Before The Colors Fade: Alice Roosevelt Longworth

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Mrs. Longworth denies that she is a wit. “I’m not witty, I’m funny,” she insists. “I’m the old fire-horse. I just perform. I give a good show—just one of the Roosevelt show-oils.”

She also denies that she invented all the memorable one-liners with which she is credited. “I never started the one about Calvin Coolidgc looking as if he’d been weaned on a pickle,” she says. “I only wish I had.” She docs not deny, however, that she was the one who first described Wcndcll Willkic as having “sprung from the grass roots of the country clubs of America.” On another occasion she remarked, “The secret of eternal youth is arrested development.” More recently, when confronted by Congress with an architect’s plan for a spherical memorial to her father, she levelled it with a single phrase: “It looks,” she said, “like a globular jungle-gym.”

Unlike many competitive talkers, Mrs. Longworth is a first-rate listener. As a long-haired, mini-skirted nineteen-year-old explained recently: “Mrs. Longworth has this fantastic imagination. She keeps her mind loose. She listens and follows your associations. The conversation doesn’t move in a straight line. You take these giant steps. She’s cool. Almost like someone flipping out on drugs.”

When this opinion was relayed to Mrs. Longworth, she laughed. “That’s too much fun,” she said. “Do you suppose that when I outgrew my hormones I started manufacturing LSD?” In actuality, she has no patience with drugs, hallucinatory or otherwise. She has little patience with alcohol either, never touching a cocktail and rarely even tasting the wine at dinner parties. She feels no need, she says, for artificial relaxants, and her only stimulant is a glass of hot Earl Grey tea at 5 P.M.

The ambiance of tea time at Mrs. Longworth’s is like that of an eighteenth-century salon. On the square tray amid the porcelain tea service, however, is a metal hot-water kettle that steams violently, ignored by the busily conversing hostess. Her guests, varying between one and eight in number, are repeaters. So is the menu, which includes thin bread and butter, small muffins or cookies, and a cake. Mrs. Longworth, perennially slim, does not diet; she merely eats what she likes when she likes it and not one bite more, regardless of her hostess’s feelings or other extraneous matters.

The presence of her father, T. R., is the first thing that strikes a visitor to her town house on Embassy Row. A large tiger skin hangs on the wall of the stairs to the living room, and elsewhere are coyote skins and other fur-bearing reminders of his love for adventure and the out-of-doors. In the spring, Mrs. Longworth mutters Biblically about “rust and the moths” but she clearly prefers to put up with these rather than to be bereft of the mementos of her father’s Old West.

Understandably, none of these were stolen when the house was broken into in November, 1966, while Mrs. Longworth was in New York attending Truman Capote’s masked ball. The robbery bothered her not at all. “Nothing of value in the house—and besides, it’s all insured,” she said without apparent irony. As for potential danger to herself, this does not concern her. Having lived her life with adventure-prone men—one brother, Quentin, was killed as a World War I flyer, and the brother closest to her, Theodore, Jr., died in World War II—her attitude toward the Grim Reaper is one of the outstuck tongue. Actually she is less interested in the future than in the now, which she does not view, as do many young people, as discontinuous with the past. Instead she places it within a frame of vivid recall of her own eight decades and her considerable knowledge of history.

Members of her family conjecture that T. R. was the person she loved best, and she has the unself-conscious ease of a daughter adored by her father. Certainly he is alive in her easy, frequent references to him; in the poetry which she constantly quotes; in her prodigious energy, her love of books, and her tendency to preempt center stage at social gatherings—as someone said of her father, “the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” About herself, she quotes Kipling: “I carry the curse of unstaunched speech.” When afflicted with laryngitis she refuses dinner invitations, knowing that she will not be able to resist the temptation to strain her voice.

She never uses her father’s characteristic exclamation, “Bully!” But she is as capable as he was of unfeignedly sharing the joy of friends. Her first cousin once removed, Joseph Alsop, wrote in Vogue in 1966: “She always has given more pleasure than anyone else whenever she has wished to do so.” And one way she does so is by her expressed enthusiasm. The opposite side of her well-known cutting edge is her generosity of comment to and about the people she likes. Having outlived her competitors—and thus much of her competitiveness—she does not feel threatened by the good fortune of others. “It’s sheer heaven,” she exclaims when someone reports to her some triumph of his own.