IT IS ONE OF THOSE coincidences of history that Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of and grand and unforgettable Teddy and wife of the totally forgettable Nicholas, died the very same week two more books were published about her cousin, Eleanor. The two hated each other -- at least Alice hated Eleanor -- thinking probably that they had little in common but a family name. They had something else: They were prisoners of their looks.
Alice, of course, was radiant and pretty -- daughter of a president, a Washington debutante, a standard of style and grace, the one who gave the color Alice Blue to the nation as surely as her father gave his name to a certain kind of stuffed toy bear.
She married in the White House, took the speaker of the House of Representatives for her husband, and stayed pretty much at the center of things Washingtonian for something like 70 years. She was, as they say, formidable.
Eleanor, on the other hand, was homely. She had a voice pitched at the level of chalk on a blackboard, and the teeth of a beaver. She was awkard in both speech and manner and when she talked -- when she rose to speak -- the experience was both painful to her and her audience. She had a husband, but there is reason to believe that she was unloved by him. There is about Eleanor Roosevelt an aura of aching sadness, yet in her own way she, too, was formidable. She certainly endures.
It is interesting to consider how their looks -- the way they looked to the world -- shaped these two women. It is interesting because in some ways they were so similar. They were both Roosevelts -- one of the Oyster Bay branch, the other of the Hyde Park -- both well-off, both of the aristocracy, and both manifestly bright.
Eleanor's intelligence proclaimed itself. She threw herself into causes. She spoke for people who had no spokesperson and she spoke well. She championed the poor, the black, women and other minorities. She campaigned and lectured and gave speeches and she did this with such intensity and such effect that it is not too much to say that before her death she was either a goddess or a witch to most Americans.
I am partial to the goddess side, thinking that the worst you can call a person is not "do-gooder" but rather "do-nothinger." That is something you could never call Eleanor Roosevelt.
As for Alice, she showed her intelligence in her wit. It was she who said, "The secret of eternal youth is arrested development," and who commented on Wendell Willkie after he received the presidental nomination: "He sprang from the grass roots of the country clubs of America."
Her most admired remark, the one about Thomas Dewey looking like the "bridgegroom on a wedding cake," was not hers at all. The reason we know is that she admitted it. She borrowed it, popularized it, but did not invent it.
No matter. She invented enough so that Washington adored her and presidents more or less routinely elbowed themselves to her side so that they could hear what she had to say.
Yet with Alice, there it stopped. She was what she was, and what she was was beautiful. She did more or less what was expected of pretty girls. She was perfect just being -- just being Alice and being pretty -- and in the America of both her youth and her maturity there was nothing better than to be rich and pretty and well-married.
That she was also intelligent was almost besides the point, like the gilding on a lily. And while she later became cherished for her wit, it was not because she could use it for any purpose, but because it was like her beauty itself: something of a jewel. She was the perfect appurtenance, the one man wanted seated next to them.
With Eleanor, the story is different. Her looks were not her strong suit and so she had to declare herself in another way -- by intellect, character, indomitability. She did this well, found causes, gave purpose to her life and left this earth with the certainty that she had mattered.
The conventional view is to see Eleanor as sad and Alice as glittering. To an extent, I'm sure, that's true. But in reading the obituaries, in reading how Alice cruelly imitated Eleanor and mocked her good causes, you get the sense that Alice herself realized that something ironic had happened, that she had somehow become trapped by her own good looks, by her perfection, by her wit -- that she had become the eternal debutante, frozen in time. Eleanor was actually doing something.
So now Eleanor and Alice are dead. One led a sad life, the other a glittering one. But one suspects that as the books came out on Eleanor, Alice realized the tables had turned.There is something said about being an ugly duckling, but there is something sadder yet about being the belle of the ball after the music has stopped, the guests have gone home and the rest of the world has gone to work.