This past Saturday marked the one hundred year anniversary of Quentin Roosevelt’s death in aerial combat over France. Now, this struck me for two reasons. The first is that Quentin was born nearly one hundred years before me. We were both born in ’97, I in September and he in November, which means that he was twenty when he died. His twenty years seemed much better lived than my own so far, since he spent them as a daring, skilled and well-loved pilot and I’ve now rewatched “The Office” four times. However, the second thing that struck me was the fact that we still remember his 20-year legacy and largely forget his half-sister Alice’s nearly century long influence.
I’ve primarily been fascinated with Alice Roosevelt since I heard she owned a snake and named it Emily Spinach, the single greatest name for a snake in the history of ever. She is often cast as the foil to her cousin, beloved First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, as a scandalous Republican guttersnipe and relegated to a saying she had embroidered on a pillow: “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here next to me.” However, she faced the same obstacles Eleanor overcame and still managed to wind all of Washington around her little finger, kicking gender norms to the curb left and right.
She was born on February 12, 1884 in New York City to Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt and, of course, Theodore Roosevelt, before he became the 26th president of the United States. At the time of Alice’s birth, he was a New York State Assemblyman who dearly loved his wife and looked forward to the addition of Alice to the family. Sadly, two days after Alice was born, her mother passed away from Bretz disease, the same day that Theodore’s mother, Martha, passed away.
He wrote in his diary that his wife had been “beautiful in face and form and lovelier still in spirit. As a flower she grew and as a fair young flower she died. Her life had been always in the sunshine. There had never come to her a single great sorrow. None ever knew her who did not love and revere her for her bright and sunny temper and her saintly unselfishness, Fair, pure, and joyous as a maiden, loving tender and happy as a young wife. When she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be just begun, and when the years seemed so bright before her, then by strange and terrible fate death came to her. And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever…Only if you’ve been to the lowest valley can you know how great it is to be on the highest mountain top.”
Teddy was so heartbroken that he escaped to a ranch in North Dakota for a couple of years to deal with his grief and shunned everything that made him think of his late wife, including Alice. Aside from having her name and her looks, Alice represented everything that Teddy and his wife had dreamed about and he couldn’t stand to be around her. He passed her off to his sister, Anna, who was known as Bye.
I realize this sounds like the saddest start to a life but this time with Auntie Bye would prove transformational to Alice and cemented in her a resilient attitude and a tenacious spirit. As one of Bye’s great-nephews put it, “Aunt Bye had a tongue that could take paint off a barn while sounding unusually syrupy and cooing.” She was known to command any room she walked into and passed on to Alice her appetite for reading and vivacious conversation. Alice would later comment that she “always believed that if she had been a man she, rather than my father, would have been President.”
Many would claim that it was Bye who arranged the chance meeting between Teddy and his old sweetheart Edith Carow in October 1886 during one of his trips back to New York to visit. By December, the two were married. When Alice was almost four, she left Bye’s house to live with her father and stepmother. Soon, Ted Jr., Kermit, Ethel, Archibald and Quentin joined the clan as well. However, before we start comparing Alice to Cinderella, let’s not forget her stunning talent for capitalizing on authority. Alice made her five step-siblings climb trees when she commanded them as a way of “paying rent.”
However, like Cinderella, I suppose, Alice did not get along with Edith. Alice would constantly remind her father’s second wife that his first had been far more beautiful, to which Edith would respond that had Alice Lee remained with Teddy his whole life, he would have been bored to death. Edith desperately wanted to send Alice to a conservatory for girls and talked Teddy into it. However, Alice swore that, if he did any such thing, “I will humiliate you. I will do something that will shame you. I tell you I will.” While she didn’t make either one of them climb trees, it was clear who gave the orders in the relationship.
In 1901, the family’s entire world shifted when Teddy, during his first term serving as William McKinley’s Vice President, was forced to take office after McKinley’s assassination. While Teddy and most of the nation looked on with shock, Alice, 17 at the time, looked at the whole event with “sheer rapture.” The event merely added to the attention she was beginning to learn how to receive. She became an instant celebrity and magazines of all kinds, through primarily gossip magazines, ate up her every action and style. When she made her social debut in 1902, she wore a dress of magnificent blue that captured the eye of nearly every fashion designer in the nation and from then on, a steady trickle of “Alice blue” garments found their way into popular dress.
However, this was a time that demanded that women sit down, shut up and be good little girls, something that Alice saw little point to. As a family friend once put it, Alice was “like a young, wild animal that had been put into good clothes.” The gossip magazines soon featured stories of Alice riding in cars with men unchaperoned, partying into the wee hours of the morning, racing cars throughout Washington D.C., placing regular bets with a bookie and, how scandalous, wearing pants. When her father forbade her from smoking under his roof, she climbed up on top of the roof to light up. She loudly expressed pagan beliefs to get under her stepmother’s devoutly Christian skin. She would carry Emily Spinach around the White House and out to parties. Everywhere she went turned into an “I’m a Slave 4 U” music video. Often, she would interrupt meetings in the Oval Office to lend her own political advice. Her father said, “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice but I cannot possibly do both.”
However, in 1905, Teddy might have found a compromise that allowed Alice to help run the country and keep her distracted. He sent her off with the Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, and 23 congressmen and seven senators on a goodwill diplomatic mission to Japan, Hawaii, China, the Philippines and Korea. It was not only the largest mission of its kind so far but it was also the first time that a daughter of the president had been given the responsibility.
While Teddy was able to kick back somewhat and focus his attention on pressing national issues, Taft found himself in the position of a glorified babysitter. From the very start of what would be known as the “Imperial Cruise,” on the train ride from D.C. to San Francisco, Alice set off firecrackers and fired her own pistol at the passing telephone poles. In her defense, it was the Fourth of July.
Perhaps the most troubling was the fact that Alice had attracted the attention of Ohio Congressman Nicholas Longworth, a politician who had taken a notorious interest in both drinking and womanizing and was fifteen years Alice’s senior. At one point along the trip, Alice jumped, fully clothed, into the pool of the ship and attempted to get Nicholas to join her. By the time the company returned from their trip, news of the couple’s engagement popped up on front pages across the nation.
On February 17, 1906, over a thousand guests attended their wedding with thousands more waiting outside for just a glimpse of “Princess Alice.” It really was like the Royal Wedding a couple of months ago except I don’t think Megan Markle borrowed a sword to cut her cake. I could have skipped past that though.
While neither Alice nor Nick fully embraced all that came with married life, particularly that whole pesky fidelity business which both found ways to work around, it marked a joyful end to Alice and Edith’s mere tolerance of one another. In fact, Edith apparently told her “I want you to know I am glad to see you leave, you have never been anything but trouble.”
After their honeymoon in Cuba, the couple toured Europe, meeting all the prominent dignitaries of the time. However, no political palace would ever equal the White House for Alice. In 1909, when Teddy completed his last presidential term, Alice couldn’t stand to turn it over to the Tafts, so much so that she buried a voodoo of Nellie Taft in the front lawn. Because of this and a continuous spew of public criticism of the new First Family, Alice was banned from the White House.
Not only did Alice find herself in the constraining role of wife, expected to look after and dote upon her husband, she was now a political wife, expected to appear at the side of her congressman husband everywhere he spoke, lobbied for support or campaigned. She was expected to have the same beliefs as her husband and to keep quiet should she not. Well, instead of standing by Nick’s side as he campaigned for his mentor, Taft, in 1912, she made appearances supporting her father, Taft’s opponent, despite the fact she had urged him not to move back into presidential politics. Still, her loyalty for her father and breaking the rules remained.
The battle for votes between the two wouldn’t matter, however, as Roosevelt essentially split Republican votes with Taft and progressive votes with Wilson. In the end, Wilson won with forty states and 435 electoral votes. Initially, Alice seemed willing to play nice with this next First Family, taking cards to the White House for Edith Wilson and her three daughters, though she would later remark, “It was almost impossible to believe that those odd beings called Democrats were actually there in the offing about to take things over.” Her father’s staunch opposition to Wilson’s League of Nations also contributed to similar, to use Christine de Pizan’s word, invective on Alice’s behalf and earned her another official ban from the White House. She also made another voodoo doll, this time of the president, and stabbed it with pins herself.
After her father died in his sleep on January 6, 1919, Alice used every potential ounce of influence she possessed to rally against the nation becoming part of the League of Nations, including attending a rally at Union Station and delivered a medieval curse on the President as his motorcade drove past. She spent hours listening to a group of senators and representatives that called themselves the Irreconcilables because they would never accept the league under any circumstances. One Irreconcilable in particular caught her eye: Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator William Borah. He was nearly as famous as Alice for his contrary, fiery remarks and for his freethinking. It was a match made in heaven. “Occasionally I did not entirely agrees with what Borah said, or rather with the slant he gave some question,” Alice said, “but he had a quality of earnest eloquence combined with a sort of smoldering benevolence, and always knew so exactly how to manage his voice that before he finished I was always enthusiastic.”
The two, dubbed by the press as “Aurora Borah Alice,” began a much-gossiped about affair that led to Alice’s barging into the White House in 1924 to tell the new First Lady, Grace Coolidge that she was going to have a baby. Alice wanted to name her daughter Deborah, as in de Borah. However, Nick was more sold on Paulina.
Paulina was born on February 14, 1925, the same year that Nick became Speaker of the House. The family moved into a large house just west of Dupont Circle in D.C. which would continue to host the social events of the season for the next six decades of Alice’s life.
Nick, however, wouldn’t have nearly that long, dying in 1931. Alice barely shed a tear, in fact, many years later she was asked what she remembered the most fondly about Nick and she said she couldn’t think of anything. However, I’m sure the one thing she did miss dearly was the financial support Nick’s political career was able to offer. Without it, Alice soon found herself up against a similar economic crisis with the rest of the nation during the Great Depression. In order to make money to support her and her daughter, she appeared in tobacco ads and wrote an autobiography entitled “Crowded Hours.” She even began a lecture tour, surprising given that she, Alice Roosevelt, was afraid of public speaking.
However, things started to look up for Alice when her fourth cousin once removed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife and her cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt, began to set their sights on the White House. Not because she felt any kind of family pride for them, no, instead she viewed them and their Democratic ideals as target practice, the cure to her boredom, a new cause to put everything into defeating.
Part of it stemmed from some family rivalry. “Politically,” she said, “his branch of the family and ours have always been in different camps, and the surname is about all we have in common…I am a Republican…I am going to vote for Hoover…If I were not a Republican, I would still vote for Mr. Hoover this time.” Even though she was not able to keep them out of the White House, she continued to fling zinger after zinger at the other Roosevelts, calling Franklin “one part sap and two thirds Eleanor” and claiming that she would “rather vote for Hitler than vote for Franklin for a third term.” She would do unflattering imitations of Eleanor at tea parties and the two would gossip about one another and circulate insults at each other in the press.
Paulina, far more shy and delicate than Alice, wilted in the spotlight and frenzy that seemed to follow her mother. She married Alexander Sturm, a polo player and author from Connecticut and the two had a daughter, Joanna, in 1946. However, the relationship between Alice and them was strained, even more so in 1951 when Alex died. Paulina, already unhappy, became occasionally unstable under the pressure of being a widow and a single mother at 26. She attempted suicide on a couple of occasions and was eventually successful on January 27, 1957. However, Alice used her influence to have the death officially ruled an accident, despite the two empty bottles of barbiturates and tranquilizers that ten-year-old Joanna found next to her mother’s body.
Alice was incredibly distraught but found some solace in the responsibility of raising Joanna. The two were incredibly close and their relationship was must stronger than that of Alice and Paulina’s. One friend noted that “Mrs. L has been a wonderful father and mother to Joanna…mostly father.” Gore Vidal remembered Alice saying that she “ should have been a grandmother, not a mother.”
She continued to keep one foot in the White House as the administrations passed and became enamored with the Kennedys, as they were with her. A friend wrote “She was by then eighty, but the young president and his still younger wife and brother Bobby all adored ‘Mrs. L,’ as they, too, called her. She was better company than ever, and it always used to entertain me, watching all the young beauties grow green with envy because this woman of eighty managed to be surrounded by all the most admired men in the city.”
Remarkably, this friendship with the Kennedys did not stand in her way from having a close friendship with Richard Nixon, who had been a pallbearer at Paulina’s funeral. It was Alice, in fact who talked him into accepting the vice presidential bid with Eisenhower. However, as Alice watched along with the rest of the nation as Nixon spoke after resigning from the presidency, she heard him speak about “a young man” who was “a young lawyer in New York. He’d married a beautiful girl. And they had a lovely daughter. And then suddenly, she died. And this was what he wrote. This was in his diary. He said: ‘She was beautiful in face and form and lovelier still in spirit…And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever.”
Yes, Alice listened to the worlds from her father’s diary for the first time as Nixon compared his departure from the White House to the unspeakable suffering that consumed her father when every hope and dream was ripped away from him. She was livid and cursed at the television. However, she found some level of comfort from the words. She told a “New York Times” columnist that “Father never mentioned my mother’s name to me, not once in my life. Just put her out of his mind, I thought. Listening to that part of the diary was like revealing a mystery.”
Despite fighting her whole life for Republican ideals, Alice did show some unusually Democratic beliefs, for instance, an early appreciation for civil rights. Her African-American driver and friend, Richard Turner, once pulled out in front of a taxi on his way to taking Alice to an appointment. The taxi driver got out of the car and asked him “What do you think you’re doing, you black bastard?” Her driver remained calm but Alice got shouted “He’s taking me to my destination, you white son-of-a-bitch!”
She also was remarkably open-minded about homosexuality. A friend once tried to scandalize Alice by saying that a mutual friend was in love with her. Alice simply replied “I don’t think that’s nasty, why I think it’s lovely, so nice, I’m so glad to hear she is.” Later in life, she wondered what her father would have thought about “a letter I received from one of the Gay Liberation groups offering to make me their first Honorary Homosexual. I’ve always been a supporter of people’s sexual rights…who knows? Perhaps homosexuality is nature’s way of keeping the population down. At least it is one of the best natural remedies we could possibly have, and if it keeps them happy and pleased, why not?”
Alice tolerated Gerald Ford but declined to ever meet Jimmy Carter, the only president during her lifetime that she had never exchanged words with, because she “perceived a lack of social grace.” However, he would be the last sitting president before her death on February 20, 1980 at the astonishing age of 96. Carter wrote that “she had style, she had grace, and she had a sense of humor that kept generations of political newcomers to Washington wondering which was worse: to be skewered by her wit or to be ignored by her.” She chose to be buried next to Paulina in the city that she quietly controlled, less than five miles from the U.S. Capitol. In both life and death, she had been known as “Washington’s Other Monument” and this seemed to hold true as flocks of the most powerful men and women arrived to pay their respects. Apparently she had no last words, just a gesture: she stuck her tongue out.