Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Bad Girls, or a Tale of Two Cousins

Even though, alas, I have returned to the grindstone (mostly - I still sneak home for the occasional nap; I'm finding that a wan expression and a faraway look can get me almost anything I want, now that I'm an Established Invalid), I don't want you to think I've given up all the habits of leisure that I enjoyed this spring.  For example, I've just finished doing something I rarely do, reading a recently published book.

When one's tastes run, as do mine, to novels of droll domesticity and the lives of minor royalties, one frequently dips back as far as a century for one's reading.  Hissing Cousins, however, is hot off the presses, even if its subjects belong to a period far richer in both domestic drollery and minor royalty than our own.  Subtitled "The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth," and by a pair of light-entertainment journalist (Vanity Fair and that sort of thing) called Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer, it may not be quite that - most of the tales therein are very definitely of the twice-told variety - but the book does provide the opportunity to think about the cousins' intertwined, frequently oddly parallel, but vastly different lives.

Thinking about Alice and Eleanor calls to mind the immortal Donna Summer song, even though at first it would seem to apply only to the willful "Princess" Alice.  The story of their lives, though, is that both, really, were bad girls (and oftener than one might realize, sad ones, too).  Alice performed the role in its usual sense, a bad girl, delighting from cradle to grave in knocking the hat of Propriety askew (even as she reveled in many of the trappings of privilege that surrounded her throughout her ten decades on God's green earth.  Eleanor, in a more complicated way, was more literally a bad girl, in endless ways an anomaly within her time and class: tall and gawky, at least in the beginning hopelessly shy and eye-rollingly awkward in a time of belles and debutantes, and boundlessly earnest in a era that prized wit - especially Alice's razor-sharp, insidery brand of it (from Alice's perspective, Eleanor had no sense of humor at all; it was one of the things that maddened her about her do-gooder kinswoman).

Both had awful childhoods, really almost Victorian penny-dreadful ones.  Alice's beautiful mother died the day she was born and was never mentioned in her father's presence; Eleanor's beloved father drank himself to death, all the while finding new and inventive ways spectacularly to embarrass himself and his family.  Alice had an evil stepmother; Eleanor, smothering grandparents.  Growing up in the rarefied world of old New York society, both were outsiders, albeit of very different kinds - the rebel and the wallflower.

Their lives found ways to echo each other all their lives.  For one thing, with the (possible) exception of Alice's idolized father, TR, (whom Eleanor adored as well) they were surrounded by nearly perfectly hopeless men.  They seem to have been magnets for womanizing narcissists; an argument could be made, I think, that the only real distinctions between Nicholas Longworth and Franklin D. Roosevelt were polio and the White House - neither seems to have been a particularly satisfactory husband, that much seems certain.  Both women, too, were disastrous mothers, with Eleanor giving birth to a half-dozen children whose self-centeredness exceeded their father's (at least he achieved a great deal) and who led lives the chaos and scandal of which makes the Bush twins (still so much missed in many a Georgetown dive) look like the Gish sisters.  Alice had only one child (albeit it not by Nick, but that's another story), but hers was a short life of almost unbroken misery.  Both women, though, turned out to be first-rate grandmothers.  Alice, especially, seems to have been everything for her lone granddaughter that she never managed to be the first time 'round, and the stories of the Grande Dame and the Debutante and their eccentric menage on Massachusetts Avenue were staples of Washington life for years.

In the end, though, despite the similarities, it is in the end their differences that define the two cousins, in terms of everything from political party (Alice was an old-fashioned Republican, with not much time for the lamentable Senator McCarthy if an unfortunate soft spot for Richard Nixon*) to style.  Eleanor most often looked as if she'd simply put on the pieces of clothing closest to hand as she left the house; by contrast, after a decade or so at the height of fashion starting with her White House years, Alice developed a rigorous personal and timeless style that took her from the Coolidge to the Carter administrations - simple, tailored, and set off by excellent jewels and her trademark cartwheel hats, which gained in diameter over the decades what they lost in pre-War ostrich feathers.

In the beginning, Alice unashamedly courted publicity, while Eleanor at every turn had to be coaxed into the spotlight.  As the years rolled by, though, the tables seemed to turn, as one cousin became a distant, rather totemic personage (redolent of Edwardian parties and a faint whiff of scandal) and the other a world figure - one acerbic, aristocratic, and wielding an intangible power only behind the scenes, and the other a kind of secular saint.  Alice would definitely be more fun at a dinner party (not to mention over a drink later on - although she very nearly as close to teetotal as Eleanor - to dissect the guests) - but it's Eleanor whose number you'd want on hand for a late-night emergency.  Those huge round hats didn't leave much space for a shoulder to cry upon...

So on the whole I enjoyed the chance to ruminate on two fascinating women.  I was raised in a household that thought a great deal of the Oyster Bay (TR) Roosevelts and very little indeed of the Hyde Park (FDR) ones.  As a result, the idea of Eleanor and Alice as blue-blooded incarnation of those little angels and devils so often seen sitting on the shoulders of characters like Bugs Bunny doesn't seem as fresh to me as it appears to do for Messrs. Peyser and Dwyer.  I could wish, too, that there was more to recommend in their actual writing, which can best be described as serviceable.  It seems to take some of the sparkle out of even the best Princess Alice anecdotes and falls into more than a few inaccuracies and anachronisms (Lady Astor, the British parliamentarian, would likely be startled to know that she was a gatekeeper of New York's select 400, and it's not really on the spot to describe The Forsyte Saga as "satiric novels about a nouveau riche British family" - they really nearly lost me there, in Chapter One).  Still, one could do worse for a summer read, and much as one would want, one can't read only Barbara Pym and James Pope-Hennessy's magisterial biography of dear Queen Mary.  Or can one?

* He played dirty.  She liked that, and was the first person to call him "Tricky Dick."

1 comment:

  1. When one has read Excellent Women, what else is there to read?