While FDR was fighting for the New Deal, his wife waged her own family battle: The First Lady, a liberal icon, had to contend with her tart-tongued, very Republican cousin Alice—a DC fixture who happened to be Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter. The rivalry played out in social slights, awkward correspondence, and an infamous newspaper duel.
By Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer | Photo-illustration by Miles Donovan
If Eleanor Roosevelt was unusually distracted on her husband’s first Inauguration Day, that was partly because she had to manage so much of it without him.
She and Franklin rode in separate limousines to pick up their predecessors, the Hoovers, for the ride to the Capitol, the men in the first car, the wives following. It was frigid and blustery on March 4, 1933, and Eleanor stood at the ceremony—in a velvet dress, short overcoat, and bowler hat—shivering and apprehensive as Franklin, disabled by polio, leaned on their son James’s shoulder and walked from the Capitol’s East Portico to the platform, 146 daunting feet away. While FDR’s “nothing to fear but fear itself” speech took only 15 minutes, the ensuing parade stretched for hours. Eleanor had to leave early to greet 3,000 guests arriving at the White House for tea and sandwiches, and that night she would leave Franklin behind again to attend the Inaugural Ball.
The truly fearsome event, however, had come early in the evening when the extended Roosevelt family arrived at the White House to celebrate—75 for a buffet dinner. Franklin’s mother, Sara, sat near him in the drawing room, swollen with pride and jewelry. Eleanor discarded protocol and greeted the visitors at the front door herself, among them cousins Teddy and Helen Robinson and Archie Roosevelt from her side, cousins Laura and Lyman Delano and Aunt Kassie Collier from his.
And then came Alice.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth was from Eleanor’s side of the family—she was Theodore Roosevelt’s eldest child; Eleanor’s father, Elliott, was Teddy’s kid brother. Yet despite the first cousins’ lifelong affection (they were born in the same year, 1884, and had been close as children), this was a party for a victory Alice had tried to snuff out like a kitchen fire.
In addition to being the loyal daughter of a revered Republican, she was the widow of Nicholas Longworth, a stalwart—and equally Republican—speaker of the House. On this night, while she chatted with her indomitable “Cousin Sally,” as Alice called FDR’s mother, she had the good sense to limit her conversation to praising the current President Roosevelt (a distant cousin to both her and Eleanor) as opposed to her father. Then she walked over to the First Lady.
Eleanor had been such a remarkable presence at the day’s events that the Associated Press wrote a story headlined MRS. ROOSEVELT SHATTERS TRADITIONS IN A SINGLE DAY. Yet as Alice stood in the house where she’d lived and married and become a sort of celebrity three decades earlier, she couldn’t resist needling her cousin. “You’ll be able to learn after a while how to handle affairs like this,” she told Eleanor. “I’ll help you if you like.”
Franklin and Eleanor’s son Elliott later wrote: “Mother expressed her thanks, her nervousness mounting under her cousin’s patronage. Almost two years of widowhood had done nothing to curb [Alice’s] style or her irresistible compulsion to lord it over Mother.”
Alice’s claim on the White House was as strong as ever in 1933. She didn’t drop by only on Franklin’s first day; she’d also been there the day before to visit the Hoovers. “They looked like figures from waxworks, they looked so unalive. Poor, stiff, bruised, wounded,” she said. “. . . The next night—dinner at Franklin’s! Dinner at the White House! Riots of pleasure!”
That she showed up wasn’t entirely shocking, though given her rabid support for the Republican ticket, it was a little like a player from the losing Super Bowl team dropping by the winners’ locker room to guzzle Champagne.
What surprised onlookers was that Alice kept coming back. Faced with being an “out-of-season” Roosevelt—a phrase coined by writer Alexander Woollcott—she had two options: make peace with her Hyde Park relatives (as her brother Kermit did) or take a hostile stance (brother Ted’s route). Alice chose both: She cursed nearly every one of Franklin’s policies and mocked Eleanor, all while accepting virtually every White House invitation.
“I could not help feeling,” Ted said unhappily, “that it was like behaving in like fashion to an enemy during a war.”
FDR may have enjoyed remarkable success on Capitol Hill—humorist Will Rogers quipped, “Congress doesn’t pass legislation anymore; they just wave at the bills as they go by”—but the public wasn’t entirely sold. Newsweek estimated that two-thirds of the nation’s newspapers were Republican and three-fourths of all papers opposed the New Deal.
In an age before the partisan dogfights on cable TV, newspaper columns were where political soldiers engaged the enemy, and editors were hungry for voices who might call out the President’s unprecedented expansion of government.
As the 1936 election season dawned, Alice was commissioned by a friend of her father’s, Ladies’ Home Journal editor Edward Bok, to write a piece titled “The Ideal Qualifications for a President’s Wife.” Alice passed up the chance to go after Eleanor directly. Instead, she shared tame observations about First Ladies she’d known, starting with Mrs. Cleveland, Mrs. McKinley, and her own stepmother, Edith Roosevelt, Teddy’s second wife.
When it came to Eleanor, Alice applied more charm than smarm, giving her cousin credit for using the White House perch in bracingly new ways. She took a poke or two but wrote in a sort of invisible ink, focusing on Eleanor’s means—her noblesse oblige and obsession with saving the world—rather than her policy preferences: “She travels thousands of miles investigating conditions in all parts of the country, doing on a tremendous scale what the lady of the manor did in other days when she looked after the tenantry. She makes as many speeches as the President, if not more. She is here, there, and everywhere, gracious, friendly, interested, always with something to say.”
But for Alice, the First Lady was still fair game: “There is always the possibility that people will say, ‘We didn’t elect her. What is she horning in for?’ ”
Eleanor horned in because, like her uncle Teddy, she knew the value of a bully pulpit. She spent considerable time visiting with schoolchildren, labor representatives, women’s groups, and social-service organizations. Eleanor was a seasoned political veteran who coached, mentored, and organized. She knew the importance of getting women and progressives into the committees and party infrastructure that generated policy, selected candidates, administered patronage, and turned out the vote.
She also continued as her husband’s stand-in. As the wife of a New York governor in a wheelchair, she’d traveled from one corner of the state to the other; as the wife of a President in a wheelchair, she did it on a national scale.
By November 1933, she’d made the cover of Time (more than six years after Alice did as the socialite wife of a speaker of the House). The headline was ELEANOR EVERYWHERE.
The Time cover had coincided with Eleanor’s book of essays called It’s Up to the Women, a mix of platitudes (“For every normal human being, fresh air is essential”) and impassioned arguments about the role of women.
The same week Eleanor’s book was published, Alice released her autobiography, Crowded Hours. Derived from a series of articles Alice had written for the Ladies’ Home Journal, it was fairly bloodless. She insisted on writing it herself, though she did have the services of Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor who worked with Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Still, she devoted 90 percent of the book to events leading up to the torching of the League of Nations, her personal house of horrors. She never mentioned the death of her father, her husband, or her brother Quentin or anything about her daughter, Paulina.
She didn’t even cough up many of her wicked bons mots. The best she could do was excuse President Warren Harding for the Teapot Dome scandal (“Harding was not a bad man. He was just a slob.”) and poke cousin Franklin, albeit mildly: “The President has the name of Roosevelt, marked facial resemblance to [Woodrow] Wilson, and no perceptible aversion to the policies of [former congressman and Wilson Secretary of State William Jennings] Bryan.” In Alice’s world, there was no greater insult than to be compared to Democratic President Wilson. “The New Deal,” she went on, “which at times seems more like a pack of cards thrown helter skelter, some face-up, some face-down, and then snatched in a free-for-all by the players, is going on before our interested, if puzzled eyes.”
The book sold well, largely because Alice had said so little for the record over 30-plus years of celebrity. Crowded Hours topped the nonfiction bestseller lists for every city east of the Mississippi on November 13, 1933. Eleanor’s It’s Up to the Women made the list only in Washington, where it beat out Crowded Hours for the top spot.
The next round of the media sparring match was indirectly touched off by Will Rogers, world-famous actor, writer, and wit.
In August 1935, he was touring Alaska with aviator Wiley Post when their plane crashed, killing them both. His column, “Will Rogers Says,” had been read daily by 40 million people. The McNaught Syndicate needed another writer, and McNaught’s founder, V.V. McNitt, thought Alice was his woman. McNitt prevailed on her to write a few sample columns.
“They have been frankly partisan, loudly anti-New Deal,” Newsweek said of these columns. That was a selling point. In fact, more than 75 papers bought her column.
“What Alice Thinks” debuted in January 1936, and just as McNaught had hoped, she zeroed in on the New Deal. Her topics ranged from the latest farm bill to praise for a speech by former New York governor Al Smith (who had broken with his onetime protégé, Franklin Roosevelt). She bemoaned, with undisguised envy, FDR’s mesmerizing speaking voice and speculated about which Republican would step into the ring against her cousin in the next election.
But while Rogers had been a master at bringing the high and mighty down to the level of the average Joe, Alice was such a deep Capitol Hill insider that she was practically entombed. In “What Alice Thinks,” she would launch into an attack on boondoggles at Passamaquoddy, the recent speech by one Ernst Hanfstaenegl, or the persecution of General Hagood. If you had to ask “who?” or “what?,” you didn’t belong around her table.
“Frankly, I can’t understand how so colorful an individual as I have always thought Mrs. Longworth to be, can produce such conventional and uninteresting copy,” M.V. Atwood, an editor at the Gannett newspapers, wrote to McNitt. “It seems to me it has no value except the value of her name.”
Her cuts tended to be superficial and ham-handed. It was hard to miss her dig at FDR’s paralysis when she described Al Smith’s feud with the administration: “The Governor’s threat to ‘take a walk’ gives a violent palsy to administration forces.”
“What Alice Thinks” looked all the more ponderous next to another column that had debuted that same month. It was called “My Day,” and it was written by Eleanor.
The First Lady had considerably more writing experience—she’d published three books; written for the Women’s Democratic News, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and Modern Screen; and edited a magazine called Babies, Just Babies. When word spread that a column from Alice was in the offing, editors at United Features asked the First Lady to write a series of columns they could shop to papers, and they critiqued her submissions. At its launch, only 25 papers bought “My Day.”
The early entries were chatty slices of Eleanor’s life, in both her official capacity and her role as a mother and grandmother. She offered news, advice, and observations, any of which could veer close to inane. “What is it about going to a play or a concert, if you have a cough, which always brings on a tickling in your throat and makes you cough five times as badly as you have at anytime during the preceding hours?” she asked after reporting on a musical performance she’d attended.
But reading about her throat was more interesting once she mentioned that the Mexican ambassador’s wife had started the coughing jag and the Secretary of State’s spouse quieted them both with lozenges. That might sound unexceptional in the social-media era, but no one had ever pulled the curtain back before on a world so close to the President.
Eleanor avoided obvious partisanship. When she noted that the Republicans had nominated Kansas governor Alf Landon to oppose her husband in 1936, she sounded like a small-town newsletter: “News has come of Governor Landon’s nomination—not a great surprise to us. . . . The platform which will be drafted by the Convention is of paramount interest. For once the Republican Party seems to be made up of as many varying elements as the Democratic has often been!”
She saluted her husband from time to time, but the results could sound calculating enough to validate Alice’s cynicism. A column Eleanor wrote a week before the 1936 election opened with this story (including the child’s mispronunciation of “God”): “ ‘Please “Dod,” let the President be fat,’ so prayed a little three-year-old the other night. The next morning the friend who was taking care of her and her sister while mother and father had gone away for the night, inquired why she wanted the President to be fat. ‘Because,’ said she, ‘then he won’t never be hungry the way we were before he helped Daddy get a job.’ Rather sweet and pathetic isn’t it? She must be one of many thousands of children who had known real want in the course of the past few years.”
“My Day” was rushed into print to debut a week before “What Alice Thinks.” While Alice’s column focused on Washington politics, Eleanor’s was a softer report on people and events that whirled through her active life.
If Alice squawked about Cabinet secretaries fighting for their share of WPA funds, Eleanor recounted a trip to the District of Columbia Training School for Delinquent Girls: “Never have I seen an institution called a ‘school’ which had so little claim to that name. Buildings are unfit for habitation—badly heated, rat infested, with inadequate sanitary facilities, without an educational program or a teacher, children walled in like prisoners . . . .”
Eight days after that column appeared, Eleanor invited 60 girls from the training school (52 of them black) to the White House for a picnic. The visit brought more attention to the condition of their school, which soon received $100,000 from Congress to upgrade its facilities.
The two columns occasionally provided a clear contrast of worldviews. The Spanish Civil War, which began in earnest in the summer of 1936, was one story both cousins wrote about frequently. Eleanor was careful not to openly contradict the US’s studied neutrality, but she bemoaned the loss of life and the world’s apparent indifference. “It came over me again what a fearful waste it is that we have to go on killing each other before even a difference of opinion can be settled amongst people of the same nation,” she said that fall.
Although she never called directly for intervention, her message was clear: It was indefensible to stand by and watch innocents get slaughtered.
Alice, on the other hand, found herself in the unusual position of praising Franklin’s foreign policy. She, too, lamented the suffering in Spain, but she applauded the administration’s reluctance to get involved: “The neighbor who steps into a domestic brawl traditionally comes out through the window, much the worse for wear.”
Eleanor never chastised Alice publicly for the unkind things her cousin said.
It was as if she told herself, “That’s just Alice. She doesn’t really mean it.”
She certainly sounded as if she meant it. In a letter to her father’s friend and fellow Rough Rider, Arthur Hamilton Lee, Alice wrote: Franklin “has the cripple’s psychology . . . . He puts his disability out of his mind and makes the most of what is left to him. He treats the American people in the same way, distracting them with anything he thinks will keep them happy for the moment, but without any deep thought behind it.”
By now, she considered what she called “detached malevolence” to be her stock in trade. “I am trying terribly hard to be impartial and malevolent at the same time,” she told Newsweek, “but 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 was perhaps the only woman on the planet who referred to the President as Frank. Naturally, she was more formal to his face. “I called him Franklin,” she said. “He used to wince, as if he’d prefer me to call him Mr. President. That would annoy him, you see. But we had a very good time together.”
Which is to say she needled him and he tolerated—maybe even appreciated—her outrageous style. She attacked the administration relentlessly over its plan to take the US off the gold standard, which she saw as another example of Franklin’s power-mongering—in her columns, she referred to him as an “economic royalist.” Roosevelt signed the Gold Reserve Act in January 1934. Will Rogers wrote to a friend: “Had the pleasure of sitting by Mrs. Alice Longworth in the Senate gallery when the gold bill was passed. Alice, due to the Roosevelt tradition, took it right on the chin and smiled.”
But a few days later at a White House function, she wore a blue velvet gown along with a large collection of accessories, all made of the same precious metal. “From her ears to her shoulders and below dangled gold Hindu earrings . . . .” the Washington Post said. “About her neck was a heavy chain of red gold, from which dangled a Chiriquí Indian frog in green gold. Her watch-bracelet was white gold.”
Around this time, Alice began performing imitations of Eleanor. Lampooning both her voice and what Alice saw as the trite and decorous things her cousin said, her little act was soon infamous.
Educator Marion Dickerman recalled being at a White House luncheon when Eleanor asked her cousin an awkward question: “Alice, why don’t you give one of your impersonations of me now?” The self-assured Alice seemed briefly uneasy before performing the routine. Eleanor laughed, but those who knew her claimed to recognize the hurt on her face.
If she was wounded, she didn’t give Alice the satisfaction of responding in kind. “The most helpful criticism I ever received,” Eleanor wrote in a Democratic Party newspaper, “was a takeoff of me on the radio done by my cousin, Alice Longworth. She did it for me one afternoon, and I could not help being amused and realizing that it was a truthful picture, and that I had many things to correct.”
The chattering class regularly predicted Alice’s exile from the White House. Reporters even questioned Eleanor about a note the First Lady allegedly sent to Alice suggesting she would no longer be invited to the White House.
“There is nothing to that,” Eleanor replied. “Long ago, I told all those, including Alice—to whom invitations to all White House functions go regularly as a matter of routine—that I wanted them all to feel under no compulsion to accept all of them. But this alleged conversation with, or note to, Alice simply never happened.”
Years later, Alice insisted the First Lady had dropped hints to stay away: “When Eleanor came to the White House, she said to me, ‘You are always welcome here, but you must never feel that you have to come.’ So [I went] with great alacrity and enthusiasm and had a lovely, malicious time. Then a little while later, I had another communication from Eleanor: ‘I’m told that you are bored at coming to the White House, and I never want you to be that, so . . . .’ So I wrote her a very cheerful reply saying, ‘How disagreeable people are, trying to make more trouble than there already is between us, and of course I love coming to the White House. It couldn’t be more fun, and I have always enjoyed myself immensely, et cetera, et cetera.’ Needless to say, she never asked me there again.”
It was true Alice could test her cousins’ tolerance: When James Roosevelt proposed that his father appoint Alice to some unnamed government commission, FDR’s reply, “which I shall censor somewhat,” Eleanor told a friend, “was ‘I don’t want anything to do with that woman!’ ” But the White House invitations kept coming.
Newspapers reported that Franklin and Eleanor asked Alice to the White House on February 12, 1934. It was Alice’s 50th birthday, and Eleanor knew her cousin would enjoy celebrating at her old home. The warm feelings could run in the other direction, too. On the day Alice and Will Rogers sat together in the Senate gallery to see the gold-standard bill passed, Rogers noted a more empathetic woman. “She sincerely believes that no President ever carried the faith of as many people as this distant relative,” he said.
It was as if the two women were playing the roles of hissing cousins more than they felt it.
There was, after all, plenty of truly bad blood flowing through the family.
In the fall of 1936, Eleanor Butler Roosevelt, wife of TR’s son Ted Jr., was to speak at the Fort Worth Town Hall on her experiences as spouse of the governor of the Philippines. Days before her lecture, she learned that Franklin and Eleanor’s son Elliott, who lived in Fort Worth, had been asked to introduce her. Ted’s Eleanor was appalled. She wrote him a letter, making it clear she wanted him to have no part in the event.
Because her husband’s politics “differed in every respect to those of your father, the President,” Ted’s Eleanor insisted that the family’s conflicting views “would make it embarrassing for all concerned for you to appear at the lecture.” She suggested that Elliott inform the organizers he’d be out of town. Elliott complied but made her pay: He released her letter to the press. When a reporter asked her about the squabble, she replied, “I have written no letter to the Roosevelt family,” she said, “for publication.”
The First Lady heard about the flap and once again found herself bemoaning her family’s differences while appreciating those bonds that hadn’t ruptured. “You are a grand political enemy to have,” she wrote to her cousin Corinne Alsop—whose mother, also named Corinne, was Teddy and Elliott Roosevelt’s younger sister—“because you do not carry it into your personal relationship, and as I don’t either it is a great relief to find it in other members of the family! At the moment I happen to be a little distressed by a newspaper story about Eleanor, Ted’s wife . . . . It seems to me unfortunate to harbor that kind of political feeling in personal relationships.”
It was in Eleanor’s nature to smooth over family disagreements—she’d been doing it since her parents’ marriage started to crumble. But she easily could have abandoned this role and expected the family to fall in line behind her. After all, she was the one now in the White House. The one whose column had become a success, appearing in 62 papers by 1938 and running until September 1962, less than two months before she died.
In contrast, by June 1937 Alice’s career as a columnist was put to bed after 18 months. “The evening papers announced last night that this would be the final week for Mrs. Longworth’s syndicated column,” the general manager of Eleanor’s syndicate wrote to the First Lady. “I make this report I hope without malice but I always knew what would happen to Alice.”
Adapted from the forthcoming book “Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth,” copyright © 2015 by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer. Published by arrangement with Nan A. Talese, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House.
Marc Peyser is an editor and writer in New York City. Timothy Dwyer is a writer and the CEO of School Choice International in White Plains, New York.
This article appears in the March 2015 issue of Washingtonian.