- Historic Sites
There Was A Storm Outside And A Bit Of Frost Within
(when Taft succeeded Teddy Roosevelt) (at one of the White House’s most unfortunate house parties)
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
The dreary March weather matched Taft’s forebodings. Mrs. Taft sent understandably frantic wires to the atelier of Francis Smith and Company in New York City concerning the whereabouts of her white satin inaugural gown. Despite its intricacy—it was embroidered from bust to the end of its long train in a goldenrod design—and the lateness of the date on which she had ordered it, Mrs. Taft expected the gown to be delivered on time. She demanded of others the high standards and discipline that she demanded of herself.
A “ter all, there had been more than twenty years in which, as the wife of a government official whose salary was always unequal to the expenses his position entailed, Mrs. Taft had practiced a rigid frugality. But now the magnitude of her triumph in being the wife of a President-elect was evident in that she could bring herself to order three coats and wraps, a halfdozen hats, and four gowns in addition to the missing inauguration gown. Of these gowns, already arrived, Mrs. Taft chose one of white satin and tulle for that inescapable dinner with the Roosevelts.
Significantly, Mrs. Roosevelt’s gown for the evening was very different from the incoming First Lady’s; it was simple and it was black. But at least the two women agreed on one point. They both felt T. R.’s invitation for that evening was ill-advised.
Like Mrs. Taft, Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt had an undemonstrative nature and held strong opinions. Always there was an air about her of the detached, amused observer, and there was no question that she regarded her husband as one would a child. At the White House table she often checked his exuberance with an emphatic “Theodorel” And his small-boy plea was invariably, “Why, EE-die, I was only…” No wonder that after the birth of her fourth son she said, “Now, I have five boys.”
As Mrs. Roosevelt in her black silk gown awaited the arrival of die Tafts, she was troubled about Theodore. Taft, she felt, shouldn’t have been “pushed into the Presidency.” And if that hadn’t happened, then her husband wouldn’t have felt the compulsion to go to Africa to hunt big game, to be so far away that no one could possibly say that he in any way controlled President Taft. Though he was young for an ex-President, T. R. wasn’t young enough, his wife was certain, for the hardships of big-game hunting. Mrs. Roosevelt believed that Theodore could hold his own with wild animals, but possible jungle fevers terrified her.
Her worry magnified irritations. Before T. R. was out of office, Mrs. Taft, in her eagerness, announced changes that she planned to make in the White House staff and stated that automobiles would displace all carriages. What aggravated the situation was that in spite of T. R.’s close friendship with Will Taft, Edith Roosevelt and Nellie Taft had never been friends. The relationship had been one of politely exchanged amenities. Just the day before, as Mrs. Roosevelt was showing Mrs. Taft around the White House, Mrs. Roosevelt heard her say in an undertone to a friend, “I would have put that table over there.”
The prospect of giving up this home was in itself emotionally upsetting. Even young Quentin said, “There’s a hole in my stomach when I think of leaving the White House.” With the exception of Quentin, in school in Virginia, and Alice, married to Congressman Nicholas Long-worth and living in Washington, the children—Kermit, Ethel, Archie, and Ted, Jr.—has already left for Oyster Bay by March 3.
Always the good hostess, Mrs. Roosevelt directed that all the fireplaces be lighted; when her guests arrived, she wanted the house to radiate welcome.
In a White Steamer, not by carriage, the Tafts arrived at the White House. Winter had stripped the trees lining the driveway on each side of the North Portico. Wet-black, their branches were powdered with snow that had begun to fall shortly after six that evening and that now sparkled with light reflected from the White House.
Soon after being admitted by attendants, a few minutes after eight, the Tafts were greeted by the President and his wife. Then the future occupants of the Executive Mansion were shown to the suite on the southeast side of the second floor, known in the White House as the Blue Bedroom—a large bedroom and bath, with an adjoining smaller bedroom.
Mrs. Taft found the view inspiring. Beyond the windows were the Washington Monument and the lights of a bridge stretching across the Potomac River, meeting the lights of Arlington and the darkness of the Virginia hills.
Downstairs the other guests were arriving: Admiral and Mrs. William Sheffield Cowles, Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas Longworth, Senator and Mrs. Elihu Root, Mabel Boardman, and Archie Butt. It was a close group, related by family ties or friendship, yet before the end of T.R.’s Bull Moose campaign of 1912, which would divide the Republican party and deny Will Taft a second term, everyone gathered in the State Dining Room that night would take sides in the conflict and become violent opponents.
Will Cowles, a portly figure in his well-cut naval uniform and gold braid, was an affable and gregarious gentleman. Nevertheless, it was his wife, Anna—T. R.’s eldest sister, usually called Bamie or Bye—who commanded attention. Despite the effects of a spinal injury in her infancy, made evident in a slight deformity, Bamie Roosevelt Cowles had the same incisive intelligence as her younger brother, the same political shrewdness. Had she been a man, her admiring niece Alice once contended, “ she would have been President.”