2017-08-10 / Opinions

Book Review

Hissing Cousins
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When it was announced that a woman would replace Alexander Hamilton on the U.S. ten-dollar bill, a name often proposed was that of Eleanor Roosevelt. No one (so far) has nominated Alice Roosevelt Longworth. But once upon a time, Alice was more famous and admired than her cousin Eleanor.

Authors Peyser and Dwyer have written an entertaining and well-researched account of the history and relationship of these two charming women. They begin with a helpful Family Tree, which shows the early ancestor Nicholas Roosevelt (1658- 1742) and numerous other cousins, including Joseph and Stewart Alsop. The family is justly proud of their contributions to their country, especially the two Presidents.

These two, Theodore and Franklin, represented the two main branches of the family, dating back to Nicholas’ two sons. Franklin, the younger cousin, greatly admired his Republican cousin and followed him in more than one office of government, though he became a member of the opposition political party, the Democrats. Importantly, he married Theodore’s dearly-loved niece Eleanor.

Alice was Theodore’s oldest child, but her mother died when she was born, and her father was never close to her. He was very much a “family man,” enjoying games and activities with the children, but that came with his second marriage. He was so deep in grief in the loss of his wife and mother on the same day that he put Alice in the care of his sister until his second wife, Edith, insisted that she live with them.

Alice became a defiant, selfwilled girl. She had a vibrant beauty and personality and was known in Washington, D.C., society as Princess Alice. She enjoyed that reputation and her writing shows clearly how she was proud of her quips and witticisms, including a cruel imitation of her cousin Eleanor.

Eleanor also had an unhappy childhood. Her mother was cold, never showing love to her; she had no example of motherhood to model her own behavior on later. She adored her father Eliot, but he was an unreliable alcoholic and was not present in their home as she grew up. Alice recognized that “we both suffered from being deprived of a parent.”

The stories of their childhoods are absorbing and poignant, but there is much more to tell about their contributions and experiences in later life. We know that Eleanor was a very influential First Lady, and Alice’s world overlapped with hers, not always happily. They remained friends, however, in spite of political differences and family strife. Both married men with overbearing mothers, men with “an eye for the ladies,” but both loved their husbands.

Alice and Eleanor each defied gender barriers. Each fought fiercely for issues she believed in, usually on opposing sides. Although Alice lived to be 96 and every president from Truman to Ford paid homage to her, she has become “just a footnote to history,” while Cousin Eleanor is remembered as a force, beloved by many, still reviled by a few. Hissing Cousins is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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