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Alice Roosevelt Longworth

Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth (February 12, 1884February 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, was shaky. She spurned Christianity. She was alleged to be unfaithful in marriage. In the late 1960s, she considered becoming "an honorary homosexual" . 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".

Childhood

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, and her paternal grandmother, Martha also 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".

Theodore also moved to North Dakota for two years. He left his infant daughter in the care of his sister Bamie, (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."

The influence of Bamie and the Lee grandparents

Theodore's sister Bamie was the only aunt with whom Alice had a long-term relationship. Bamie was the one strong stabilizing influence on her. She took Alice under her watchful care until Theodore married again.

After Theodore's marriage to Edith Kermit Carow, Alice was raised by her stepmother. During much of Alice's childhood, Bamie was a remote figure who eventually married and moved to London for a time. But later, as Alice became more independent, and came into conflict with her father and stepmother, Auntie "Bye" provided needed structure and stability.

Late in life, Alice said of her beloved Auntie Bye: "There is always someone in every family who keeps it together. In ours, it was Auntie Bye.

Increasingly, Alice's parents would send her off to visit Bamie when they couldn't handle her. Likewise it would be Alice's Lee grandparents (on her mother's side) in Boston, with whom Alice would spend summers and holiday periods, including Thanksgiving, who would give her the undivided attention she could seldom find in her father's home to the point of spoiling her as only grandparents can. They would provide an unconditional love and constancy of affection that Alice would miss in her father's home with her stepmother Edith.

Relationship with stepmother Edith Carow

After returning east, and running for and losing the election for the mayor of New York City, Theodore Roosevelt went to London where he married a childhood friend, Edith Kermit Carow, by whom he would have five more children. There were strains in the relationship between TR 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 because of a stepmother she didn't always appreciate and who didn't like her either. In later years, however, Alice expressed admiration for her stepmother's sense of humor and stated that they had shared similar literary tastes.

Growing young womanhood

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."

Father's presidency

When her father took office following the assassination of President William McKinley (an event that "filled (me) with an extreme rapture"), Alice became an instant celebrity and fashion icon. While proud of her father's accomplishment, she also was painfully aware that his new duties would afford 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, along with her father's Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, led the diplomatic mission to Japan, the largest in U.S. history up until that time, comprised of 35 U.S. Congressmen (including her future husband Nicholas Longworth) and other diplomats. She made headlines wherever she went, being photographed with the Emperor of Japan and the Empress Dowager Cixi of China, as well as attending sumo wrestling matches. In the cruise to Japan, she made a splash by jumping into the ship's pool fully clothed, and coaxed a Congressman to join her in the water. (Years later Bobby Kennedy would chide Alice about the incident, saying it was outrageous for the time, to which the by then octogenarian Alice replied it would only have been outrageous had she removed her clothes. In her autobiography, Crowded Hours, Alice made note of the event, pointing out that there was little difference between the linen skirt and blouse she had been wearing and a ladies bathing suit of the period.) The press dubbed Alice's part in this government-sponsored trip to Asia "Alice in Plunder Land." She brought back enough silk from China for a lifetime of beautiful dresses and would wear a beautiful strand of costly pearls given to her by the Cuban government for the rest of her life. (See photos). This diplomatic junket, and Alice's ability to keep the press at bay by becoming the center of attention, contributed to her father's successful conclusion of the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905 that ended the Russo-Japanese War, which eventually made her father the first-ever Nobel Peace Prize winner in American history.

Once, a White House visitor commented on Alice's frequent interruptions to the Oval Office, often because of her political advice. The exhausted President commented to his friend, author Owen Wister, after the third interruption to their conversation and after threatening to throw Alice 'out the window', "I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both."

Alice was the center of attention in the social context of her father's presidency, especially at her wedding, but she had to be very competitive to get noticed when he was around. She said of his love of attention, that he "wants to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the baby at every christening."

Married life

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. Alice and Nick bought the residence in the Washington, DC at 2009 Massachusetts Avenue and which is 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. The two made an awkward couple. 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).

Post-TR presidency

When it came time for the Roosevelt family to move out of the White House, Alice buried a Voodoo doll of the new First Lady, Nellie Taft in the front yard. At many White House social activities such as dinners, Alice frequently mocked the First Lady, rendering Mrs. Taft rather uncomfortable in Alice's presence though she was some twenty years her junior. Mrs. Taft offended Alice by offering her an invitation to the White House, upon receiving the invitation, Alice asked, "Me? Who walked the halls of the White House for so many years." Later, the Taft White House would mark her first ban from her former residence. During the administration of Woodrow Wilson (from which she was banned in 1916 for a bawdy joke at Wilson's expense), Alice worked endlessly against the entry of the United States into the League of Nations. Her Washington society dinners and reception lobbying are credited with helping to derail America's membership in the League of Nations.

Alice didn't like Warren G. Harding any more than she had Taft or Wilson. Mrs. Longworth felt that Harding was a crass man, barely educated, and ill-suited for the job. She preferred his vice-president, Calvin Coolidge. Her feelings toward First Lady Florence Harding grew more strained during the Hardings' years in Washington. Alice felt that she had lost her best friend, Evalyn Walsh McLean, to Florence, and the relationship between Alice -- the Speaker's wife -- and the President's wife grew bitter.

Following the death of her husband in 1931, Alice Longworth and her daughter continued to live near Dupont Circle on Massachusetts Avenue, Washington's Embassy Row. When asked if she would run for her late husband's seat, she declined. She did not like public speaking, seldom spoke at public receptions, and abhorred physical contact with the public and the "press of the flesh" that came so easily to her father; in short, campaigning did not suit her. Her final visits to Cincinnati were in order to fulfill obligations, not for pleasure. One such trip was made for the burial of her husband, another for the social debut of her daughter. When asked if she would be buried in Cincinnati, Mrs. Longworth said that to do so "would be a fate worse than death itself."

During the Great Depression, when she like so many other Americans found her fortunes reversed, Longworth appeared in tobacco advertisements to raise money. She also published an autobiography, Crowded Hours. The book sold well and received rave reviews. TIME Magazine praised its "insouciant vitality." Her library was filled with autographed works from Tennyson, Yeats, and Ezra Pound.

The other Washington Monument

The widow Longworth maintained her stature in the community, socially and politically, garnering her the nickname "the other Washington Monument". Mrs. Longworth served as a delegate to Republican National Convention on more than one occasion, declining to address the Convention.

Alice's wit was legendary in Washington, DC; and that wit could have a deadly political effect on friend and foe alike. When columnist and cousin Joseph Alsop claimed that there was grass-roots support for Republican presidential candidate, Wendell Willkie, the Republican hope to defeat F.D.R. in 1940, Alice said yes, "the grass roots of 10,000 country clubs." Alice demolished Thomas Dewey, the 1944 opponent of her cousin Franklin, by comparing the pencil-line mustached Republican to “the little man on the wedding cake.” The image stuck and helped Governor Dewey lose two consecutive presidential elections.

Paulina Longworth married Alexander McCormick Sturm, with whom she had a daughter, Joanna (b. July 1946). Sturm died in 1951. Following the death of her daughter in 1957 (by an accidental overdose of sleeping pills, for many years suspected of being a suicide, although Alice never agreed with that assessment), Alice Longworth fought for and won the custody of her granddaughter Joanna Sturm, whom she raised. Not very long before Paulina's death, she and Alice had discussed the care of Joanna in case of such an event. In an article in American Heritage in 1969, Joanna was described as a "highly attractive and intellectual twenty-two-year-old" and was called "a notable contributor to Mrs. Longworth’s youthfulness....The bonds between them are twin cables of devotion and a healthy respect for each other’s tongue. 'Mrs. L.,' says a friend, 'has been a wonderful father and mother to Joanna: mostly father.'

Unlike her relationship with her daughter, Mrs. Longworth doted on her granddaughter and the two were very close. Upon Paulina's death, her cousin Eleanor Roosevelt sent condolences and the two mended their broken relationship despite their continued political differences.

Political connections

From an early age, Alice was interested in politics. When advancing age and illness incapacitated her aunt Bamie, Alice stepped into her place as an unofficial political adviser to her father. Alice strongly advised her father against challenging the renomination of William Howard Taft on the Republican 1912 ticket. While her political instincts were highly developed, she was not at all accommodating. In fact, she took a hard line view of the Democrats and was on the decidedly conservative wing of the Republican party in her youth. She was active in supporting her half-brother, Ted Roosevelt in his attempt to become governor of New York in 1924. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for president in 1932, Alice took pains to publicly oppose his candidacy. Writing in the Ladies' Home Journal in October 1932, she said of FDR, "He is my father's fourth cousin once removed.... Politically, his branch of the family and ours have always been in different camps, and the same 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."

Alice developed a genuine friendship with Richard Nixon when he was vice-president, and when he returned to California after Eisenhower's 2nd term, Alice continued to maintain an active relationship with him and did not consider his political career to be over. She encouraged Nixon to re-enter politics and continued to invite him to her famous dinners. Not forgetting this kindness, when Nixon became President, he invited Alice to his first formal White House dinner. She was also invited to the wedding of his daughter Tricia Nixon in 1971.

As she aged Alice would occasionally flirt with the Democrats and even supported John F. Kennedy and had an affectionate although sometimes strained friendship with Bobby Kennedy, perhaps because of his relatively thin skin. When she privately made fun of his scaling the newly named Mt. Kennedy in Canada, he was not amused. She even admitted to voting for President Lyndon Johnson over Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964 because she believed Goldwater was too mean.

Odds and ends

Alice was a medal awarder at the notorious 1904 Olympics in St. Louis.

By the 1950s, Longworth's health began to fail her. In 1955, she fell and suffered from a broken hip. In 1958, Longworth was found to be suffering from breast cancer, and though successfully undergoing a mastectomy at the time, she was again later found to have cancer in the other breast in 1970, requiring a second mastectomy. Taking the medical procedures in stride, she referred to herself as the only "topless octogenarian" in Washington. After these surgeries, Longworth's health was not as strong as it once had been but she continued a rigorous schedule and maintained her social rounds. By 1960, at age 76, after a noticeable loss of weight and frail appearance with a continued cough and loss of breath, Longworth was advised by family and friends to see a physician. She was diagnosed with emphysema as a result of many years of heavy smoking.

Alice was a lifelong member of the Republican party, like her father. Yet her political sympathies began to change when she became close to the Kennedy family and Lyndon Johnson. She voted Democratic in 1964, and was known to be supporting Bobby Kennedy in the 1968 Democratic primary.

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!"

Yet after RFK was murdered, she again supported her friend Richard Nixon, just as she did in his 1960 campaign against JFK. However, her long friendship with Nixon ended at the conclusion of the Watergate Scandal. Specifically, when Nixon quoted her father's diary at his resignation, by saying "Only if you've been to the lowest valley can you know how great it is to be on the highest mountain top", and other things TR wrote when Alice's mother and grandmother died. This infuriated Mrs. L, who literally spat curse words at her television screen as she watched him compare his early departure from the White House in the face of probable impeachment and possible criminal prosecution to her young father's loss of his wife and mother on the same day due to illness. Nixon, however, called her "the most interesting [conversationalist of the age]" and said, "No one, no matter how famous, could ever outshine her.

She remained cordial with Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, but a minor lack of social grace on the part of Jimmy Carter caused her to decline to ever meet the last sitting President in her lifetime.

Her last public appearance was televised nationwide on PBS. It was the 1976 Bicentennial of the United States, attended by Queen Elizabeth II of England. Joseph Alsop and other friends were taken aback when she came on the screen, escorted to the head of the receiving line by her granddaughter's close friend Robert Hellman. She had her own reception line later, greeting old friends of many years for the last time — including some old-timers from the White House kitchen staff, most of whom were African Americans.

After many years of ill health, Alice finally died in her Embassy Row home in 1980 of emphysema, pneumonia, cardiac arrest and a number of other extended illnesses at the age of 96. Alice Roosevelt Longworth is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

Of her quotable quotations, her most famous found its way to a pillow on her settee: “If you can’t say something good about someone sit right here by me.” To Senator Joseph McCarthy she stated that the garbage men, taxi drivers and street sweepers in her neighborhood could call her by her first name, but that he could not. She also informed President Lyndon B. Johnson that she wore wide brim hats so he couldn't kiss her. When a well-known Washington senator was discovered to have been having an affair with a young woman less than half his age, Mrs. Longworth quipped, "You can't make a soufflé rise twice."

Though Alice was Theodore Roosevelt's first-born child, she was the last of his children to die, surviving her five half-siblings from her father's second marriage.

References

Bibliography

  • Brough, James. Princess Alice: A Biography of Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Boston: Little, Brown. 1975.
  • Caroli, Betty Boyd. The Roosevelt Women. New York: Basic Books, 1998.
  • Cordery, Stacy A. Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker. New York: Viking, 2007.
  • Felsenthal, Carol. Princess Alice: The Life and Times of Alice Roosevelt Longworth. New York: St. Martin's Press. 1988.
  • Longworth, Alice Roosevelt. Crowded Hours (Autobiography). New York: Scribners. 1933.
  • Teague, Michael. Mrs. L: Talks with Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. 1981.
  • Teichmann, Howard. Alice: The Life and Times of Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. 1979.
  • Wead, Doug. All the Presidents' Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Families. New York: Atria Books, 2004.

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