Thursday, February 24, 2011

Alice Roosevelt

Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth (February 12, 1884 – February 20, 1980) was the oldest child of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. She was the only child of Roosevelt and his first wife, Alice Hathaway Lee.

Alice led an unconventional and controversial life. Despite her love for her legendary father, she proved to be almost nothing like him. Her marriage to Representative Nicholas Longworth (Republican-Ohio), a party leader and 43rd Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was shaky, and the couple's only child was a result of her affair with Senator William Borah of Idaho. She temporarily became a Democrat during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and proudly boasted in a 60 Minutes interview with Eric Sevareid broadcast February 17, 1974, that she was a "hedonist".

Alice Lee Roosevelt was born at the Roosevelt family home on 6 West 57th St. in New York City. Her mother, Alice, was a Boston banking heiress. Her father, Theodore, was then a New York State Assemblyman. Two days after her birth, in the same house, her mother died of undiagnosed Bright's disease; also, on the same day, her paternal grandmother, Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, died of typhoid fever.

Theodore was so distraught by his wife's death that he could not bear to think about her. He almost never spoke of her again, would not allow her to be mentioned in his presence, and even omitted her name from his autobiography. Therefore, his daughter Alice was called "Baby Lee" instead of her name. Alice continued this practice late in life, preferring to be called "Mrs. L" rather than "Alice".

Seeking solace, Theodore retreated from his life in New York and headed west where he spent two years traveling and living on his ranch in North Dakota. He left his infant daughter in the care of his sister Anna Bamie Roosevelt, also known as "Bye". Some Roosevelt biographers have claimed that he showed no affection for his child, but there are letters to Bamie that reveal his concern. In one 1884 letter, he said of Alice, "I hope Mousiekins will be very cunning, I shall dearly love her."

After returning east, and running for and losing the election for mayor of New York City in 1886, Theodore Roosevelt went to London where he married a childhood friend, Edith Kermit Carow. He and Edith would have five children and be married until his death in 1919. Edith would outlive both her husband and his famous cousin Franklin, dying in 1948. There were strains in the relationship between him and his daughter, and he had very little interaction with her during her earliest years, leaving the work to other people, such as his sister Bamie, Alice's maternal grandparents and even his second wife, Edith. Alice was continually shuffled about from one house to another, even as a teenager, and she later said she often felt like he loved her "one-sixth" as much as the other children.

There were also tensions in the relationship between young Alice and her stepmother, who had known her husband's previous wife and made it clear that she regarded her predecessor as a beautiful but insipid, childlike fool. As Alice Longworth later recalled, her stepmother once angrily told her that if Alice's mother, Alice Lee Roosevelt, had lived, she would have bored her father to death. Despite these strains, it would be Edith, the demanding stepmother, who would save Alice from a life possibly in a wheelchair or on crutches when Alice came down with a mild form of polio and one leg and its muscles grew shorter than the other. By Edith's uncompromising regimen of nightly forced wearing of torturous leg braces and shoes, even over Alice's sobs, Edith ensured that Alice would grow up with almost no trace of the disability. Alice was able to run up stairs and touch her nose with her toe well into her 80s.

Alice, always spoiled with gifts, matured into young womanhood and, in the course, became known as a great beauty like her mother. However, continuing tension with her stepmother and prolonged separation and little attention from her father created a young woman who was as independent and outgoing as she was self-confident and calculating. When her father was governor of New York, he and his wife proposed that Alice attend a quite conservative school for girls in New York City. Pulling out all the stops, Alice wrote, "If you send me I will humiliate you. I will do something that will shame you. I tell you I will!"

When her father took office following the assassination of President William McKinley in Buffalo (an event that she greeted with "sheer rapture"), Alice became an instant celebrity and fashion icon. While proud of her father's accomplishments, she also was painfully aware that his new duties would give her significantly less of his time even as she longed for more of his attention. She was known as a rule-breaker in an era when women were under great pressure to conform. The American public noticed many of her exploits. She smoked cigarettes in public, rode in cars with men, stayed out late partying, kept a pet snake named Emily Spinach (Emily as in her spinster aunt and Spinach for its green color) in the White House, and was seen placing bets with a bookie.

Alice with her dog, Leo, a Maltese. She was also given a Pekingese named Manchu, by the last Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi in 1902.

Alice married Nicholas Longworth, a Republican U.S. House of Representatives member from Cincinnati, Ohio, who ultimately would rise to become Speaker of the House. Their 1906 wedding was the social event of the season. They bought a home at Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C., now the headquarters of the Washington Legal Foundation.

A scion of a socially prominent Ohio family, Nick was 14 years Alice's senior, and had a reputation as a Washington, D.C. playboy. While the two made a handsome couple to the ever-interested public, their political differences and loyalties would cause private dissension.[12] Alice publicly supported her father's 1912 Bull Moose presidential candidacy, while Nick stayed loyal to his mentor, President Taft. During that election cycle, she appeared on stage with her father's vice presidential candidate, Hiram Johnson, in Nick's own district. Nick later lost by about 105 votes, and she joked that she was worth at least 100 votes (meaning she was the reason he lost). However, he was elected again in 1914 and stayed in the House for the rest of his life.

Alice Longworth's campaign against her husband caused a permanent chill in her marriage to Nick Longworth. During their marriage, Longworth carried on numerous affairs. As reported in Carol Felsenthal's biography of Alice, and in Betty Boyd Caroli's The Roosevelt Women, as well by TIME journalist Rebecca Winters Keegan, it was generally accepted knowledge in DC that Alice also had a long, ongoing affair with Senator William Borah, and the opening of Alice's diaries to modern historical researchers indicates that Borah was, by Alice's own admission, the father of Alice's daughter, Paulina Longworth (1925–1957).

It is possible her change in political leanings was the result of the social upheavals occurring in American society at the same time. Beginning in the late 1950s and continuing into the 1970s, the struggle of African Americans for social and legal equality could not have escaped the notice of a woman always known for approaching everyone she first met with respect, without regard for their station in life. As an example of her attitudes on race, in 1965 her African American chauffeur and one of her best friends, Turner, was driving Longworth to an appointment. During the trip, he pulled out in front of a taxi, and the driver got out and demanded to know of him, "What do you think you're doing, you black bastard?" Turner took the insult calmly, but Longworth did not and told the taxi driver, "He's taking me to my destination, you white son of a bitch!"[

After many years of ill health, Alice died in her Embassy Row home in 1980 of emphysema and pneumonia, with contributory effects of a number of other chronic illnesses. She was 96. Alice Roosevelt Longworth is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.


Anonymous said...

Amazing I had never heard of her before.. She sounds like she would have been fun to know.

SmartAlex said...

Yeah, I like her already!

panavia999 said...

There is a probably apocryphal anecdote about her: she had a embroidered cushion on her couch that said “If you have something unpleasant to say about someone, sit here by me.”
I think a similar story is told about lots of famous women, so it might be true of someone.
My mother told me that story when I was a kid.

dressapp said...

Awesome post!

Whenever I see side saddle in art or in movie I think of your blog. Just watched Wives and Daughters the BBC adaption and they featured side saddle a tiny bit. :)

Nan said...

Great story! Longworth is a pretty famous name in these parts, as is Taft. But I've always admired Alice Roosevelt Longworth and her father.

Dunappy said...

Very interesting blog post. Someone has already shared it on facebook so I'll bet you get some new visitors.

Nan said...

... She was quite the gal!

Gryph said...

She and my great-grandmother, Mabel Courtney (her maiden name), were close friends while Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House. :) We don't have much more than a few photos, stories, and letters as proof, but it's still cool. :)

They were, by all accounts, two of a kind, very strong-willed and outspoken. :) The Courtneys were, back then, a VERY wealthy and prominent family in Philadelphia, up until the 1929 crash.

I try to emulate both of them, and hope that any girls I have do the same. :)

Sadly, I never got to meet either of them. Great Gramma died in the early 1960s, and Alice the year before I was born.

We've attempted to contact Alice's descendants, but have never heard any responses. It's a pity, I've only heard a few stories of their friendship, and would love to know if more survive in Alice's family.