Before The Colors Fade: Alice Roosevelt Longworth

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Her sharpness of criticism is often applied to herself. Sixty-four years after she received the news of the shooting of President McKirdey, she recalled her seventeen-year-old self with little charity though with wry amusement: My brother, Ted, avid I danced a little war dance. Shameful! Then we put on long faces. … For about a week it looked as though McKinley would recover. But then he died. By that time … it pleased me to pretend that I had ceased to take an interest. I was rather defiant about it. I said, “I’m delighted about my darling parent whom I adore, and who wants to be President. Here he is. Got it. But Washington is a very dull place. I prefer my accustomed friends.” I was a very disagreeable young person—very disagreeable.

Washington turned out not to be a dull place at all, especially for the girl for whom the color “Alice blue” was named and the song “Alice Blue Gown” was composed. The White House under T. R. produced an exciting intellectual and artistic ferment that swirled about the overflow of children and pets. The President took judo lessons in the East Room, where his daughter’s debut, the first dance in the White House since the days of Dolley Madison, was held shortly before her eighteenth birthday.

Miss Alice Lee Roosevelt had started smoking at the age of eighteen. Her father’s word was that she was not to smoke as long as she remained under his roof. Legalist that she has always been, she simply knelt by the fireplace and puffed up the chimney: “Not under his roof at all.” After her marriage she smoked in public, flaunting the kind of long Bakelite holder to which, by gift, she later introduced her cousin Franklin. For more than sixty years “no one ever smoked so much,” until suddenly a few years ago “it left me.” She was also one of the first women in America to drive a car —and, naturally, too fast. “Can’t you control your daughter?” T. R. was asked by his friend, the author Owen Wister. “I can either run the country or control Alice,” the President said, “not both.”

She married four years after her debut: “In those days everybody was married by the time they were twenty-two; if I were young today, I wouldn’t.” It was reported to be the biggest, most glamorous wedding ever held in the United States. Despite the nonexistence of radio and television, the American people were kept party to many details, from the twenty-fivethousand-dollar Gobelin tapestry presented by the President of France to the six-foot train of silver brocade on the wedding dress. “The publicity was enormous. Fantastic. I was the first White House daughter to get married since Nellie Grant in 1874. I had a very good time.” In recent years she has attended the weddings of both Luci and Lynda Bird Johnson.

On their honeymoon in Cuba the couple—Nicholas Longworth was fourteen years older than his bride- climbed San Juan Hill by the route made famous by T. R.’s Rough Riders. “Nick,” as she always refers to him, had a ready sense of humor and, like her father, an indulgence for her pranks. From boyhood on he was a passionate violinist, and his restless beauty of a wife had to sit silently through many evenings of classical quartets. She enjoys music, but prefers painting and sculpture, and most of all literature.

In 1912, her father was running for President on the Bull Moose (Progressive) ticket, while her husband was running for re-election to Congress on a Republican ticket headed by his family’s friend, President Taft. “I was for father and against Nick,” she recalls. “Thoroughly enjoyable. Mother-in-law business and all that coming in. They were all working violently for Taft, and my father told me that I must stick by Nick.”

Despite her father’s prohibition against her attending any Bull Moose meetings, she did so. When the returns came in on election night, Longworth had lost by ninety-six votes: It was too horrible, really. Poor Nick. There had to be a recount. I said it was because I had gone to a Progressive meeting … and that was just enough to lose him just that number of votes, and so lose him the election. It didn’t hurt him in the least. He felt terribly about it, but it was all right. He stayed out, came back in two years, and then became Speaker, so all was well. It was good for both of us. Not a thing I would think was good for older people, but it’s good for the young—the relatively young—to have a bump.

After eighteen years of marriage, Mrs. Longworth stunned the capital by expecting a baby. A contemporary source called it “the biggest news since Teapot Dome.” Everyone wanted to know the attitude of the forty-year-old mother-to-be. “I’m always glad to try anything once,” she said.

The baby was named Paulina (pronounced with a long i ), after her mother’s Biblical favorite, Saint Paul. When Paulina was grown she married Alexander McCormick Sturm. Like Mrs. Longworth’s mother and Mrs. Longworth herself, Paulina had but one child, a daughter. “An odd line,” says Mrs. Longworth, “for Dutch burghers, who usually had so many children.” After Alexander Sturm died in 1951, Paulina converted to Catholicism. She died five years later, and her daughter, Joanna, went to live—and she still does- with “Grammy.”

Joanna, today a highly attractive and intellectual twenty-two-year-old, is a notable contributor to Mrs. Longworth’s youthfulness. When the two are together —discussing Thomas Aquinas or the fine points of horsemanship—it is often the older woman who is the less inhibited and the more opinionated. The bonds between them are twin cables of devotion and a healthy respect for each other’s tongue. “Mrs. L.,” says a friend, “has been a wonderful father and mother to Joanna: mostly father.”