‘A Wild Animal in Good Clothes’

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Union Station in wartime Washington. A young man in a Navy uniform escorts a short, stocky blonde woman in her fifties along the crowded platform toward a waiting train. There is nothing especially striking about her, but she carries a big framed caricature of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt that attracts the attention of most of the people who pass on either side of her. “I’m just a peasant,” she says again and again to all these perfect strangers, her bright blue eyes rolling upward. “I won’t go anywhere without a picture of my king and queen!”

The woman was Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the eldest child of Theodore Roosevelt, and this incident was recalled for me recently by her long-ago escort, the son of a girlhood friend, who also remembered his own relief when he finally got her settled on her train.

She is best remembered now for the maliciously witty things she said over the course of some seventy years in Washington. It was she who suggested that Calvin Coolidge had been “weaned on a pickle” (though she credited her dentist with having said it first), she who compared Thomas Dewey to the “little man on the wedding cake,” and she really did have a sofa pillow embroidered with the legend “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”

She was hard to pin to paper. At least two earlier biographers failed to get far beneath her spiky surface. Mrs. Longworth failed, too; her autobiography, Crowded Hours, is uniformly and atypically bland. Until now the most graphic portrait has been Michael Teague’s Mrs. L., compiled from taped interviews that captured something of the relentless irreverence that riveted everyone from Kaiser Wilhelm II to Richard Nixon, from Robert Taft to Robert Kennedy.

An inveterate gossip, Mrs. Longworth might have enjoyed Carol Felsenthal’s new book Alice Roosevelt Longworth (G. P. Putnam’s Sons) had it been about someone else. It is far more candid than its predecessors and written with far less wary awe. Mrs. Longworth was always careful to keep her own private life off limits to strangers, and on the evidence of this new study, hers was a wise decision. For all the glitter of its cast and the good gag lines repeated along the way, the tale it tells is mostly sad.

 

When her mother, Alice Lee Roosevelt, died hours after giving birth to her in 1884, her father fled west to forget, leaving her in the care of his remarkable sister, Anna. Alice’s first “hazy recollection” of the mysterious man her aunt insisted was her father came when, not yet three, she watched him return from a fox hunt during which he had characteristically shattered an arm and cut his face, trying to leap a five-foot stone wall. When he dismounted and came toward the little girl, one arm dangling useless at his side, grinning through the blood pouring down his face, she tried to run away. “I started screaming at this apparition,” she remembered, “and he started shaking me to shut me up which only made me scream more. So he shook more. It was a theme which was to be repeated, with variations, in later years.”

TR never spoke of his first wife after her death, failed ever to mention her even to her own daughter, apparently because he believed that his decision to marry Edith Kermit in 1886 was a sign of inconstancy: Remarriage was a sin, and Alice a reminder of his having committed it. “My father obviously didn’t want the symbol of his infidelity around,” she once recalled writing of herself. “… It was all so dreadfully Victorian and mixed up.”

Edith Kermit Roosevelt, however, insisted she be permitted to raise Alice as her daughter. It was a gesture made out of conscientiousness rather than affection, a fact increasingly evident to Alice as her stepmother gave birth to five adored children of her own. She would always seem an outsider in her father’s house. “Father doesn’t care for me … one eighth as much as he does for the other children,” she once confided to her diary, and for this she blamed herself: “It is perfectly true that he doesn’t, and, Lord, why should he?”

There was another waif in the Roosevelt family, of course: the orphaned daughter of Elliott, TR’s alcoholic brother, raised by relatives whose feelings for her were no more genuinely fond, no less grimly dutiful than Edith Roosevelt’s for her stepdaughter. Eleanor was to develop into a shy, self-conscious woman, chronically unsure, despite the great fame that came to her, whether she truly belonged anywhere or could be loved by anyone, convinced she could carve a place for herself only through service to others. Alice was scornful of her sometimes excessive piety. “I can still see those large blue eyes fixed on one,” she told Michael Teague, “worrying about one, and wanting you to know that in her you had a friend. She always wanted to discuss things like whether Contentment was better than Happiness, and whether they conflicted with one another. Things like that, which I didn’t give a damn about.”

Alice learned early not to give a damn. Her insecurities were as great as Eleanor’s, but she dealt with them differently: if others failed to pay enough heed to her, she would be heedless in return. “I pray for a fortune,” she wrote. “I care for nothing except to amuse myself in a charmingly expensive way.”