- Historic Sites
Before The Colors Fade: Alice Roosevelt Longworth
February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
The band was swinging, but the music was wasted on the fetching young women sitting forlornly by, waiting for partners. At a small table near the dance floor, a woman was in animated conversation with four men, who rocked back in their chairs with laughter when she reached her punch line.
The lady thus monopolizing the eligible male dancers was eighty-four; she was also the daughter of a President, the widow of a Speaker of the House, and the perennial belle of Washington’s social quadrille since her 1902 debut, when she was nicknamed Princess Alice.
“You were pigging precious stags last night,” she was later accused. “Oh no,” she replied. “They were just being polite to an amiable kindly old thing. You know I was born an amiable kindly old thing.”
Amiable and kindly are words rarely applied to Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Her current pet hates are trotted out each day and conversationally groomed, either on the telephone or in person with some of her many friends, who encompass every size, shape, sex, age, religion, and habit. She herself traces her nonkindliness back to 1908. That was the year William Howard Taft, like Mrs. Longworth’s husband a pillar of Cincinnati society, was chosen by her father, Theodore Roosevelt, to succeed him in the White House. As she later recalled in Crowded Hours , the autobiography she published in 1933: To me there was something not quite pleasing in the idea of “my clear Mr. Taft” as a great man, and, still less pleasing, as a great President, rubbed in by my in-laws! … I rather think that then and there I began to indulge a proclivity toward malice that occasionally comes over me.
Whether in truth her malice started only sixty-one years ago, it is by now honed to a fine point. “X is not only a snob,” she said recently, “but a stupid snob: snobbish about the wrong people.” For Mrs. Longworth, herself descended on the maternal side from Boston Brahmins, the “wrong people” are those with pretensions about lineage, wealth, or fame. To those who fancy lineage, she quotes her father’s adage: “We must have had a common ancestor—and I used the word ‘common’ advisedly.” To those who are dazzled by wealth, she disparages it by exaggeration: “X can’t even spend the income of his income of the year before.” To those who worship fame, she uses the unexpected (from her) weapon of silence: she simply is not interested. Having known so many of the world’s great —in so many contexts and so intimately—she is, in many ways, unimpressible. Instead, the people who intrigue her are those who can challenge her to new insights, for which her curiosity is boundless.
At a costume ball in Washington two years ago a wag carried a sign, “Mrs. Longworth is a Teeny Bopper.” She was only mildly amused, but the fact is that seven decades before the emergence of the hippies and their teen-age satellites, she was “doing her thing” in defiance of middle-class shibboleths. She was not only one of the first women to smoke in public (the equivalent of smoking marijuana today), but she poked fun at the people whom she considered “up tight.”
Her humor, consequently, has not always been appreciated. There are people in Washington who fear her; there are family members who complain that she would rather coin a good phrase than do a good deed. Yet for the many who share at least a section of her wave length, it is impossible to converse with her without joy at her ebullience. She has looked upon the world and found it funny.
Her manner with younger peuple—and almost everyone, by now, is younger than she—is relaxed and contcmporancous; so much so, in fact, that some people of middle years have been misled into addressing her by her first name. The disdain she heaps upon them behind their backs would surprise them; on occasion she lets them know it. The late Senator Joseph McCarthy felt that he could address her informally, perhaps because she was a fellow Republican. Frostily she engaged his eyes: “The policeman and the trash man may call me Alice; you—can—not.”
Her younger friends and relatives address her as “Airs. L.,” while those as close as nephew or niece anachronistically call her “Auntie Sister.” Her friendship, once ottered, is not retracted, but her approval by no means automatically accompanies it. Though no Indian giver, she Joes have a low boring point, and she describes anyone from fifty on who has bored lier as a “poor old darling.” The people she sees the most of are neither poor nor old nor darling. “J love Airs. L.,” said one. “She brings out the worst in me.”
She has electric blue eyes, a haughty nose, long ivory teeth which are often bared in a dazzling Roosevelt smile, and a fine complexion with amazingly few wrinkles above the nostril-line. There is still a smattering of natural blond in the straight hair which she wears in a loose high bun. Her figure is like Twiggy’s, and her walk is a rapid stride. For years she has worn exactly what she feels like, and to her amusement the midi-length, long-sleeved dresses that have been her trademark are now suddenly fashionable. Hers usually have two low front pockets so that she can punch her hands down into them. She has brown, blue, and black versions of the same broad-brimmed hat, velour in winter, straw in summer, which she wears straight and low on the brow. “Mrs. Longwoi th,” said President Iohnson at a White House reception, “it’s hard to kiss you under that brim.”
“That’s why I wear it,” she said.
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.
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,
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.
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.”
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.”