When Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, his beautiful and flamboyant daughter was transformed into "Princess Alice," arguably the century's first global celebrity. Read more...
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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, her first cousin Eleanor moved into the White House as First Lady. Born eight months and twenty blocks apart from each other in New York City, Eleanor and Alice spent a large part of their childhoods together and were far more alike than most historians acknowledge.
But their politics and temperaments couldn't have been more distinct. Do-gooder Eleanor was committed to social justice but hated the limelight; acid-tongued Alice, who became the wife of philandering Republican congressman Nicholas Longworth, was an opponent of big government who gained notoriety for her cutting remarks (she famously quipped that dour President Coolidge looked like he was weaned on a pickle ). While Eleanor revolutionized the role of First Lady with her outspoken passion for human rights, Alice made the most of her insider connections to influence politics, including doing as much to defeat the League of Nations as anyone in elective office.
The cousins themselves liked to play up their oil-and-water relationship. 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 once said. In the 1930s they even wrote opposing syndicated newspaper columns and embarked on competing nationwide speaking tours. Blood may be thicker than water, but when the family business is politics, winning trumps everything.
Vivid, intimate, and stylishly written, "Hissing Cousins" finally sets this relationship center stage, revealing the contentious bond between two political trailblazers who short-circuited the rules of gender and power, each in her own way."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2015-02-16
- Reviewer: Staff
Journalist Peyser and educator Dwyer serve up a dual biography of the two most well-known women of the extended Roosevelt clan with a glaze of snark. Alice, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, is portrayed as sarcastic and spoiled; Eleanor, wife of Franklin Roosevelt, as unattractive and awkward. The women were close as children but grew apart as adults, due to their very different personalities and very different politics. The authors assert that the disagreements between Alice and Eleanor reflect the great American debates of the 20th Century: internationalism vs. isolationism, war vs. peace, large federal government vs. small. Alice married Ohio Republican congressman Nicholas Longworth in 1906 as much for his wealth as his political reputation, believing she could help him to the White House. Eleanor’s political life didn’t begin until after her 1905 marriage to Franklin; as a dutiful wife she figured out effective ways to support and promote his career. The authors ably present these events, but are on shakier ground with the gender issues that informed these great American debates and shaped these women’s lives. Readers interested in a more historically substantive portrayal of the two women should look to the work of Blanche Wiesen Cook and Stacy Cordery. (Apr.)
A charged family rivalry
Both born in 1884, Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth could have been classmates in school. It’s easy to imagine Eleanor sitting up front (or even helping teach the class) and Alice occupying a back-row spot, launching spitballs and making wisecracks.
As Hissing Cousins makes clear, the two women from one of America’s foremost families could not have been more different. And that makes for some highly entertaining reading, especially if you like your history sweetened with delicious anecdotes and tasty bon mots.
Eleanor was the niece of Theodore Roosevelt and the wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Alice was Theodore’s daughter from his first marriage, fated never to know her mother (who died the day after Alice was born). The first cousins may have been from the same family tree, but complicated circumstances—some political, some personal—pulled them apart as they matured into adulthood. At that point the stage was set, with shy social reformer Eleanor on the side of the Democratic party and attention-loving gadfly Alice casting her lot with the Republicans.
Authors Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer have a can’t-miss subject on their hands, and they bring the reader along for an exhilarating ride. Any history lessons, including a brief account of the Teapot Dome scandal, are a bonus, and there’s enough philandering to make the residents of Peyton Place blush.
For better or worse, most of the hissing in Hissing Cousins is done from afar. Face to face, on numerous social occasions, the cousins are all smiles. But as the authors know, where’s the fun—and the book—in that?