May/June 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 4
Union Station in wartime Washington. A young man in a Navy uniform escorts a short, stocky blonde woman in her fifties along the crowded platform toward a waiting train. There is nothing especially striking about her, but she carries a big framed caricature of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt that attracts the attention of most of the people who pass on either side of her. “I’m just a peasant,” she says again and again to all these perfect strangers, her bright blue eyes rolling upward. “I won’t go anywhere without a picture of my king and queen!”
The woman was Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the eldest child of Theodore Roosevelt, and this incident was recalled for me recently by her long-ago escort, the son of a girlhood friend, who also remembered his own relief when he finally got her settled on her train.
She is best remembered now for the maliciously witty things she said over the course of some seventy years in Washington. It was she who suggested that Calvin Coolidge had been “weaned on a pickle” (though she credited her dentist with having said it first), she who compared Thomas Dewey to the “little man on the wedding cake,” and she really did have a sofa pillow embroidered with the legend “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”
She was hard to pin to paper. At least two earlier biographers failed to get far beneath her spiky surface. Mrs. Longworth failed, too; her autobiography, Crowded Hours, is uniformly and atypically bland. Until now the most graphic portrait has been Michael Teague’s Mrs. L., compiled from taped interviews that captured something of the relentless irreverence that riveted everyone from Kaiser Wilhelm II to Richard Nixon, from Robert Taft to Robert Kennedy.
An inveterate gossip, Mrs. Longworth might have enjoyed Carol Felsenthal’s new book Alice Roosevelt Longworth (G. P. Putnam’s Sons) had it been about someone else. It is far more candid than its predecessors and written with far less wary awe. Mrs. Longworth was always careful to keep her own private life off limits to strangers, and on the evidence of this new study, hers was a wise decision. For all the glitter of its cast and the good gag lines repeated along the way, the tale it tells is mostly sad.
When her mother, Alice Lee Roosevelt, died hours after giving birth to her in 1884, her father fled west to forget, leaving her in the care of his remarkable sister, Anna. Alice’s first “hazy recollection” of the mysterious man her aunt insisted was her father came when, not yet three, she watched him return from a fox hunt during which he had characteristically shattered an arm and cut his face, trying to leap a five-foot stone wall. When he dismounted and came toward the little girl, one arm dangling useless at his side, grinning through the blood pouring down his face, she tried to run away. “I started screaming at this apparition,” she remembered, “and he started shaking me to shut me up which only made me scream more. So he shook more. It was a theme which was to be repeated, with variations, in later years.”
TR never spoke of his first wife after her death, failed ever to mention her even to her own daughter, apparently because he believed that his decision to marry Edith Kermit in 1886 was a sign of inconstancy: Remarriage was a sin, and Alice a reminder of his having committed it. “My father obviously didn’t want the symbol of his infidelity around,” she once recalled writing of herself. “… It was all so dreadfully Victorian and mixed up.”
Edith Kermit Roosevelt, however, insisted she be permitted to raise Alice as her daughter. It was a gesture made out of conscientiousness rather than affection, a fact increasingly evident to Alice as her stepmother gave birth to five adored children of her own. She would always seem an outsider in her father’s house. “Father doesn’t care for me … one eighth as much as he does for the other children,” she once confided to her diary, and for this she blamed herself: “It is perfectly true that he doesn’t, and, Lord, why should he?”
There was another waif in the Roosevelt family, of course: the orphaned daughter of Elliott, TR’s alcoholic brother, raised by relatives whose feelings for her were no more genuinely fond, no less grimly dutiful than Edith Roosevelt’s for her stepdaughter. Eleanor was to develop into a shy, self-conscious woman, chronically unsure, despite the great fame that came to her, whether she truly belonged anywhere or could be loved by anyone, convinced she could carve a place for herself only through service to others. Alice was scornful of her sometimes excessive piety. “I can still see those large blue eyes fixed on one,” she told Michael Teague, “worrying about one, and wanting you to know that in her you had a friend. She always wanted to discuss things like whether Contentment was better than Happiness, and whether they conflicted with one another. Things like that, which I didn’t give a damn about.”
Alice learned early not to give a damn. Her insecurities were as great as Eleanor’s, but she dealt with them differently: if others failed to pay enough heed to her, she would be heedless in return. “I pray for a fortune,” she wrote. “I care for nothing except to amuse myself in a charmingly expensive way.”
She was an excitable tomboy as a child, clamoring for short hair and trousers to match her brothers’, and as the striking “Princess Alice” of the White House, she reveled in the publicity she generated by carrying a live snake in her purse, smoking in public, eating asparagus with her gloves on, waving at the crowd from the inaugural stand. (Her father hissed at her to stop this last, and, when she asked him why, replied “… this is my inauguration!”) A family friend called her “a young wild animal … put into good clothes.”
To everyone’s relief, she married Nicholas Longworth in 1906. As she left the White House on her wedding day, her stepmother pulled her close. “I want you to know that I’m glad to see you go,” said Edith Roosevelt. “You’ve never been anything but trouble.” The marriage was a disaster. Longworth was a charming, wealthy Republican congressman from Ohio who played both poker and the violin with consummate skill, but he was also a part-time drunk—“he’d rather be tight than President,” Alice said—and an almost full-time philanderer. The last of a long line of his mistresses attended his funeral in 1931, stalking up the aisle in full view of his widow to lay a bunch of violets on his coffin. Alice shed no tears and went home and burned most of her husband’s papers—and his Stradivarius.
She took up with at least two other men, both of them flamboyant and leonine: the labor leader John L. Lewis and the Republican senator William E. Borah of Idaho, who, according to Felsenthal, was the real father of her only child, a daughter named Paulina, born to her at the age of forty-one in 1925, while she was still married to Longworth.
Spurned as an infant, Alice now ignored her own infant daughter and, when the girl grew old enough to speak, ensured that she did not do so often by interrupting or belittling her whenever she made the attempt; in the home of Alice Roosevelt Longworth there was room for only one child. Paulina developed a stutter, lapsed into long silences, rarely bathed. In 1944 she married Alexander McCormick Sturm, an alcoholic eccentric whose grandiose ambitions for himself did not include sustained work of any kind. The same family friend who escorted Mrs. Longworth through Union Station during the war also remembers a spooky evening with Paulina and her fat, pallid husband, during which they consumed a bottle of scotch while playing at being an eighteenth-century German noble and his consort, complete with phantom tenants and servants, whom they addressed by name. According to Felsenthal, Alex drank himself to death, and Paulina attempted suicide several times before finally succeeding at it in 1957, leaving her body to be discovered by her own ten-year-old daughter, Joanna.
Mrs. Longworth was devastated. “She kept saying, ‘I wonder, I wonder, is it all my fault?’” a friend remembered. “‘Could it be my fault?’” Perhaps in part as expiation, she took on at the age of seventy-three the raising of her granddaughter, forging the closest thing to a genuine, reciprocal friendship she seems ever to have been able to manage. But she dealt with the memory of her dead daughter precisely as her father had dealt with that of her mother: No one was to mention Paulina’s name; no pictures of her hung in the picture-filled house.
Alice’s craving for financial comfort eventually tapered off, but her carefully cultivated frivolousness remained obstinately intact. Frightened of public speaking, perhaps frightened, too, of venturing much beyond the Washington salons in which she knew she shone, she shied away from an active role in politics, working behind the scenes against the League of Nations and aid to the Allies before the United States entered World War II, but discouraging those who wanted her to run for Congress or for Vice-President under Herbert Hoover to help offset the appeal of her cousin Franklin.
To her, FDR’s four presidential victories were usurpations. “There we were,” she explained later, “descendants of a popular President, and what happens? A fifth cousin comes along and gets into the White House. Can you think of anything more distressing?” Her contempt for the nouveaux Roosevelts was unmerciful. “My poor cousin,” she liked to say, “he suffered from polio so he was put in a brace; and now he wants to put the entire U.S. into a brace. …” She saw even Pearl Harbor in purely personal terms. “Well, friends,” she told luncheon guests on December 7, 1941, “Franklin asked for it, now he’s got it.”
She was largely uninterested in the substance of political debate; it was the spectacle she enjoyed. She attended the McCarthy hearings, for example, alternately cheering on the senator from Wisconsin and his victims. “She didn’t care who got banged in the head,” a friend said, “as long as it was an exciting show.”
Alice outlived almost all of her contemporaries, presiding over dinners at which generation after generation of feuding politicians found themselves seated next to one another so that she could enjoy their discomfiture, keeping her regal chin high even after a double mastectomy left her, she said, the “only topless octogenarian in Washington.”
Moments before she died at ninety-six in 1980, she stuck out her tongue at a family friend.