I spent most of my childhood in a southern Ohio mill town called Chillicothe, where my father was an ophthalmologist. My mother was a writer herself: although self-effacing in real life she had a devil-may-care style on the page that still emboldens me. I was an English major at Oberlin, but I learned most in college from my work on the newspaper, in the theater and living slightly outside the rules at the Coop.
While working in the professional theater in Cleveland, I met a medical student who told me that the most important thing in life is to be happy. This idea so astounded me that I went on to marry Daniel Jacobs, who became a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst.
Like Lorena Hickok, whose story I tell in Eleanor and Hick, I started my writing career as a newspaper reporter—going out to do whatever absurd assignment my editor thought up, first in Cleveland and later in Boston. Sometimes—as when I followed a regular customer around the ‘combat zone’ for an alternative weekly called the Real Paper—it meant taking risks to get the story. I later won magazine awards for a story in which I posed as a homebuyer to compare home inspectors and another about a secret rendez-vous in Moscow with the sister of a Russian émigré.
My several women’s groups, where others were struggling as I was to find a voice, helped me to make the leap from magazine journalism to my first book: the biography of a strong and original woman, a psychoanalyst named Karen Horney. A Mind of Her Own: The Life of Karen Horney won the Boston Globe Winship award and led to support for my next project. Grants from the Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundations allowed me to do research in Poland and France for a biography of Marie Curie, which has now been translated into many languages. A subsequent book, Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Times, focused on government-sponsored theater during the Great Depression. But it too celebrated a strong woman, Hallie Flanagan, the embattled director of the Federal Theatre Project.
My current book, Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped A First Lady, presented a new kind of writing challenge. For the first time, I had to tell the story of two intertwining lives. Because my daughter is gay, I felt a special connection to this story of love between women. Also, I felt immediate sympathy for Lorena Hickok, the AP journalist universally known as “Hick.” She was a reporter, as I had been. She came from the Midwest, as I did. I was moved by the story of Hick’s triumph over an unspeakably cruel childhood, and impressed by her remarkable success in what was then an oppressively male world of journalism.
In one of her thousands of letters to Eleanor Roosevelt, Hick wrote of her attempt to distinguish between her feelings about the “person” she knew and loved and the “personage” known and admired by the public. I too struggled with this. I had long idealized Eleanor Roosevelt from afar, and my treatment of her in early drafts of the book reflected this awe. I referred to her not simply as “Eleanor” but rather as Eleanor Roosevelt or ER. Even though Eleanor had begged close friends to call her by her first name, almost no one did. And I, writing over 50 years after her death, couldn’t do it either at first. But during my many days of absorption in the intimate letters she exchanged with Hick, I realized that a book about their love for each other would be asymmetrical unless I used both their first names. As soon as I began to call Eleanor Roosevelt “Eleanor,” the personage receded and the person took center stage. Through her relationship with Hick, I saw her up close, and gained a new understanding of her courage and of the vulnerability she worked so hard to hide from the world.
Susan Quinn has written for The Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine, and the Boston Globe Magazine, among others. While a staff writer at Boston Magazine, she received both the Penney-Missouri Magazine award and the Golden Hammer Award (from the National Association of Homebuilders) for investigative reporting. Her biography of Karen Horney was awarded the Boston Globe’s Lawrence Winship award, and she was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Rockefeller residency at Bellagio in Italy for work on the life of Marie Curie. Quinn was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist and was shortlisted for Great Britain’s Fawcett Book Prize for Marie Curie: A Life. Her Curie biography was also designated as one of the best science-tech books of 1995 by Library Journal and was awarded the Grand prix de lectrices by Elle magazine. Her biography has been translated into nine languages, and was recently reissued in a new edition in Italy and France. She has received a doctorate in humane letters from the University of Wisconsin.