Before The Colors Fade: Alice Roosevelt Longworth

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Joanna enjoys many of her grandmother’s dinner parties. Whereas other Washington hostesses draw up their guest lists for compatibility, Mrs. Longworth chooses her guests for conflict. A southern conservative will find himself seated next to a northern liberal, a dove next to a hawk. The food, the wine, the service, all have a turn-of-the-century elegance, but, like the perfection of the matador’s costume, they presage the spilling of blood. “I never had more fun,” Mrs. Longworth usually remarks after the most unbuttoned of these verbal battles. “She has graduated,” says a frequent contestant, “from malice to mischief.” Mrs. Longworth’s own estimate of her current machinations is “detached malevolence.” Its symbol, perhaps, is the poison ivy that erupts each summer through the pachysandra beside the pathway leading to her front door. “Please, Mrs. L., couldn’t I hire a yard-man to clean out that ivy?” Stewart Alsop once asked her. “You cannot,” she answered. “I like it.”

When she wishes to raise her voice, she does so with a carrying power that causes Turner, driving half a block away with the car windows closed, to slap on the brake and turn back. Mrs. Longworth claims that this is because as a child at her father’s Long Island homestead, Sagamore Hill, she was often sent out on the piazza to summon her half brothers down at the stable. ” ‘The muscular strength it gave to my jaws has lasted the rest of my life,’ ” she quotes from another Alice .

The muscular strength in her legs is extraordinary too. As a child she had to wear braces on them because of what is now assumed to have been polio. Today she can—and does—sink to the floor and assume the “lotus” position (seated cross-legged with each foot on top of the opposite knee). She can hold it for hours.

“I’m just an ancient relic,” she says, but no one who has panted along beside her at an art gallery will agree. Rather, she is a venerable but sprightly explorer, climbing the upper reaches of the mountain of years. “Come on,” she shouts back, in effect, to the youthful stragglers below. “Don’t be afraid. I promise you there’s fun to be found all the way.”