- - Monday, April 27, 2015

HISSING COUSINS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ELEANOR ROOSEVELT AND ALICE ROOSEVELT LONGWORTH

By Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer

Doubleday, $28.95, 332 pages

Even though the United States fought the British in part over the supremacy of dynastic rule, American voters have been more than willing to elect multiple members of the same family to high office. While no Roosevelts have held office for some time, the family continues to cast a long shadow. They, along with the Adams, Bush and Harrison families, are the only ones to have each produced two presidents

Two of the most interesting Roosevelts never held office, although both might have if they had been born later. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, and Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, were both the embodiment of the phrase larger than life. They are natural subjects for a dual biography and in “Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth,” journalists Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer do a fine job of profiling each of them and chronicling the ups and downs of the relationship between these Roosevelt women.



The authors don’t break a ton of new ground, given the copious amount of material on both women. Their strength is synthesizing what is already out there and the prose is lively without the tendency to overwrite or toss in the kitchen sink, which is too often the case in history books. They lack the literary prowess of popular historians such as Erik Larson and David McCullough, but the book is easy to get through.

Alice Longworth, TR’s daughter from his first marriage, was a successful hostess, author and coiner of bon mots, such as “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” She was conservative in her views and became a pillar of the GOP. Her cousin Eleanor Roosevelt (the daughter of TR’s brother and FDR’s fifth cousin, once removed) was an active agent of change at home and abroad and became a liberal icon. TR helped raise Eleanor because her father was an alcoholic and often absent. The women were at times quite friendly, other times bitter rivals and more often than not, wary observers of one another. By the end of Eleanor Roosevelt’s life, she died 18 years before Alice Longworth, they had mostly buried the hatchet.

“Like the late in life reconciliation between Adams and Jefferson [which was midwifed by Eleanor’s predecessor Abigail Adams] 140 years earlier, the perspective of the passing years changed them. Their political passions never actually cooled but they boiled over less frequently amid the baggage of flawed marriage, difficult children, and the premature loss of parents and siblings. In those more human respects, Mrs. Democrat and Mrs. Republican found their lives mirroring each other in ways that must have astonished even them,” the authors write.

Alice Longworth grew up in the White House while her father was president and loved the place so much that she wanted to return there as first lady. She was so disappointed when her father left the White House (and was succeeded by William Howard Taft, whom she saw as too conservative and too nouveau riche) that she buried a voodoo doll under the lawn. She never became the president’s wife, though her husband Nicholas Longworth became speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. However, she returned often to the White House during FDR’s presidency and had a cordial relationship with the first family even though she was afraid his policies were leading the nation down a path to socialism. She saw FDR as a dictatorial power monger.

Eleanor Roosevelt transformed the job of first lady into that of a social and political activist despite her shyness and lack of self-confidence. She was very much her husband’s social conscience and was responsible for the creation of some of the New Deal’s domestic policies. Though she and FDR were great political partners in many ways it was a marriage of convenience. Like Alice Longworth (who had a child with Sen. William Borah) she found emotional fulfillment outside her marriage, though in the case of Eleanor Roosevelt it was often in the company of other women.

While the phrase grand dames is sometimes overused, it is an appropriate description of these two women and they have found suitable biographers in Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer. “Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth” is a masterful chronicle of their lives and times.

Claude R. Marx is writing a biography of William Howard Taft.

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