Before The Colors Fade: Alice Roosevelt Longworth


The band was swinging, but the music was wasted on the fetching young women sitting forlornly by, waiting for partners. At a small table near the dance floor, a woman was in animated conversation with four men, who rocked back in their chairs with laughter when she reached her punch line.

The lady thus monopolizing the eligible male dancers was eighty-four; she was also the daughter of a President, the widow of a Speaker of the House, and the perennial belle of Washington’s social quadrille since her 1902 debut, when she was nicknamed Princess Alice.

“You were pigging precious stags last night,” she was later accused. “Oh no,” she replied. “They were just being polite to an amiable kindly old thing. You know I was born an amiable kindly old thing.”

Amiable and kindly are words rarely applied to Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Her current pet hates are trotted out each day and conversationally groomed, either on the telephone or in person with some of her many friends, who encompass every size, shape, sex, age, religion, and habit. She herself traces her nonkindliness back to 1908. That was the year William Howard Taft, like Mrs. Longworth’s husband a pillar of Cincinnati society, was chosen by her father, Theodore Roosevelt, to succeed him in the White House. As she later recalled in Crowded Hours , the autobiography she published in 1933: To me there was something not quite pleasing in the idea of “my clear Mr. Taft” as a great man, and, still less pleasing, as a great President, rubbed in by my in-laws! … I rather think that then and there I began to indulge a proclivity toward malice that occasionally comes over me.

Whether in truth her malice started only sixty-one years ago, it is by now honed to a fine point. “X is not only a snob,” she said recently, “but a stupid snob: snobbish about the wrong people.” For Mrs. Longworth, herself descended on the maternal side from Boston Brahmins, the “wrong people” are those with pretensions about lineage, wealth, or fame. To those who fancy lineage, she quotes her father’s adage: “We must have had a common ancestor—and I used the word ‘common’ advisedly.” To those who are dazzled by wealth, she disparages it by exaggeration: “X can’t even spend the income of his income of the year before.” To those who worship fame, she uses the unexpected (from her) weapon of silence: she simply is not interested. Having known so many of the world’s great —in so many contexts and so intimately—she is, in many ways, unimpressible. Instead, the people who intrigue her are those who can challenge her to new insights, for which her curiosity is boundless.

At a costume ball in Washington two years ago a wag carried a sign, “Mrs. Longworth is a Teeny Bopper.” She was only mildly amused, but the fact is that seven decades before the emergence of the hippies and their teen-age satellites, she was “doing her thing” in defiance of middle-class shibboleths. She was not only one of the first women to smoke in public (the equivalent of smoking marijuana today), but she poked fun at the people whom she considered “up tight.”

Her humor, consequently, has not always been appreciated. There are people in Washington who fear her; there are family members who complain that she would rather coin a good phrase than do a good deed. Yet for the many who share at least a section of her wave length, it is impossible to converse with her without joy at her ebullience. She has looked upon the world and found it funny.

Her manner with younger peuple—and almost everyone, by now, is younger than she—is relaxed and contcmporancous; so much so, in fact, that some people of middle years have been misled into addressing her by her first name. The disdain she heaps upon them behind their backs would surprise them; on occasion she lets them know it. The late Senator Joseph McCarthy felt that he could address her informally, perhaps because she was a fellow Republican. Frostily she engaged his eyes: “The policeman and the trash man may call me Alice; you—can—not.”

Her younger friends and relatives address her as “Airs. L.,” while those as close as nephew or niece anachronistically call her “Auntie Sister.” Her friendship, once ottered, is not retracted, but her approval by no means automatically accompanies it. Though no Indian giver, she Joes have a low boring point, and she describes anyone from fifty on who has bored lier as a “poor old darling.” The people she sees the most of are neither poor nor old nor darling. “J love Airs. L.,” said one. “She brings out the worst in me.”

She has electric blue eyes, a haughty nose, long ivory teeth which are often bared in a dazzling Roosevelt smile, and a fine complexion with amazingly few wrinkles above the nostril-line. There is still a smattering of natural blond in the straight hair which she wears in a loose high bun. Her figure is like Twiggy’s, and her walk is a rapid stride. For years she has worn exactly what she feels like, and to her amusement the midi-length, long-sleeved dresses that have been her trademark are now suddenly fashionable. Hers usually have two low front pockets so that she can punch her hands down into them. She has brown, blue, and black versions of the same broad-brimmed hat, velour in winter, straw in summer, which she wears straight and low on the brow. “Mrs. Longwoi th,” said President Iohnson at a White House reception, “it’s hard to kiss you under that brim.”

“That’s why I wear it,” she said.