The Millions

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

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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

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