Ken Burns Does Not 'Out' Eleanor Roosevelt in New PBS Series

"This is an intimate history, not a tabloid history," the documentary filmmaker says of his new 14-hour series on the political family.
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Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Ken Burns' latest PBS opus, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, runs a whopping 14 hours and aims to cover previously unexplored areas in the lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. One thing it will not do is make any definitive statements on the much-speculated-about sexuality of the longest-serving first lady in U.S. history.

Burns and longtime collaborator Geoffrey C. Ward trotted out the project for TV critics on Tuesday afternoon, and one of the first questions about the series pertained to Eleanor's affectionate letters to friend Lorena Hickok — the source of much scholarly discussion about whether FDR's wife was, in fact, a lesbian.

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"In the film, we present the facts … all of [the letters] are in the film," said Ward, who said that it was his and Burns' impression from all of the evidence that Eleanor was not a lesbian. "Our era focuses on things like that far more deeply than anyone has before."

The duo may not subscribe to the notion that Eleanor was a lesbian, but the film does include interviews with those who feel differently. Ward noted that one thing lost on many today is that the affection and tone in Eleanor's and many other letters from history are written in the styles of the time — and not indicative of anything sexual.

"This is an intimate history, not a tabloid history," said Burns, who also took the time to address similar speculation about the 16th president. "There are intimate letters between Abraham Lincoln and one of his close friends, Joshua Speed … the intimacy between them would convince you that they had a homosexual relationship."

The Roosevelts will air on PBS stations Sept. 14-20, from 8-10 p.m. ET each night. PBS is also rolling out the entire 14-hour series online starting Sept. 15.