Book Review: Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth By Marc Peyer and Timothy Dwyer (286 pages hardcover)

Posted: April 28, 2016 in Books

Hissing Cousins

Alice Roosevelt was perfectly suited for the power that her maiden name bestowed on her.  She was Republican Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, and was an intelligent and beautiful debutante, with a sharp wit and sometimes acid tongue.  Alice had no trouble being the belle of the ball at the social gatherings of the wealthy and powerful.  Despite Teddy’s loss as a presidential candidate on the Bull Moose ticket, Alice was never far away from political power.  She married Congressman Nick Longworth of Ohio, and hoped to be First Lady in short order.  But Nick was not a great politician, and he was a relentless womanizer, and so her dreams of being First Lady were dashed. But Alice wielded a great deal of power behind the scenes, she helped bring down The League of Nations, became an advisor to republican candidates from Harding to Nixon, and built up something of a rivalry with cousin Eleanor, whose husband Franklin was rising steadily through the Democratic ranks, following much the same path that uncle Ted took to the With House, Governor of New York, Secretary of the Navy, and eventually President of the United States.  At one point Eleanor and Alice had dueling newspaper columns, about their views on daily life and politics.

Eleanor Roosevelt was not so well suited for the fame and glory that would come her way, she was a debutante also, but hardly stayed for her own ball.  She was naturally insecure, because she was not the stunning beauty that her cousin Alice was. A chance to study abroad with Madame Marie Souvestre in England gave her the confidence she needed to pursue her ambitions when she came back home. She settled in New York City and volunteered at the National Consumers League inspecting working conditions.  She had a whirlwind courtship with Franklin,  they married and she had 6 children in rapid succession, but was far from an ideal mother.  Life was far from perfect with FDR, he was stricken with polio, and had numerous infidelities during their marriage. But not only did Eleanor survive, she thrived. She overcame seasickness and travelled with Franklin on the sea when he was Secretary of the Navy , she developed deep and lasting friendships with women that nurtured her throughout her life.  When she became First Lady, she travelled abroad often to visit the troops, and kept pressing for civil rights for black people and equal rights for women, and got women involved in the political process like no one before her.  She wrote a daily column called My Day, she could have run for Senate after FDR’s death, but didn’t, and was drafted to be Vice President in 1948. But by the end of her career in politics, she far eclipsed the popularity of her glamorous cousin Alice, because of Eleanor’s penchant for hard work, and her earnest attitude.

Hissing Cousins is an entertaining and informative book, based on the premise that Alice the glamorous daughter of republican royalty, developed a natural rivalry with her plain Jane cousin Eleanor.  Rather than rivals, I would use a more modern term to classify the cousins’ relationship.  They were frenemies.  They weren’t friends, they weren’t enemies, I saw it as good natured ribbing between family members.  If there was any bad blood, it came because Alice felt Eleanor usurped her position as family princess, and was jealous because she felt Eleanor deserved none of the adulation she got.  But I think this was played up by the political media at the time, and this book, because without the premise of a rivalry, this book would be just another political biography.  The book also tends to be a little gossipy in tone when discussing the numerous infidelities, and Eleanor’s friendships with women.

Here’s why this book is so valuable.  I know a lot more about Eleanor Roosevelt than I ever did before.  I knew about her early work with civil rights, that was groundbreaking, but I didn’t know she would hold press conferences with only women, I didn’t know she was a U.N. delegate, and this book is chock full of information like that.  And most of the books on Eleanor are probably so laudatory, that they are not worth reading.  Sometimes it’s useful to view icons from a not so lofty perspective, and this book achieves that.

There is almost nothing written about Alice Roosevelt, besides maybe her own autobiography, so this important reading material for that reason alone.  What an interesting person Alice Roosevelt is, most doors were closed to women at that time, and she just barged in, and sat at the table with men, and men accepted her because of the sheer force of her will.

Much the same can be said for Eleanor, and her perspective grew to a more global perspective, whereas Alice’s concerns stayed parochial, and mostly partisan.  Each woman was traditional in some ways, married with children, that was a sign of the times. But each woman in her own way opened the doors for women to gain an equal footing with men in the political arena.

Hissing Cousins:  Hiss-torical humor.



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