Tumultuous tale of the Roosevelt cousins


The intertwining saga of Alice and Eleanor Roosevelt, first cousins born into one of America’s most influential families, continues to captivate and intrigue, shedding light on a relationship marked by both camaraderie and conflict. Delving into the depths of their shared history, recent interviews and research offer fresh perspectives on the dynamics between these two remarkable women.
Ed Lieberman, former mayor of Sea Cliff and a local historian, explained that the two cousins, who were close as children and young girls, had many similar and tragic parallels throughout their lives. Lieberman, who has given presentations on the sisters to several groups and organizations in Sea Cliff, said that both of the women had tragic beginnings, highlighting the loss of their mothers at tender ages and the subsequent impact on their upbringing.
Alice, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt by his first wife Alice Lee, was born under a dark cloud, with the death of her mother and grandmother shortly after her birth. The trauma of their deaths on Valentine’s Day caused her father to leave his newborn in the care of his sister Bamie, while he went out West to live the life of a cowboy.
Meanwhile Eleanor, daughter of TR’s brother Elliot, lost her mother when she was eight years old to diphtheria, an infectious disease with a high mortality rate at the time, while her father died when she was 10 due to a seizure following an attempted suicide and lifelong addiction to alcohol. Eleanor would then be raised by her maternal grandmother, although the same aunt Bamie would encourage her academic interests.
“Both cousins had very tragic beginnings,” Lieberman said. “They both had this experience of loss of parents and being brought up by a relative, which really shaped them in very different ways.”

Alice grew up to be an independent, outgoing and self-confident woman who had affairs with politicians, smoked cigarettes when it was considered “unladylike,” and even had a pet snake which she would wear like a bracelet and scare people. Her father later claimed that “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”
Meanwhile, Eleanor grew up to become an incredibly serious and classically liberal idealist, often influencing the politics of her husband and fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Eleanor reinvented the role of First Lady through her public outreach and ongoing newspaper column, which she wrote until her death in the 1960’s.
Howard Ehrlich, CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, echoed Lieberman’s sentiments, emphasizing the profound influence of Theodore Roosevelt on both women and the enduring legacy of public service instilled within the Roosevelt clan. Ehrlich underscored the significance of familial ties in shaping the values and aspirations of both Alice and Eleanor, despite their differing paths in adulthood.
“TR instilled in his children and the rest of the family the need to be in public service, whether that be the armed forces, whether being in some government agency,” Ehrlich said. “The most important thing for them was helping people, and I think they got that from TR.”
The relationship between Alice and Eleanor was complex, characterized by a blend of kinship, politics, and personal ambition. From their shared experiences growing up at Sagamore Hill, the Roosevelt estate on Long Island, to their divergent paths in adulthood, the cousins navigated a delicate balance between camaraderie and rivalry.
The tension between the cousins extended beyond mere political differences, as illustrated by Alice’s caustic remarks about Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor’s perceived snubs of her cousin. The two had a strained relationship over the years, punctuated by moments of reconciliation and solidarity amidst the discord.
Despite their differences, Alice and Eleanor shared a deep bond rooted in their shared upbringing and familial ties. Lieberman’s research highlighted their moments of camaraderie, from childhood playdates at Sagamore Hill to mutual visits and correspondence throughout their lives.
Despite their ideological divides, the cousins maintained a level of fondness for one another, inviting each other to holiday parties despite roundly criticizing or, in Alice’s case, openly insulting each other to newspapers and the public.
The legacy of Alice and Eleanor Roosevelt endures as a testament to the complexities of familial relationships and the enduring power of kinship. Their story serves as a reminder of the intricacies of human connections, navigating the delicate balance between loyalty and rivalry in the pursuit of personal and political ambitions.