat in silence after the disclosure, the bond between them growing as they rallied to support their friend.
During these years, many of Eleanor’s friends were women also in domestic partnerships. There is some detail about a few of them, but we are far more invested in the Three Graces, following the layers of complexity among them. Here and there, the author adds odd, unsubstantiated psychological speculation: “She ignored what she did not want to confront…she liked being one of three. This preference perhaps allowed her to be part of but distant from an exclusive relationship with one person.”
There is short shift given to her well-documented, long-time intimate relationship with journalist Lorena Hickok, a liaison similar in intensity. The romantic letters between Eleanor and Hick have been the subject of multiple books and even more speculation. But, according to Marion’s unearthed writings, Eleanor fervently wished to marry her naval escort, Earl Miller. As Wilson opines in an understated way, “All in all, Eleanor had a crowded dance card.”
During the Depression, a separate studio was constructed adjacent to Val-Kill to house an arts and crafts factory where local boys and men were employed to build furniture and create other forms of art. “Historians of the New Deal,” Wilson says, “…point out that (Eleanor’s) experiences at Val-Kill led to her advocacy for national programs in arts and crafts that became part of the New Deal’s cultural approach.”
Franklin’s election in 1932 brought seismic shifts in everybody’s lives, most painfully in the relationship between the Three Graces. Eleanor, already over-committed, was at first a reluctant First Lady. She couldn’t spend as much time at Val-Kill; her social circle expanded exponentially; her responsibilities mushroomed, as she assumed a prominent if informal role in her husband’s administration. Marion and Nan had long been possessive of Eleanor. Now they missed her invaluable presence, and felt pushed out by the interlopers. The two continued to live at Val-Kill until Franklin died. When times had been fun and carefree and the women nearly inseparable, Eleanor had assured her two friends she would leave them the cottage in her will. But now—in an attempt to settle FDR’s estate—she offered to buy them out and, according to the author, did so in an impersonal, legalistic manner that upset both women. Nan and Marion moved to Connecticut and lived out their lives there, together for more than 50 years. The three continued to visit but it was never the same.
The book is a compelling read, mostly for the revelatory dynamics between these accomplished and intellectually dynamic friends. When it strays, it’s less interesting and sometimes even intrusive. The author offers lyrical speculations about a “typical day” at Val-Kill and details imagined conversations, for instance, in contrast to the well-researched work that surrounds them. The author wisely makes only passing reference to FDR’s rise and his complicated personal issues, and then as context for the action on her main stage.
Historians have chronicled ER’s eventful life both before and after Val-Kill but perhaps for the first time, we can understand the choices she made to shape her life during the ten years before FDR assumed the presidency. Eleanor has written, “I think perhaps I would prefer when I am dead to have it said that I had a gift for friendship.” The book is a present for any who find this complex woman a continual source of fascination.
Val-Kill is open to visitors. Wilson promises us a sense of immediacy. “As soon as one steps inside, there is great charm and warmth. It feels as if Mrs. Roosevelt is at home.”
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram. She’s a retired clinical psychologist, film historian and former performer. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Angels Flight—Literary West, TreeHouse Arts, Persephone’s Daughters, Canyon Voices, Open Thought Vortex, Fourth and Sycamore, Nixes Mate, Scarlet Leaf Review, Cold Creek Review, Communicators League, Switchback, and many others. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.