Benson: Teddy’s daughter, the outspoken Alice
Theodore Roosevelt’s first wife, Alice Lee, died of a kidney infection on Valentine’s Day 1884, just two days after she delivered her first child, a daughter, also named Alice. The tragedy was compounded when Theodore’s mother died of typhoid fever that same day.
So grief-stricken was Theodore by the double loss that he packed up and headed for a ranch in southwest North Dakota, where he tended cattle for two years, expecting his sister in New York to care for his infant daughter.
Upon his return to New York in 1886, he married Edith Carow, and they had five children. Alice though was difficult — opinionated, rebellious and impulsive. She needed a mother, and Edith tried, but she had five children of her own. There was tension and conflict between step-mother and daughter. Alice’s dad was a rising political star and he had little time to give to his eldest daughter.
After all, he had to defeat the Spanish and win the war. He and his Rough Riders sailed to Cuba, where they marched up San Juan Hill in a blaze of glory. After the war, he won the election as New York’s governor, then served as vice president under William McKinley, and after an assassin’s bullet ended McKinley’s life on Sept. 14, 1901, Theodore Roosevelt, at age 42, took the oath to become president of the United States, the youngest president until John F. Kennedy.
Alice was seventeen and thrilled to move into the White House. Americans smiled though when they learned that she brought into the White House a pet snake that she named Emily Spinach because it was green, and officials looked the other way as she placed bets with bookies, smoked cigarettes and interrupted her father’s meetings.
At one point, the president said, “I can run the country, or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”
After her family moved out of the White House, and the Taft family moved in, Alice dug a hole in the White House lawn and buried a voodoo doll that resembled Mrs. William Howard Taft. The new president felt so outraged that he banished Alice from all of his future White House social functions.
Because she told an unprintable joke about Woodrow Wilson, a man who never forgot or forgave an insult, he too banished her. Of Calvin Coolidge, Alice said, “He looks as if he was weaned on a pickle.” Of her own father, Theodore Roosevelt, she said, “He has to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the baby at every christening.”
After she first met Thomas Dewey, New York’s governor and the Republican candidate for president in 1944, she said, “He reminds me of the little man who stands on top of the wedding cake.”
Alice married Nicholas Longworth, a representative from Ohio, but she carried on several steamy affairs with other men, including Sen. William Borah of Idaho, by whom she had her only child, a daughter she named Paulina.
Alice lived the rest of her life in Washington, D.C., just west of the Dupont Circle on Massachusetts Avenue, where she spoke her mind about all the presidents, attended numerous Washington parties and carved out a position as a gossip. People called her “the other Washington Monument.”
Theodore Roosevelt died in 1919, when he was only 60, when Alice was just 35. Twelve years later, she buried her husband Nicholas, and she was a widow at 47. She never remarried.
A lifelong Republican, Alice Roosevelt Longworth knew all the presidents: Taft, Wilson, Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Gerald Ford. She avoided Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer from Plains, Ga.
Serving as the nation’s president is difficult because criticism is expected and ever-present, but being the president’s daughter carries its own challenges: superior moral behavior is mandatory. All eyes stare at the poor girl. One mistake and the outcry could wilt the strongest constitution. The deluge of attention would cause some to give up and crawl into a corner of their bedroom and never say or do anything in public ever again. But not Alice.
Sons of two of our nation’s presidents have won election as president also, John Quincy Adams and George W. Bush. But never a daughter.
Officials in Ohio asked Alice to run for Congress after Nicholas died. She turned them down because the thought of campaigning repelled her. “All those people.” She should have run for president. Few would or could push her into doing anything she opposed.
After a lifetime of smoking cigarettes and a double mastectomy due to breast cancer in her 80s, Alice died on Feb. 20, 1980, eight days after her 96th birthday, and after she had outlived her five younger siblings.
My favorite Alice Roosevelt Longworth quote: “If you can’t say anything nice about anybody, come sit next to me.”
Benson is a historian from Sterling, Colo., who writes a bi-weekly column for The Dickinson Press.