While the U.S. technically has no royal family, various families have ruled Washington throughout its history. None, however, did it for as long, or with quite as much élan, as the Roosevelt clan.
While the two Roosevelts who actually ruled were male, oftentimes the world’s attention was focused on two of its more outspoken female members—Alice Roosevelt Longworth and Eleanor Roosevelt, who just so happened to spend decades trashing each other in public and private. Their volcanic relationship is the subject of a truly pleasurable new book, Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer. The dual biography manages to give the reader what he or she wants—the juicy details of the spat—while simultaneously weaving the much bigger story of these dynamic women’s impact in a time when having an impact as a woman was far from easy.
The two women would go on to lead stunning lives. Eleanor famously redefined the role of First Lady, but beyond that she redefined the role of any woman in politics and the public sphere. Alice pushed and expanded society’s boundaries on what a woman could wear, say, do, and think, while accumulating a nearly unmatchable roster of politicians, thinkers, writers, and artists who sought her company and counsel.
Both women were born in 1884, Alice as the first daughter of future president Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor to his brother Elliott. Two days after Alice was born, her mother and grandmother died. Theodore famously almost never spoke again of his first wife, and as a result Alice was largely removed from his presence for a significant portion of her childhood. When he remarried, Alice felt pushed out by her stepmother. Eleanor, meanwhile, had an alcoholic father who was eventually institutionalized and a beautiful mother notoriously disappointed in her looks. As a result, both girls were brought up in less than nurturing environments.
The two became fast childhood friends, as Alice was raised at her Aunt Bye’s, and Eleanor would frequently be dropped there by her mother. In a letter to her husband, Eleanor’s mother wrote of the friendship, “Aunty and Uncle Bunkle took Alice and Eleanor sailing yesterday. They did enjoy it so much. She won’t hear of going home; as she says, she would not have Alice any more.” During her debutante years, Alice made a list of the men and women who she would like to be stuck alone with at a convent or ranch. “The first name on the list: Eleanor,” the authors note. When Eleanor married Franklin and asked Alice to be her bridesmaid, Alice replied, “You angel to ask me to be your bridesmaid. I should love to above anything. It will be too wonderful.”
The amity captured in those quotes, however, stands out all the more because quite soon these two young women would embark down the different paths that would separate them for the rest of their lives.
Alice, in no small part because of her looks and her father’s position as president, became a celebrity on a global scale. Her every move, party, and potential romance was reported in newspapers across the globe. Even as a teen, she began to dominate Washington’s social scene, when her name on the attendee list could make or break a gathering. She also was engaged in her father’s career, most notably when she accompanied William Taft as a diversion for the press on his Asia trip during negotiations with Japan. She could also be a spoiled brat. While recounting her Asia trip, in which Empress CiXi showered her with jewels, she wrote, “Gold bracelets (set with rather inferior rubies), rings (lost those).” Her debutante ball of 400 people at the White House disappointed her.
It was also during this time that she gained her lifelong reputation as a particularly cutting fire-eater. She was famous for having a pillow featuring the slogan, “If you haven’t got anything good to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”
On Warren Harding: “To call him second-rate would be to pay him a compliment.” On Calvin Coolidge: “He looks like he was weaned on a pickle.” She notoriously had an affair with Senator William Borah, and she apparently told her husband, Nicholas Longworth, she wanted to name the baby “Deborah—as in de (“of” in French) Borah.” On her father: “My father always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding, and the baby at every christening.” Thomas E. Dewey was the little man on the wedding cake.
As she got older, one of Alice’s more frequent targets was none other than her cousin and former confidante Eleanor. There was little about Eleanor she would not ridicule. Alice’s impersonation of Eleanor’s laugh featured Alice tucking her chin, sticking out her teeth, and braying. She roasted Eleanor’s skills as a hostess, declaring, “I remember going there once with my stepmother, who maintained that she could always tell when I was bored because I appeared to swell up. My eyes recede and my face becomes fat.” When Eleanor was out of town, Alice publicly invited his mistress Lucy Mercer to be FDR’s partner at a party. She later claimed it was understandable that FDR had affairs as his wife, after all, was Eleanor. Alice did not attend Eleanor’s funeral, and she snubbed her and Franklin for her daughter’s wedding.
Peyser and Dwyer’s tale is truly hard to put down, particularly because these two women led such fabulous and trying lives. Both married famous men who cheated on them regularly (both men died in the presence of their mistresses). They were both, as they acknowledged, terrible mothers, and their misdeeds are shocking. (Eleanor put a child in a cage on a windowsill for fresh air). But what makes the book more than just a well-written rehashing of these two women’s barbs is that it grapples with why they turned on each other.
While Eleanor largely comes out of the book with a more wholesome and endearing image, from a very early age her put-upon need to please and her do-gooder mentality—along with heaps of sanctimony—seems to have sowed the seeds of rancor.
When they were children and Teddy Roosevelt wanted them to go swimming, Alice was afraid and cried and refused to go swimming. Eleanor, equally afraid, would go in, and “turned the experience into yet another feat of goody-two-shoes stoicism.”
There would be camping trips, which Eleanor claimed were “a good way to find out people’s characters. Those who were selfish showed it very soon, in that they wanted the best bed or the best food, and they did not want to do their share of the work.”
Writing to her friend Isabella Greenway in 1916, Eleanor declared Alice “isn’t a bit changed” and gave Eleanor “a feeling of dreariness & waste” and that “as for real friendship & what it means she hasn’t a conception of any depth in any feeling … Life seems to be one long pursuit of pleasure.” Even more cutting, Eleanor pitied her, declaring, “I sometimes think that the lives of many burdens are not really to be pitied for at least they live deeply & from their sorrows spring up flowers, but an empty life is really dreadful.” Alice also found Eleanor’s puritan-like attitude toward romance and sex to be exhausting, especially since Eleanor found the need to lecture her.
It didn’t help that Alice, who admittedly had daddy issues, saw that Eleanor was clearly Alice’s father’s favorite niece. When Alice was at the height of her fame as the daughter of the president, Eleanor’s work for the poor was what Teddy noted. “My father was always taking me to task for gallivanting with ‘society’ and for not knowing more people like my cousin Eleanor.” Other people would point out to her that “[my] cousin Eleanor [was] more like my father’s daughter than I was.”
One of the biggest factors affecting the relationship between the two women was the simple nature of partisan politics. Both Eleanor (via Franklin) and Alice (via her brother Ted Jr., and the Republican Party in general) sought to claim the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt. As a result, Alice saw it as her job to cut FDR down a couple of sizes (she frequently referred to him as a dictator), and Eleanor cast herself and her husband as the standard bearers of Teddy’s zeal for social improvement. Alice exercised her power mainly through the Republican Party—though she would support Johnson and befriend Kennedy—and as a result found herself as one of the more effective opponents of the Democratic Roosevelts. As a result, some of the lower points of the relationship came when politics got extremely personal, such as when Eleanor took part in a campaign stunt against Teddy Jr. that mocked his involvement in the Teapot Dome scandal, or when Alice egged on Republican senators during hearings on Elliott Roosevelt over his dealings with Howard Hughes.
One potential motive for the feud that the authors pretty much dismiss is the notion that Alice was in love with Franklin and therefore jealous and bitter about boring, plain Eleanor winning his hand. What is clear, however, is that a huge part of the personal gulf was prompted by the fact that Alice thought Eleanor was a bore while Eleanor considered Alice vapid.
What is amazing is that despite all the attacks and snubs by Alice, Franklin and Eleanor saw her constantly over the years, at family gatherings, dinners at the White House, and other society affairs. And while Eleanor undoubtedly will be remembered—rightly—for far longer, there’s no doubt which of the two any of us would rather get a drink with. After all, Alice’s motto was, “Fill what’s empty. Empty what’s full. And scratch where it itches.”