Hissing Cousins: Q&A with Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer

Peys_9781101971628_cvr_all_r1.inddWe’ve published the Bas Bleu catalog for twenty-three years, but we can’t always predict which books will resonate with our readers. (You never fail to surprise us, and we love that about you!) When Hissing Cousins: The Lifelong Rivalry of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth landed on our shelves, we thought it offered a unique perspective on two influential women…which is right up our alley. Yet we were caught off-guard (delightfully so) when Hissing Cousins became a surprise bestseller in our Winter 2017 edition! This week, we’re going behind the scenes of this “compelling and entertaining saga,” reaching out to authors Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer to learn more about why and how they created this fresh take on the complex relationship between the Roosevelt cousins.

Bas Bleu: Timothy, you grew up on Long Island’s Eaton Neck, near Theodore Roosevelt’s homestead. Were the Roosevelts an important part of your community’s history? Is this part of what inspired you to write this book?

Timothy Dwyer: Long Islanders are justly proud to claim Theodore Roosevelt as one of our own, and a visit to his homestead at Sagamore Hill (near the border of Nassau and Suffolk Counties) is pretty much a standard day trip for any Long Island school child. The whole area is dotted with places where he visited and/or spoke, churches where he worshipped, and the homes of his kinsmen.

My mother was taking some out-of-town friends to visit his home in 2009 when she spotted a wonderful children’s book, What to Do About Alice: How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy!, in the Sagamore Hill gift shop and bought it for her granddaughters. At the time, Marc was editing a Newsweek story about the renovation, by Hunter College, of the townhouse that FDR’s mother gave to her son and daughter-in-law when he began to notice the parallels in the lives of these two fascinating women. We were astonished to discover that no one had written this story before. In the reams of material written about the Roosevelts, the tension between the branches and between Alice and Eleanor in particular is occasionally touched upon, but not nearly to the depth that we take it.

[Eleanor Roosevelt, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front]. ca. 1945. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress

[Eleanor Roosevelt, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front]. ca. 1945. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress

BB: Marc, what about you? What sparked your interest in the Roosevelts? How did you and Timothy come to work together on this project?

Marc Peyser: I have long admired Eleanor Roosevelt and what she was able to accomplish as First Lady and after she left the White House. That said, I didn’t know much about her personal life, and even less about her cousin Alice Longworth. Tim and I are married, and as he relates above, it was our daughters’ book that provided the spark for the idea. These women were so extraordinary and had such an enduring and complicated relationship. While biographers of both women and their kin have touched on some element of the Roosevelt “family feud,” I was surprised to see that no one had tackled the story directly. I am a writer by trade and Tim has always been a keen student of history, so the book allowed us to bring our two strengths together in a very productive way. Of course, the real accomplishment here is that our marriage survived! It would be an understatement to say that it is challenging to work so closely and intensely with the person with whom you already share so much of your life. That we were both working full-time and raising two daughters made it all the more interesting.

BB: Hissing Cousins is a double biography, which is an interesting structure. Did writing about the two Roosevelts together help illuminate each of them individually? Are there any double biographies you’d like to see written?

MP & TD: There are already several detailed and deeply researched biographies of both women, and we were certainly not interested in covering that ground again. But then again, we never thought about our book as a biography of these two women themselves. The tricky thing about a double biography is that it’s really almost a triple biography. The life of each woman has to stand on its own, but so does the combined tale of their lives. If there’s no synergy, there’s no reason to combine (or maybe it’s bind) them together in a book. We were struck by the extraordinary similarities in the circumstances of their lives: Born in the same year to highly competitive brothers, they both experienced tumultuous childhoods marred by tragedy, marriages to philandering politicians, unhappy experiences in motherhood, close family members brought low by alcoholism, and, of course, they experienced all this while at the center of an incredibly influential political dynasty. Yet they reacted to these circumstances in dramatically different ways. On one level, their combined story is about endurance and survival. Examining the path that each cousin followed helped us understand the choices of the other.

Are there other dual biographies to be written? Of course, but the story of the Roosevelts and their place in American history arguably makes this one unique. But that’s the fun thing about history and biography—no two persons are alike, so there is always another unusual story to be uncovered.

Johnston, Frances Benjamin, photographer. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, 1884 to 1980. [ca. 1902] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress

Johnston, Frances Benjamin, photographer. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, 1884 to 1980. [ca. 1902] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress

BB: Alice Roosevelt was arguably the first global celebrity of the twentieth century. How do you feel the notion of celebrity has affected our culture and especially our political discourse since Alice’s time?

MP & TD: It’s tough to answer that question without thinking about our current political situation and the fact that, for the first time in our history, a person known first and foremost as a celebrity is entering the White House. Alice Longworth’s celebrity was an entirely different animal to what we are dealing with today. Alice was a celebrity by virtue of her family ties—her father was Teddy Roosevelt, and her husband Nicholas Longworth was Speaker of the House—and the “naughty” antics of her youth played out on the public stage. But she was also very well-read with catholic tastes, a shrewd political tactician and keen observer of the drama of government, a definer and defender of good taste and refinement, acid-tongued and outrageous at times but never boorish or crude. Most importantly, she took the business of governing very seriously, and would probably not know what to make of where we are today.

BB: What was the political climate like for women in Alice and Eleanor’s era, and how were their careers shaped by that climate? What do you think the cousins would make of female politicians today?

MP & TD: They came of age when women couldn’t vote, rarely went to college, and in polite society were expected “to appear in the newspaper three times—when they were born, when they were married, and when they died.” During the cousins’ lifespans, most of the women entering public office did so as the widows of popular politicians, usually to keep the seat warm until a “real” (i.e., male) politician could be readied to run. Alice herself was pressed hard to run for office when her popular husband, House Speaker Nicholas Longworth, died in 1931. Alice firmly refused that request in her own classic style, declaring that she was “not one of those women who use their husband’s coffin as a springboard into the Senate or the House.” FDR’s brilliant assistant Louis Howe often said that he wanted Eleanor to follow Franklin into the White House, but she refused to even consider it. It is fascinating to speculate regarding what they might have done with their lives had they not been inhibited by the social constructs of the era. But then again, the very act of pushing against those barriers in a variety of ways is arguably part of what made them who they were.

If they were around today, the cousins would certainly be enthusiastic boosters for female politicians on both sides of the aisle, but would probably be the first to insist that a vote should be cast not because of gender but because the candidate was the right person for the job.

BB: What do you think are Alice’s and Eleanor’s greatest legacies?

MP & TD: Eleanor’s legacy is the easier one to quantify. She quite simply revolutionized the role of First Lady, turning what had long been a seen-but-not-heard, ceremonial post into a position of influence and activism. She didn’t do it by choice; FDR’s physical limitations forced her out into the world. But she embraced the responsibility with gusto and without complaint. On top of that, her work at the United Nations to establish the International Declaration of Human Rights after FDR’s death set a standard for humanitarianism that endures today. She believed that even one person could make the world a better place, and in a democracy that is a powerful message.

Alice’s legacy is a lot quieter. She preferred to whisper in the ear [of] power, whether it was at the A-list dinners she gave in her Washington dining rooms or from her special seat in the Senate visitor’s gallery. She might have said that her greatest legacy was pulling enough strings to defeat the League of Nations. That said, her real legacy is probably more public. She was a master of the tart-tongued takedown. Alice’s well-placed darts took the air out of a few politicians, from Thomas Dewey to Calvin Coolidge. Long before our own era of powerful PR sound bites, Alice Longworth taught a master class.

BB: Thank you to Marc and Tim for their insight…and for penning such an intriguing literary portrait!

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