Book 30 of my 2016 Reading Challenge
read from January 25 - February 01, took a break when my "helpful" hubby returned it to the library when I had 70 pages to go, checked it out again and finished on March 27.
Hissing Cousins: the Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth by Timothy Dwyer
Summary (via Goodreads)
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.
I was intrigued from the start and realized I need to read a lot more about the Roosevelt family; I found them utterly fascinating.
This passage is a good summary of how alike the two women were despite their different politics and approaches:
"They were born in the same year and neighborhood, shared the same friends, lived in the same houses (including the White one), married the same types of men...They were writers and lecturers, terrible mothers but beloved grandmothers. Above all, they were politicians. Even though they never ran for office, few women waded as deeply into the issues of the day. One of them whispered behind the scenes and one of them spoke to audiences around the world, but they both made their voices heard - and count. Even for a family knit into an extraordinarily tight cloth, Alice and Eleanor stopped at a remarkable number of the same milestones in their long and eventful lives."
The author made the point that they were very influential in politics despite not gaining the right to vote until the age of 36.
The author had great phrases to keep the book from being dry, such as "Eleanor veered in the opposite direction, spreading self-righteousness on top of a good deed as if it were icing on a cake" and "Alice was so busy laying track for the future she never realized she was about to be run over by a man in a wheelchair" and saying of Eleanor, "Joy had never been one of her primary colors".
I learned that Theodore Roosevelt suffered a massive tragedy on Valentine's Day in 1884 when his mother and his wife died on the same day, which was also the day his daughter Alice was born.
In addition to learning about the Roosevelts, the extra things I learned about the time period in general were interesting as well. For example, Eleanor didn't attend Alice's wedding because she was 6 months pregnant at the time, making her "unfit to be seen in polite society". Also, I laughed when it was reported that Alice caused a scandal by driving unchaperoned with a man and reaching "breakneck speeds approaching twenty-five miles per hour". Times may have changed regarding those standards but time hasn't changed the government's willingness to bicker about silly things. In 1929, Dolly Gann was seated ahead of Alice at a party and it took almost a year to resolve the issue of place settings and "social precedence" (the solution was Alice receiving preferential seating on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Dolly on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and Sundays remaining neutral).
I also found a new quote to love, "War does not determine who is right, only who is left" by Bertrand Russell, and a new word, "hagiography" (writing of the lives of saints or a biography of someone that idealizes, overly praises, or "saints" its subject).
A Few Quotes from the Book
"And so Mrs. Democrat and Mrs. Republican...spent half a century engaged in political battle while locked in familial embrace."
"Alice's true authority was difficult to gauge because it wasn't the type that left a paper trail or even fingerprints. She never cast a vote on legislation, rarely made a speech. Instead, she merely whispered into the ears of the country's most influential men."
"Eleanor was typically sanguine in her column the next day. "I always enjoy my cousin [Alice], for while we may laugh at each other and quarrel with each other's ideas and beliefs, I rather imagine if real trouble came that we might be good allies.""