History Vs. Podcast Episode 3: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Tragedy
Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.
It’s July 16, 1918, and Theodore Roosevelt is at his Sagamore Hill home in Oyster Bay, New York, dictating correspondence to his secretary when there’s a knock at the door. It’s a reporter, who hands Roosevelt a telegram that reads: “WATCH SAGAMORE HILL IN EVENT OF…” Then it ends, the rest of the message edited out to protect it from prying eyes.
The message might be censored, but Roosevelt knows what it means. World War I is raging, and all four of his sons signed up to fight. Ted and Archie are injured, and Kermit isn’t in a dangerous area yet. That leaves Quentin, a 20-year-old fighter pilot warding off German planes over France.
Though he won’t get further confirmation for a few days, Roosevelt knows what has happened. He knows that he’s never going to see Quentin, his youngest and favorite son, again.
Roosevelt asks the reporter not to say anything to his wife, Edith. He continues to dictate letters. Soon he will be told Quentin is missing in action following a fierce aerial battle. It’s reported that Quentin faced off against an ace German pilot before being shot down.
General John Pershing writes to Roosevelt that they are holding out hope that Quentin landed. But there will be no happy ending. Newspapers are reporting that Quentin has died, and, on July 20, Roosevelt receives official word from President Woodrow Wilson confirming the news. The German government prints a horrific photograph of Quentin’s body next to his downed plane.
Publicly, Roosevelt is stoic as ever. Privately, he heads to his stable and embraces Quentin’s pony, his arms around the animal’s neck. “Poor Quentyquee,” he says, whispering Quentin’s nickname. “Poor Quentyquee.” A friend and future biographer would say of Roosevelt that “the old exuberance, the boy in him has died.”
From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and this week’s episode is TR vs. Tragedy.
It’s not only that Roosevelt has lost a son, though that would be enough to send any parent into a state of anguish. It’s that Roosevelt has once again been confronted with unimaginable tragedy, the latest in a series of wounds that he’s endured throughout his life.
Those closest to him—his mother, his father, his first wife, his brother, and now his son—have all disappeared, most of them at a tragically early age. These moments reveal a great deal about Roosevelt’s character. They shaped his worldview. At times, they overwhelmed him. For TR, tragedy was a frequent visitor.
The first time it struck, he lost his idol. That was his father, Theodore Roosevelt Senior, who, when TR was a kid, implored his son not to be discouraged by his frequent asthma attacks and to pursue an active lifestyle. He loomed large in Roosevelt’s life as someone he aspired to be—stout, resourceful, determined. In Roosevelt’s words, his father was “the ideal man.” At Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt hung a portrait of his father that he could see whenever he sat down in his library.
Tyler Kuliberda: So Roosevelt said that his father was the best man he ever knew, and I certainly don't think that's just a son being kind to his father. I truly believe that he felt that way, that his father was the highest ideal that he could achieve. And I think a lot of his public service is aimed at righting the same wrongs, and righting societal ills that his father tried to right by philanthropy. Roosevelt attacks it from a different front, which is with government policy or government action.
That’s Tyler Kuliberda, the education technician at Sagamore Hill, which is now a National Historic Site.
Kuliberda: He’s looking at his father's portrait constantly, you would imagine, as he's working, whether it's president, or before the presidency or after the presidency his father is always there. His father is a philanthropist. He's incredibly wealthy. They're from one of the wealthiest families in New York City. And Roosevelt's father is his greatest inspiration. So TR’s father would give away a lot of their wealth to help found museums, orphanages, hospitals in New York.
Theodore Roosevelt Senior, or Thee, was born in 1831. Later, he pitched President Abraham Lincoln on a program where soldiers in the Civil War could send money back to their families.
Lincoln liked the idea, and Thee traveled around the front, signing soldiers up. His work was a kind gesture, but it wasn’t entirely borne out of generosity. There may have been a little guilt involved. Like many wealthy men of the era, he paid for a substitute to enter the Civil War so he wouldn’t have to enlist, which could have put him at war with his own wife. TR’s mother was from Roswell, Georgia, and her brothers were blockade runners—so things were probably a little tense at home.
Thee’s philanthropy wasn’t limited to war efforts. Often, he’d bring Roosevelt along on visits to orphanages and missions, a spark that likely led to his son’s desire to work in public service.
At the time, it wasn’t necessarily expected that someone wealthy would be so active with their family. That familial closeness was something Roosevelt would carry with him his entire life, spending as much time as he could with his relatives.
Kuliberda: This was in a time when if you were a wealthy family, if you were a wealthy man, you were not necessarily expected to be with your family other than at dinner every night, otherwise you were conducting business, or you were off doing whatever. Whereas, Roosevelt's father spent a lot of time with them, and they were actually considered an eccentric family, because of how much, you know, time they spent together, and I think how much they enjoyed each other’s company.
After a childhood spent traveling with his family and being privately tutored—because he was too sick for regular school—Roosevelt went off to Harvard in 1876. In his sophomore year, his father was nominated by President Rutherford B. Hayes as Collector of Customs in New York City. Hayes wanted to demonstrate he was committed to Civil Service Reform. The attention was taxing for Thee, who found himself a pawn between Republicans who backed Hayes and others who opposed reform. He was eventually rejected for the appointment.
The stress of the experience may have compounded his health issues. He had been struggling with pain and digestive problems brought on by an intestinal tumor, and it was progressing rapidly. Thee insisted that TR not be informed—he wanted his son to focus on his studies.
Eventually, Roosevelt was summoned back, and he rushed home from Harvard. But he was too late.
Thee died February 9, 1878 at the age of 46, just hours before TR made it home. Roosevelt was only a sophomore in college when his idol—the one his family called “Great Heart”—left his life forever.
On the day of his father’s funeral, Roosevelt wrote in his diary:
“I shall never forget these terrible three days; the hideous suspense of the ride on; the dull, inert sorrow, during which I felt as if I had been stunned, or as if part of my life had been taken away, and the two moments of sharp, bitter agony, when I kissed the dear dead face and realized that he would never again on this earth speak to me or greet me with his loving smile, and then when I heard the sound of the first clod dropping on the coffin holding the one I loved dearest on earth…I feel that if it were not for the certainty, that as he himself had so often said, ‘He is not dead but gone before,’ I should almost perish.”
Thee was, Roosevelt wrote, “Everything to me.”
Though Roosevelt would go on to experience the pain of personal loss several times over, never again would he articulate his grief in such plain language. It was as though his father’s passing stripped him of every bit of self-consciousness in his writing.
Those bare emotions continued pouring out. In his diary, Roosevelt struggled with a sense of guilt and a lack of self-worth. He was tortured by his helplessness, and the fact that he had been unable to assist or comfort his father in his last moments. He held his father in such regard that he felt unworthy of being his son.
“I often feel badly that such a wonderful man as Father should have had a son of so little worth as I am…How little use I am, or ever shall be in the world…I realize more and more every day that I am as much inferior to Father morally and mentally as physically.”
Roosevelt returned to Harvard, seemingly intent to prove himself wrong. He studied hard, exercised often, and spent summers rowing around Long Island Sound. He refused to allow his body or his mind to grow idle. Nature allowed him a way out of the darkness. He took steps forward.
Still, Roosevelt rarely acted without first comparing his plans to his father’s best judgment.
Kuliberda: He leaves his son this great sum of money, and Roosevelt uses that money to purchase the land around Sagamore Hill. He contracts with Lamb and Rich to build a Queen Anne style home, here. When he becomes president he realizes that he's about his father's age when his father had died, and he says, “I never weigh any heavy decision without considering what father would have done,” so his father is certainly his inspiration, it's his main role model. I don't think it's any coincidence why he hangs this portrait of him looking over him at his desk.
We’ll be right back.
Roosevelt’s mourning period for Thee lasted for months. Then, in October of 1878, just eight months following his father’s death, his life was unexpectedly brightened by the appearance of Alice Hathaway Lee.
The 17-year-old Alice was a cousin of one of Roosevelt’s Harvard friends, Richard Saltonstall. Roosevelt was immediately smitten with the strong, energetic Alice, who enjoyed physical activities like tennis and boating.
She seemed to blot out the gloom that had enveloped his life. He spent the next year trying to court her before she agreed to marry him. When they became engaged in January 1880, he exalted her.
“My sweet, pretty, pure queen, my laughing little love … how bewitchingly pretty she is! I can not help petting and caressing her all the time … I do not believe any man ever loved a woman more than I love her.”
She called him Teddy.
Kuliberda: I think he really fell for Alice. If you read letters between them, if you're an adult and you read them, and you're like, oh, boy, he fell really hard for her. He describes her as sunny, and after they're married he says that their relationship is too sacred for words, things like that, like really, really gushy, mushy stuff.
Roosevelt and Alice married on October 27, 1880, his 22nd birthday. While Roosevelt attended law school and worked on his book, The Naval War of 1812, Alice grew close to his mother, Mittie, whom the couple lived with in New York City, and got along well with his sisters, Anna—better known as Bamie or Bye—and Corrine. In 1881, Roosevelt was elected a state assemblyman. In 1883, Alice became pregnant with their first child. Soon, he hired an architectural firm to begin designing a house in Long Island for his expanding family.
Roosevelt intended to call the property Leeholm, after Alice’s maiden name.
Kuliberda: His intention with having a home here is to get out of New York City, like his family had before him. He’s going to raise his family here. He’s going to maintain a country home and be a country gentleman, and as well as somebody who lives in New York City. He buys the land after his father dies. He buys 155 acres. He starts buying in 1880, and then the house is built in 1884.
On February 13, 1884, Roosevelt was in Albany on business when he received a telegram with happy news. The day before, Alice had given birth to a healthy daughter, whom she had named Alice Lee Roosevelt.
But his joy was short-lived. Hours later, he received a second telegram. The telegram no longer exists, so we have no idea what it said, but we can assume from what happened next that it informed him that Alice was not in good health. She had Bright’s disease, a now-obsolete term for a condition that seriously damages the kidneys. Here’s Holly Frey, co-host of the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast.
Frey: I have read various theories that in fact Teddy's wife, Alice, actually had kidney disease that was undiagnosed before her pregnancy, and that carrying a child exacerbated the problem and that's really what led to her passing so soon after Alice was born.
Alice was only barely conscious when he arrived. He held her in his arms through the early morning hours of February 14. As Alice tried to cling to life, Roosevelt was summoned to his mother’s room one floor below.
This time, he could at least be at her side, assuaging the guilt he had long felt over not being near his father’s. She passed away at 3 a.m.
At 2 p.m., Alice, just 22 years old, also died. She had been a mother for only two days.
Frey: He and his wife were living with his mother, so it was like his entire home life collapsed that day as he knew it. Which is really heartbreaking to think about. You know, essentially, to put it in kind of colloquial terms, like: two young kids who are starting their lives together and then it kind of all falls apart.
That same day, Roosevelt drew a large X in his diary and wrote “The light has gone out of my life.” He was just 25 years old.
Alice and Mittie were buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in a double funeral. Close friends of the family observed that Roosevelt appeared dazed and stunned, a state hardly typical of his pragmatic and focused disposition. Some even feared he might do something rash, taking total leave of his senses.
After the funeral, he wrote in his diary, “We spent three years of happiness greater and more unalloyed than [any] I have ever known fall to the lot of others … For joy or sorrow, my life has now been lived out.”
After that he rarely spoke of Alice again—not of their love or their good times together. Rather than confront his grief, Roosevelt seemed capable only of erasing it: Love letters and photographs were destroyed.
He wouldn’t even mention her in his autobiography. And after this double tragedy, he would lock himself, and his feelings, down for the most part. According to Kathleen Dalton, “Escape and flight from pain provided familiar devices to protect himself from his own strong emotions and from unpleasant facts he wanted to avoid.”
On February 18, he returned to Albany to finish out his term as Assemblyman, where he worked with frenetic energy. He left his daughter in the care of his sister, Bamie.
Frey: And Alice, named for her mother, he couldn't even bear to say her name so they started calling her Baby Lee. And he allegedly forbid everyone he knew in his family and social circle from saying the name Alice for quite some time, because it was just so upsetting to him.
McCarthy: Baby Alice looked a whole lot like her mother, too, so that must have been really difficult for him.
Frey: That's like a constant reminder of your heartache. And it's interesting, people often talk about the fact that he wrote precious little about his wife in his life, even when he worked with a biographer to write his life story. It was just too much of an emotional burden for him, pretty much for the rest of his life.
We’ll be right back.
Roosevelt soon left New York for the Dakota Territory and a ranch, where the solitude of the outdoors, and the hard work of ranching, allowed him to dull the pain. Once again, loss had devastated him, and once again, Roosevelt had to rebuild himself.
Roosevelt once said that he never would have been president if not for his time in the Dakotas. To find out why, we headed out there ourselves, to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where we met with Eileen Andes, the Chief of Interpretation and Public Affairs at the park.
Andes: It's the experience of going out there and enjoying the peace and quiet and solitude that Roosevelt needed when he decided to make that his home ranch. And he wrote about listening to the birds and hearing the wind in the cottonwood trees and listening to the sounds of the river.
Roosevelt came to the Dakotas to hunt bison in 1883, and, while he was there, invested in the Maltese Cross cattle ranch. After two tragedies and a bumpy last term as a New York State Assemblyman, he intended to permanently relocate there. But the Maltese Cross didn’t fit all of his needs.
Andes: It was along the river, which was a thoroughfare and people kept stopping by and he wanted solitude. So somebody had told him about the Elkhorn Ranch site. So he got on his horse and rode the river bottom. It's 35 miles along the river bottom to the site. He liked it and he had two of his friends from Maine come and build that cabin for him. And when you go out there, you'll see, it's down in the river bottom, almost completely surrounded by bluffs. And there was nobody out there. He had no neighbors, nobody to just drop by. And that's really what he was looking for and really what he needed. And it's a beautiful, quiet place.
Roosevelt bought the rights to the Elkhorn property for $400. Quite a steal.
The house is no longer standing. After Roosevelt sold it off in 1898, it was picked over by 1901. But you can still drive out to the site, which is an hour and 15 minutes from the park’s visitors center, so Tyler, a producer on this podcast, and I do just that.
At first the roads are paved, but eventually, we turn off onto a red gravel road. The scientific name for that red gravel is clinker, and it’s not long before our white SUV is coated in a fine layer of red dust, like we went to Mars.
McCarthy: We are in the middle of nowhere. Like, literally in the middle of nowhere.
Eventually, we turn off the gravel road onto another, deeply rutted road.
McCarthy: Put that seatbelt on. We are... Genuinely rough-riding right now. So... gotta make sure you're all buckled up!
Tyler Klang: That's right.
McCarthy: So the road is surrounded by all of these bluffs. And some of them are really green... And some of them have a lot of erosion, and there's all these, like, yellow and white and gray layers.
GPS Voice: You have arrived.
Well, not quite. There’s still a bit of a walk from the parking lot out to the site. The path is surrounded by grass on either side, punctuated by cottonwood and juniper trees and yellow flowers and salsify plants that look kind of like huge dandelions when the seeds are ready to be blown off. Occasionally birds, and the moo of a cow, can be heard over the din of cicadas. Also, there are a lot of insects.
Klang: Did a butterfly attack you?
McCarthy: A butterfly just flew directly into my face!
Finally, we make it to the ranch site, which is cordoned off with barbed wire.
Klang: Do you want to give us a general description of where we are and what the area is like?
McCarthy: Yeah, so we are standing in between a whole bunch of stones on the grass, that vaguely form a little rectangle. Although, I guess it would be pretty big for a house out here. But yeah, we're just in this sort of flat area, and on one side is the Little Missouri River, and on the other side are all these bluffs that are like yellow, and gray, and white, with just a little bit of vegetation, but there are a lot of trees surrounding the site. It is really very peaceful. I can see why he liked it.
What was once here was a house 30 feet long and 60 feet wide, with seven foot high walls. Nearby were stables, a shed for cattle, a chicken house, and a blacksmith shop. On one side is a tall bluff, and on the other, through the trees, is the Little Missouri River—which one expert told me is 200 yards away from where it was in Roosevelt’s time.
Here’s how Roosevelt himself described the site:
“My home ranch house stands on the river brink. From the low, long veranda, shaded by leafy cotton-woods, one looks across sand bars and shallows to a strip of meadowland, behind which rises a line of sheer cliffs and grassy plateaus. This veranda is a pleasant place in the summer evenings when a cool breeze stirs along the river and blows in the faces of the tired men, who loll back in their rocking chairs, (what true American does not enjoy a rocking chair?), book in hand—though they do not often read the books, but rock gently to and fro, gazing sleepily out at the weird-looking buttes opposite, until their sharp outlines grow indistinct and purple in the afterglow of the sunset.”
McCarthy: Do you know why he named it Elkhorn Ranch?
Klang: Why is that?
McCarthy: He came out here and he found the skulls of two elk locked together. So they had fought, and then gotten stuck, and then they died. So T.R. named it Elkhorn Ranch after that.
For years, TR bounced back and forth between his political obligations in New York and the solitude offered here. More than silence, though, was the need to stay busy. Ranch duties couldn’t wait for a grieving caretaker. Things needed to be done, and Roosevelt threw himself into his work, sometimes spending 13 hours a day or more in the saddle.
Andes: He said, "Black care seldom sits behind the rider who moves fast enough." Something like that. Black care, I think, was depression.
The actual quote is “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough,” so Eileen nailed it.
Elkhorn had everything he needed. Distractions. Nature. Things that Roosevelt had long since learned cured whatever dark thoughts might be crossing his mind.
McCarthy: So when he wasn't ranching, or like, working in the fields, or doing his cattle rancher stuff, he would sit on the veranda, which he loved, and then he would write for up to five hours a day. And then, obviously, he was also reading a lot while he was out here. But yeah, I can definitely see why he chose this site, because if the other house was on a route that was too busy, and people were always stopping by and you really wanted some solitude, I feel like this is the place, because it's not easy to get to. And his nearest neighbors in either direction were at least 10 miles away.
And after Alice died he didn't really talk about her ever again. But I’m pretty sure he was out here when he wrote one of the only things that he wrote about her after her death. And then he just kind of closed the door on that chapter of his life, because he was not a person who liked to dwell on sad or bad things, which is something that Edith would say later.
As Baby Lee grew up in Bamie’s home, Roosevelt found comfort with the woman who would become his second wife. Her name was Edith Kermit Carow. They were married in 1886. The following year, Baby Lee joined them in Sagamore Hill. In 1889, just before the birth of their second son, Kermit, Roosevelt moved to Washington after being appointed U.S. Civil Service Commissioner. Another son, Archie, was born in 1894. It would not be the only significant personal event in Roosevelt’s life that year.
Roosevelt would go on to have four boys and one more girl. For the most part, the siblings got along well. That was a marked departure from Roosevelt’s own relationship with his brother, Elliott.
Born in 1860, Elliott was the black sheep of the Roosevelt clan, and he often tried TR’s patience. Elliott’s primary problem was the bottle. He drank heavily and often, trying to soothe the lingering pain of a serious accident. While he would sometimes attempt to curb his addiction at treatment centers, it never stuck.
All of this drove his straight-laced brother crazy, and worse than that, it threatened major scandal when Elliott got Katy Mann, his wife’s maid, pregnant in 1890.
Here’s Roosevelt family biographer William Mann, author of The Wars of the Roosevelts: The Ruthless Rise of America’s Greatest Political Family.
Mann: He was in many ways Theodore's polar opposite. Where Theodore was all about the rules of society and the expectations of society and certainly of his class, Elliott broke all of those rules. They had a lot in common as well. I mean, they grew up together. They were close as boys. They both were great sportsmen, they both loved to hunt, they both had a love of nature, but their personalities were very, very different.
Roosevelt thought Elliott was a burden not only to the Roosevelt family as a whole but to his own wife, Anna, and their three children—one of whom was future four-term first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who later became the American spokesperson for the United Nations.
Roosevelt attempted to become his brother’s conservator to curb his reckless spending and scandalous behavior. It was an interesting role reversal. As children, it was Elliott who looked out for his older brother.
Mann: The interesting thing about their relationship when they were children is they were both at different times caretakers for each other, and I think that defines the rest of their time together, or their adult life as well. Because when Theodore was young, of course he was very famously asthmatic and very frail and fragile. The family kept him pampered and sheltered and it was expected that the younger brother would take care of the older brother. So when they were traveling, or even just around the house, Elliott looked out for Theodore, helped him along, and looked to his parents for affirmation for that. They were always, you know, grateful that Elliott took such good care of Theodore.
As Roosevelt built his body and mind, he needed Elliott less and less. Soon, he would achieve goals that were out of Elliott’s reach. Traveling in opposite directions, the brothers grew apart.
Mann: I think the first break comes when Theodore seriously says, "I want to get ahead. I want to be president of the United States." Whether he articulated that particular thought himself or if he simply said, "I want to reach for elected office," that's the moment when Elliott becomes a problem and a problem that had to be solved.
When Elliott tried putting his life together, Roosevelt did not encourage him or pat him on the back. After Elliott checked himself into a sanitarium in Europe, Anna asked Roosevelt to write Elliott a letter praising him. But TR would not do it.
To Roosevelt, his brother’s wayward behavior would only cause him harm if he managed to continue his ascendancy in politics. He believed the best way to maintain his reputation in the face of his brother’s mistakes was to make sure he could demonstrate he had tried helping Elliott. Unfortunately, his dogmatic approach may not have been in Elliott’s best interests.
Mann: It's heartbreaking when you look back because this was a man who was not drinking at the time, but they needed to institutionalize him for drunkenness. Bye sails to France and moves in to their household and essentially watches him like an eagle eye and is constantly writing back to Theodore reporting on his every move. And it's stressing the whole family out, it's stressing Elliott's wife and his children, and Elliott does, because of this, he does begin to drink a few times and they catch him. "Aha, we knew it. We knew you were going to drink too much." And eventually they do get him away from his family, they do get his wife's agreement, and he's institutionalized and it's all to be able to say, you know, should this scandal break, "Well, look, we did the right thing. We got him way from his family. He was dissolute, he was depraved. We took him away from his children because that's the right thing to do." You know, you read Eleanor Roosevelt's memoirs and it's clear she never thought that was the right thing to do because she carried a scar for the rest of her life of losing her father.
Tragedy soon found Elliott. Anna died of diphtheria in 1892. One of Elliott’s sons, Elliott Junior, succumbed to the same illness the following year. These deaths unraveled what was left of Elliott.
On August 13, 1894, TR got a telegram—by this point, a method of communication he must have grown to dread—notifying him that Elliott was in New York and in poor health. He shunned any attempts by his family to comfort him. Roosevelt honored his wishes to be left alone, and the next day, Elliott tried to kill himself by jumping out of a window. He survived, but a seizure followed. Elliott Roosevelt was dead at the age of 34.
Roosevelt had been able to compartmentalize Elliott’s problems by keeping his distance. But when he saw Elliott’s body, his coping method was of no use. He wept openly. His sister Corinne said that “Theodore was more overcome than I have ever seen him, and cried like a little child for a long time.”
Mann: We don't actually have any specific thoughts about how he felt about that, except Corinne's observation that he cried like a baby when he stood over his brother's corpse. And I just have to feel that in those tears, there was every, every emotion. There was grief, there was empathy, there was guilt, perhaps even, because the way Corinne describes it, it was a very cathartic cry. And he was a good man. Theodore Roosevelt was a good man in his heart. He wanted to do the right thing even though he was often so constrained by what was supposed to be done by, you know, society. But I have to believe that in that moment he felt all of those emotions about his brother. You know, I don't think he would ever have said to himself even, you know, "What I did was wrong," or, "I could have done something differently." I don't think he could ever bring himself to think of that.
Elliott, Roosevelt wrote, was “like a stricken, hunted creature” who had been pursued by “terrible demons.” Any thoughts of Elliott as a stain on his reputation seemed to evaporate. In death, Roosevelt saw him only as a lost soul. Though he was later exhumed and laid to rest next to Anna in the Hall family mausoleum at St. Paul’s Church in Tivoli, New York, Roosevelt initially insisted Elliott be buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, the site of the Roosevelt family plot, where he remained for two years. There, TR wrote, Elliott could be next to those who “are associated only with his sweet innocent youth.”
The empty space left by his parents, by Alice, and by Elliott could never be filled, but by the 1910s, Roosevelt had a number of important people in his life to occupy his time and his mind. There was Edith and his six children. For a time, life was relatively quiet—as quiet as TR’s life could be, anyway.
Then came America’s entry into World War I, which TR had lobbied for. He’d wanted to create a volunteer division, but president Woodrow Wilson wouldn’t allow it. Roosevelt’s sons so revered their father that they felt compelled to take up arms in his stead. Archie Roosevelt once told a historian that, “We all knew how badly Dad wanted to go, so we went for him. He always told us to lead meant to serve.”
World War I was a conflict waged with an efficient brutality. Grenades, heavy ammunition, planes, and trenches all conspired to wound an estimated 21 million soldiers. Some came back home with devastating injuries that required the use of plaster masks to hide facial disfigurements. Others took round after round of machine-gun fire. It was this unforgiving environment that the Roosevelt boys found themselves in.
Archie and Ted sailed to France. Archie was seriously wounded in the knee and arm by shell fragments. Later, Ted would suffer a leg wound. But it was Quentin who paid the ultimate price, shot down by enemy fire.
“To feel that one has inspired a boy to conduct that has resulted in his death has a pretty serious side for a father. And at the same time I would not have cared for my boys and they would not have cared for me if our relations had not been just along that line.”
Here’s Tyler Kuliberda.
Kuliberda: He doesn't talk about it, about his feelings about it publicly. He maintains everything that he had said before the war about war and about his sons being involved in it. Quentin is, you know, killed in battle, and Roosevelt calls that riding the crest of life. He thinks it's kind of the highest achievement you can have as a person, sacrificing yourself in effort of war.
Roosevelt clung to something with Quentin’s death. It was the nobility of sacrifice, a life exchanged for the greater good. Writing to King George V in response to his and the Queen’s condolences, TR said that his sons had “sailed from our shores over a year ago; their mother and I knew their temper and quality; and we did not expect to see all of them come back.”
But he could also waver. Writing to Kermit’s wife, Belle Willard Roosevelt, he lamented the pain felt by Quentin’s fiancée, Flora.
“It is no use pretending that Quentin’s death is not very terrible … It is useless for me to pretend that it is not very bitter to see that good, gallant, tender-hearted boy, leave life at its crest, when it held Flora, and such happiness, and certainly an honorable and perhaps a distinguished career.”
Kuliberda: Edith has a nice quote about the boys and their service in war. She says that you cannot raise boys to be eagles and then expect them to act like sparrows. So, losing Quentin for Roosevelt, I imagine that there was a lot of questioning of his attitude towards war, about whether or not he pressed his sons into service, and if that was a correct thing to do for all of them. We only know that he continued to say that Quentin was a valiant soldier, and that it was a higher purpose that he sacrificed himself for.
Quentin’s grave in France became a shrine that was visited by many soldiers. The Americans replaced a German cross marking the grave, and the French built a fence around it. The Roosevelts decided to leave his body there, where he had fallen in battle and where respect was being paid.
Roosevelt spent time with Edith in Dark Harbor, Maine, rowing out onto the lake to commune with nature. It was his most enduring coping mechanism. But he was older now, a man of almost 60, and the strain and toil of losing a loved one wore on his constitution. He died in his sleep on January 6, 1919, of a pulmonary embolism.
Kuliberda: Some historians have posited that six months after Quentin dies Roosevelt himself dies, so some people have put it that he had died of a broken heart in addition to physical ailments. And perhaps there's something to that. Perhaps Roosevelt couldn't continue to go on living in a world where maybe his entire view of war, which was a big part of his outlook and his world view, maybe had changed.
Prior to his death, supporters called for Roosevelt to run for president once more. Owing to his advancing age and the loss of Quentin, the man who was previously ready to run back into battle could not fathom taking on any more responsibility. “Since Quentin’s death, the world seems to have shut down upon me,” he wrote.
Four days. Four telegrams, for five tragedies. Each loss fundamentally altered how Theodore Roosevelt looked at the world—and fundamentally altered him. It’s difficult to say if TR truly conquered tragedy. You don’t leave losses like these behind—they become a part of you. What we know is that it wounded him, sometimes froze him. But it did not overcome him.
History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Jake Rossen and researched by me, with additional research by Michael Salgarolo. Fact checking by Austin Thompson. Field recording by Jon Mayer and Tyler Klang. Joe Weigand voiced TR in this episode.
The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang. The supervising producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.
Special thanks to Tyler Kuliberda, Holly Frey, Eileen Andes, William Mann, and North Dakota Tourism.
To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, visit MentalFloss.com/HistoryVs.
History Vs. is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.