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Hissing Cousins

by Kathryn Boughton

First cousins Eleanor and Alice Roosevelt had remarkably similar challenges during their lives, but could not have been more different.

Daughter of Theodore Roosevelt’s alcoholic brother and a narcissistic beauty, Eleanor was orphaned at 9. Alice, TR’s first child, lost her own beautiful mother at birth and did not see her distraught father again until she was 3. He never again spoke her mother’s name. Neither child felt secure.

Later, both women coped with wayward husbands and widowhood while rising to positions of power. But there the similarities end: Eleanor was shy, dutiful; Alice, noted for her acid wit, ran her father a merry chase. Roosevelt responded to criticism of his high-spirited, cigarette-smoking teenage daughter by quipping that he could either control Alice or run the country.

These were girls not destined to be friends, a situation exacerbated when Eleanor married Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a fifth cousin that TR’s household considered an amiable lightweight. They were chagrined when Franklin won the presidency. “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 said.

Alice saw Eleanor as a goody-two shoes, while Eleanor sniffed in later years, “Now that I am older & have my own values I can only say what little I saw of her life gave me a feeling of dreariness & waste ... .”

Marc Peyser and co-author and spouse Timothy Dwyer have taken a sharp-eyed look at these mismatched cousins in Hissing Cousins. They are among the 32 writers and illustrators slated to be at this year’s Hotchkiss Library Summer Book Signing in Sharon July 31 from 6 to 8 p.m. on the Town Green. The event takes place under tents, with wine and hors d’oeuvres. Admission is $30.

“The inspiration for the book came from a gift to our daughters of a wonderful children’s book, ‘What to Do about Alice,’” reported Dwyer. “They loved it and we read it over and over. At some point we realized we knew a fair amount about Eleanor, but not as much about Alice. Then the shoe dropped, we realized that in all the books about the Roosevelts, no one had written about their relationship.”

Dwyer said they have been taken to task for calling it an “untold story, but we determinedly stand by that. There are several aspects to the story we bring in for the first time and small points where we correct the record.”

He cites the oft-repeated attribution to Alice of a slur against FDR in which he is called a “mollycoddle” for not overcoming his polio. Searching through contemporaneous newspapers they proved it was Nicholas Roosevelt who perpetrated the canard. “I looked in astonishment,” Dwyer said. “Is it possible that all these wonderful biographers got it wrong? At this point the feud had so entered public discourse people just assumed it was Alice.

In another instance they proved that Eleanor had, indeed, written a sympathy note to Alice upon the death of her daughter, Paulina. A source no less than Paulina’s daughter told them the story was untrue. “But two years later, Marc was looking at Roosevelt’s doctor’s files at Harvard when all of a sudden he saw familiar handwriting,” Dwyer said. “There, misfiled, was the sympathy letter and a very, very touching reply. This was a Eureka moment—it completed the arc of the story—you have them both in older age, both have been through widowhood, both have lost children and had disappointments. Here they are, old ladies, and they realize they care about each other.”