Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer (2015)
In 2014, I watched all fourteen episodes of Ken Burns’s PBS series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, which focused on the lives of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Eleanor Roosevelt. I learned a great deal about the history of the United States, including the background to such significant events as the building of the Panama Canal, the establishment of the National Parks, the passage of New Deal legislation, and the American involvement in World War II. But even more captivating was the insight into the personal lives of these three towering public figures.
More family secrets are revealed in Hissing Cousins, a dual biography of Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) and Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1884-1980). Alice, the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt (TR), lived in the White House in her youth (1901-1909) and became the celebrated “Princess Alice.” Eleanor was TR’s niece, who married her distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and herself moved into the White House as First Lady during his presidency (1933-1945).
Although Alice and Eleanor played together as children and saw each other socially throughout their lives, they differed radically in their political beliefs and in their personalities. Alice was a Republican, flamboyant, sharp-tongued, and dedicated to influencing the course of history through back-door methods. Eleanor was a Democrat, introverted and slower to speak, but she was a reliable sounding board for FDR on many issues, and she found a strong public voice in advocating for civil rights nationally and human rights internationally.
Quoting letters, diaries, and other biographies, authors Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer have put together a highly readable story of the two women, who were constantly in the media limelight. I knew quite a bit about Eleanor’s life, but I had not heard of Alice, who was a superstar of the tabloids and newsreels throughout much of her long life. Hissing Cousins cleverly interweaves the stories of two women who helped shape American politics and policies in the first half of the twentieth century, albeit with vastly differing approaches.
Alice and Eleanor both endured tremendous sadness in their family lives. Alice’s mother died shortly after giving birth to her. Both of Eleanor’s parents died when she was a child—her father as a result of alcoholism. Alcoholism afflicted many members of both families, and battlefield deaths in both World War I and World War II took the lives of brothers and cousins. Both Alice and Eleanor had philandering husbands.
Peyser and Dwyer tell their story in lively style, though they veer into cattiness occasionally. For example, in describing the difficult life of Alice’s brother Kermit, they write, “By the late 1930s, Kermit’s shipping business, his marriage, and even his morning meals were on the rocks.” When Alice’s step-mother died in 1948, they write that “the loss of the only mother she had ever known was real, even for a woman who believed that mourning was about as useful as voting for a Democrat.” Such comments do perk up the text—and are in keeping with Alice’s often cutting comments in her letters, newspaper columns, and autobiography—but they’re still in bad taste.
That small quibble aside, Hissing Cousins is a good addition to the history of the American Century. The authors try not to take sides or to pit the two women against each other, though I do sense some bias of affection toward Eleanor. Alice and Eleanor are presented as flawed but brilliant women who made their marks in the halls of power.