‘A Wild Animal in Good Clothes’

PrintPrintEmailEmail

She was an excitable tomboy as a child, clamoring for short hair and trousers to match her brothers’, and as the striking “Princess Alice” of the White House, she reveled in the publicity she generated by carrying a live snake in her purse, smoking in public, eating asparagus with her gloves on, waving at the crowd from the inaugural stand. (Her father hissed at her to stop this last, and, when she asked him why, replied “… this is my inauguration!”) A family friend called her “a young wild animal … put into good clothes.”

To everyone’s relief, she married Nicholas Longworth in 1906. As she left the White House on her wedding day, her stepmother pulled her close. “I want you to know that I’m glad to see you go,” said Edith Roosevelt. “You’ve never been anything but trouble.” The marriage was a disaster. Longworth was a charming, wealthy Republican congressman from Ohio who played both poker and the violin with consummate skill, but he was also a part-time drunk—“he’d rather be tight than President,” Alice said—and an almost full-time philanderer. The last of a long line of his mistresses attended his funeral in 1931, stalking up the aisle in full view of his widow to lay a bunch of violets on his coffin. Alice shed no tears and went home and burned most of her husband’s papers—and his Stradivarius.

She took up with at least two other men, both of them flamboyant and leonine: the labor leader John L. Lewis and the Republican senator William E. Borah of Idaho, who, according to Felsenthal, was the real father of her only child, a daughter named Paulina, born to her at the age of forty-one in 1925, while she was still married to Longworth.

Spurned as an infant, Alice now ignored her own infant daughter and, when the girl grew old enough to speak, ensured that she did not do so often by interrupting or belittling her whenever she made the attempt; in the home of Alice Roosevelt Longworth there was room for only one child. Paulina developed a stutter, lapsed into long silences, rarely bathed. In 1944 she married Alexander McCormick Sturm, an alcoholic eccentric whose grandiose ambitions for himself did not include sustained work of any kind. The same family friend who escorted Mrs. Longworth through Union Station during the war also remembers a spooky evening with Paulina and her fat, pallid husband, during which they consumed a bottle of scotch while playing at being an eighteenth-century German noble and his consort, complete with phantom tenants and servants, whom they addressed by name. According to Felsenthal, Alex drank himself to death, and Paulina attempted suicide several times before finally succeeding at it in 1957, leaving her body to be discovered by her own ten-year-old daughter, Joanna.

She had a sofa pillow embroidered, “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”

Mrs. Longworth was devastated. “She kept saying, ‘I wonder, I wonder, is it all my fault?’” a friend remembered. “‘Could it be my fault?’” Perhaps in part as expiation, she took on at the age of seventy-three the raising of her granddaughter, forging the closest thing to a genuine, reciprocal friendship she seems ever to have been able to manage. But she dealt with the memory of her dead daughter precisely as her father had dealt with that of her mother: No one was to mention Paulina’s name; no pictures of her hung in the picture-filled house.

Alice’s craving for financial comfort eventually tapered off, but her carefully cultivated frivolousness remained obstinately intact. Frightened of public speaking, perhaps frightened, too, of venturing much beyond the Washington salons in which she knew she shone, she shied away from an active role in politics, working behind the scenes against the League of Nations and aid to the Allies before the United States entered World War II, but discouraging those who wanted her to run for Congress or for Vice-President under Herbert Hoover to help offset the appeal of her cousin Franklin.

To her, FDR’s four presidential victories were usurpations. “There we were,” she explained later, “descendants of a popular President, and what happens? A fifth cousin comes along and gets into the White House. Can you think of anything more distressing?” Her contempt for the nouveaux Roosevelts was unmerciful. “My poor cousin,” she liked to say, “he suffered from polio so he was put in a brace; and now he wants to put the entire U.S. into a brace. …” She saw even Pearl Harbor in purely personal terms. “Well, friends,” she told luncheon guests on December 7, 1941, “Franklin asked for it, now he’s got it.”

She was largely uninterested in the substance of political debate; it was the spectacle she enjoyed. She attended the McCarthy hearings, for example, alternately cheering on the senator from Wisconsin and his victims. “She didn’t care who got banged in the head,” a friend said, “as long as it was an exciting show.”

Alice outlived almost all of her contemporaries, presiding over dinners at which generation after generation of feuding politicians found themselves seated next to one another so that she could enjoy their discomfiture, keeping her regal chin high even after a double mastectomy left her, she said, the “only topless octogenarian in Washington.”

Moments before she died at ninety-six in 1980, she stuck out her tongue at a family friend.