October 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 5
Overrated She said that calling Warren Harding “second rate” was “one of the biggest compliments anyone can pay him,” that Calvin Coolidge seemed to have been “weaned on a pickle,” and that Thomas E. Dewey looked like the “bridegroom on a wedding cake.” Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Theodore Roosevelt’s irrepressible eldest daughter, wielded a wicked wit. She also suffered from an insatiable lust for the limelight, a tiresome propensity for lifelong grudges, and an arrested development.
True, her childhood was grim. Her mother died two days after she was born, and her father sometimes forgot to include her when speaking of the family of five children he had with his second wife. But Alice went on making trouble well into her nineties, long after the statute of limitations had run out.
When she became a White House bride, her shameless trolling for loot from foreign governments and domestic powers was, said the longtime White House usher Ike Hoover, enough to make a man an anarchist. She wheedled money out of her maternal grandparents while scoffing at their bourgeois behavior, and she loved skewering hosts under their own roofs. Though she possessed considerable political acumen, it too often took a back seat to an infantile need to shock. She kept photographs of Fidel Castro and Joseph McCarthy side by side on her piano and a picture of Stalin on the wall. In 1912, when her husband, Nicholas Longworth, refused to bolt the Republican party in her father’s footsteps, she appeared at a Bull Moose rally on Longworth’s home turf and subsequently took gleeful credit for his narrow electoral defeat. Her spitefulness was staggering. After the death of her alcoholic, womanizing, but musically gifted husband, she burned not only most of his papers but, even though she was sorely in need of money, his Stradivarius.
The two people Alice Roosevelt most loved to hate were her cousins Franklin and Eleanor. She called the young FDR Feather Duster, said he was the kind of boy you invited to the dance but not the dinner, and later referred to him as “ninety percent mush and ten percent Eleanor.” She encouraged the burgeoning love affair between FDR and Lucy Mercer by inviting them to dinner together, hinted darkly to Eleanor about things that ER said she did not wish to know, and wisecracked publicly that Franklin deserved a good time, he was married to Eleanor.
As her political fortunes declined, her envy became venomous. During the Depression she compared her father’s triumph over childhood infirmities through self-reliance with Cousin Franklin’s desire to cripple the country in his image. In 1940 she announced she’d rather vote for Hitler than FDR. Late in life she recanted some of her stories and masqueraded as a grande dame, but she was merely an aging vindictive enfant terrible , still doing the stale imitation of Cousin Eleanor, who’d outstripped her years before.
Underrated Her mother’s namesake, her father’s favorite, the only daughter of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt DaIl Boettiger HaIsted was caught between her two complicated, oxygen-stealing parents. As a child she preferred the exuberant father, who would sweep her into his saddle for a canter over the family estate, to the insecure and inconsistent mother, who deferred to a series of sadistic nannies. But when, at 16, she learned from a malicious relative of her father’s love for another woman, she sided with her mother. Her feminine sympathy was instinctive, and prophetic. Years later, separated from her second husband, a proRoosevelt reporter for a violently anti-Roosevelt newspaper who would eventually jump to his death from a hotel window, she learned he’d been having an affair with another woman.
But that discovery was still in the future when, in 1944, her father asked her to invite his old flame Lucy Mercer, now Mrs. Winthrop Rutherford, to the White House for dinner. Torn between love for the lonely, overworked FDR, whom she served as official hostess, invaluable aide, and devoted companion during his last years, and loyalty to the admirable ER, who was rarely on the scene, she decided her parents “had reached an age where they were certainly entitled to lead their own private lives without having me, of all people, . . . say, ‘You shouldn’t do this,’ or ‘You shouldn’t see this person.’” When ER found out, she turned on her daughter in rage, though she later claimed to forgive her (ER always liked to make the distinction of being able to forgive but not forget).
In the years after FDR’s death, Anna became the moral keystone of the Roosevelt clan. While her brothers were negotiating movie deals for the story of their father’s life, she wrote, despite having three children to support and being chronically short of cash, that she felt “so darn strongly, that we have no right to capitalize on Father’s accomplishments.” When ER was contemplating a weekly radio show to shore up her children’s finances, her daughter told her, “I would feel very, very badly if you went on the air for U.S. Steel. . . they certainly stand for all the things directly opposed to what you and Father have always stood for.”
In the last months of her life, finally content in a third marriage, she was still mulling the moral implications of that simple yes she’d given her father years earlier. I suspect she never really made peace with her decision, but I hope she found comfort in the pleasure it brought a warexhausted President and, as a result, the service it rendered the nation. In the end her opting for her father’s happiness and her wrestling with the tightness of that choice proved her heir to the best in both her parents.