Blanche Wiesen Cook has spent the past two decades reconstructing the life of Eleanor Roosevelt from millions of words on paper. But, on the one occasion when the two met, Cook can't remember a thing that was said.

The event was a genteel tea party in 1961 at Roosevelt House at New York City's Hunter College, then a women's school. Cook was president of the student government. Eleanor Roosevelt, known as "First Lady to the World" for her tireless campaigning for human rights and social justice, was a student advisor. Cook recalls only that when the regally tall Mrs. Roosevelt entered, the atmosphere in the room suddenly changed. "So much energy bounced off her. And I remember her eyes -- they were an incredibly clear, luminescent blue."

With Eleanor Roosevelt, 1884-1933 (Viking, 1992), the first volume of her projected three-volume biography of the wife of Franklin Roosevelt, Cook took the white gloves off the former First Lady, producing the first full portrait of her substantial activities in the 1920s as a journalist, progressive organizer, and Democratic party "women's boss." Cook's Mrs. Roosevelt was a far cry from the lonely political wife devastated by her husband's infidelities that most previous commentators had seen.

The book won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize and hit the bestseller lists. But it also raised hackles with its probing examination of the First Lady's relationships with New York State trooper Earl Miller and, especially, Lorena Hickok, the nation's first female sportswriter and star Associated Press reporter with whom "ER" exchanged thousands of passionate letters over three decades. To some readers, Cook had replaced a bloodless paragon of virtue with a full-bodied portrait of a woman who loved the world in more than the abstract. To others, she had misread the historical evidence in an effort to "out" Mrs. Roosevelt.

Volume two, published this month by Viking, covers the years 1933-1938, taking the story forward through Mrs. Roosevelt's advocacy of racial justice, her efforts to make the New Deal a "square deal" for women, and -- most painful for Cook -- her agonizing and uncharacteristic silence on the plight of Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution. The book appears at a moment that Cook calls "the meanest in American life since slavery," the booming U.S. economy notwithstanding.

"I was writing about 1933-1938 in 1993-1998, and all the issues are back," Cook told PW on a recent evening in her office at Manhattan's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where she has been a professor of history since 1967. Sitting beneath a poster commemorating Geraldine Ferraro's first vice-presidential debate in 1984, held on the date of Mrs. Roosevelt's centennial birthday, she sounds as if she's stumping for a revival of the First Lady's spirit as much as for her meticulously researched book. "We're defunding public education, we're resegregating, we have seven to nine million people homeless," she says. "There are 31 wars going on around the world, and a war against the United Nations like there was against the League of Nations back then. These are issues that Eleanor Roosevelt addressed with such a big heart. I can't think of a figure who more deserves to be reconsidered."

Trim and petite at 58, with grey-streaked brown curls and gently appraising dark eyes, Cook is every inch the activist professor in action, handing her interviewer articles on a nuclear reactor across Long Island Sound from her home in Easthampton, N.Y., and on depleted uranium used in cluster bombs dropped by NATO forces in the Balkans. She reports back on a peace demonstration she just attended at The Hague. "Now, did you read a single word about that in the press?" she asks. (At one point, she stands on tip-t s in her black-and-red cowboy boots to intercept a dive-bombing intruder. "I'm not such a pacifist that I won't kill a nasty fly," she says with a laugh.) On the homefront, she's still riled by the suspension several years ago of John Jay's prison programs on Riker's Island, where she herself taught on occasion. "Eleanor Roosevelt would be so angry about that," Cook says.

As for the current First Lady, Cook thinks she should definitely seek the Senate seat that Eleanor Roosevelt -- who once said she would run only for office if she were chloroformed first -- declined to compete for in 1945. "I think Hillary would make a wonderful senator for New York State," says Cook. "And I think she should read my book. She requested a set of galleys."

Channeling Eleanor

In 1996, Hillary Clinton drew ridicule from some quarters when Bob Woodward reported that she had held imaginary conversations with Mrs. Roosevelt. But Cook is happy to describe her own strange traffic with the late First Lady. "Authors are always hoping that their subjects will come and give them a sign. Well, at the end of working on volume one, I had this dream. In my living room there's a picture of a bayou. In the dream it turned into a shaft of pure light, and I heard Eleanor Roosevelt say" -- she drops into the First Lady's flutey, aristocratic voice -- "Lighting is everything.' I woke up and I thought, 'That means Eleanor really likes this book.' "

Then, during the final editing of volume two, she recalls stepping on something sharp while getting out of bed at the house she shares with her longtime partner, Clare Coss, a writer and psychotherapist, in Easthampton. It turned out to be a button reading "We Want FDR One More Time" that had fallen from a piece of fabric holding the couple's collection of political buttons. "I said to myself, `Maybe it means Eleanor d sn't like this book.' " When she turned to the final paragraph of the manuscript, she realized that it failed to mention the President among the sources of the First Lady's strength. She promptly added Mrs. Roosevelt's "abiding partnership with FDR" alongside "love for the people in her life, and love of the world."

Cook's own involvement with Mrs. Roosevelt seems to have a touch of fate to it. As a teenager in Flushing, N.Y., she planned to major in physical education in college until she injured herself doing a triple flip in a gymnastics show. Instead she studied history at Hunter. She also became active in the civil rights movement, helping to organize a student trip to North Carolina in the summer of 1961 and participating in the founding of Students for a Democratic Society in 1962.

At graduation, she won the Roosevelt Memorial Scholarship. She recalls the administrator who presented it to her, a conservative Southern woman, saying `You know how this pains me.' But Cook says she thinks of herself as part of a "great tradition" at Hunter which includes Bella Abzug, student body president in 1941, and her friend Florence Howe, publisher of the Feminist Press, student body president in 1951.

Cook also helped start something of a new tradition at Johns Hopkins, where she headed after Hunter, intending to study military history. Increasingly radicalized by the Vietnam war, she cofounded the Peace History Society and edited the 360-volume Garland Library for Peace in addition to completing a dissertation on Woodrow Wilson and the anti-militarists. "The Peace History Society really changed my life," she says. "It was then that activism and scholarship really became one."

In 1967, she came home to CUNY with her appointment at John Jay. Her first book, on the early 20th-century socialist feminist Crystal Eastman, came out from Oxford University Press in 1979. In 1981, Doubleday published The Declassified Eisenhower, a study of Ike's secret political warfare abroad based on nearly a decade of sifting through documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. At the State Department, the book was known as "the Cookbook." From 1986 to 1990, Cook worked at the department's history office, fighting to keep the documents from being reclassified.

Beyond the Stereotypes

Cook got started on her Eleanor Roosevelt biography after writing a scathing review in the journal Women's Studies of "a very nasty book" on the then little-known relationship between Mrs. Roosevelt and Hickok. "It was a lookist interpretation," she says. "You know, about this terrible, tall, homely First Lady and this fat ugly woman." She recalls writing in her journal at the time, "I've spent most of my vital youth with one dead general." When friends suggested she take on Mrs. Roosevelt as a subject, Cook went up to the Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, N.Y., to see what other surprises there might be beyond the stereotype of the perfect helpmeet and unhappy wife.

Sorting through thousands upon thousands of documents, Cook was amazed to discover the independent political and journalistic career that Eleanor had had in the 1920s, when Franklin was a lawyer in private practice and then governor of New York. "It wasn't in any of the standard biographies, but she had written about Nicaragua, world peace, the World Court -- all things I was very interested in as a diplomatic historian. I realized that there was a big story there -- a big political story, and also a personal one."

Cook soon ran up against the fact that for all the primary source material on hand, some crucial documents -- Eleanor and Franklin's personal correspondence, a good many of Eleanor's letters to and from Hickok and Earl Miller -- had long ago been destroyed by the parties in question. "I've always worked a lot with documents. With the Eisenhower book, everything I wanted to know about was also a secret. What d s history keep secret? This has always been a great fascination for me."

She started researching Eleanor's life topic by topic. Agent Charlotte Sheedy sold the book to Amanda Vaill at Viking, whom Cook credits with really sparking the project to life before her departure in 1991. "Editors are so important, and Amanda really helped me. She had a wonderful love of words. Then she went on to become a bestselling author" -- her book on Gerald and Sara Murphy, the golden couple of the Lost Generation of the '20s, was published last year -- "which is what most editors would probably like to be, I guess." She pauses. "That's really going to get me in trouble."

Cook pulls open a file drawer to show her interviewer the massive typescript that her shifting team at Viking (Wendy Wolf and Bina Kalmani edited volume two) helped whittle into the first two volumes of the biography. She's currently working on volume three, which will follow Mrs. Roosevelt through her work on the Declaration of Human Rights after WWII and up to her death in 1962. But Cook credits her partner as her primary editor at this point. In the introduction to the current volume, she describes the travels she and Coss have made to various sites along the Eleanor Roosevelt trail, ranging from the model community she founded at Arthurdale, W. Va., to the High Sierra campground where Eleanor, Hickok, and friends pitched their tents 50 years earlier.

As for the controversy that greeted the first volume, Cook thinks that it has died down. "I think her relationship with Hick is pretty much accepted at this point, largely because of my book," she says. But after some two decades with Mrs. Roosevelt, Cook still finds some abiding mystery at the heart of her subject's most intimate life. "I still don't feel I know her 100%. And there are things I think I know, but I leave it up to the reader. I don't characterize these relationships." When it comes to Hickok and Eleanor, Cook points out, she never uses the word "lesbian."

And if Cook were to meet Mrs. Roosevelt again, say at another genteel ladies' tea party, what would she most want to ask her? Cook pauses for a moment, and then answers, "I think I would just say, `What do you want me to know?' "

Schuessler is a Brooklyn-based freelancer.