Before The Colors Fade: Alice Roosevelt Longworth
February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
Lincoln Steffens once remarked, “The gift of the gods to Theodore Roosevelt was joy—joy in life.” And Roosevelt himself once said that his second wife, Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt, “sometimes thinks that I am the oldest and worst of her children.” Many were the times that he led young Alice, her four half brothers, and one half sister into mischief. Mrs. Longworth still jokes about her father’s relationship to her stepmother as if they were in the room. She tells of his frustration at not being allowed, as a man almost sixty, to fight in World War I. “I shall go to Canada and form my own unit,” he fumed when President Woodrow Wilson refused his repeated requests to don the uniform. “I can imagine the insignia for the unit,” said his wife. “The dodo.”
T. R.’s first wife, Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt, had died of Bright’s disease the day after the birth of Alice. In a recent biography of T. R., Nicholas Roosevelt, a cousin, refers to the fact that T. R. never mentioned his first wife’s name to their daughter: “He deliberately buried … his first marriage … in the recesses of his memory forever.” So strict were T. R.’s selfimposed standards that he admitted deep distress that the desire to remarry was afflicting him “only two years” after becoming a widower.
T. R.’s mother had died of pneumonia the same day his first wife died. Reeling under this double blow, he kept up his attendance in the New York state assembly until the end of the session and then went West. There he fought his sorrow privately, driving himself (and his horses) to impressive feats of endurance and to near-collapse.
His daughter has dealt with fate’s blows in the same manner. If you must lick your wounds, she believes, then do so in private. “Some things,” she says, “are too bad to talk about.” She is not the first person you would phone when feeling down. For her loathing of self-pity is such that you are forced to make light of your woes, which may be the last thing you feel like doing. She is, moreover, not at all attentive in the usual sense of paying sick-room, condolence, or newbaby calls. She almost never writes letters, and if you drop her a note, she will usually manage to mislay it before her part-time secretary and full-time friend, Letitia Elliott, can send an acknowledgment.
When Mrs. Longworth is ill, even the most devoted members of her family keep at a safe distance. By the time she is recuperating, however, she enjoys a phoned bouquet of gossip. “It’s a long story,” the caller may start out. “I’ll wait till you’re feeling stronger.” From the other end of the phone there is a plaintive “Tell me now!”
Disappointments, times of self-doubt, times of failure, none of these remain in the forefront of Mrs. Longworth’s mind. “I have no use for people who take defeat seriously,” she says. Yet if someone has injured a person she loves, she will keep her grudge well burnished.
In 1924, Eleanor Roosevelt Roosevelt campaigned for Al Smith, a Democrat, for governor of New York, against Mrs. Longworth’s brother Ted, a Republican. “Eleanor,” says Mrs. Longworth today, “put a big teakettle on a chassis and drove around the state with it, implying that Ted was corrupt in connection with the Teapot Dome scandal, which, indeed, he was not!” And Mrs. Longworth will then do a high-pitched toothy imitation of her cousin Eleanor that even those who admired Mrs. F. D. R. cannot resist laughing at.
Mrs. Longworth’s fierce loyalty is not reserved only for family members. Her chauffeur, Turner, has for a long time been her friend. When prize fights in Washington were of better caliber than today, Mrs. Longworth and Turner attended them. One evening, while chauffeuring Mrs. Longworth, Turner was sideswiped by another car. The other driver shouted at Turner, “You black bastard.” Mrs. Longworth, in describing the incident to a friend, reported: “I put my head out the window and I very carefully said, ‘Shut up, you white son of a bitch.’ ”
Mrs. Longworth is an expert at poker but an amateur at bridge. Determined, like all Roosevelts, to win, she will openly stoop to low methods. When her cousin Stewart Alsop, a genial man with a Pinocchio profile, was concentrating hard on his bridge hand, she blew his card count to the winds by murmuring,