History Vs. Episode 8: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Alice
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.
In 1905, a group of American politicians set off for the Far East. The diplomatic delegation included seven senators, more than 20 congressmen, and Secretary of War William Howard Taft, but there was one member in particular who captivated the press.
The 21-year-old woman had been acting up the whole trip, setting off firecrackers and shooting her revolver from the back of the train before they had even left the country. But her biggest scandal happened aboard the steamship Manchuria. The young woman plunged into the ship’s swimming tank fully clothed in a white silk skirt and blouse. She had reportedly jumped on a dare—one that she’d proposed herself.
It would have been scandalous behavior for any woman at that time, but this prankster wasn’t just any woman. This was Alice Roosevelt—the oldest child of President Theodore Roosevelt.
From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their great foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and for this round, we’re pitting TR against his daughter Alice—a constant source of stress for the 26th president. Roosevelt once said: “I can be president of the United States, or I can attend to Alice.” So how did TR juggle running the country with raising his oldest daughter? We’re about to find out.
The Roosevelt family had all the elements of a happy, conventional household. Theodore Roosevelt married his second wife—and childhood sweetheart—Edith Kermit Carow in 1886. Together they had five children: Theodore III (or Ted Jr.), Kermit, Ethel, Archibald, and Quentin. Growing up, the boys enjoyed boxing with their father, while Ethel stuck to more ladylike activities like needlework.
And then there was Alice.
Holly Frey: Her brothers would tease her that they didn't have the same mom as her, and that … which she found very cruel and it was something she was really sensitive about.
That’s Holly Frey, from Stuff You Missed in History Class, and as she explains, Alice’s relationship with Edith wasn’t any smoother.
Frey: They fall into in some ways the classic stepmother/stepdaughter roles that we have come to expect from Disney films. And a lot of that was sort of this forever cloud that hung over the household of his first wife, Alice.
Before starting his life with Edith, Teddy Roosevelt had married Alice Hathaway Lee in 1880. The daughter of a banker, Alice Sr. was known in Massachusetts social circles for her charm and beauty. On meeting her, TR wrote, “As long as I live, I shall never forget how sweetly she looked and how prettily she greeted me.”
Alice became pregnant in 1883 and gave birth to a healthy baby girl named Alice Lee Roosevelt on February 12, 1884. With a lovely Boston socialite for a mother and an ambitious New York politician for a father, baby Alice should have had it all.
And then the unthinkable happened.
Shortly after the delivery, Alice Sr. fell ill. Teddy, who had been in Albany working on a law the day of his daughter’s birth, rushed home to New York City after receiving news of her condition. He held her in his arms as she passed in and out of consciousness. She had what was then known as Bright’s disease. Alice Hathaway Roosevelt died on February 14 at the age of 22.
It was the second loss TR had sustained that day. Just hours earlier, his mother Mittie Roosevelt had succumbed to typhoid fever. Barely two days old, Alice’s life was already embroiled in tragedy.
Frey: If you put yourself in that position of losing a parent that you're very close to and your spouse in the same day, it's pretty easy to understand that it completely changed his relationship with the world, not just his new child. They were setting up this beautiful life that they had planned out, and now everywhere he went was a memory of his wife that had passed, and that was a big part of why he kind of decided that he was going to leave and go out West.
Just a few months after his daughter was born, TR left her with his sister Anna, who went by the nicknames “Bamie” and “Bye,” and retreated to the Dakota Badlands. He rarely inquired about Alice in the letters he mailed home. He returned briefly to New York for business when she was about 5 months old, and even in person, he had trouble acknowledging her. He called her “Baby Lee,” because he couldn’t bear to say her mother’s name.
But though it wasn’t always apparent, Alice was loved. One of the first hints of fatherly affection from TR comes from a letter dated September 1884. He wrote: “I hope Mousiekins will be very cunning; I shall dearly love her.”
But the most stable source of love in baby Alice’s life was Aunt Bamie.
Frey: That was one of those relationships that ended up really, really setting the tone of Alice's life forever because Bamie became what she referred to as her biggest influence as a child. McCarthy: You know, It's crazy to hear about how much influence Bamie had on Alice, but also on TR and how often she would just drop everything to help him make political connections or do whatever it was that he needed done. Frey: She was really his most trusted confidant for pretty much the rest of his life. He would go to her with personal decisions, with political decisions, with any kind of thing that he was ruminating, and get his sister's opinion, which is kind of interesting. I feel like there are not that many instances in history of men with as much power as him who the first order of business when they're faced with a decision is, "Let me call my sister."
Bamie’s influence on Teddy lasted throughout his career. As president, he often referred to his sister’s home as the “other White House,” and according to their niece Eleanor Roosevelt, he made few serious political decisions without talking with her first. Alice later remarked, "If Auntie Bye had been a man, she would have been president."
But she wasn’t the only woman who mattered to TR. Almost two years after Alice Sr. died, Edith Kermit Carow entered his life—or re-entered it, rather. The couple likely had a teenage romance, and Edith ran in the same social circles as Theodore.
Frey: Edith was insistent that, "that child will become my child. She will come and live with us and we will be one big family together," which sounds really lovely but it was fraught with tension.
According to historian Edmund Morris, TR, Edith, and Bamie came up with a plan to live together for a time at Sagamore Hill, the Roosevelts’ famous Long Island estate, to ease Alice’s transition to a new family. That family got even bigger with the birth of Theodore, Jr. in 1887.
Edith wanted to be a good parent to her stepdaughter, but raising a headstrong child like Alice wasn’t always easy. When Alice was a teenager, Edith, along with Teddy, proposed sending her to a conservative boarding school in New York City. According to historians Peter Collier and David Horowitz, Alice protested, saying: “If you send me I will humiliate you. I will do something that will shame you. I tell you I will.”
When she was older, Alice often spent time with Bamie, and as Kathleen Dalton writes in her book Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, she and Edith had very different ways of managing Alice. Bamie was generous, rarely hesitating to give her niece whatever she wanted, while Edith believed children needed discipline.
As Alice grew into a young woman, her resemblance to her mother became unmistakable, which made parenting her even harder for Edith.
Frey: It breaks my heart when I read that Edith badmouthed Alice to her daughter, Alice. It was kind of like, "Yeah, she really was very pretty, but she was also really stupid." Like, who would say that to a child? There was also this problem where, of course, you know, Theodore Roosevelt was out traveling a lot of the time. Which, the one person who really loved both of these women could not serve as any kind of buffer or mediator. They were just kind of left to fight it out on their own.
TR also saw his late wife in his daughter. The distance that existed between them when Alice was a baby, along with his refusal to talk about her mother, lingered throughout her childhood. She would later say: "I think it is true to say that my father didn’t want me to be a guilty burden. He obviously felt guilty about it, otherwise he would have said at least once that I had another parent. The curious thing is that he never seemed to realize that I was perfectly aware of it and developing a resentment.”
TR’s aloofness wasn’t the only reason Alice didn’t see more of her father. He was also hard at work pursuing a political career. He served as both governor of New York and vice president of the United States while Alice was a teenager. Then in 1901, following William McKinley’s assassination, Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as president.
The Roosevelts were going to the White House.
We’ll be right back.
At the start of his presidency, TR was a father to six kids ranging in age from 3 to 17. The nation hadn't seen a presidential family quite like the Roosevelt clan before. The children treated their new home as their personal playground, roller-skating down the hardwood floors, venturing into crawl spaces, and throwing spitballs at a painting of Andrew Jackson—a crime TR put them on trial for. (He found them guilty.)
Roosevelt’s sons, Quentin and Archie, were members of what was called the “White House Gang,” which met in the building’s attic. TR was an honorary member.
In case the kids weren't enough of a handful on their own, Teddy and Edith also had a menagerie of pets to worry about. The family animals included, at one point or another, a lizard, a bear, a badger, a hyena, a one-legged rooster, a pony, and guinea pigs.
Here’s a funny story about the pony, whose name was Algonquin: One day, when Archie was feeling ill, someone—some sources say it was Quentin and TR’s other son, Kermit, while others say it was footman Charles Reeder—decided to bring the animal up to his room to cheer him up. Reportedly, the horse was so fascinated by his reflection in the elevator mirror that they had trouble getting him out.
Frey: His oldest son Ted almost had a nervous breakdown when he was a kid because he felt so much pressure, and his, you know, son Kermit was kind of a wild child but in his own way. He was the one that wanted to go to Africa with his dad and shoot things. And I think her stepsister Ethel was probably the most chill of them all. She didn't want to be in the spotlight, wanted to be super helpful. And then the two youngest boys, Archie and Quentin, sound a little bit like very fun hell on wheels. They sound like very fun children to read about but maybe not live with.
Even though she was the oldest, Alice got into the most trouble of them all.
Frey: And so Alice in the meantime, she had already, before the election even, started showing up in the press. You know, gossip magazines loved her ‘cause she was a handful. She was a smoker, which of course was frowned upon. And at one point, TR forbid her to smoke under his roof so she would just go out on the roof of the White House. She's like, "I'm not under your roof.” McCarthy: "I'm not breaking your rule." Frey: Yeah. "I'm technically abiding to the letter of the law." She would play poker and she would bet on horses and she would drink a lot, and she was photographed doing all these things. She would ride in cars with adult men with no chaperone, which of course was terribly scandalous. She would also get in street races in her car in Washington, like, in the nation's capital, she’d be drag racing down the street. At one point, she announced that she was turning pagan just to kind of rile up the family. Her stepmother was very religious and she … Alice would tell Edith that she thought Christianity was a form of voodoo. McCarthy: Sounds like a teenager. Frey: The Roosevelts in general had some crazy issues when it came to pets. But she would occasionally carry around this snake in her pocket that she named Emily Spinach ... McCarthy: That's a great snake name. Frey: It is. It's good. I feel like that's also a good punk band name, so if any historically minded punk bands are looking for a name, that's a good one to snag, Emily Spinach.
The snake was named after Alice’s aunt Emily because it was as thin as she was. It was also, in Alice’s words, “green as spinach.”
McCarthy: So how did the public react? Frey: In a weird way, they kind of loved her. She was called Princess Alice in the press. And … I mean, I think some of Teddy Roosevelt's appeal at the time was that sure, he was a politician, but he was also this rugged, kind of old school, to use this phrase man's man. Like, he did go out and hunt and he had no hesitation to go out into the wilderness by himself, and so she in some ways seemed liked the city extension of him. She had her father's wildness, and so there was definitely some appeal in that. Like, she started a trend in popular colors at the time because she loved this particular shade of like a grayish blue, and it started to become Alice blue and suddenly you saw Alice blue dresses, hats, accessories, everything.
Alice Roosevelt was the original White House Wild Child. Newspapers never missed an opportunity to print her name, whether in relation to a real event, like the hundreds of parties she attended, or a piece of unsubstantiated gossip. Even the men who claimed to have proposed to her were considered newsworthy. The press couldn’t get enough of Princess Alice, and they weren’t the only ones: Musicians wrote waltzes inspired by her; her likeness was put on postcards. (Right now we’re listening to the 1919 song “Alice Blue Gown.”)
Her father, on the other hand, was less enamored of her behavior.
TR often wrote “posterity letters” for historians to study, and his daughter, who frequently did things that threatened his reputation, was often on the receiving end.
In one letter, he said: "Do you know how much talk there has been recently in the newspapers about your betting and courting notoriety with that unfortunate snake [...] Do try to remember that to court notoriety by bizarre actions is underbred and unladylike."
She spent lots of money—so much that, according to Dalton, Edith once asked her, “How would you like to have Archie give up college to pay your debts?” The New York Times declared when she visited a horse race, “she is as much an attraction as the thoroughbreds.”
Before the 1904 election, Alice said she got “a terrible lecture from Father & Mother on the family and my extravagance, [and] lack of morals.”
But Alice did make some attempts to please her family. She became engaged in politics, reading books about child labor and going with her father to meet important officials. At home she tried getting along with Edith and helped her with chores. But these streaks of good behavior never lasted long. No matter how she acted, Alice felt like an outcast among the Roosevelts, and that became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Father doesn’t care for me. That is to say, one-eighth as much as he does the other children,” she wrote in her diary in 1903. “We are not in the least congenial … Why should he pay any attention to me or the things that I live for, except to look upon them with disapproval?”
Still, when a congressman’s wife criticized Alice for her “bumptious, awkward manners,” TR, Dalton writes, “personally confronted his daughter’s critic.”
But Alice was more similar to her father than she may have felt at times. They both shared strong convictions, sharp intelligence, and a passion for learning. TR had a special fondness for his like-minded daughter, but with such big personalities sharing the White House and the headlines, they were bound to clash. It’s been said that TR always wanted to be “the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding, and the baby at every christening.”
Frey: One of the reasons that they did butt heads is because they both were kind of spotlight grabbers. And she also felt like she was competing with his wife and his five other children for his attention when she kind of wanted more than she was getting. And I'm sure that is part of why she would do ridiculous things like march into his office when he was meeting with heads of state. And it eventually reached the fever pitch where he came up with an idea that would get her out of his hair for a little while, which was making her a goodwill ambassador.
After unsuccessful attempts to reign Alice in, TR could see that she needed an outlet. Sending her as his representative to important events had the added bonus of granting him peace and quiet at home.
Her biggest job yet came in 1905 when she was 21. The U.S. was organizing a goodwill trip to Asia, and she was to serve as a goodwill ambassador. With stops planned for Hawaii, Japan, China, and the Philippines, it was to be the largest political delegation from the United States to ever visit the area. The trip turned out to be historic in another way: Never before had a first daughter been given a role of such importance. And Alice certainly made the most of it.
Frey: She was very good at dealing with the other people that were in power. She was very good at representing her father insofar as she completely supported him and was very eloquent. She was well spoken even though she always said she didn't really like public speaking. She really liked, you know, meeting with people and discussing what he was doing with them. But the flip side is that she was traveling with Taft, who was allegedly the person that was going to be in charge of keeping her in line, which I don't know why anyone thought that would work. But also a group of congressmen … there were a lot of people on this trip, and Alice kind of exploited every opportunity to party with all of them.
The partying culminated with Alice’s infamous plunge into the steamship’s pool.
Frey: She dared a congressman to do the same and he did, which was considered completely scandalous, although she always reacted to that by saying, "It would only have been really outrageous if I had taken off my clothes. We were both fully dressed. It was fine."
To make matters even more scandalous, outlets reported that it was Washington playboy Nicholas Longworth she had coerced to jump in the pool with her. Though Alice and Longworth did spend a lot of time together on that trip, she later admitted it had been a different congressman who accepted her dare.
Frey: She also didn't really seem to care what people thought of her, and so she was willing to do almost anything in the interest of having fun and continuing to kind of court that image that she had of being, you know, TR's wild child daughter. McCarthy: Is there anything on record about how her father reacted to that little dip in the pool? Frey: I mean, I think … I think about my father's reaction to all the stuff that I did when I was a kid and still do, and he always just goes, "Ugh, my stupid kid." And I imagine a very similar reaction from Theodore Roosevelt like, "Oh, my stupid kid." McCarthy: You kind of have to wonder if he was just like, "That's Alice. Can't control her. Can't do it all." Frey: Yeah. He’s like, "That's Taft's problem right now, I’m busy.”
At this point, future president William Howard Taft was the country’s secretary of war. Japan and Russia were in an expensive conflict, and part of Taft’s mission was to have a meeting with the Japanese prime minister. Babysitting should have been the least of his concerns.
Frey: It had to have aged him immeasurably during that trip. I mean, I can't even imagine how stressful that would have been. Like, "Here is my drunken wild child, you're in charge of keeping track of her and you have to do it while traveling with a bunch of men who she's going to flirt with." McCarthy: "And also make important political deals while you're not worrying about my wild child daughter." Frey: Yeah, exactly. If you were to think about something similar happening in the modern instance, right, like, it's hard to come up with an equivalent of a president handing their misbehaving child off to someone else and just being like, "Keep an eye on my kid, who's going to carry a gun the whole way, by the way." McCarthy: That she's just going to pull out on a whim and shoot at things. Frey: Shoot into the sky. I cannot imagine the stress that Taft must have felt at that time. McCarthy: I feel like he must have given up at a certain point. Again, just like her parents, Taft was probably like, eh, I can only do so much here. ... Frey: “My stupid kid." I think because she lost her mother so early, and because I'm sure the president realized that there was this gap in her life in that not only had she lost her mother, but he never spoke of her mother. So I think that probably fed into his willingness to just let her be the kid she was. He also valued the fact that she was smart as a whip and that she was independent. He liked that about her. It's why he liked his sister, Bamie, that she too was really smart, very independent. And so, I mean, he admired the very qualities that were becoming a pain in the neck for his life, so there's a juxtaposition there. And that was something that he applied to all his kids. He said similar things to his sons, you know, like, "Whatever you do, do not lose your smartness. That's the most important part of you. You're very smart and clever." So I think while he was probably publicly going, "Hey, that's my stupid kid," he was also in his private library going, "But I'm kind of proud of that.”
Even when she appeared to be having too much of a good time, Alice never wasted an opportunity to gain political acumen. Her wild world tour, along with her adventures in the White House, shaped her into a woman that didn’t just hobnob with political heavy hitters, but could hold her own against them.
Frey: I mean, she was barging in on meetings that should have had major security. And additionally, when she's traveling with all these congressmen and other people that are high ranking within the political structure and she's getting drunk with them, I can only imagine what she learned along the way. And she, to her credit, was very smart and she took in all that information and synthesized it into a pretty impressive knowledge of the workings of not just politics like how they appear on paper, but really how relationships among politicians worked.
Political lessons weren’t the only things Alice gained on her trip to Asia. She would go on to marry the man who newspapers falsely reported her jumping into the pool with—Ohio state Senator Nicholas Longworth, who was responsible for the Longworth Act of 1902, which regulated municipal bonds in Ohio.
McCarthy: So 1906 she gets married to Nick Longworth. Who was he? Frey: He was first a lawyer and then he was an Ohio senator. He was also a notorious womanizer. He was, like Alice, a party person. He was super fun. He dressed really cute, he was adorable and charming. For Alice, who was feeling pretty stifled in the White House, to have someone who was in politics and was in a position of power who was also like, "Yes, let's party," to her that was wildly appealing.
Though Longworth’s personality isn’t discussed as much as Alice’s, he wasn’t afraid to indulge in bawdy behavior. For example: According to one story, when a member of the House ran his hand over Longworth’s bald head and said “nice and smooth, feels just like my wife’s bottom,” Longworth touched his head and replied, “Yes, so it does.”
He was also pretty open about the fact that he was a ladies' man.
Frey: He and Alice were kindred spirits in many regards. I think the one really good thing in their match, which had its own problems, was that they got each other. You know what I mean? They understood the other person in ways that I think a lot of people who were more concerned with propriety would never have understood.
In 1906, Alice married Nicholas Longworth in a lavish ceremony worthy of America’s princess. She walked down the aisle on her father’s arm wearing lace from the dress her birth mother had worn to her wedding 26 years earlier. She chose to have no bridesmaids waiting for her at the altar: Instead, she commanded the undivided attention of the 1000 guests in attendance. She cut the cake with a military aide’s sword.
After the ceremony, Edith reportedly told her stepdaughter: “I want you to know that I’m glad to see you go. You’ve never been anything but trouble.” Lucky for her, Alice didn’t take the comment personally and blamed it on the stress of the wedding.
The first daughter was officially Mrs. Alice Longworth, the wife of an important politician. But if anyone thought married life would change Alice’s rambunctious ways, they didn’t know her well enough.
She continued getting into trouble well into adulthood. One day in 1908, when she was feeling bored in the Capitol's gallery at the House of Representatives, she slipped a tack on the chair of an unnamed gentleman. The New York Times reported that when he sat down, “like the burst of a bubble on the fountain, like the bolt from the blue, like the ball from the cannon, he sprang into the ambient atmosphere, painfully conscious he had come into close contact with something sharp. He seemed angry. He glared around. But the president’s daughter was looking the other way.” There’s also the story of how she welcomed her father’s successor by burying a voodoo doll on the White House grounds before moving out. She was supposedly banned from the Taft White House after that. Later in life, she was quoted as saying: “I’m amused and, I hope, amusing. I’ve always believed in the adage that the secret to eternal youth is arrested development.”
McCarthy: Back in that day, in theory, a woman would get married and kind of settle down, and it didn't seem like there was any settling down for Alice. Frey: No. She stayed her same self. She was never the shy and retiring violet type. I think at that point, she had never lived a life like that. How would she even switch gears to that, because it wasn't anything she had ever known. You know, she had had really a lot more freedom than most young women of the time and just was not interested in giving that up, I don’t think.
Even if Alice was able to find ways to keep her inner child alive, she couldn’t escape adulthood completely. That meant dealing with the reality of her marriage.
Frey: When I talk about their marriage, it's not like the fairy tale romance marriage where like, he swept her off her feet and they lived happily ever after, devoted to one another. They understood each other and so they were very much the same people that they were before they ever said their vows. So they butted heads because they were both pretty strong willed and kind of outgoing, outrageous people, but there was also some infidelity on both sides, which they didn't really seem to mind. I'm sure there were some arguments over such things, but the bottom line was that they kind of were like, "Well, this is how it works for us."
Alice and Nicholas had the same problems that afflict many troubled marriages. Her husband’s playboy lifestyle didn’t end on his wedding day, and he carried out numerous affairs. But there was a bigger issue looming over their union: politics.
We’ll be right back.
In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt vied to take the Republican presidential nomination away from incumbent president William Howard Taft, and tensions in the Longworth household reached their peak.
Frey: Nicholas supported Taft. Obviously Alice supported her father. And she actually went and appeared in her husband's home district of Cincinnati with Hiram Johnson, who was her father's vice presidential running mate, instead of appearing with her husband on his campaign, which was kind of a slap in the face.
Longworth lost that election, and as the political rift between her and Nicholas widened, Alice put less effort into maintaining their marriage. It wasn’t long before she started pursuing extramarital affairs of her own.
Frey: Alice started an affair in the 1920s with the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That was Senator William Borah of Idaho, and that relationship not only went on for a long time, but they got really pretty sloppy about concealing it, so it kind of became public knowledge. She got the nickname Aurora Borah Alice in gossip papers. I mean, they would be seen together out on the town and they kind of really seemed to be very deeply in love. If you read their letters, I mean, everybody would want someone to write about them the way they write about each other. And she actually had a daughter, Paulina, born in 1925, which is recorded as Alice and Nicholas's child. It is very, very highly likely that was in fact Borah's child, although Longworth did not seem to care because he was absolutely devoted to Paulina. In her very later life, in her nineties, a reporter asked her if she would get married again if she could do it all over and she said that she would not. She said, "I might live with people, but not for long. I really wouldn't want to do anything pondering or noble or taking a position about someone again. But I might rather just spend the night with them, or an afternoon or something."
In many ways, Alice was ahead of her time. There was no blueprint for free-spirited women navigating public life in early 20th-century America. But there was another outspoken, strong-willed woman in politics born the same year as Alice who arguably succeeded where Alice struggled: her cousin Eleanor.
Eleanor Roosevelt was the daughter of Elliott Bulloch Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s younger brother. She lost both of her parents at a young age. Her mother died of diphtheria when [Eleanor] was just 8 years old. Two years later, her father, an alcoholic, jumped from a window while suffering from alcohol withdrawal-induced delirium, then had a seizure and died. She ended up spending a lot of time at Sagamore Hill with her Uncle TR, and it was there that she developed a lifelong rivalry with Alice. In 1905, Eleanor would wed her uncle’s fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, of the Hyde Park Roosevelts.
Frey: Alice would always say that those weren't the real Roosevelts.
Theodore and Bamie’s regard for their niece likely fueled Alice’s jealousy. Dalton explains that, in Bamie’s eyes, personable, politically minded Eleanor was more “Rooseveltian” than unpolished Alice. TR would point to Eleanor’s respectable conduct as an example for his daughter to aspire to. But Alice had no interest in being more like her cousin, and when FDR entered the White House, she made those feelings especially clear.
Frey: She would also do really, really garbage, unkind impressions of Eleanor at parties. I can't imagine being on the receiving end of someone with such a sharp and unkind wit. Even late in her life, when she had already calmed down a lot and said a lot of nice things about people that she used to be pretty unkind about, she said, "I'm probably bad about people who have noble, fine, and marvelous thoughts. That's so depressing. I could never stand the little pious family things that my sanctimonious cousins used to do, but they're all dead now." She held her dad in such high esteem, and to some degree put him on a pedestal, which I think a lot of people have over the years. But her devotion was utterly unwavering to the point that basically there was Teddy Roosevelt and there was the rest of the world and no one else could measure up.
Alice lost her father in 1919 and her husband in 1931. In 1957, her daughter Paulina overdosed from sleeping pills at age 31, leaving behind a 10-year-old daughter named Joanna. Alice fought for custody of her grandchild and won.
Frey: In many ways she kind of fulfilled the similar role that Aunt Bye had done for her, making it a family tradition of really strong, independent, very outspoken women raising the next generation. McCarthy: Yeah, and then you have to wonder if maybe she had some more respect for Edith after that situation. Frey: I do think life experience and in particular her experience raising Paulina and then Joanna really did shift how she thought about her relationship with Edith and how both of them handled it.
Even without the men in her life connecting her to that world, Alice lived the rest of her life in Washington, D.C. and stayed involved in politics.
Frey: She and Nick had moved into a house at Dupont Circle. And that home was the site of a lot of gatherings and a lot of her true influence we probably won't ever know because it wasn't documented. It was largely exerted in this social setting, although she was certainly a very vocal supporter of various politicians over the years. She was a very vocal supporter of Nixon. She also came to be known as "the other Washington monument" because she was recognized as a significant figure in Washington, which automatically would come with some influence.
Alice’s later years were only slightly less exciting than her youth had been. She made friends with people across the political spectrum. Nixon would often call her up from the White House, and according to some friends, Alice and Robert Kennedy had a “thing” for each other, despite their 40-year age gap. But she didn’t extend her affections to just anyone. She notably refused to meet with Jimmy Carter, the last sitting president in her lifetime. In his eulogy for Alice, Carter wrote: "She had style, she had grace, and she had a sense of humor that kept generations of political newcomers to Washington wondering which was worse—to be skewered by her wit or to be ignored by her."
Alice Roosevelt Longworth died on February 20, 1980 at age 96. Decades after her death and more than a century since she last occupied the White House, her legacy as first daughter is more relevant than ever.
Frey: She was the first in a long line of presidential children that hit the spotlight. She was the first… the first "first daughter" who had this sort of ambassador goodwill situation. She was really one of the first ones that became a focus of the press and even courted that focus. It was like, "Yes, of course look at me and my ridiculous behavior." She kind of shifted the way we think about the leadership of our country and its family. I find that aspect of politics completely fascinating, period. Like the fact that once someone is in politics, we scrutinize their kids, their distant relatives, their ... That, to me, is a really interesting thing, and she was part of building that idea that it was press-worthy to cover the doings of a child of the president.
She also played a major part in shaping her father’s legacy. Even if he didn’t always show her the affection she craved, and didn’t always approve of the way she acted, TR could always count on having Alice in his corner.
Frey: Because of how deeply she loved her father and because she outlived him, of course, she really was able to kind of help continue to bolster and shape his image as time went on and ensure, in many ways, that the TR that we think about now is the TR we think about now. Like, she continued to always speak of him and write about him in only the most praising ways, even when she would say things like, "He always wanted to be the center of attention." McCarthy: So I guess the ultimate question is, if we're looking at TR versus Alice, who's the winner? Is there a winner? Frey: It kind of feels like a rare instance where they both sort of won. McCarthy: Yeah. Frey: He was able to continue his presidency and he came out of it in many ways, historically, looking pretty good. She was able to live a very lovely life. She was very smart and astute in terms of business as her husband had passed and she was almost immediately thinking about ways she could ensure that she had plenty of money to live on going forward, so she wrote her memoirs at that point and capitalized on that and she licensed her image to be on things like cold cream and cigarettes and other products. Yeah, they kind of both ended up succeeding in life in ways that in some part were due to each other's behavior even as much as they argued. So … I'm going to call it a win-win.
History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Michele Debczak with research by me and additional research by Michael Salgarolo. Fact checking by Austin Thompson. Joe Weigand voiced Theodore Roosevelt 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 Holly Frey.
To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, check out our website at mentalfloss.com/historyvs.
History Vs. Is a production of iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.