'Hissing Cousins' Profiles the Battling Roosevelts, Eleanor and Alice

By Holahan, David | The Christian Science Monitor, March 31, 2015 | Go to article overview

'Hissing Cousins' Profiles the Battling Roosevelts, Eleanor and Alice


Holahan, David, The Christian Science Monitor


First cousins Alice Roosevelt, the darling of the tabloids a century ago, and Eleanor Roosevelt, that relentless do-gooder, were not always catty rivals. Born in 1884, they became fast friends at the age of three, playing together at Sagamore Hill, the Long Island estate of Teddy Roosevelt. He was Alice's father and Eleanor's uncle. While Teddy had a tortured relationship with Alice, whose mother had died giving birth to her, he freely proclaimed Eleanor to be his favorite niece. Maybe that's how the tiff got started.

Once begun, however, it would intensify over the decades, particularly as ideology and the political ambition of loved ones were thrown into the mix. But it was more than mere politics. These two were polar opposites in many ways.

Alice loved to party and gossip while she was advising Republicans in high places, albeit from behind the curtain. Her only child was not fathered by her husband, Congressman Nick Longworth, but rather by Senator William Borah (long suspected, this was confirmed when their correspondence became public in 2007). She never worked: rather she kibitzed and she skewered. Her wit didn't spare fellow travelers: Thomas Dewey was "the little man on the wedding cake" and Calvin Coolidge looked like he'd been "weaned on a pickle." Her death certificate listed her occupation as "gadfly."

Eleanor meanwhile was serious to a fault, a liberal idealist to the left of husband Franklin, that purported traitor to his class. Fun for fun's sake was frowned upon. Good works were more important than good times - often more important than her own family. As First Lady during the Great Depression, Eleanor remade that role, writing a newspaper column, holding press conferences (for women reporters only), and giving speeches on issues of the day. Despite her natural shyness, she became a leading lady on the political stage while her husband was president - and after his death in 1945 until hers in 1962.

In their first book, Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, authors Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer have brought this odd couple back into focus. It is hardly an "untold story," but they ably have resurrected a compelling drama dimmed by the fog of time. The research is thorough and the prose is stylishly authoritative, comme ca: "They were born in the same year and neighborhood, shared the same friends, lived in the same houses (including the White one), married the same type of men. They were arguably the most famous women in the country, if not the world...One of them whispered behind the scenes and one of them spoke to audiences around the world, but they made their voices heard - and count. …

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