Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Hissing Cousins? Rivalry Among the Roosevelts

Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer, has been called a joint biography by some reviewers. It’s more an examination of their relationship with each other and the ways in which each wielded (or tried to wield) power in Washington.

Alice was Theodore Roosevelt’s first-born. Her mother died a few hours after her birth and Teddy promptly sent her to live with an aunt while he decamped for parts West to grieve. Only when he married again was the
child allowed to come back home and then because his new wife insisted. Alice, the authors say, felt that she was never loved like her half-siblings were.

Eleanor was Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite niece, the daughter of his brother, Elliott. Eleanor’s mother, a great beauty, was clearly disappointed in her unattractive daughter and called her “Granny.” Eleanor’s beloved father was so severely alcoholic that he had to be institutionalized on more than one occasion and, after her parents separated, he was rarely allowed to see her or her siblings.

As children, the two girls played together. Alice was beautiful, graceful, poised. She was also a spoiled, uncontrollable hellion who demanded center stage, whatever the cost.

Once Teddy was elected president, her antics and clothing choices were reported breathlessly in the national press. She was “Princess Alice,” sought after everywhere and showered with gifts by world leaders. To say she loved (and craved) the attention is an understatement. She also loved the sport of competing for other girl’s beaux, winning, and then dumping the man she had just “won.”

Eleanor was shy, socially awkward and homely. By the time she reached her teens, she was being raised by her maternal grandmother who dressed her in infantile, unbecoming clothes which did nothing to lessen Eleanor’s insecurity. Enter handsome, well-educated Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a fifth cousin – one of the Hyde Park Roosevelts descended from Jacobus Roosevelt. Alice and Eleanor were Oyster Bay Roosevelts descended from Jacobus’ brother Johannes.

Alice flirted with Franklin openly and sent him provocative little notes. He chose Eleanor. Homely, awkward, shy Eleanor. Peyser and Dwyer don’t examine why in any detail. They hint that Franklin wanted the connection with Teddy Roosevelt that he would get through marriage to Eleanor but Alice was even more closely connected; she was Teddy’s daughter. Eleanor was his niece.

Alice married Nicholas Longworth, a wealthy member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Ohio who eventually became Speaker of the House. Her parties were legendary. Her sense of entitlement grew and her tongue got sharper and more malicious. Like FDR, Longworth was unfaithful but Alice matched him, tit for tat, and bore a child fathered by another powerful politician, Senator William Borah, according to the authors.

Alice, a conservative Republican, was outraged when Democrat Franklin was elected president; she believed her brother, Ted, Jr., was entitled to the position. Peyser and Dwyer record every hateful and malicious thing that Alice said, privately and publicly, about Eleanor in the decades that followed. She did vicious imitations of Eleanor at dinner parties and on national television. She mocked Eleanor’s seriousness (which she called “priggishness”) and her good works. She even invited Franklin's paramour to the same social events as Eleanor.

She wrote newspaper articles and gave speeches comparing FDR to Hitler, Mussolini and other dictators. She opposed every aspect of his New Deal and every position he took on other issues as well. She engaged in behind-the-scenes whispering campaigns to defeat the “interloper” in the White House.

Hissing Cousins is a catchy title. The problem is that, in Peyser and Dwyer’s version, only one cousin hissed. The other was, for the most part, remarkably restrained. And yet, the authors say, Alice’s gleeful maliciousness was not personal. It was only political. The cousins, they aver, still maintained a familial relationship. Yet, the slant of the book is clearly toward Eleanor as the saint and Alice as the vicious opposite. In that version, it is hard to envision a familial relationship.

The Untold Story part of the title is also debatable. The authors themselves include twenty-two pages of small type footnote citations and a four page bibliography with equally small type which, in the aggregate, appear to tell the “untold” story.

As Geoffrey C. Ward wrote in The Wall Street Journal (3/27/15):

This “untold story” has already been told well in at least three other books: Michael Teague’s “Mrs. L.,” transcripts of tea-time conversations with Alice that give a vivid sense of her malicious charm; Carol Felsenthal’s acid “Princess Alice,” enriched by interviews with a host of her subject’s friends; and Stacy A. Cordery’s more admiring “Alice,” which draws upon private papers never seen by any other writer. Each book provides a nuanced account of the complicated relationship between these two extraordinary women. All three make it clear that the relationship was complicated, mutually respectful and nothing like a cat fight.

Given the witticisms for which Alice is now best remembered, I had hoped for something delicious, along the lines of Mark Leibovich’s hilarious This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral – Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! – in America’s Gilded Capital. (Who can, for example, ever forget what Bill Clinton allegedly said about Ben Bradlee’s wife?)

But Hissing Cousins is no This Town. It’s something of a slog. The first sections are filled with references to the entire Roosevelt family tree and those of virtually everyone married into the clan plus friends and neighbors. It’s made worse by the fact that so many of them have nicknames that bear no relationship to their given names. Pretty soon it begins to feel as if you’re reading about somebody’s father’s sister’s brother-in-law whose first wife’s cousin was his sister’s husband’s roommate at Groton. Reference to the genealogical map in the forefront is constantly required.

It is also interesting to see the lengths to which the authors go to squelch the idea that Eleanor and Lorena Hickok had more than a platonic relationship, despite the letters between them that have survived.

In short, the portrait of Alice is interesting but we may have to wait for the next book to get the answers to questions raised here.

Marc Peyser is a former deputy editor at Newsweek, Budget Travel, and All You magazines. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Life, Vogue, Time Out New York, Conde Nast Traveler, Washingtonian, and the Best Business Writing 2003.

Timothy Dwyer was raised on Long Island's Eaton's Neck, swimming distance from Theodore Roosevelt's homestead at Sagamore Hill. He studied history and politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and at the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium. His work has appeared in Time, Washingtonian, and He is the chief executive officer of The School Choice Group, an education advisory company.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Marian -
    I am sorry that you did not enjoy the book. Happily you are in the minority, but I understand and respect that everyone is entitled to their own tastes and preference. You have a great site here and I wish you well with it.
    I did notice that you provided an excerpt from one of the few negative reviews we received, so I think it is only fair to provide some context to Mr. Ward’s review, and correct the record with regard to an assertion he makes.

    First, you should note that the paragraph in the WSJ review immediately prior to the one you quote reveals something that might explain Mr. Ward’s churlish take on the book:
    “A number of Roosevelt biographers (including this one) have suggested that Eleanor did at least once lose her temper with Alice in print. Just before election day in 1936, a newspaper article charged that Theodore Roosevelt’s conquest of childhood asthma had made him champion “the strenuous life,” while FDR’s crippling had made him a “mollycoddle,” peddling a “mollycoddle philosophy.” Eleanor sprang to her husband’s defense: “No one who has brought himself back from what might have been an entire life of invalidism to strength, and activity, physical and mental and spiritual can ever be accused of preaching or exemplifying a mollycoddle philosophy.” It has always been assumed that the writer who aroused the first lady’s ire was Alice; she had said similar things often enough in private, after all. But the authors reveal that the writer was actually a more distant cousin, Nicholas Roosevelt. Alice had nothing to do with it.”
    Mr. Ward didn’t just assume it. He stated it as a fact in print. In other words, Mr. Ward made a mistake that even a high school student would be taken to task for: he failed to do basic research. Even the simplest search would have revealed that Alice Roosevelt did not write the article in question. Sadly for Mr. Ward, he repeated his error in the Ken Burns documentary.
    Secondly, he (and you, by quoting him) allege that Teague’s “Mrs. L.,” Felsenthal’s “Princess Alice,” and Cordery’s “Alice” cover the ground we cover in our book. That is false. Teague’s wonderful book is full of quotes from Alice, but her discussion of her relationship with her Hyde Park cousins doesn’t even reach to two pages. Cordery’s very detailed and well-written book provides a little more detail, but purely from Alice’s perspective, and still leaves out substantial portions. The total coverage of the family split in that book might come to ten pages if one were to be generous.

    Then there is the work of Felsenthal. It is astonishing that any reputable historian would cite that work as anything other than a trashy slash piece. Packed full of salacious rumors put forward as “facts,” the sources for the juiciest stories are inevitably people who “wished to remain anonymous.” It’s like the National Enquirer’s version of history. I can’t help but wonder how Mr. Ward would have reacted if we had sourced our book that way.

    Finally, I would be delighted to discuss with you the question of Eleanor’s sexuality. I would be curious to know what you object to in our presentation of the issue. We tried to be balanced and objective, and reached a careful, limited conclusion. Curious as to what you think we should have said differently.