I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longsworth by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer

I have always been a big fan of the Roosevelts.  Theodore Roosevelt is one of my favorite Presidents and Eleanor and FDR did a lot for this country before, during, and after the war. I watched all fourteen hours of the Ken Burns documentary on the Roosevelts and quite enjoyed it.  However, it mostly focused on Teddy, Eleanor, and FDR.  After reading this book, I'm quite confused as to why time was not spent on the fascinating Alice, daughter of Teddy, but perhaps it was because it would have likely added another ten hours to the documentary.

First off, there are two factions of Roosevelts.  One man came over from Europe and had two sons.  One son settled his family around Oyster Bay.  These Roosevelts include Teddy and his family and Eleanor, who was Teddy's niece.  The other brother founded what is known as the Hyde Park Roosevelts, which include Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  There is a very helpful genealogy chart at the front.

Alice and Eleanor were born the same year and had many things in common.  As children, when Eleanor would visit the family vacation home, Sagamore Hill, that Teddy built, they were constantly together.  Alice was born on February 12 and two days later Teddy would lose both his mother and his wife.  Depression runs in the Roosevelt family and different members had different ways of dealing with it.  Teddy and Eleanor would try to outrun it by keeping very busy.  Others would turn to drink.  Teddy was incapable of taking care of his daughter and left her in the very capable hands of his oldest sister, Aunt Bye, and fled west to be a cowboy and try to forget his pain.  After four years, he remarried and his new wife, Helen, wanted Alice to come and stay with them.  Helen and Alice would have a kind of love/hate relationship.

Eleanor's father was the one everyone expected great things from.  Teddy had been a sickly child and Elliot was handsome and charming and caught the most beautiful debutante of the season to be his wife.  Elliot would soon prove to be an alcoholic, gambling, womanizer.  Eventually, the family would lock him up in an asylum in France for years to cure him.  Eleanor idolized her father, just as Alice idolized her father, who never in Alice's lifetime ever spoke her mother's name.  They let Elliot out believing that he could manage his addictions, but instead those addictions killed him.  Then Eleanor's mother (who was mean to her and called Eleanor "granny") and a sibling died.  Eleanor was sent to live with the strict and cruel mother of her mother and her mother's crazy siblings.  She did her best to try to raise her younger siblings. Unfortunately, her grandmother disapproved of the Roosevelts.   Luckily, Aunt Bye was able to convince her to send Eleanor to the excellent school she herself had gone to, a time when women were not considered worth educating, in Europe.  Eleanor grew there and learned so much.  Alice, on the other hand, would spend summers with her mother's parents who spoiled her rotten and gave her anything she wanted, which would effect who she would become as an adult.

Both women married politicians.  Alice married Nick Longsworth, a congressman from Ohio who was a drunk womanizer.  Eleanor would marry a man who moved through the ranks of politics while sleeping with many women, most notably, Lucy Mercer.  Eleanor would eventually offer Franklin a divorce when she finally accepted that he was cheating on her after finding love letters, but he likely turned it down due to his political aspirations.  Both cousins also had horrible mothers-in-law.  Franklin's mother, Sara, held the pursestrings and ran Franklin's life, as did Nick's mother.  The difference was, that Eleanor put up with it, including when Sara determined how their children were to be raised, but Alice did not.  When it got to be too much, she traveled.

When Teddy was in the White House, Alice was known as Princess Alice by the press.  She was often in the papers for all the wild things she did.  She smoked, ran fast cars, flirted with numerous men, and basically could not be controlled.  It is said that someone heard Teddy say that he could control Alice or he could run the country but he could not do both.  But Alice was useful.  When Teddy was trying to end the Russo-Japanese war, he had to do some back dealing that congress could not know about.  He sent Taft on an Asian tour (Taft had once been governor of the Philippines, so this would not have been seen as unusual).  It would be, however, hard to hide Taft, so Alice was sent to distract the press from noticing anything was going on and she succeeded splendidly.  And Teddy won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The main contention between the two Roosevelts was that one side (Oyster Bay) was Republican (even though Teddy, considered then a Progressive whose ideas Franklin, a Democrat would later use) and the other side (Hyde Park) was Democrat.  When Eleanor married Franklin, she became a Democrat.  This changed things between them and for the next fifty years they would spend their time arguing and going after each other (or at least Alice went after Eleanor).  The two women were quite different.  Alice held infamous dinners at her Washington home where she would pit two sides against each other at the table and whisper ideas into the ears of influential men, thereby effecting the political arena.  Alice also had the pleasure of meeting sixteen Presidents, which is possibly a record, yet to be broken.  Eleanor preferred to do her charity work.  Though neither Alice or Eleanor would be eligible to vote until they were thirty-six, neither had been suffragettes and neither would ever seek office for themselves.  In 1922, the League of Women Voters contacted Eleanor and asked her to join their board.  Notoriously shy, she at first declined, but then changed her mind and was soon helping women and others.  Many of these women's organizations were composed of lesbians, but oddly enough for that time, neither Alice nor Eleanor had problems with homosexuality.  Unfortunately, this meant that neither she, nor Franklin, who was working on his political career, were there much for their children, who would turn out poorly (between the five of them there were seventeen marriages).

After Franklin develops polio, he and his long-time political assistant, Louis Howe, who got him elected to a second term as congressman for the state of New York, without Franklin ever leaving his bed.  Everyone thought Franklin's career was over.  Everyone except Franklin, Eleanor, and Louis.  Alice wanted her brother Ted Jr. to become the next Roosevelt President.  Alice never forgave Eleanor for stumping against him during the election. The press took to calling them Mrs. Republican and Mrs. Democrat.                          

By this time, Eleanor, who had been ignorant of the political process, received an education from these women's organizations.  Oddly enough, neither Alice, nor Eleanor wanted to speak in public.  Alice never stumped for her husband during his elections.  She was so shy that she could not utter a word in front of a crowd.  When Franklin ran for Governor of New  York, Eleanor was forced by Louis Howe to start to give speeches and to travel around the state for Franklin who was unable to do most of that due to his polio. Over the years of her life, Eleanor was asked to do many things that she was afraid of.  She had a great fear of being on boats, because she was on a boat that sank when she was two (it was owned by White Star, the same company that owned the Titanic), but when Franklin was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, she gamely not only went on the boat, but took a trip up the mast, even though she was scared out of her wits.  Eleanor believed in doing ones duty and not letting people down, so she just hunkered down and did what had to be done.  With each speech, her confidence grew and that shy little girl inside began to die, little, by little.

While Alice and Eleanor disagreed politically, that never changed the fact that they still cared for each other and that they were family.  It was never personal between them (except when Alice did her imitations of Eleanor that would hurt her feelings, though no one knew it).  Children were off limits, even though there was much to criticize both sides.  Alice finally had a child at the age of forty whose father was likely her lover Bohar, a U.S. Senator, known as the lion.  The child, Pauline, was not only pampered by her mother but smothered as well.  She married to escape her mother.  Pauline's ten-year-old daughter would find her dead, a bottle of pills and alcohol by her side, and Alice took her granddaughter to raise.  This time learning from her mistakes.  Eleanor, herself, would say that she made a better grandmother than a mother.

When Franklin became President, the feud between them became quite fiery and they basically never spoke to each other.  Alice believed her brother Ted Jr. deserved to succeed her father as President, not Franklin and she was quite outspoken about it.  Eleanor, meanwhile, began to break rules herself, as Alice had once did, but was now reigning herself in.  She is the first First Lady to publically disagree with her husband over an issue.  The issue was lynching.  Eleanor knew that even if they passed a law, it would not prevent it from happening, but at least it would make a statement that the government believed it was wrong.  Franklin could not support such a bill because he needed the Dixiecrats, who vowed to destroy his New Deal bills if he tried.  That was only one of many times that Eleanor stood up for the blacks in America.  In 1939 she wanted the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution, who offered honorary membership to all First Ladies) to have the extremely talented black opera singer, Marian Anderson, sing in their Hall.  It was, however, in their bylaws that only whites could perform there.  In her My Day newspaper collum (that she wrote for many years) , Eleanor alludes to this situation and states that she will be declining her membership.  Instead, Anderson performed at the Lincoln Memorial to a desegregated crowd of 70,000 and forced the radio station that ran her weekly talk show to air it live on Easter Sunday to a listenership of over a million.

Both Alice and Eleanor were given a column to write at different places.  Alice's was called Where's Alice? and only lasted eighteen months, probably because she wrote articles that were for the Washington insiders about the politics of the day, just like at her dinner table.  Eleanor, on the other hand, spent time writing about friends and family and things going on in her life, before turning to social and political issues that the people would understand.  Alice, needing the money, would try a twelve stop lecture circuit, that kept the press out, and only allowed questions written down in advance from the women in the audience.  She was a complete failure at this.  Eleanor, however, excelled, drawing thousands to hear her speak.  As a matter of fact, Eleanor made more money than Franklin did, when one takes into effect: her yearly stipend from the family, money from her books, money from her articles, money from her column, etc...

Eleanor spent more time traveling around then she did at the White House.  Franklin needed her to be his eyes and ears.  Unlike Alice and Nick who formed a business-like arrangement of a marriage, Eleanor and Franklin, though not physically intimate, still cared for each other and valued each other's opinions.  Eleanor spoke up for the less fortunate and those who did not have a voice.  She was the first First Lady to have daily press meetings, just like her Uncle Teddy, who believed if you got the message out there yourself, first, you can control how it comes out in the press.  Her entire press core was composed of women.  Women were not allowed in the Presidental press room at that time.  A reporter named Hicks covered Franklin while he was Governor and asked her editor if she could switch and follow Eleanor around, because she saw a woman that was going to make headlines and get things done.  Eventually the two would become too close of friends for Hicks to be objective, so Eleanor got her a job working for one of the New Deal programs traveling around and checking up on things.  They wrote each other every day, sometimes twice a day, and over three thousand are still in existence.  Some of them would appear rather intimate and indicate a romantic, if not sexual, relationship between the two, but one forgets that at that time in history, women wrote flowery letters and kissed women when they greeted them.  Eleanor even wrote about kissing Sara, her mother-in-law.  Hicks, was, however a lesbian, so much has been made of her relationship with Eleanor.  Eleanor was also called to court in the divorce case between her bodyguard and his wife who accused the two of having an affair.  The letters between the two have been sealed and the matter was settled out of court.  Eleanor's daughter Anna, would disagree that Eleanor had any sex life, as she had once confessed that sex was a cross to bear.

After Franklin died, many came to Eleanor to ask her to run for Congress, or be Vice President for Truman, and many other things, but she turned them down, insisting that she just wanted a quiet life now.  She was not to have it for very long.  Truman would put her on the delegation to the newly formed UN, and Eleanor was given the task (because no one else wanted it) of giving an argument against a Soviet lawyer known for his great speeches.  He did not end until 1 am and Eleanor still had to speak before a vote could be cast.  South America's vote was very important and no one wanted them to leave, so Eleanor spoke of Bolivar and used him in her argument and received a standing ovation and the measure was passed.  Eleanor was also the one to be instrumental in the writing of the Human Bill of Rights.  Alice may still be Princess Alice, but Eleanor was now the First Lady of the World.

Both would continue to effect politics until their deaths.  Oddly, Alice was a fan of the Kennedy's, whom she likely saw as a group like her own family.  Eleanor, however, did not like JFK, who she deemed cocky and who had yet to denounce his relationship with McCarthy, the Senator who lead the witch hunts.  JFK requests to see her because he knows that with her endorsement, he could win over the women and black votes.  He was scared to death of her.  After a conversation with the man, she would change her mind and even offers advice when he became President.  Alice was a fan of Richard Nixon and was the one to give him the nickname "Tricky Dick".

On November 10, 1962, Eleanor, unfortunately, was not given the quiet, small funeral she wished for.  Her funeral was attended by JFK, Eisenhower, and Truman, and near future President Johnson, which was the first time three Presidents had attended the funeral of a First Lady.  Alice did not come to the funeral. Alice, who would end up getting breast cancer twice and having both breasts removed, had no trouble talking about it during a time when no one spoke about cancer, much less breast cancer.  She was a force to be reckoned with up until her death in 1980 at the age of 96.

These are two incredible women, not just for their time, but for any time.  It is sad that they often did not get along and fought, mostly politically, even though once FDR became President, neither side of the families would speak to each other.  The authors were given access to a lot of unseen material that really show a light on the two women, one who everyone still knows today, Eleanor, and the one who has seemed to fade away with time, Alice.  I wonder what the two could have accomplished if they had worked together instead of against each other.  The world would definitely be a different place.

Franklin collected stamps.  Alice collected vices: smoking, gambling, gossiping, sleeping past noon; she was like a Girl Scout in reverse, gathering demerit badges.
--Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer (Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth p 205)
Link to Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Hissing-Cousins-Lifelong-Roosevelt-Longworth/dp/1101971622/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1481728155&sr=8-1&keywords=hissing+cousins


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