Hissing Cousins: The Lifelong Rivalry of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth

Hissing Cousins: The Lifelong Rivalry of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth

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ABOUT HISSING COUSINS

A Richmond Times-Dispatch Best Book of the Year

When Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, his beautiful and flamboyant daughter was transformed into “Princess Alice,” arguably the century’s first global celebrity. Thirty-two years later, Alice’s first cousin Eleanor moved into the White House as First Lady. The two women had been born eight months and twenty blocks apart in New York City, spent much of their childhoods together, and were far more alike than most historians acknowledge. But their politics and personalities couldn’t have been more distinct. 
        Democratic icon Eleanor was committed to social justice and hated the limelight; Republican Alice was an opponent of big government who gained notoriety for her cutting remarks. The cousins liked to play up their rivalry—in the 1930s they even wrote opposing syndicated newspaper columns and embarked on competing nationwide speaking tours. When the family business is politics, winning trumps everything. Lively, intimate, and stylishly written, Hissing Cousins is a double biography of two extraordinary women whose entwined lives give us a sweeping look at the twentieth century in America.

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Chapter 1

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Eleanor Roo­se­velt hoped no one would come to her funeral. What she really wanted was to scotch the whole affair and just have someone announce her death after she’d already been buried. “I’d like to be remembered happily if that is possible,” she said. “If that can’t be I’d rather be forgotten.” Forgotten? “I had to tell her,” said her friend William Turner Levy, “that she was being unrealistic.”

Unrealistic, but not surprising. After all, this was the famously unfussy First Lady who served hot dogs to the king and queen of England during their 1939 state visit, who dragged her own suitcase around the world on countless humanitarian missions, and who insisted, after her husband died, that she’d never do anything newsworthy again. Naturally, she wanted her afterlife to be just as unpretentious as what came before. “Just a plain pine coffin covered with pine boughs. Inside the coffin are to be plain pillows and sheet with cloth,” she’d written in a letter to her doctor years earlier.

The service was held in Hyde Park’s St. James’ Church, which seated just 250 people. Among those who didn’t make the guest list: Horace W. B. Donegan, the grandstanding Episcopal bishop of New York. The five Roo­se­velt children refused to invite him, dreading he would eulogize their mother at length. (He showed up anyway but otherwise kept quiet.) Even the weather seemed to cooperate with Eleanor’s wishes. November 10, 1962, was a cold, damp day with the wind blowing off the Hudson River and pushing the chill through the streets of the town.

Yet the mourners, like the good bishop, weren’t going to let a cold shoulder stop them from saying good-­bye. Thousands lined the roads, some standing five-­deep to watch the hearse carry Mrs. Roo­se­velt from St. James’ to the Roo­se­velt mansion, Springwood, two miles away. For generations, the Roo­se­velts of Hyde Park had been buried in the quiet graveyard behind the little church, but President Roo­se­velt had requested that he and Eleanor be laid to rest in the large rose garden just to the side of the family home. It was, in its way, the perfect spot. After all, “Roo­se­velt” in Dutch means “field of roses.” Perhaps just as important, FDR’s overbearing mother, Sara, was tucked a safe distance away, resting in uncharacteristic silence back behind the church.

The president’s arrangement, however, helped produce exactly the kind of funeral Eleanor wanted to avoid. It was as if someone had picked up the entire Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and dropped it into small-­town America. The nightly news, including the BBC, delivered extensive coverage. Limousine-­lock tied up the roads; amid all the excitement, two local keystone cops crashed their cruisers into each other right in front of the Hyde Park state police barracks. Most people were fans, but there were haters, too. One man standing along the funeral route waved a sign that read, “I’m glad you’re dead, Eleanor.” Two other men were arrested for carrying “derogatory” signs.

The roster of invited guests might have been small, but it was A-­plus-­list. President and Mrs. Kennedy arrived on Air Force One (which was taking its maiden voyage and would be used, almost exactly one year later, to transport JFK’s body back from Dallas). Vice President and Mrs. Johnson came, as did the former presidents Truman and Eisenhower, making this the first time that three presidents attended the funeral of a First Lady. Chief Justice Warren, Secretary of State Rusk, Secretary of Defense McNamara, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Governor Rockefeller of New York, the United Nations ambassador Stevenson, and a sizable contingent of the Washington establishment were there. One well-­aimed Soviet missile would have decimated the U.S. government.

That was no idle concern. Mrs. Roo­se­velt’s funeral came at the tail end of the Cuban missile crisis. Just days earlier, Nikita Khrushchev had agreed to dismantle the Soviet missiles he’d lined up in Cuba like cigars ready to be lit, and Castro was still threatening to shoot down anything bigger than a kite that wandered into his airspace. The U.S. military was so concerned, the Pentagon wanted to install a kind of hotline in the pew at St. James’ where President Kennedy was to be seated. The Reverend Gordon Kidd said no. “If he had to talk on the phone during the service it would be terribly frustrating and confusing,” Kidd reasoned. The Feds settled for a phone placed unobtrusively on an outside wall of the church, though Eleanor would undoubtedly have scoffed at that, too. After all, Khrushchev didn’t scare her. She had visited him on his home turf in 1957 for a magazine interview, a somewhat tense meeting that ended with Khrushchev’s declaring his own sort of détente with one of the world’s most formidable women. “At least,” he said, “we didn’t shoot each other.” When he popped in for a visit at her woodsy Val-­Kill cottage two years later, Eleanor had only one real worry. She realized she had no vodka—­even though Khrushchev was coming at 7:00 a.m. (Her son John dutifully ran down a bottle.)

Given all the world leaders Eleanor met and hosted over the years, it’s hardly surprising that she received what was arguably the first power funeral of an American woman. What was notable was that one of Washington’s most influential women was among the few who declined to attend. Her name was Alice Longworth. Mrs. L., as she was known, was a battle-­ready Republican, a Capitol Hill institution with a biting wit, and a woman who, like Eleanor, tossed aside gender barriers as easily as she flicked the ashes off her long-­stemmed cigarette holder. She was also Eleanor’s first cousin.

Alice’s father, Theodore Roo­se­velt, was the older brother of Eleanor’s father, Elliott. To her cousin Eleanor, Alice was a childhood playmate, a teenage confidante, and, in adulthood, a relentless rival. Their relationship had taken a sharp turn for the worse thirty years earlier, when Franklin Roo­se­velt was elected president, a job Alice believed rightly belonged to her favorite brother, Theodore Roo­se­velt Jr.

Over the years, the press played Alice and Eleanor off each other like rivals in a blue-­blooded version of Oz: the good witch and the bad witch. Eleanor was the saint, the woman who revolutionized the role of First Lady with her very public activism, obvious concern for the poor and oppressed, and outspoken passion for human rights. She did more to cement the role of the United Nations in American and world diplomacy than any other woman and almost any man. Alice played the troublemaker. She relished any opportunity to tweak the stodgy establishment, and no one was more establishment—­or, in Alice’s eyes, more sanctimonious—­than Anna Eleanor Roo­se­velt Roo­se­velt. Eleanor didn’t just marry into the esteemed Roo­se­velt clan when she wed her fifth cousin Franklin. Roo­se­velt was also her maiden name.

Yet Alice was, in her own way, as much a pillar of power as Eleanor. As Theodore Roo­se­velt’s beautiful and flamboyant daughter, she became arguably the century’s first global celebrity when her father entered the White House in 1901. “Princess Alice,” as she was known on the front page, made headlines for her clothes, her smoking, her parties, even her pets. Her straitlaced parents despised all that frivolous attention—­except when they wanted to leverage her popularity for their political advantage. In 1905, when the president needed someone who could charm the Japanese as he tried to negotiate the end of the Russo-­Japanese War, he sent twenty-­one-­year-­old Alice as part of the delegation. When the trip was over and the treaty was signed, Theodore Roo­se­velt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Alice had to settle for marrying one of the men who traveled to Asia with her, though Nick Longworth was an Ohio congressman and future Speaker of the House.

As administrations came and went, Alice’s backroom influence ebbed and flowed, but like the Potomac she always cut a swath through Washington. She appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1927, joined official American delegations overseas into the 1950s, and was still sitting in the front row at presidential races into the 1970s. Along the way, Mrs. L. acquired another nickname: Washington’s Other Monument. She remained a force until she died, in 1980, at ninety-­six. Such a force that every president from Truman to Ford made sure to pay homage at Longworth’s Massachusetts Avenue home on February 12—­her birthday. Nixon, one of Alice’s personal favorites, came even at the height of the Watergate scandal.

And so Mrs. Democrat and Mrs. Republican, as they were called in a Press Club comedy sketch in 1933, spent half a century engaged in an epic political battle while locked in familial embrace. During the height of the New Deal, it was not unusual for Alice to attack her Democratic cousins’ policies in the afternoon, via her syndicated newspaper column, then head over to the White House to join them for dinner. Their sparring could get painfully personal, given that both women staked a claim to the extraordinary, complicated, and sometimes contradictory legacy of Theodore Roo­se­velt. Before the Kennedys, the Bushes, or the Clintons, the Roo­se­velts showed just how close to a monarchy American democracy can veer. The name Roo­se­velt appeared on a national ticket an astonishing eight times in the twelve presidential elections from 1900 to 1944, and the extended Roo­se­velt family held dozens of elected and appointed positions at all levels of government throughout the twentieth century, right down to Franklin and Eleanor’s son Elliott’s term as mayor of Miami Beach in 1966.

But this was much more than a family feud. As the twentieth century became the American century, Alice and Eleanor became vocal symbols of the country’s great debates. What was the right role for America on the world stage? The best way to prevent war? To address the gap between rich and poor? For that matter, what was the role of government—­to shape society or get out of the way? Eleanor and Alice represented opposing sides on just about every one of those issues, and they fought for their beliefs—­and against each other—­as fiercely as any passionate partisan around. Typically, even their means of engagement were radically different. Eleanor was the dutiful but stubborn wife who used her First Lady status to fight for her beliefs in public, and even harder in private. Alice was more comfortable behind the scenes, wielding a whisper rather than a megaphone. But a few well-­chosen, carefully placed words from Mrs. L. could torpedo a campaign or give new hope to an underdog. The Republican presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, belittled by Alice as looking like “the little man on the wedding cake,” saw his political career gravely injured amid smirks and laughter. For all their differences, the cousins share part of at least one important legacy: they short-­circuited the twentieth century’s rules of gender. Their roles as power players are all the more impressive given that they didn’t even have the right to vote until they were thirty-­six.

Alice never explained why she didn’t join the pilgrimage to Hyde Park to say good-­bye to Eleanor; after all, she rarely missed an opportunity to rub elbows with influential people. Some wondered if it was a parting shot, a final snub in a relationship often interrupted by stubborn, stony silences. But by the time Eleanor died, the personal barbs and caustic exchanges between the two cousins were largely a thing of the past. Like the late-­in-­life reconciliation between Adams and Jefferson 140 years earlier, the perspective of the passing years changed them. Their political passions never exactly cooled, but they boiled over less frequently amid the baggage of flawed marriages, 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.

For Alice and Eleanor, their oil-­and-­water bond was something of a birthright, bequeathed to them from their respective fathers and beyond. Even though he was almost two years younger than Theodore, Elliott had long been the Roo­se­velt family’s prime hope. Handsome and athletic, he was the favorite of his sisters and his mother, the kind of bighearted boy who would literally give you the clothes off his back, as he did one December when he saw a “street urchin” shivering in the New York cold and handed the boy his new overcoat. Elliott was seven. The family called him Nell, after the saintly Dickens character in The Old Curiosity Shop. Charm became his calling card. When he was twenty, Elliott took off on an around-­the-­world hunting excursion. On the ship from New York to England, he bumped into his distant cousins James and Sara Roo­se­velt, who were on their honeymoon. They became so taken with handsome, dashing, life-­of-­the-­party Elliott that they asked him to be the godfather to their first child, who was born a little more than a year later. They named him Franklin Delano Roo­se­velt, making Eleanor’s father the godfather to her future husband.

The Roo­se­velt boys were intrepid adventurers, but they were plagued by health problems. Theodore was an asthmatic child who spent much of his earliest years indoors, playing dolls with his sisters or reading in bed. Elliott developed debilitating headaches and unexplained seizures that forced him to drop out of St. Paul’s boarding school after one year. What made the brothers different was how they responded to their frailties. Theodore was determined and disciplined; he essentially worked and willed himself to health and to the apex of public life.

Elliott slid in the other direction. Always the bon vivant, he acquired a self-­destructive taste for liquor and women. The more his vices tarnished his status as the family golden boy, the more energy he poured into besting his big brother. If Teddy went to shoot big game out west, Elliott would go further—­to hunt for tigers and elephants in India and the Himalayas. If Theodore married a great beauty, Elliott would snag a woman who was so breathtaking that the poet Robert Browning once asked to watch her portrait being painted, as a kind of inspiration. They could turn a garden-­variety sibling rivalry into something practically Shakespearean. When Alice and Eleanor were about four, their fathers competed against each other in a polo match that almost became a medieval joust. It was Teddy’s Oyster Bay club versus Elliott’s “third-­rate” Meadowbrook squad, as Theodore teasingly described them. With time running out, Teddy’s side had the match locked up, leading 6–­1, but that didn’t stop him from taking off after Elliott when his little brother headed downfield at breakneck speed. Before anyone could see it coming, their horses collided. “There was a thump of horseflesh as brother tried to ride brother out. Suddenly—­no one saw how—­Theodore was thrown,” their younger sister, Corinne, wrote in a letter to their older sister, Anna. For several minutes he “neither moved nor stirred, and looked like a dead man.” When Theodore finally pulled himself up, he staggered around for hours and was unsteady on his feet for days. A week later, his wife, Edith, suffered a miscarriage.
Excerpted from Hissing Cousins by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer. Copyright © 2015 by Marc Peyser. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.