Magazine | April 20, 2015, Issue

Upper Crust

Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth (AP)
Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer (Nan A. Talese, 332 pp., $28.95)

After more than two centuries as one of New York’s founding clans, the Roosevelts discovered that their family tree had so many branches that a woman could marry within the fold without changing her maiden name. Eleanor Roosevelt Roosevelt never changed hers; Alice Roosevelt Longworth did, but the newspapers that reported her every outlandish action and utterance always referred to her by all three.

It’s too bad that a book as good as this one should have such a misleading title. “Hissing Cousins” is perfect for sales, but the book is not, per se, about catfights. The oil-and-water personalities of the two cousins are simply the opportunity to illustrate what the authors see as the persistence and easy acceptance of Old World–style political dynasties in our supposedly modern era, and what it could mean for 2016 and beyond.

“Despite our being one of the modern world’s oldest republics,” they write, “the Adamses, Harrisons, and Bushes produced two presidents. . . . The Roosevelts showed just how close to a monarchy American democracy can veer. Either Theodore or Franklin was on a national ticket for eight of twelve presidential elections, and no other family has dominated two political parties, three if you count Theodore’s Progressive Republicans. Most significantly, no other family produced two women who dominated the national conversation like Alice and Eleanor.”

They were born a few months apart in 1884, both saddled from the start with father complexes that were clinical in intensity and gothic in atmospherics. Theodore Roosevelt was hurrying home from Albany to be with his wife, who had just given birth to their first child, and his mother, who had a cold. But when he finally got through the snow and arrived at his Manhattan townhouse, both women had taken a turn for the worse and died within hours of each other the following day. His wife’s death was caused by an undiagnosed kidney disease, not childbirth, but it might as well have been as far as baby Alice was concerned. To prove that death had not defeated him, the authors write, Theodore effectively “blotted out” the whole marriage, just as he had blotted out the life-threatening asthma of his youth by going out West and living as a cowboy. Lest he be seen as a “mollycoddle,” the image of softness he dreaded, he refused to speak of his first marriage or even mention his wife’s name, and threw himself into politics until he captured national acclaim with his Rough Riders in the war with Spain in 1898.

Eleanor was eight when her cold, indifferent mother died and nine when she lost her beloved father, Elliott, whose love lay elsewhere. According to his brother Theodore, Elliott drank “whole bottles of anisette and green mint besides whole bottles of raw brandy and champagne, sometimes a dozen in the mornings.” He knocked over an oil lamp and set fire to his house, tried to jump out the window, and ran up and down the stairs like a rabid dog. When he died shortly thereafter, Eleanor was sent to live with her maternal grandmother.

It was the first of the many times they would be compared. Who was the “poor little thing” people spoke of: orphaned Eleanor or motherless Alice? Not Alice, who formed her own Rough Riders from Washington boys and led them in trashing the streets of the capital on their bicycles. But Eleanor, who had escaped from her grandmother and attended the posh but left-wing English boarding school run by the socialist Mme. Souvestre, took up good works to help as many poor little things as she could find.

At first, Theodore tried to control Alice by comparing her unfavorably with his niece. Eleanor’s charitable activities were those of a proper gentlewoman, he said, but when he succeeded to the presidency after McKinley’s assassination, all comparisons were off. His daughter became “Princess Alice,” America’s first professional celebrity. She christened a ship for the kaiser of Germany, met the dowager empress of China, who gave her ermine and black-fox coats, and inspired a hit song about her favorite color, “Alice Blue Gown.” In 1906, she married future House speaker Nicholas Longworth in a White House wedding with no bridesmaids, preferring to shine alone, and cut the cake with a sword she borrowed from a military aide. After that, her fame simply went off the charts. Some years later, two men were discussing the plan by the State of Massachusetts to honor the birthplace of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow when one of them said, “Aw, nobody ever heard of him until he married Alice Roosevelt.”

When Eleanor became first lady, the national press tried to pit her and Alice against each other with rival newspaper columns, Eleanor’s “My Day” and “What Alice Thinks,” but it did not work out as hoped. Eleanor’s column ran from the early Thirties until three weeks before her death in 1962, while Alice’s lasted 18 months. It should not have surprised anyone in the editorial business. Like so many good talkers, Alice couldn’t write. When she was telling a story her timing was perfect, but if she tried to put it on paper her prose was as turgid as the instructions in a knitting book. She also had a problem relating with her readers, as when she described surprise as “feeling like Lady Godiva with an upswept bob.” Most of the just-plain-folks who read the popular press had no idea who Lady Godiva was and had never seen an upswept bob. Eleanor, on the other hand, could write about nothing much at all and keep it lively and universal, as when she described her efforts to get rid of a ticklish throat to keep from coughing at a meeting. Her years of good works had taught her that for the common people, life grinds exceeding small, and she kept her commentary in proportion.     

When she became first lady, the Roosevelts became a dynasty within a dynasty. Alice, ensconced in her Massachusetts Avenue mansion, held court for the Republican or TR side, smoking through her long ivory holder as she ran down the Hyde Park Democrat with venomous delight, even suggesting that he drop the family name entirely and call himself Franklin Delano. Then she entertained her guests with her famous impersonation of Eleanor. In the meantime she visited the White House whenever she got an invitation — which was often, because, being family, they couldn’t very well not invite her.

Eleanor’s self-confidence had grown since Alice had called her “a literal human doormat” after she went to sleep in the vestibule of her house rather than drag Franklin away from a party to tell him she had forgotten her key. One evening, Eleanor looked across the White House dinner table and said pleasantly, “Alice, why don’t you give one of your impersonations of me now?” A witness said Alice blanched briefly but did the imitation, and Eleanor laughed along with the rest. “The most helpful criticism I ever received,” Eleanor later wrote. “I realized that I had many things to correct.” It was a masterpiece of subtlety, but as Alice must have realized, it was game, set, and match for the human doormat.

Alice also used sex against Eleanor in a way that no one else would have dared. For years people had been gossiping about the lesbian friends the first lady had gathered round her in the course of her work with labor unions and women’s-rights groups. Chief among them were Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, who were standard left-wingers and at least had each other, but when Eleanor took up with AP reporter Lorena Hickok, who was unattached, the whispers grew more intense. Hickok got so involved with FDR’s 1932 campaign that she had to quit her job, telling her bosses that she was no longer able to be impartial. Frankly masculine-looking and doing nothing to hide it, she took Eleanor on long car trips and the pair stayed alone in motels.

Hickok’s papers, released in 1970, reveal that they did what was then called “necking” but probably did not go all the way. That would have made no difference to Alice, who settled the matter during luncheon in an elegant restaurant, when she drowned out the soft, well-bred voices with her stentorian announcement.

“I don’t care what you say!” she shouted. “I refuse to believe that Eleanor Roosevelt is a lesbian!”

It has long been my unpopular belief that when a handsome man marries a homely woman, something besides blind love is afoot. In FDR’s case, that something was his obsessive effort to look like, sound like, and turn himself into another man altogether.

His success at this masquerade can be measured by the election of 1920, when he ran for vice president on the ticket headed by Democrat James Cox. “Many voters assumed that FDR was TR’s son,” the authors write, “and the Democrats did little to clarify things.”

He lost the election, but he must have been overjoyed by the mistaken identity. It was more than just the name. As a young man he had adopted TR’s unbecoming pince-nez glasses and his speech habits (“I like it bully well!”), and while still at Harvard he was devastated when TR’s Porcellian Club blackballed him. He had vowed to have six children, like TR, and follow his career path through New York State government, serving as assistant secretary of the Navy, and then going on to the White House.

This is less like admiration and more like what is today called “channeling.” He wanted to be TR, so why didn’t he pursue a complete resemblance and try to marry TR’s daughter? Doesn’t a daughter trump a niece? He may have contemplated it — I’ve always thought he did — but Alice wanted money and he didn’t have enough. Nor did she want a mama’s boy, or the dominating Sara Delano for a mother-in-law, and she certainly didn’t want six children. And so he channeled in Eleanor, whom TR called “my favorite niece,” and took her to the White House to help with his New Deal, which he channeled from TR’s Square Deal.

The authors turn up several people who more or less agree with me, including Laura Delano, FDR’s maternal cousin, who was with him when he died. She believed that Alice suffered from lifelong what-might-have-beens and if-onlys from fantasizing herself as the only American woman to be both first daughter and first lady, going from Princess Alice to Queen Alice while the nations of the world lined up their ships for her to christen: “How she would have loved it!”

A word about the authors. Marc Peyser has been all over the magazine world. Former deputy editor of Newsweek, he has also worked and written for Vogue, Budget Travel, and Condé Nast Traveler. Timothy Dwyer was born and raised on Long Island near TR’s Sagamore Hill. A graduate of Georgetown and the College of Europe in Belgium, he is now the CEO of School Choice International.

Apropos of nothing except the pleasure their book has given me, I call your attention to the many interesting facts that crop up throughout, e.g., that every French male descendant of Lafayette is automatically an American citizen, and that the slang for coffee, “a cuppa Joe,” comes from the ruling by secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, FDR’s teetotaling boss, who banned liquor from U.S. ships. It’s that kind of book, so don’t miss it.

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

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