THE BLOG
09/23/2014 09:26 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

'The Roosevelts:' Ken Burns Closets Eleanor, Disappears FDR's Gay Sex-Entrapment Scandal in the Navy

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I enjoyed watching Ken Burns' The Roosevelts: An Intimate History last week, keeping in mind that these PBS documentary series are usually a heavy bit of American myth-making, sanitizing some facts in offering a particular version of history. Still, there are a few things just too glaring to hide or treat with discretion in 2014, though Burns arrogantly thinks he can.

How could we not hear about the scandalous anti-gay witch hunt beginning in 1919 in Newport overseen by then assistant secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt? As detailed in historian John Loughery's 1998 book The Other Side of Silence, Navy sailors were recruited to entrap other men to have sex with them, with the undercover "operatives" engaging in sex to orgasmic completion -- oral, and yes, some anal -- with the men they entrapped, and logging all of this in their own reports.

At first, the sting focused on men in the Navy, in an attempt to clean up what was seen as "moral conditions" at the Newport base, but it soon expanded to the civilian population in Newport and resulted in the arrests and sometimes imprisonment of 17 sailors and a prominent Episcopal Navy chaplain. When the methods of the witch hunt became known there were headlines across the country, legal inquires and a hearing and denouncement from a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs. The Senate report called FDR's behavior "reprehensible," and stated that the actions "violated the code of the American citizen and ignored the rights of every American boy who enlisted in the navy to fight for his country." The New York Times went with the headline, "LAY NAVY SCANDAL TO F. D. ROOSEVELT, DETAILS ARE UNPRINTABLE."

And what happened to any discussion of career diplomat Sumner Welles, FDR's right-hand man and Under Secretary of State, considered one of the most influential global strategists of the 20th century? He was FDR's school chum -- and page boy at Eleanor and FDR's wedding -- and he was also bisexual and quite sexually active, something about which FDR apparently looked the other way. Eventually, though, Roosevelt reluctantly accepted his resignation in 1943 after one of Welles's rivals in the state department seized upon information that Welles had solicited sex from two black men, Pullman porters on the same train that carried the president from the House Speaker's funeral in Alabama, and threatened to provide the details to a GOP Senate enemy unless Roosevelt dumped him. Surely, this downfall of a close aide and lifelong friend, and the reasons why he fell, should have a place in something described as "an intimate history."

It's long been discussed that Eleanor Roosevelt had a close and deep relationship with the Associated Press reporter, Lorena Hickok, with whom she went on a road trip, alone, across the country, and who even had a room in the White House for a time -- and those facts are included in the series. Also included is the fact that Eleanor had friends and colleagues with whom she organized on women's issues who were lesbians, some of them in deeply committed relationships.

But the way Burns treats all of this is to discuss Eleanor and Hickok as close and intimate "friends" -- he has Doris Kearns Goodwin telling us Hickok was "in love" with Eleanor, almost as if it was one-sided -- but never using the "L" word, or even raising the possibility of sex, seeming to view that as sleazy.

Burns even admitted as much, reiterating what he'd said in a talk at the Television Critics Association in July, in an answer to a question at a discussion at the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago in September:

I assume when you say a relationship you are assuming that there was a sexual relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. We have no evidence whatsoever of that, and none of the historians and experts believe it. This is an intimate [look at the Roosevelts] not a tabloid and we just don't know ... We have to be very careful because sometimes we want to read into things that aren't there.

First off, why is it "tabloid" rather than "intimate" to speak of the possibility of a sexual relationship between two women? Burns, after all, had no problem discussing, quite extensively, FDR's sexual affair with Eleanor's secretary Lucy Mercer.

Secondly, it's factually incorrect to state that "none of the historians and experts believe it." That depends on the historians with whom one consults, and, apparently what gender they are. Noted scholars such as Blanche Wiesen Cook -- whom Burns interviewed extensively in the documentary series, but curiously not about this issue -- as well as Leila J. Rupp, and Lillian Faderman, have discussed and documented what they concluded was a deeply passionate, physical relationship, in which Roosevelt and Hickok wrote one another about sleeping in bed together while holding one another in their arms, and kissing on the mouth.

Faderman told Carrie Maxwell at the Windy City Times, "If the documentary does deal with FDR's extramarital relationship with Lucy Mercer then it's inexcusable that he didn't deal with Eleanor's extramarital relationships particularly with Lorena Hickok."

Burns needn't have definitively decided whether Eleanor Roosevelt was bisexual or had sexual relationships with women or not. But he surely could have had an interesting discussion, with various points of view. Such discussions shed important light on the lives of these prominent American figures and the treatment of homosexuality in our history.

Certainly, for FDR to have once overseen an anti-gay witch hunt only to later be married to a woman who may have had an affair with another woman -- right in the White House itself -- is interesting, as is his having had an aide, a lifelong friend, who was bisexual and whose resignation he reluctantly accepted over his sex with men. But more so, what did all of this mean about how this powerful and great president, and his enormously influential wife, treated an issue that, shortly after World War II, and later in the '60s, would explode further in the American consciousness?

As long as Burns saw some historical facts and mysteries as too "tabloid" to broach, however, those important questions weren't about to be raised.

Correction: A previous version of this post stated that Welles "had sex with" two train porters. It has since been changed to "solicited sex from" porters, to better reflect historical accounts.