Presidential Progeny Pen White House Whodunits

Heck!-to use Eve Cooper’s favorite expletive-there’s a new First Daughter at large in Detectivesville. Eve is the creation of Susan Ford, a First Daughter in her own right: Remember Gerald Ford and his four kids? Teenager Susan was the youngest-she had three big brothers-and, she tells us in a preface, she enjoyed her several teen years in the White House despite the lack of privacy (all those Secret Service guys never out of sight) and the formalities of Presidential life. The Fords moved out early in 1977, and a quarter of a century later-after the Carters, the Reagans, the first Bushes, the Clintons, the second Bushes-Susan is staking her insider’s claim to the old homestead with her first novel, Double Exposure: A First Daughter Mystery (written with Laura Hayden). She’s working in an honorable tradition: First Daughter Margaret Truman has turned out a slew of successful thrillers, and let’s not forget the run of First Mom mysteries by Elliott Roosevelt. (Mom, of course, is detective Eleanor Roosevelt.)

So meet Eve Cooper, whose really nice dad has just been elected President (unlike poor Gerald Ford, who was thrust into the job as a result of the Nixon-Agnew disasters). She’s 25, a professional photographer temporarily unemployed and living in the White House with President Dad, kid brother Drew, and official First Lady, Aunt Patsy. (Mother is dead, and another brother, a computer nerd, is doing his thing in Vermont.) One winter’s day, Eve and her sometimes rival, sometimes boyfriend, the official White House photographer, stumble on a body in the Rose Garden. You don’t need to know whose, or why it’s there, or even who the murderer is-you don’t read First Daughter mysteries for the plot. You read them for the fun of picking up clues of a different kind, clues to the private life of a real Presidential family, the author’s own.

And what do we think we learn about the Fords, who weren’t around long enough to do much more than give us a desperately needed breather after the Nixon agonies? We learn what we always knew, or thought we knew: that the Fords were just plain folks. Eve/Susan likes the White House, but, she says, “I’m not used to living in such overwhelming splendor … I’ve never even stayed in a hotel this nice. I was brought up in a middle-class neighborhood. Our idea of elegance was using matching place mats at Thanksgiving.” I believe it of the Fords, although this leaves out the complicated and appealing Betty Ford, with her modern-dance background and her problems with alcohol. I mean, didn’t you always feel that she was for real, as opposed, say, to Barbara Bush, that tough pol, with her suburban hair and her public agenda of dogs and kids and values ? But there’s no place for “real” in White House entertainments, so it’s no wonder Eve’s mom has been airbrushed from the picture.

Having no mom means that Eve is kept busy being Big Sister to super-normal Drew, who eats like a starving man, oversleeps on school days, has trouble with his new schoolmates as the First Son, and would fit right in with The Brady Bunch . The Cooper Bunch gets to have breakfast together, “pretending for a half hour or so each day that we all live a normal life. Dad, in particular, needs that sense of normality before heading to the Oval Office each morning to assume his role as the Leader of the Free World.” Let’s listen in to the President’s breakfast chat: “If I start hearing anything about my autograph on a school absence excuse slip going up for sale on eBay, you’re going to be so grounded.” By the way, Dad secretly prefers hot chocolate to coffee at breakfast. Is this a revelation about the 38th President?

Eve has been a successful crime-scene photographer back in Denver, and the photography stuff in the book is convincing, but if she’s 25 and has been exposed to violent crime, you’d never know it. From the start, it’s clear that she’s a sentimentalized echo of the teenage Susan Ford, not a grown woman. (Her closest literary ancestor is Nancy Drew, who even gets a mention.) When she’s on a tear, Eve may down a beer or two, but her only real vice is recklessness, so that in the time-honored tradition of girl detectives, she walks right into the killer’s web and shows her pluck. And when the chips are down, Dad is there to back her up. He doesn’t give her a roadster, the way Nancy’s father did, but he gives her his vote of confidence: “My daughter understands and appreciates the gravity of this situation as well or better than anyone here, and I think she may have given us our best chance to clear up this mess.” Eve’s reaction? “As I stood there, I realized for the first time that I wasn’t asking simply for my father’s support in my decision, but asking for the support of the President of the United States. A shiver slithered up my spine at the thought.” Forget the prose: This is a sensible response to being the child of a President. Nancy/Eve/Susan has produced an honorable if dopey book.

Margaret Truman, gone from the White House for almost 50 years, writes not as an insider but as an observer; her impersonal novels take us all over Washington-murder strikes at the Smithsonian, the C.I.A., the Supreme Court, in Georgetown (I would think so); on the Potomac, Embassy Row, Capitol Hill; at the Library of Congress, the National Gallery, the Watergate, and just across the street at the Kennedy Center; even at the National Cathedral. Tourists beware: Apparently you’re not safe anywhere at all in the nation’s capital.

The title of the first Truman best-seller, Murder in the White House , published in 1980, promises more than it delivers. Yes, a murder takes place in the White House, but it’s not the one Margaret grew up in. The only sly reference to her own situation as the beloved daughter of Harry S. is also the only witty device I’ve come across in my trawl through half a dozen of her books: I don’t think it’s unfair to reveal, 22 years after its publication, that the murder in the White House is committed by none other than … the First Daughter herself! When she confesses, “The President held his daughter in his arms, an island of humanity, abruptly cut off from all trapping of office, from all others except themselves.” There it is again: the conflict between being human and living the Presidential life. The one recognizable Trumanesque note in this book is the closeness of the Presidential family, even after First Daughter Lynne has admitted offing the evil Secretary of State (in the Lincoln Bedroom-where else?).

The Truman “Capital Crimes” novels are carefully plotted conventional mysteries held together by their political background. No excitements, no revelations, no style, but they’re professional. The personality of the author is reflected in only two ways: in the dedications, which are family all the way-husband, kids, grandkids (“with love from Gammy”). And in a lavish supply of details about décor, food and culture: In Murder on Capitol Hill , for instance, “Lydia James was grateful the performance was over. She’d never particularly appreciated Haydn, though she did admire some of his symphonic works like ‘London’ symphony Number 101 that mixed a rondo with a variation form.” And, “For most of the meal-a fillet for Clarence that had been dry-hung to age for four weeks, according to the restaurant owner Douglas McNeill, and a terrine of baby coho salmon with truffles and pistachios for her-they avoided discussing Lydia’s committee work.” Ms. Truman and her editors don’t grasp the distinction between “imply” and “infer,” or between “disinterested” and “uninterested,” and occasionally an arty word clashes with the workaday prose-“His thick sandy hair hung errant across his forehead”-but through hard work and reliability, Ms. Truman has earned herself a wide readership. Her strategy works: Though she uses the family name, she omits anything reflecting on the family. This is what’s called having it both ways.

The wild card in the Presidential pack is Elliott Roosevelt. Let’s face it: These books are bizarre. First of all, of his 20 or so Eleanor Roosevelt mysteries, at least half have been written since his death in 1990. Not that you can tell: The books he’s written since he died are no better or worse than those he was around for. The secret ingredient is finally acknowledged, as follows, on the title page (but not the dust jacket) of what its publisher, Thomas Dunne, tells me is the final installment of the great First Lady’s career as a shamus: “Elliott Roosevelt’s ™ Murder at the President’s Door , An Eleanor Roosevelt Mystery, by William Harrington for the Estate of Elliott Roosevelt.” Mr. Harrington is thanked in earlier books, and Mr. Dunne explains that he was a longtime collaborator, but that Elliott “was deeply involved.” And left behind him enough plot ideas and circumstantial detail to make possible the entire posthumous oeuvre .

If the Trumans are absent from their daughter’s fictions, the Roosevelts are front and center in their son’s. Elliott keeps himself strictly offstage, though in Murder in Georgetown we learn that in the judgment of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, “Elliott is a naughty boy.” The President is very much a presence, with his sense of humor and his carefully concealed disability and his famous martinis and his faithful advisers, Harry Hopkins and Louis Howe. We get the notoriously inadequate White House housekeeper, Henrietta Nesbitt, and, always, F.D.R.’s secretary and comforter, Marguerite (Missy) LeHand, who with Eleanor’s apparent sympathy and approval spends evenings with the President perched on his bed in her trademark peignoir, listening to classical music and eating take-away. (Anything to avoid Mrs. Nesbitt’s bland diet. As Mrs. R. remarks, “The president despises tuna salad. But it is nutritious and economical, so I am afraid he gets it a great deal more often than he could wish.”) Eleanor always tactfully knocks on her husband’s bedroom door before entering (my already huge admiration for the lady has shot up still further). What did she feel about Missy? In Murder at the Chateau , we get a clue: One morning, “She knocked, then walked in. Occasionally she would find his secretary Missy LeHand already there-or Missy still there; she was never sure which-but that was no longer an issue.” Missy’s peignoirs, by the way, turn up in just about every book: They’re yellow, they’re pink, they’re “sheer white,” covering a “royal-blue silk nightgown,” whereas Eleanor herself, her son informs us, “had utterly excruciating taste in clothes … she seemed to have a talent for choosing the most unflattering things she could find.”

Before we move on from the sex life of the Roosevelts, let’s look in on Eleanor and her great friend Lorena Hickock. There’s that letter to Hick quoted in Murder in Georgetown : “Dearest, dearest Hick, How I miss you! How bleak life is without you! How I long to hold you in my arms and plant kisses on you! On your eyes, dear Hick. On your mouth. On you everywhere!” F.D.R. makes it clear that he knows this kind of talk is merely “a way of expressing yourself …. All I ask is that you and Hick kiss and caress in private to your hearts’ content. But not where others can see and hear.” The President was famous for his practicality.

And then there’s the other side of Eleanor’s love life. In at least two books-don’t be shocked-Eleanor is kissed . In Murder in the Chateau (’95), Irish adventurer Kevin O’Neil tells her, “‘I have never heard any but good of you. I hold you in my arms, and I’m going to kiss you, Mrs. Roosevelt. For now, and for the last time …. I promise you I will never offer to kiss you again-assumin’, that is, you do not come to my room and my bed some night. Is it agreed?’ A woman of fifty-seven was not ready to refuse what he offered. She had never been kissed, more than cousinly, by any man but Franklin. On the terms he stated, she did not refuse Kevin O’Neil.” And it’s not only the romance of wartime France that quickens Eleanor’s blood. In Murder in the Executive Mansion , “She stood, and for a minute they stood facing each other, wordless. Then both of them moved on the same impulse, and Detective Captain Edward Kennelly kissed Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. They separated, smiling at each other, their hands lingering together, then dropping apart. Nothing was possible.”

Almost all the Roosevelt mysteries I’ve read begin with a murder in the White House. (Mrs. R.: “We cannot imagine, for this moment, what consequences might follow a public announcement that a mysterious corpse has been found in a White House refrigerator.”) The exception-and a front-runner in any crackpot-plot competition-is Murder in the Chateau , in which Eleanor is sent on a top-secret mission, via seaplane, submarine, fishing smack and truck, deep into Vichy France to conspire with General Rommel, Sarah Churchill and various other luminaries to unseat Hitler and stop the war. She knows she’s heading into danger, but “I … have always been ready to serve my country.” Indeed, as it turns out, “The First Lady had never faced so grave a peril.” Yet she solves a murder or two, gets kissed, and it’s only because Germany invades Russia that her mission aborts. And as a side benefit, her old acquaintance Gertrude Stein comes calling at the chateau, as does Josephine Baker, who sings and dances for the assembled guests.

Mrs. R, we’re told, “could not imagine why Josephine Baker was here,” but we who have witnessed the flood of celebrities whom Eleanor encounters in her role as First Lady are not in the least surprised. In one book or another, we come upon Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig; W. C. Fields (“‘It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Dukenfield.’ She rarely addressed anyone by a nickname or pseudonym, and she knew that Fields’ real name was William Claude Dukenfield. ‘I once saw you juggle'”); Shirley Temple; George Gershwin; Louis Armstrong (“‘I’m honored, honored,’ said Armstrong …. ‘The honor is mine, Mr. Armstrong,’ she said”); Kate Smith, singing “God Bless America”; H. L. Mencken; Major Dwight Eisenhower; Joe Kennedy (she serves him coffee and “a small assortment of vanilla wafers and crisp little cookies”); and, in Murder at Midnight , our old friend from the chateau: “‘Lovey works very hard,’ said Alice B. Toklas ingenuously, nodding toward Gertrude Stein. Gertrude Stein laughed. ‘Thank you, Pussy,’ she said.” (Stein’s own account of this meeting, in Everybody’s Autobiography , is less intimate: “Mrs. Roosevelt was there and gave us tea, she talked about something and we sat next to someone.”)

Most exciting of all is Eleanor’s brush with Ernest Hemingway: “‘I’ve read two or three of your books, Mr. Hemingway,’ she said. ‘I’ve read one of yours, Mrs. Roosevelt,’ he said. ‘I understand your next novel will be about the civil war in Spain,’ she said. ‘What will it be called, have you decided yet?’ ‘I want to call it For Whom the Bell Tolls .'” And then who comes along? “‘Have you met Bill Faulkner?’ Hemingway asked, nodding toward a rather vacant-looking dishevelled man who was approaching them. ‘I don’t believe I’ve had the honor,’ she said. Hemingway introduced them. William Faulkner squinted at her and blinked. ‘Shuh pleasure,’ he muttered. He was very drunk. ‘Give my best wishes … to the Pres … dunt.'”

Please don’t think that Eleanor is so busy hobnobbing with Nobel Prize authors that she neglects her responsibilities as detective. In fact, F.D.R. is always cautioning her to be discreet: “I believe you are intermeddling in police business, Babs. Please leave the Hawkshawing to the Hawkshaws.” But what’s a First Lady to do when corpses keep turning up outside the President’s door? Babs interviews suspects, dons disguises, defends the innocent, draws up lists of clues. She even goes incognito to the district jail to interrogate a striptease dancer named Blaze Flame, who suddenly catches on: “Wait a minute …. You’re not some woman cop. You’re … Jesus Christ, you’re Mrs. Roosevelt! ” But Eleanor’s true indignation is reserved not for the criminals, whom she inevitably uncovers, but for two offstage figures who are anathematized in almost every book: Douglas MacArthur, who has a beauteous mistress stashed away in a hotel because he’s afraid to tell his mother about her, and J. Edgar Hoover. “‘There is a rumor … that he is secretly an ardent sodomite,’ she said. ‘It is whispered that he is “married” to his assistant, Clyde Tolson.’ ‘I don’t like that,’ said the President.”

It’s sad news indeed that the “Eleanor Roosevelt Mystery” series has apparently run its course. No offense, Margaret T. and Susan F., but you both lack that certain demented something that Elliott R. brings (brought?) to the business. What a shame that the most famous and formidable of all First Children never gave it a try. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, known fondly as “Washington’s Other Monument,” queened it over the capital for well over half a century. Teddy’s oldest child, wife of Speaker of the House Nick Longworth, cousin of Franklin (whom she liked) and Eleanor (whom she didn’t), she was brilliant, ultra-political, frivolous, charming and, most of all, informed. She wrote her memoirs, and they’re wonderfully amusing, but think what she could have done with the mystery genre! After all, more than anyone else in Washington, she knew where the bodies were buried.

And what of other Presidential progeny? The Eisenhower son and grandson are historians; Caroline Kennedy is too busy trading on her mother’s name ( The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis ) and her father’s ( Profiles in Courage for Our Time ); the Johnson girls, to be frank, never seemed all that creative; the Nixon girls have been too busy litigating against each other. Amy Carter? With all that Carter-family earnestness? Chelsea Clinton? Surely her mind is on higher things. My hopes rest with the Bush girls; after all, they’ve had firsthand experience with the law.

Robert Gottlieb is a lifelong student of detective novels.

Presidential Progeny Pen White House Whodunits