A century ago, long before ubiquitous media saturation, the 24/7 media cycle, Facebook and Twitter, larger-than-life personalities strode across the national psyche majestically. The tainted parts of lives were usually protected by the press, and the public saw only picture-perfect images of glamour, power, and privilege.
It is quite a talent to successfully recreate complex nuanced persons from the past, but Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer have achieved it splendidly in “Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth.”
Much of the Roosevelt saga is familiar, but here we are treated to fresh, colorful details about the competitive cousins.
Alice was the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, and Eleanor was the offspring of his alcoholic brother, Elliot.
Alice — who was very much like her father — was from a very early age, politically adept. Her reign as the Washington hostess lasted seven decades. She was outspoken and acerbic, and Eleanor was often her target.
As a newlywed, Eleanor once left a wild party — without Franklin. Hours later, when he got home, Franklin discovered Eleanor lying on the floor of the vestibule to their townhouse, because she didn’t have a key. In those days, Alice perceived Eleanor as a doormat-housewife, but slowly she emerged into a volunteer, teacher, and memorable first lady.
Alice, by contrast, did not change much. From the time she was 18, Alice manipulated the mechanics of political Washington magnificently, staying on top socially for seven decades.
After FDR’s death, Eleanor became the a human rights delegate to the United Nations and promoted worldwide equality based on Lincoln’s ideas. In the late stages of her life, Eleanor was recognized as the first real “citizen of the world.”
Although “Hissing” gives equal time to Roosevelt women, their destinies diverged. Alice is barely remembered, but Eleanor — most likely — will never be forgotten.
John Danielson was the chief of staff to the Secretary of Education from 2001-2003.