On this day in History
12 February - 18884
Hand-tinted photograph of Alice Roosevelt by Frances Benjamin Johnston, taken around her debut in 1903
Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth (February 12, 1884 – February 20, 1980) was an American writer and prominent socialite. She was the oldest child of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and the only child of Roosevelt and his first wife, Alice Hathaway Lee.
Alice led an unconventional and controversial life. Her marriage to Representative Nicholas Longworth III (Republican-Ohio), a party leader and 43rd Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was shaky, and her only child Paulina was allegedly a result of her affair with Senator William Edgar Borah of Idaho. She temporarily became a Democrat during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and said in a 60 Minutes interview with Eric Sevareid, televised on February 17, 1974, that she was a hedonist.
Roosevelt family in 1903 with Quentin on the left, TR, Ted, Archie, Alice, Kermit, Edith, and Ethel.
Alice Lee Roosevelt was born in the Roosevelt family home at 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 kidney failure. Eleven hours earlier that day, Theodore's mother Martha Stewart "Mittie" Bulloch died of typhoid fever.
Theodore was rendered 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. She continued this practice late in life, often 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, known as "Bamie" or "Bye". There are letters to Bamie that reveal Theodore's concern for his daughter. In one 1884 letter, he wrote, "I hope Mousiekins will be very cunning, I shall dearly love her."
Bamie had a significant influence on young Alice, who would later speak of her admiringly: "If auntie Bye had been a man, she would have been president." Bamie took her into her watchful care, moving Alice into her book-filled Manhattan house, until Theodore married again.
After Theodore's marriage to Edith Kermit Carow, Alice was raised by her father and stepmother. Theodore and Edith's five children were Theodore III (Ted), Kermit, Ethel, Archibald (Archie), and Quentin. They remained married until his death in January 1919. 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, Aunt "Bye" provided needed structure and stability. Late in life, it was said of her Aunt Bye: "There is always someone in every family who keeps it together. In ours, it was Auntie Bye."
Relationship with stepmother
Edith Kermit Carow (circa. 1900)
There were 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. Edith once angrily told her that if Alice Hathaway Lee had lived, she would have bored Theodore to death.
Alice, frequently 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 limited 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 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."
Alice Roosevelt around 1902 by Frances Benjamin Johnston.
In later years, Alice expressed admiration for her stepmother's sense of humor and stated that they had shared similar literary tastes. In her autobiography Crowded Hours, Alice wrote of Edith Carow, stating "That I was the child of another marriage was a simple fact and made a situation that had to be coped with, and Mother coped with it with a fairness and charm and intelligence which she has to a greater degree than almost any one else I know."
Alice Roosevelt, formal portrait by Theobald Chartran 1901
When her father took office in 1901 following the assassination of President William McKinley, Jr. in Buffalo (an event that she greeted with "sheer rapture"), Alice became an instant celebrity and fashion icon at age 17, and at her social debut in 1902 she wore a gown of what was to become known forever afterwards as "Alice blue", sparking a color trend in women's clothing. While proud of her father's accomplishments, Alice 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. Alice 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 Roosevelt with her dog, Leo, a long-haired Chihuahua. She was also given a Pekingese named Manchu, by the last Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi in 1902
In 1905, Alice, along with her father's Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, led the American delegation to Japan, Hawaii, China, the Philippines, and Korea. It was the largest such diplomatic mission thus far, composed of 23 congressmen (including her future husband Nicholas Longworth), seven senators, and other diplomats and officials.
During the cruise to Japan, Alice jumped into the ship's pool fully clothed, and coaxed Congressman Longworth to join her in the water. (Years later Bobby Kennedy would chide her about the incident, saying it was outrageous for the time, to which the by-then-octogenarian Alice replied that 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 lady's swimsuit of the period.
1902 studio portrait of Alice Roosevelt by Frances Benjamin Johnston.
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 her third interruption to their conversation and threatening to throw her '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, and she thrived on the attention, even as she chafed on some of the restrictions such attention placed on her. In this, Alice resembled her father. She later said of Theodore, "He wants to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the baby at every christening."
In December 1905, after returning to Washington from their diplomatic travels, Alice became engaged to Nicholas Longworth III, a Republican U.S. House of Representatives member from Cincinnati, Ohio, who ultimately would rise to become Speaker of the House. The two had travelled in the same social circles for several years, but their relationship solidified during the Imperial Cruise. A scion of a socially prominent Ohio family, Longworth was 14 years her senior and had a reputation as a Washington D.C. playboy. Their wedding took place the following February and was the social event of the season. It was attended by more than a thousand guests with many thousands gathered outside hoping for a glimpse of the bride. She was dressed in a blue wedding dress and dramatically cut the wedding cake with a sword (borrowed from a military aide attending the reception).[ Immediately after the wedding, the couple left for a honeymoon that included a voyage to Cuba and a visit to the Longworths in Cincinnati. This was followed by travels to England and the Continent which included having dinners with many notables of the day: King Edward, Kaiser Wilhelm, Clemenceau, Whitelaw Reid, Lord Curzon, and William Jennings Bryan. They bought a house at 2009 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., in Washington, D.C., now the headquarters of the Washington Legal Foundation.
Alice publicly supported her father's 1912 Bull Moose presidential candidacy, while her husband 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 Longworth's own district. Longworth 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's campaign against her husband caused a permanent chill in her marriage. During their marriage, she 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 D.C. that she also had a long, ongoing affair with Senator William Borah, and the opening of Alice's diaries to historical researchers indicates that Borah was the father of her daughter, Paulina Longworth (1925–1957).
Alice was renowned for her "brilliantly malicious" humor, even in this sensitive situation, since she had originally wanted to name her daughter "Deborah," as in "de Borah." And according to one family friend, "everybody called her [Paulina] 'Aurora Borah Alice.'"
On May 11, 1908, Alice similarly amused herself in the Capitol's gallery at the House of Representatives by placing a tack on the chair of an unknown but "middle-aged" and "dignified" gentleman. Upon encountering the tack, "like the burst of a bubble on the fountain, like the bolt from the blue, like the ball from the cannon," the unfortunate fellow leapt up in pain and surprise while she looked away.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth and her husband, House Speaker & Ohio Congressman Nicholas Longworth on the steps of the US Capitol in 1926
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.Later, the Taft White House banned her from her former residence—the first but not the last administration to do so. During Woodrow Wilson's administration (from which she was banned in 1916 for a bawdy joke at Wilson's expense), Alice worked against the entry of the United States into the League of Nations.
During the Great Depression, when she, like many other Americans, found her fortunes reversed, Alice 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."
Alice's wit could have a political effect on friend and foe alike. When columnist and cousin Joseph Wright Alsop V claimed that there was grass-roots support for Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, the Republican hope to defeat F.D.R. in 1940, she said yes, "the grass roots of 10,000 country clubs." During the 1940 Presidential campaign, she publicly proclaimed that she'd "rather vote for Hitler than vote for Franklin for a third term." Alice demolished Thomas Dewey, the 1944 opponent of her cousin Franklin, by comparing the pencil-mustached Republican to "the bridegroom on the wedding cake." The image stuck and helped Governor Dewey lose two consecutive presidential elections.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth on her 43rd birthday in 1927 with her daughter Paulina, age 2. The child's biological father was Senator William Borah.
Paulina Longworth married Alexander McCormick Sturm, with whom she had a daughter, Joanna (b. July 1946). Alexander died in 1951. Paulina herself died in 1957 due to an overdose of sleeping pills.
Not very long before Paulina's death, she and Alice had discussed the care of Joanna in case of such an event. Alice fought for and won the custody of her granddaughter, whom she raised. In contrast to Alice's relationship with her daughter, she doted on her granddaughter, and the two were very close. 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.'
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