At the beginning of their absorbing new book, “Sisters First,” a pair of former first daughters (and granddaughters) wisecrackingly lament the lack of individual identity that comes from growing up twins in a very public eye:
“Our true middle name might as well have been ‘and,’” Jenna Bush Hager writes. “’Jenna and Barbara, Barbara and Jenna.’”
“Sisters First” (Grand Central Publishing, $28) may help put an end to that. Less celebrity tell-all than a raising of the blinds on two simultaneously intertwined and independent lives, the book largely comprises alternating chapters written by Hager Bush and her sister, Barbara Pierce Bush.
The fraternal twin daughters of former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, will headline a sold-out event at the Book Festival of the MJCCA on Saturday night. They’ll be “in conversation” with best-selling novelist and Atlantan Emily Giffin.
The sisters, who’ll turn 36 on Nov. 25, remain fiercely close while also having carved out distinct, distinguished lives of their own: Jenna, a married mother of two young girls, is a “Today” show correspondent. Yale graduate Barbara is the CEO and co-founder of Global Health Corps, a nonprofit that provides fellowships to young professionals bringing “health equity” around the world.
Not surprisingly, the book sometimes finds them writing about very different subjects: Barbara on studying abroad in Italy and making a 2011 video in support of same-sex marriage, which her father had opposed as president; Jenna on her parents’ and maternal grandparents’ struggles to have children and her own heartbreak with an ectopic pregnancy.
Equally intriguing, though, is when each writes about the same topic — such as the Sept. 11 attacks or their father’s decision to stop drinking in 1986 — from her own perspective.
And of course, the book contains any number of amusing, “only in this unique American family” anecdotes.
Here are five things that stand out in “Sisters First”:
- Soon after their grandfather George H.W. Bush became president, the 7-year-old twins ordered up peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches for delivery to them in the White House bowling alley. “We were like Eloise in our own Plaza!” Jenna writes. That is, until the door opened and their “Ganny,” first lady Barbara Bush, entered “and told us in no uncertain terms that we were not in a hotel.” (Another Ganny nickname revealed elsewhere in the book: “The Enforcer.”)
- Few Americans can forget where they were on Sept. 11, 2001. That includes first daughter Barbara, whom the Secret Service rushed from her Yale dorm room to their office in New Haven. She weaves a fascinating account not only of that day (“I had no number to reach them directly,” she writes of her parents, including her father, circling on Air Force One), but also of the days that followed. One especially poignant detail: The Secret Service’s determination to move her to “a place where no one could easily find us. That meant a hotel where we could pay cash, making us untraceable.” They wound up at a $59-per-night Days Inn, buying chips and candy from a vending machine. The next night, in “an incredibly sweet gesture,” the agents brought her college roommates to join her.
- During a re-election campaign trip to Atlanta for “Gampy” (aka George H.W. Bush), Jenna writes, they got an early taste of the non-glamorous nature of politics. It was the twins’ first visit to Georgia and mother Laura “got us excited by describing the great Southern food in Atlanta, especially grits and biscuits.” But they wound up in a “run-down” motel room, with Jenna sleeping next to Mom in a double bed that partially collapsed during the night. “To make matters worse,” she concludes, “the free motel breakfast had neither grits nor biscuits.”
- Barbara recalls how every public moment as first daughter was painstakingly scripted (Don’t curtsy to the queen of England, do wear long black sleeves when meeting the pope). And one that wasn’t: During a private lunch with her mother and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2006, “He told me that I should have children with his son, right after telling me, ‘If I was younger, I’d have children with you.’ A few sentences after that, the female translator stopped translating.”
- The twins’ penchant for practical jokes finally came back to bite them “in the ass,” Jenna writes, when her water broke during her baby shower. Barbara called Jenna’s husband, Henry Hager, who responded, “This isn’t funny. You and Jenna have to stop with the practical jokes,” and promptly hung up. Barbara’s follow-up call went directly to Henry’s voicemail. It took another call, from a shower guest to her own husband, who was with Hager, to convince the papa-to-be. He got to the hospital about an hour before the couple’s first daughter, Mila, was born.
For additional information on the Book Festival of the MJCCA, visit www.atlantajcc.org.