“… Especially Pretty Alice.”
During their courtship exuberant young Theodore Roosevelt puzzled the delicate Alice Lee, but they had three idyllic years of marriage before tragedy separated them.
February 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 2
“I first saw her on October 18, 1878,” he wrote, “and loved her as soon as I saw her sweet, fair young face. We spent three years of happiness such as rarely comes to man or woman.” So began a memorial to Alice Hathaway Lee of Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, written by Theodore Roosevelt some time during 1884. She was remembered but rarely mentioned in the 35 years that followed.
October 18, 1878, was a week before Theodore’s twentieth birthday, at the start of his junior year at Harvard. A good many years afterward he was to remark to his friend, Henry White, that women interested him very little, but this was not true in his boyhood and youth. The small boy traveling in Europe had noted in his diary that he sorely missed a playmate, Edith Carow. In the spring of 1876, while preparing to enter Harvard, he had attended a neighborhood party where he had enjoyed the company of “Annie Murray, a very nice girl, besides being very pretty, ahem!” And at Harvard he wrote of his pleasure in the company of two young ladies, “especially pretty Alice.”
A tendency to lead the conversation into dull paths of natural science may have minimized his appeal to girls at first. Cambridge changed this. His intimates at the Porcellian Club found him, though still overenthusiastic about botany and bugs, entirely acceptable. Their sisters, if amused, liked him. As Theodore’s junior year ended he had even become a romantic figure; while his classmates worried about examinations and indulged only in sedate flirtations under a Victorian moon, he was in the throes of a turbulent love affair. It was known that he planned to be married immediately after graduation.
He met Alice Lee that October, at the home of Richard Saltonstall, one of Theodore’s closest friends. In November he wrote his sister Conie that with Minot Weld, another intimate, he had driven to Saltonstall’s home at Chestnut Hill and had “gone out walking with Miss Rose Saltonstall and Miss Alice Lee.” Some weeks later he escorted Alice through the Harvard Yard and, while pointing out the beauties of the institution, discovered that it was time for lunch. He promptly took his guest to the Porcellian Club, never before polluted by the presence of a woman. The assertion that he did this was published while Roosevelt was alive, in a biography written by Jacob Riis and published with his approval. Presumably Roosevelt would have denied the incident had it been untrue. But no mention of it is found in any of his letters, and only conjecture is possible as to Theodore’s reason for such radical conduct. It had been his invariable custom to lunch at the Pore house, and it may never have occurred to him that he was shattering precedent. He may have already been anesthetized by love. He may have believed the rule against women foolish nonsense, for he had strong feminist leanings in those remote days and his senior dissertation was on “The Practicability of Equalizing Men and Women Before the Law.”
She walked the stage for so brief a moment, there are so few who can remember and fewer still who will, that Alice Lee remains a fragment. But only partly. To Theodore she was “beautiful in face and form, and lovelier still in spirit,” but she was lovely, too, to those who looked with less prejudiced eyes. It is known that she was seventeen on the October day when they met. Her hair was light brown with, in the sun, a touch of yellow. She wore it in curls that lay well back, over smaller curls which came down over her high forehead. Her nose tilted ever so slightly: her mouth was small and “peculiarly charming.” She was about five feet seven inches in height, and this, combined with an erect carriage, made her seem rather tall.
She was the daughter of George C. Lee of Chestnut Hill, and her family tree bore Cabots and Lees and Higginsons on all its branches. When Theodore met her in 1878 she had seen little or nothing of society, and her education had been the ornamentally fashionable one received by young gentlewomen of the day.
It was a turbulent courtship. Mrs. Robert Bacon, then sixteen, long recalled a function of the Hasty Pudding Club at which Roosevelt had walked up, had pointed across the room to Alice, and had demanded:
“See that girl? I am going to marry her. She won’t have me, but I am going to have her!”
Mrs. Bacon remembered, too, that the gentle Alice was alarmed by the impetuosity of the young man who had suddenly precipitated himself into the circle of more decorous beaux. He had an overwhelming, gusty vitality and he insisted that she watch, from the gymnasium balcony, when he made his bid for the lightweight boxing championship. Alice was a little repelled but wholly intrigued. Besides, there was no way in which she could avoid seeing him had she so desired. Richard Saltonstall, a cousin, was constantly bringing him to the house on week ends, he had a habit of throwing himself into a chair and telling thrilling stories about wolves and bears to her adoring five-year-old brother.