Thomas Mallon’s most recent novels are “Fellow Travelers” and “Watergate.” He teaches at George Washington University.
By Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.
332 pp. $28.95
Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, each born in 1884, were biological first cousins but “distant” ones in every other sense. Eleanor was dutiful and wounded, Alice mischievous and wounding. The Democratic first lady became a force in American social policy and later foreign affairs; Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, known as “Princess Alice” while her father occupied the White House, operated for seven decades after that as the Republican Party’s grand dowager: the wife of House Speaker Nicholas Longworth; the mistress of Sen. William Borah; and eventually a fabulous and still-beautiful crone whose mansion off Dupont Circle contained an embroidered pillow that instructed guests, “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”
Both Eleanor and Alice have been individually the subject of numerous biographies. “Hissing Cousins,” the first such joint enterprise, is a clever, absorbing and occasionally cheesy work by Marc Peyser, a former Newsweek editor, and Timothy Dwyer, a writer and educational consultant. “Even the Roosevelts could get lost in their own family tree,” the authors point out. Elliott Roosevelt, Theodore’s brother and Eleanor’s father, was also “the godfather to her future husband,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt. These consanguineous complexities can be maddening, but Peyser and Dwyer do a good job distinguishing the Oyster Bay (Republican) and Hyde Park (Democratic) branches of this New York dynasty: “The intra-family rivalry grew so intense the two sides could not even agree on how to pronounce their name: Rose-eh-velt (Oyster Bay) or Rooze-eh-velt (Hyde Park).”
Young Eleanor, suffering her mother’s neglect and scorn, adored her alcoholic, skirt-chasing father. Both parents died before she turned 10. She would later be pushed around by her mother-in-law and betrayed, repeatedly, by her philandering husband, whose recovery from polio and matchless political career she did much to make feasible. If Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt achieved a genuine modus vivendi, Alice and Nick Longworth can be said to have managed a mere arrangement, something cordial but empty. Early on, Alice may have loved her husband and worked for his political success, but her celebrity always inconveniently exceeded his, and her short attention span inclined her more toward prankishness than to Eleanor’s hard, sustained public work.
Neither woman had much success at motherhood. As Peyser and Dwyer point out, the first lady’s five children made a total of 17 marriages and often schemed to profit from their parents’ time in the White House. Alice’s only child, Paulina, was commonly known to be not Nick Longworth’s daughter but Borah’s. (Alice even toyed with naming her Deborah — i.e., “of Borah.”) Unhappy and overshadowed, Paulina apparently took her own life in 1957, at the age of 31. Alice’s friends were horrifed by her intention to raise Paulina’s own young daughter, but she proved an improbable, Auntie Mame-like whiz at grandmothering.
“I leave the good deeds to Eleanor,” she once explained. There was always a childish element to her desire to have her own way: At 17, she danced a jig when William McKinley’s assassination put her father into the White House. Alice famously remarked that Theodore Roosevelt had to be “the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral,” but at her own White House nuptials she kept the attention on herself by doing without any bridesmaids.
The freshest, most interesting part of “Hissing Cousins” is the authors’ speculation that, early in their lives, Alice and Eleanor may have been “competing for the patriarch’s love.” There is some evidence that Theodore Roosevelt recommended his favorite niece, Eleanor, as a good example to his wayward daughter. If Alice enjoyed the personally vengeful aspect of her father’s attempted return to the White House in 1912, four years after leaving it, Eleanor thrilled to the progressive policies that her uncle’s Bull Moose Party was putting forth.
Alice’s own politics gave her most pleasure when they were most negative. She claimed to have put “a medieval curse” on Woodrow Wilson and thrilled to her isolationist cohorts’ success in blocking Wilson’s League of Nations, no matter that her father had once championed a version of the same idea. She aimed her most famous and damaging darts at Republican candidates and presidents she in fact supported: Warren Harding was “just a slob,” and Wendell Willkie sprang from “the grass roots of 10,000 country clubs.”
As girls, the Roosevelt cousins had periods almost of closeness. The orphaned and awkward Eleanor professed to be “in great awe” of Alice, who for all her apparent self-assurance still suffered from her father’s early neglect. (When his wife died just after giving birth to Alice, TR fled for a long stretch, with only his grief, to the Dakota Territory.) But over the years Alice and Eleanor grew far apart. The “hissing” of the book’s title was more intermittent than steady, though Alice did do buck-toothed imitations of Eleanor, and the two women did for a time write dueling newspaper columns. Eleanor’s “My Day” lasted for 27 years; “What Alice Thinks” vanished after 18 months.
Peyser and Dwyer wisely avoid paying too much attention to the old theory that Alice was jealous of Eleanor for capturing Franklin, whom she wanted for herself. What Alice mostly felt was wild exasperation over the way political fate and circumstance set Franklin up as her father’s wrongful heir. “When I think of Frank and Eleanor in the White House I could grind my teeth to powder and blow them out my nose,” Alice complained. By the time FDR sought a third term, she suggested that his initials stood for Führer, Duce and Rex.
Peyser and Dwyer’s exercise in extended comparison is entertaining and often shrewd, but “Hissing Cousins” lacks the gravitas of its first subject and the genuine wit of its second. A reader wishes that the authors would take their elbows out of his ribs. They will begin points with “Well” and “Sure,” and even end a sentence with “right?” And we have to be told that Alice’s admiration of Borah’s oratorical voice “spread to the other parts of his body.”
As early as 1916, Eleanor saw her cousin beginning to live a life of “dreariness & waste,” and the authors get it right when they say, “Eleanor is historic, Alice is receding into a footnote.” But even so stalwart a liberal as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. would admit to a “reluctant recognition that I would rather spend an evening with Alice Longworth than with Eleanor Roosevelt.” Many readers of “Hissing Cousins” will end up feeling the same.