Before The Colors Fade: Alice Roosevelt Longworth
February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
T is for Tapir Who went into a passion When he heard that long noses Had gone out of fashion.
She enjoys solitude as well as company. An accomplished insomniac, Mrs. Longworth usually spends the hours before dawn reading in the third floor study named “my Collyer room,” in honor of the famous recluse brothers of New York who never threw anything away. Papers and letters, magazines and books, photographs and cartoons, compete for space on desk and shelves, tables and sofa. On an armchair is the well-publicized pillow with the legend, “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” Her favorite books—she is a passionate re-reader —are memoirs, biography, poetry, history, philosophy, and religion. Most homes contain no Apocrypha; her copy is well worn. She also reads the Washington Post , the New York Times , and a number of magazines. She rarely reads novels, however, an omission that attests perhaps to a preference for her own vigorous imagination. As a somewhat curious alternative to reading, she sometimes, in the early morning hours, plays with a large three-story doll house that dominates her study floor. There are no dolls.
In her bedroom, to which she repairs at dawn to sleep till 2:30 P.M. , there are more books and papers. The most dog-eared bit of print in the house is an article from a 1933 New Yorker , a parody on Crowded Hours , which Mrs. Longworth wrote following the death of her husband in 1931. The book reached the best-seller list and, together with a syndicated column she kept up for a while, brought in enough money to pay the estate tax and other obligations with which she was faced at the depth of the Depression. “It was not,” she recalls, “a good time to sell capital.”
The book surprised many people by its guardedness. Outspoken as Mrs. Longworth can be to her intimates, she has no intention of revealing anything of importance to outsiders. Indeed there are friends who consider her humor, combined with her frankness about unimportant matters, to be a smoke screen behind which she guards her privacy.
She abhors emotionalism, as a paragraph from her book makes clear: I had the perfectly unwarranted feeling that [my parents] might bo “sentimental” about [my engagement to Nick Longworth]. I put off telling for a long time. Finally one evening I followed Mother into her bathroom, and told her the news while she was brushing her teeth, so that she should have a moment to think before she said anything.
Her stepmother not only accepted this news calmly but later, as the young bride was preparing to leave the White House, admitted that home would be far more peaceful without her.
About public policies, however, Mrs. Longworth’s opinions were frankly—and often pungently—expressed. Although she liked her cousin Franklin personally, she did not like his legislative program: The present President has the name of Roosevelt, marked facial resemblance to Wilson, and no perceptible aversion, to say the least, to many of the policies of Bryan. The New Deal … at times seems more like a pack of cards thrown heiter skelter … than it does like a regular deal.
Her book surprised no one by being well written. Mrs. Longworth uses words with precision and originality. Her answer to whether she planned a second book was a typical put-on: “I shall never write another book,” she said. “My vocabulary is too limited.”
Politics remains in her blood. Over the last sixty years she has attended fourteen Republican conventions, including the one in 1964 that nominated Senator Barry Goldwater, after which she cast her first vote for a Democrat. “I’m an old war horse, sniffing battle,” she says. “J only skip the boring conventions” (such as the predictable nomination of Calvin Coolidge in 1924). In 1968 she went to Miami for the nomination of Richard Nixon (whom she likes). She had planned to attend the Democratic convention in Chicago, but after the assassination of Robert Kennedy she decided not to go.
Her friendship with the Kennedys comprised a rapid-fire interchange of wit. “The Kennedys are like the Bonapartes,” she says, “all those brothers and sisters sticking together.” Compared to them, she says, the Roosevelts were more individualistic, even atomistic. She was often the guest of honor both at the Camelot White House and later at Robert’s Hickory Hill home, sitting at the right of the host. Yet her grief at the two assassinations was less visible than that of people who knew the Kennedy brothers far less well. Her historic perspective perhaps served to insulate her. After all, her own father, then Vice President, had attained the White House because of the assassination of President McKinley, and later, during his unsuccessful 1912 campaign, was himself shot by a would-be assassin.
The accidents of history fascinate Mrs. Longworth, even when some of its victims are close to her. About her cousin Franklin, for example, she told an interviewer in 1965: He very possibly wouldn’t have emerged if my father hadn’t emerged, and my father might not have emerged if Czolgosz hadn’t killed McKinley. Who can tell? Were it not for Czolgosz, we’d all be back in our brownstoiie-frout houses. That’s where we’d be. And I would have married for money and been divorced for good cause.