February 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 2
During their courtship exuberant young Theodore Roosevelt puzzled the delicate Alice Lee, but they had three idyllic years of marriage before tragedy separated them.
“I first saw her on October 18, 1878,” he wrote, “and loved her as soon as I saw her sweet, fair young face. We spent three years of happiness such as rarely comes to man or woman.” So began a memorial to Alice Hathaway Lee of Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, written by Theodore Roosevelt some time during 1884. She was remembered but rarely mentioned in the 35 years that followed.
October 18, 1878, was a week before Theodore’s twentieth birthday, at the start of his junior year at Harvard. A good many years afterward he was to remark to his friend, Henry White, that women interested him very little, but this was not true in his boyhood and youth. The small boy traveling in Europe had noted in his diary that he sorely missed a playmate, Edith Carow. In the spring of 1876, while preparing to enter Harvard, he had attended a neighborhood party where he had enjoyed the company of “Annie Murray, a very nice girl, besides being very pretty, ahem!” And at Harvard he wrote of his pleasure in the company of two young ladies, “especially pretty Alice.”
A tendency to lead the conversation into dull paths of natural science may have minimized his appeal to girls at first. Cambridge changed this. His intimates at the Porcellian Club found him, though still overenthusiastic about botany and bugs, entirely acceptable. Their sisters, if amused, liked him. As Theodore’s junior year ended he had even become a romantic figure; while his classmates worried about examinations and indulged only in sedate flirtations under a Victorian moon, he was in the throes of a turbulent love affair. It was known that he planned to be married immediately after graduation.
He met Alice Lee that October, at the home of Richard Saltonstall, one of Theodore’s closest friends. In November he wrote his sister Conie that with Minot Weld, another intimate, he had driven to Saltonstall’s home at Chestnut Hill and had “gone out walking with Miss Rose Saltonstall and Miss Alice Lee.” Some weeks later he escorted Alice through the Harvard Yard and, while pointing out the beauties of the institution, discovered that it was time for lunch. He promptly took his guest to the Porcellian Club, never before polluted by the presence of a woman. The assertion that he did this was published while Roosevelt was alive, in a biography written by Jacob Riis and published with his approval. Presumably Roosevelt would have denied the incident had it been untrue. But no mention of it is found in any of his letters, and only conjecture is possible as to Theodore’s reason for such radical conduct. It had been his invariable custom to lunch at the Pore house, and it may never have occurred to him that he was shattering precedent. He may have already been anesthetized by love. He may have believed the rule against women foolish nonsense, for he had strong feminist leanings in those remote days and his senior dissertation was on “The Practicability of Equalizing Men and Women Before the Law.”
She walked the stage for so brief a moment, there are so few who can remember and fewer still who will, that Alice Lee remains a fragment. But only partly. To Theodore she was “beautiful in face and form, and lovelier still in spirit,” but she was lovely, too, to those who looked with less prejudiced eyes. It is known that she was seventeen on the October day when they met. Her hair was light brown with, in the sun, a touch of yellow. She wore it in curls that lay well back, over smaller curls which came down over her high forehead. Her nose tilted ever so slightly: her mouth was small and “peculiarly charming.” She was about five feet seven inches in height, and this, combined with an erect carriage, made her seem rather tall.
She was the daughter of George C. Lee of Chestnut Hill, and her family tree bore Cabots and Lees and Higginsons on all its branches. When Theodore met her in 1878 she had seen little or nothing of society, and her education had been the ornamentally fashionable one received by young gentlewomen of the day.
It was a turbulent courtship. Mrs. Robert Bacon, then sixteen, long recalled a function of the Hasty Pudding Club at which Roosevelt had walked up, had pointed across the room to Alice, and had demanded:
“See that girl? I am going to marry her. She won’t have me, but I am going to have her!”
Mrs. Bacon remembered, too, that the gentle Alice was alarmed by the impetuosity of the young man who had suddenly precipitated himself into the circle of more decorous beaux. He had an overwhelming, gusty vitality and he insisted that she watch, from the gymnasium balcony, when he made his bid for the lightweight boxing championship. Alice was a little repelled but wholly intrigued. Besides, there was no way in which she could avoid seeing him had she so desired. Richard Saltonstall, a cousin, was constantly bringing him to the house on week ends, he had a habit of throwing himself into a chair and telling thrilling stories about wolves and bears to her adoring five-year-old brother.
Alice sometimes discouraged the eager Theodore, and then he was plunged into the deepest gloom. He was always to suffer periods of discouragement, when everything seemed black. These were moments of despair. One night, during the first winter of the courtship, a classmate telegraphed to New York in alarm that Roosevelt was somewhere in the woods near Cambridge and refused to come home. A cousin who was particularly close hurried up there, managed somehow to soothe him; and soon his confidence returned.
The courtship continued through the winter and spring of 1878-79. with Theodore becoming markedly possessive as the months passed. During the summer, beyond doubt, he wrote long and fervent letters, for it was his unfailing custom to do so on all subjects at all times, in private life as well as when he held office. That he suffered recurring attacks of jealousy is probable, particularly when Alice sent back accounts of picnics and festivities among the boys and girls of Chestnut Hill.
That he had already told his family about Alice is demonstrated by an invitation extended to the girl and her mother to spend the Christmas holidays at Oyster Bay. Theodore’s mother seems to have been fond of Alice from the start; nor is this surprising. The young girl and the older woman had much in common. They were gentle and rather quiet. They had charm and grace. Both, for by now Alice’s last defenses had been shattered, considered Theodore wholly magnificent. The brief days between Christmas, 1878, and New Year’s Day of 1879 must have been high marks in Theodore’s life. He saw Alice, who affected heavy white brocades to set off her fair hair and blue eyes, standing in front of the open fire after dinner; Alice being very feminine, very attentive to the conversation, very timid about taking more than a sip of wine. He saw her, demure in furs and carrying a small muff, while she skated on nearby ponds and leaned deliciously on his strong arms.
Meanwhile, in the Yard, Roosevelt was a marked man. It now became apparent that he was neglecting his editorial duties on the Advocate because of more important activities at Chestnut Hill. Rumors of his preoccupation even reached the ears of the cloistered faculty. One morning, in the English and rhetoric class, Professor A.S. Hill, familiarly called “Ass” Hill, read aloud an unusually sentimental essay and cruelly asked Theodore to criticize it. His classmates assumed, from the fact that he blushed, that he was the author. The Dickey show, as far back as the previous year, had commented on his courting as well as on his elegant appearance.
At about this time Roosevelt’s interest in the natural sciences began to flag. The evidence is not conclusive. Alice may have expressed distaste for squirrels and birds no longer alive but looking as dead as only an amateur taxidermist could make them look. A fragment of a letter remains, written in July of 1879, in which Theodore told his friend Harry Minot that he had done almost no collecting that summer, that “I don’t approve of too much slaughter.”
So Alice became his. She was an engaged girl. Her mind turned to the wedding, which had been tentatively set for the following October, and to such pleasant labors as her wedding gown and the countless linens that every young bride of that day considered essential. Theodore, even after the engagement was formally announced, could find no peace. He worried when some classmate, anxious to show polite attention to his fiancée, talked with her at a dance.
“Roosevelt,” recalled a member of Alice’s family, “seemed constantly afraid that some one would run off with her, and threatened duels and everything else. On one occasion he actually sent abroad for a set of French dueling pistols, and after great difficulty got them through the Custom House.”
Theodore’s honor was not impugned, however. No blood was shed. He managed to get his degree despite the distractions at Chestnut Hill. He became a Bachelor of Arts, by grace of Harvard College, on June 30, 1880. He took no prominent part in the exercises. Roosevelt did not attempt to begin the pursuit of a career that summer. The estate of his father had made him a young man of means, although not of wealth, There was no need to hurry. Meanwhile, a degree of ill health on the part of his brother Elliott offered excuse for a hunting trip that summer. The trip was a great success despite “a succession of untoward accidents and delays. I got bitten by a snake and chucked head foremost out of the wagon.”
Then Roosevelt hurried to Chestnut Hill, and the marriage took place at Brookline on October 27, 1880. The day was Theodore’s twenty-second birthday, while Alice was nineteen.
The honeymoon was delayed, apparently, until the next summer, for the young couple went to New York to live with Theodore’s widowed mother at No. 6 West Fifty-seventh Street, an address considered uptown and out of the way, but beginning to be fashionable.
Having abandoned science, Theodore had decided to take up law, and this was the reason for postponing the honeymoon. He was not greatly interested in the law, but it was something to do, and so he enrolled at the Columbia Law School and also did some reading in the office of his uncle, Robert Barnhill Roosevelt. The twelve months that followed Roosevelt’s marriage constitute a period of uncertainty. He did a little work on his The Naval War of 1812, of which a chapter or two had been written at Cambridge. He started to take notice of local politics, also, but here, too, signs of active interest are lacking. He joined the district Republican Club in the fall of 1880 for the reason that “a young man of my bringing up and convictions could join only the Republican Party”; a curious statement, since both his uncle and father-in-law were Democrats. So life drifted, with frequent social affairs in which Alice and his mother were joint hostesses, and with life at home unmarked by the slightest friction between the mother and the daughter-in-law.
A trip to Europe, Theodore’s third in less than fifteen years, provided a pleasant diversion during the summer of 1881. With Alice, he was in England in time for spring. They went north into Ireland and set off, one morning, in a jaunting car from Killarney. For a guide they had “a very nice old Irishman” who took them through the Gap of Dunlo and watched with Celtic melancholy their reaction to the Black Valley; “as dreary a place as I ever saw,” Theodore wrote, “because of the black mist which rose from the peat bogs.” Ireland was a beautiful country, but with an “under-stratum of wretchedness.” Roosevelt had seen, probably for the first time in his life, actual hunger. They had run into a man on the Cork road who was weak from starvation and had helped him out with a shilling or two. It had been a depressing ending to the day.
Summer found them in Switzerland, where Theodore had a chance to demonstrate his physical fitness still further by some mountain climbing. Alice was, of course, left behind, for in those days women rarely joined in such strenuous diversions. Her husband seems to have agreed with the current attitude; at least he does not mention missing Alice’s company or express regret that she had not shared with him the majesty of the mountain peaks.
They continued without hurrying and made no attempt to emulate tourists anxious to see all of Europe in thirty days. By August they had been down the Rhine, and Roosevelt wrote to his sister that work on his book had suffered during their travels. He was, in fact, undergoing the discouragements that are the lot of authors. He was, characteristically, wondering whether his inability to get The Naval War of 1812 written did not signify that he was to be a failure in other things. “I have plenty of information,” he complained, “but I can’t get it into words; I wonder if I won’t find everything in life too big for my abilities. Well, time will tell.” Fortunately for the progress of this pedantic history, Alice and Theodore spent some weeks with the Bulloch family at Liverpool. There Roosevelt had long conferences with the uncle who had been a captain in the Confederate Navy. Nautical mysteries were clarified. The book went on.
Before crossing the Channel, they had stopped in Paris, where Alice had done the inevitable shopping, and where they had looked at Napoleon’s tomb. No longer was Theodore bored, as he had been eleven years before. His interest in war, in manly prowess, had grown. This time he experienced “a solemn feeling” in looking at the bier of “the mightiest conqueror the world ever saw.” Then, in revulsion, he added: ” otherwise, I suppose, [he] was an almost unmixed evil.”
They returned home toward the end of September, with Theodore expecting to continue his law studies. But within a few weeks he found himself the candidate of his party for election to the state legislature. He was soon making stump speeches while his friends alternated between amusement and indignation that a young man of good blood, with opportunity for a legal career before him, should stoop to the gutter of American politics. Alice and Theodore were still making their home with Mrs. Roosevelt, but after Election Day they prepared to move to Albany. He was now the Honorable Theodore Roosevelt, assemblyman-elect from the Twenty-first District.
Here, the story of Alice Lee becomes increasingly unsubstantial. It is known that during his first year at Albany, beginning in January, 1882, Roosevelt took rooms in a quasi hotel where fellow legislators stayed. It is known that Alice was there with him the first winter and also that they returned to New York for most of their week ends. Isaac L. Hunt, an assemblyman from the northern part of the state, remembered her as “a very charming woman, tall and willowy. I was very much taken with her.” On the whole, Alice must have been decidedly bored. She had little, if any, interest in politics. There must have been periods that dragged interminably. Then, in the summer of 1883, she knew that she was to have a baby, and Roosevelt, if his subsequent enthusiasm for quantity production of offspring is any indication, was delighted. Meanwhile, they had taken a house at No. 55 West Forty-fifth Street, and summers were spent at Oyster Bay, where a country home of their own, Sagamore Hill, where she would never live, was being planned.
Alice went into her ordeal cheerfully. She was not too well, but the doctors were suavely reassuring. There was a pleasant fluttering around the house on Fifty-seventh Street, where she spent much of her time while Theodore was at Albany. His sister Conie, who had become Mrs. Douglas Robinson, had a baby son, and the two young women had much in common. Alice enjoyed her new importance. She was playing the only vital part that a woman of her time could play—excepting, of course, the preposterous unsexed creatures who were beginning to talk about votes for women.
Roosevelt had been re-elected in 1882, and it would be necessary for him to campaign again in the fall of 1883. The star of his fame was rising rapidly. But he was tired. The work in the legislature was, “if conscientiously done, very harassing,” and the 1884 session could be additionally so, since he was almost certain to become minority leader. Perhaps Roosevelt suffered, too, from a superfluity of feminine activity at home. Consequently, he decided to seek recreation in the West and arrived at Little Missouri, in the Dakota Bad Lands, on the morning of September 7, 1883. Again, he had a delightful time, and it was signally fortunate that he had gone to the Bad Lands during that summer. Less than a year later, when in a single night his life changed utterly, he had a place of refuge. He was back in New York in time to conduct his campaign for the Assembly and was, as usual, returned without difficulty.
As the day of her confinement drew near, Roosevelt’s young wife left the house on Forty-fifth Street to stay with her mother-in-law on Fifty-seventh, where an apartment was furnished for her on the third floor. She waited anxiously each week for Friday to arrive, when Theodore would return from Albany after the legislature had recessed for the week end.
The baby was expected about the middle of February, and life at the house on Fifty-seventh Street moved on with this uppermost. Alice was happy, if physically wretched. Only one trivial incident is remembered of those weeks of waiting: an afternoon when Alice and Mrs. Roosevelt were to go driving. A member of the family dropped by and found Alice sitting, the personification of patience, in the drawing room on the first floor. She was wearing furs, for it was cold outside. She laughed when asked why she was sitting there. The Little Motherling, she explained, using Theodore’s pet name for his mother, was “always late, but not generally so late as this time.”
February 13, 1884, was a Wednesday. On the previous Friday Corinne Robinson and her husband had gone to Baltimore, and before leaving Mrs. Robinson had jokingly told Alice that she must not have her baby until they returned. “I promise,” she said cheerfully. Conie then said good-by to her mother, who was in bed with what seemed a mild indisposition. On Monday a telegram went to Baltimore stating that no need to hurry home had developed, and so Mr. and Mrs. Robinson delayed their return until Wednesday morning. Then, just before they took the train, there was good news. A girl had been born late on Tuesday night, February 12; the doctors said that Alice had survived the ordeal well. So the journey back to New York was made in high spirits. They reached New York on Wednesday evening, glad that the period of suspense was over and wondering whether Theodore had yet arrived from Albany. Details of reaching New York that evening, quite unnoticed at the time, always remained etched on the minds of Corinne Robinson and her husband. They remembered that fog hung over the Hudson River that night, and that the ferry which brought them from New Jersey was delayed because of it. They went uptown on an elevated railway train and, since there was no reason to hurry, walked from the station to the house. Seeing a light in the window on the third floor, Mrs. Robinson again gave thanks that the baby had been born and that Alice’s suffering was behind her. Then she went up the steps. The door opened. Mrs. Robinson saw her brother Elliott standing in the doorway and knew from his face that something was wrong.
“If you want to see your baby,” he said, “do so before you come into this house. He is over at your Aunt Gracie’s. There is a curse on this house! Mother is dying, and Alice is dying, too.”
It was then about 10:30. An hour later, Roosevelt came in, having been told only that a daughter had been born and having left the Assembly Chamber in the midst of effusive, good-natured congratulations. He found his wife barely able to recognize him, and all that night, save for one brief moment, he sat at the head of the bed and held her in his arms. Just before three o’clock in the morning his mother, who had developed typhoid fever, died, and Theodore, standing by her bed, echoed the words of his brother: “There is a curse on this house.” Then he went back upstairs. Dawn dragged into the next day. At two o’clock on February 14, 1884, her body weakened by Bright’s disease, Alice died. A year later Roosevelt wrote:
She was born at Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, on July 29, 1861; I first saw her on October 18, 1878, and loved her as soon as I saw her sweet, fair young face; we were betrothed on January 25, 1880, and married on October 27th, of the same year; we spent three years of happiness such as rarely comes to man or woman; on February 12, 1884, her baby girl was born; she kissed it, and seemed perfectly well; some hours afterward she, not knowing that she was in the slightest danger, but thinking only that she was falling into a sleep, became insensible, and died at two o’clock on Thursday afternoon, February 14, 1884, at 6 West Fifty-seventh Street, in New York; she was buried two days afterward, in Greenwood Cemetery.
She was beautiful in face and form, and lovelier still in spirit; as a flower she grew, and as a fair young flower she died. Her life had been always in the sunshine; there had never come to her a single great sorrow; and none ever knew her who did not love and revere her for her bright, sunny temper and her saintly unselfishness. Fair, pure, and joyous as a maiden; loving, tender, and happy as a young wife; when she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be but just begun, and when the years seemed so bright before her—then, by a strange and terrible fate, death came to her.
And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever.
On Saturday morning, February 16, two hearses moved side by side from the home on Fifty-seventh Street to the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-fifth Street. Two rosewood coffins were carried in. The Reverend Dr. John Hall, who had been the family minister for years, could barely control himself as he made a brief address. One of the two women had done her work, he said, but the other was young. It seemed strange that she had been taken away. But Jesus was the Resurrection and the Life. Then he prayed for the husband and the little baby, three days old, and wept.
Theodore Roosevelt sat in a front pew, with Elliott Roosevelt, his father-in-law, and his sisters. The twin hearses moved again. The double interment was in Greenwood Cemetery.
Somehow, Roosevelt went on with his work; if proof were needed that he had courage and an iron will this fact alone would serve. … Then he fled to the quiet of the Bad Lands. At Albany, Assemblyman Hunt remembered, “you could not talk to him about it, you could see at once that it was a grief too deep. There was a sadness about his face that he never had before. He did not want anybody to sympathize with him. He hiked away to the wilderness to get away from the world. He went out there a broken-hearted man.”
While he was in the West, Roosevelt wrote the memorial to his wife and mother, brief but deeply moving, which was printed in a limited edition and circulated among relatives and close friends. Roosevelt saw the relatives of his first wife whenever he was in Boston, and the daughter, who was to become Mrs. Nicholas Longworth, frequently visited them. But if Alice Lee, whom he met on that October day in 1878, was ever mentioned, there is no record of it. A door was closed on the three years they lived together, a door that was never opened. There is not a word in his autobiography to indicate that she had existed.
In time he may have doubted that she had. In December of 1886 he was married again, to the Edith Carow he had known as a child, and his married life was happy and complete. Five other children came. Four of them married and had children. One, the youngest, fell in an airplane behind the German lines. Honors came to Roosevelt; age came also. Only Alice Lee remains young and does not fade. She is forever fair; a figure on a Grecian urn.