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.
Theodore Roosevelt was many things: a writer, a rancher, a president. But above all, he was a family man. TR was exceptionally close to, and dearly loved, his family. As he wrote in his autobiography, “A household of children, if things go reasonably well, certainly makes all other forms of success and achievement lose their importance by comparison. It may be true that he travels farthest who travels alone; but the goal thus reached is not worth reaching.”
TR wasn’t one to continually gush about his family members, but he made it clear that they truly were the most important part of his life. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and in this bonus episode of History Vs.—a podcast from Mental Floss and iHeartRadio about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes—we’ll be covering all the other Roosevelts that we didn’t get to talk about in detail in season 1.
Let’s start with TR’s older sister, Anna Roosevelt Cowles—or, as she’s more commonly known, Bamie.
Bamie was born on January 18, 1855, and had a curvature of the spine that caused a small hump; she required years of therapy in order to walk.
According to historian Betty Boyd Caroli, Bamie was so often on the go that her family gave her yet another nickname, “Bye,” as in “Bye, Bamie!”
With her endless energy, keen mind, and outstanding work ethic, Bamie was a steadying force for her family to rally around and rely on throughout her entire life. As soon as she was old enough, she managed the Roosevelt household and was sort of a third parent to her younger siblings, Theodore, Elliot, and Corinne. According to the Theodore Roosevelt Center, Bamie’s “maturity made her seem like one of the grown-ups when they were all young.”
That impression never really wore off for TR, and Bamie continued to advise and assist him when he was a grown-up himself. She decorated his room in the boarding house at Harvard and even had a hand in planning his first honeymoon. When TR and his first wife, Alice, spent a few days after their marriage at the Roosevelts’ rented Long Island estate, Kathleen Dalton writes that “Bamie had ordered all their meals ahead of time and arranged everything with the three servants who cared for them.”
When TR began his career in politics, Bamie lent an ear, doled out advice, and helped him make political connections. And when his brother Elliott’s maid, Katy Mann, said that Elliott had gotten her pregnant—a scandal that, if exposed, TR believed would threaten his political chances—it was Bamie who helped TR avoid a lawsuit.
Bamie married late in life, to a Navy officer named William Sheffield Cowles, and moved to Washington around the same time her brother was elected Vice President. There, her home became what TR would call “the other White House.” He visited often and consulted with Bamie on political appointments and maneuvers.
Bamie’s health declined as she aged, and she spent her final years with her husband in Connecticut, plagued by arthritis, backaches, deafness, and deteriorating eyesight. She passed away in 1931 at the age of 76, but there was one vital bit of TR’s legacy that she saw to before she died.
In 1899, Bamie sold the house where she, TR, and their other siblings had been born, and various stores and restaurants would go on to occupy the site. After he died in 1919, younger sister Corinne led the Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association in raising funds to buy back the site and transform it into a memorial. Together, Bamie and Corinne had it reconstructed exactly as they remembered it, complete with family portraits, heirlooms, and original furniture or replicas.
“The Roosevelt House” opened on TR’s birthday in 1923, and the National Park Service took it over 40 years later, renaming it the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site. Today, the house that Bamie so skillfully ran in her youth stands as a monument not only to TR’s legacy, but Bamie’s, too.
TR’s younger sister, Corinne, was a high-spirited, mercurial woman who devoted herself to him unwaveringly. While TR looked up to Bamie as an advisor and a role model, Corinne was more of a buddy.
According to Dalton, TR sought out Corinne’s company “when he felt soulful, or needed unambivalent praise or just playfulness.”
Corinne’s education consisted of private tutoring and a stint at Miss Comstock’s School in Manhattan, much of which she attended with her neighbor, Edith Kermit Carow. Edith, of course, would later become TR’s second wife.
Corinne herself married a boisterous, wealthy Scottish-born real estate broker named Douglas Robinson, a relative of former President James Monroe. Corinne sobbed through her engagement, but she didn’t dare break it off—and the energetic, socially active couple turned out to be surprisingly well-matched. They had four children: Two served in politics, and one authored a book that talked about his childhood at Sagamore Hill. The family was not without tragedy: Their youngest son, Stewart, died at 19 years old when he accidentally fell from a window at Harvard.
Throughout her adult life, Corinne split her time between poetry, politics, and parties.
Her first poem, “The Call of Brotherhood,” was published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1911, and she followed it up with several poetry books. Her friend and fellow writer Edith Wharton encouraged and edited some of her work.
Corinne also hosted lavish parties at the family’s estate in West Orange, New Jersey. It was at one of these parties that Franklin Roosevelt asked a girl to dance: His distant cousin, Eleanor, who was Corinne’s niece, and would later become Franklin’s wife.
In September 1918, Corinne’s husband passed away unexpectedly of heart disease at age 63, and she lost Theodore just a few months later, in January 1919. The sudden death of her beloved brother shook Corinne to her core.
“Life would always have glamour, enchantment, inspiration and delight as long as he lived,” she said, “And now he is gone.”
From that point until her own death in 1933 from pneumonia, Corinne’s life was essentially a tribute to TR. She worked with the Roosevelt Memorial Association, penned many heartfelt poems about him, and published a memoir titled My Brother Theodore Roosevelt in 1921.
Corrine threw herself into politics, backing presidential candidates whom she felt would uphold TR’s vision for the country. In 1920, she endorsed General Leonard Wood at the Republican National Convention. She also served on President Calvin Coolidge’s advisory committee during his 1924 campaign.
TR’s son, Ted Jr., summarized his aunt’s dedication to TR in his diary: “She has talked so much … about him that I really believe that she is more or less convinced that she is he now.”
While Corinne had processed her grief over TR’s death very publicly, his second wife, Edith, did her best to bury hers for the sake of her remaining family.
“I am dead, but no one but you dearest Corinne must know that,” she wrote in March 1919, just a few months after TR’s death. “I am fighting hard to pull myself together and do for the family not only my part but also Theodore’s.”
Edith kept busy by volunteering for the Women’s National Republican Club and the Needlework Guild, and took trips to Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. She wasn’t exactly a political activist, but she did encourage women to vote after the 19th Amendment passed, and she spoke out in support of Herbert Hoover when he ran against Franklin Roosevelt. (According to the Theodore Roosevelt Center, this was partly to clarify that Roosevelt wasn’t her son, as some Americans had assumed.)
As Sylvia Jukes Morris writes in her biography of Edith, the former First Lady was “by nature reclusive and sedentary,” and “she had to fight all the harder to be socially and culturally active—but fight she did, with courage that Theodore himself would have admired.”
She frequently attended parties in Oyster Bay, and even braved Manhattan for concerts and operas. Between all her traveling, volunteering, and keeping up with friends and family, Edith guided how TR was remembered in the eyes of the public. Not only did she destroy many of their love letters, she also had a lot of say in deciding which documents got passed on to historians. It’s for this reason that some scholars—including Michael Cullinane, who we spoke to in previous episodes of this podcast—consider Edith the true gatekeeper of TR’s legacy.
She was the gatekeeper of Sagamore Hill, too. After TR died, his eldest son, Ted, had intended to take over the estate and raise his family there. Edith, however, didn’t plan on moving. She wanted Sagamore Hill to be a center for the whole family, and eventually allotted a few acres of land to Ted so he could build his own home. He did, and these days, it’s known as the Old Orchard Museum.
Edith lived at Sagamore Hill for the rest of her life, and died there on September 30, 1948, at the age of 87. She’s buried at Youngs Memorial Cemetery with her husband.
Now let’s move on to the Roosevelt kids.
Edith and Theodore’s oldest son, Theodore III, or Ted Jr., technically followed his father into politics. But his path there was roundabout, and his defining legacy was mostly a military one.
After graduating from Harvard in 1909, Ted worked for a carpet company and then an investment banking firm. After World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, he planned for the inevitability of U.S. involvement by helping to organize a training program in Plattsburg(h), New York, which marked the beginning of his lifelong passion for military service.
In April 1917, the U.S. entered the war, and Ted, immediately commissioned major, was among the first soldiers sent to France. His wife, Eleanor Butler Alexander, left their children with Edith and set off for France as well, where she ran a YMCA, organized volunteers, and taught French to American soldiers.
The press lauded Ted as an adept, heroic leader—and so did his father.
“Our pride even surpasses our anxiety,” TR wrote. “I walk with my head higher because of you.”
A bullet to the knee during a 1918 battle would keep Ted away from the front lines for the rest of the war, and he soon set his sights on public service. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, Ted held a number of positions, including New York Assemblyman, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of Puerto Rico, and Governor General of the Philippines. He also spearheaded the establishment of the American Legion, ran for Governor of New York (but didn’t win), and eventually settled into a vice presidency at the publishing house Doubleday, Doran.
When the U.S. got involved in World War II, a middle-aged Ted was undeterred by his heart problems or the arthritis that forced him to walk with a cane. He enlisted, was promoted to brigadier general, and fought in Algeria and Italy. He was accompanied by his son Quentin, named for Ted’s younger brother who had died during World War I and had been buried in France.
Then came D-Day. Ted led the troops onto Utah Beach, earning a Medal of Honor for his valor. He survived, but a month after the battle, while still in France, Ted died of a heart attack. He was buried in the Normandy American Cemetery in France. In 1955, at the request of the Roosevelt family, his brother Quentin’s remains were relocated to rest there, too.
We’ll be right back.
In 1929, Ted Jr. published All in the Family, a memoir with many colorful anecdotes from the Roosevelts’ childhood. One of them really captures the spirit of his younger brother Kermit.
“When Father read to us we all interrupted him continually with questions, but Kermit was by far the worst offender,” Ted wrote. “One ‘why’ bred another so quickly in his mind that soon reading almost stopped.”
Kermit’s insatiable curiosity only strengthened as he got older, and in a way, his whole life was a quest to learn as much as he possibly could.
He accompanied his father on both the legendary African safari of 1909 and the life-threatening journey along Amazon’s River of Doubt in 1913 and ‘14. Without his father, he globe-trotted around places like Asia, the Indies, and the Galapagos Islands, exercising his penchant for picking up languages along the way. He could speak or read almost 10, including Portuguese, Swahili, Arabic, and Greek.
Kermit built an impressive resume: He authored several books and countless articles about his adventures, and he also wrote book reviews and essays about his father. He also worked at a bank in Buenos Aires and founded his own steamship company. He commanded British forces during World War I, and later helped bring about the modern U.S. Merchant Marine. He fathered four children with his wife, Belle Wyatt Willard. He was president of the National Association of Audubon Societies, what would later become the Audubon Society, and he even rubbed shoulders with Gertrude Stein and William Butler Yeats.
But, as Edmund Morris wrote in his book Colonel Roosevelt, “[Kermit’s] nomadic nature and marvelous talent for languages fought against the confinements of marriage and work. Depression steadily claimed him. He became a philanderer and insatiable drinker and, as his body thickened, developed a startling resemblance to his father.”
Kermit fought with British forces again at the beginning of World War II, but he was soon sent home because of his weak heart. He started drinking again. Thinking military service would do him good, his wife and younger brother, Archie, asked then-President Franklin Roosevelt to commission him in the American army.
He was sent to Alaska, where he helped to organize a militia, but the assignment wasn’t the steadying force his family had hoped for. In June 1943, Kermit took his own life. His mother, 81 at the time, was told that he had died of a heart attack. Kermit is buried at the Fort Richardson National Cemetery in Anchorage, Alaska.
In TR’s own words, his fourth child, Ethel, was “a jolly naughty whacky baby too attractive for anything, and thoroughly able to hold her own in the world.”
Ethel wasn’t too attractive to rough-house with her siblings, though. As Edward J. Renehan Jr. writes in his book The Lion’s Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War, Ethel was a “wild tomboy” who spent her early years “swinging from trees with her brothers, running relay races, rowing on Oyster Bay, and riding a succession of favorite horses.”
But as she got older, Ethel became the reserved, responsible daughter that her impulsive older sister, Alice, never was. While TR called Alice his “liability child,” he praised Ethel as the “asset child.” She stood beside her mother on White House receiving lines. She taught Sunday School to less fortunate children.
In 1914, World War I gave Ethel the opportunity to devote herself to volunteer work full-time. She had just married surgeon Richard Derby in 1913, and the two both treated wounded soldiers at the American Ambulance Hospital in France, years before the United States officially entered the fray.
Much like her grandfather, Thee, Ethel was committed to humanitarianism. After the war, she supported a number of causes, many of which were based in or around Oyster Bay, where she lived with her husband and children.
She volunteered for the Red Cross, and pushed for affordable housing for African Americans in the area. She was an active member of both her church and the local nursing service, and she also became a trustee of New York’s American Museum of Natural History—an institution her grandfather had helped found.
Though Ethel pursued her own charitable passions, she still made time to further her father’s conservation efforts and solidify the Roosevelt legacy in Oyster Bay. And we can thank Ethel for the preservation of Sagamore Hill, too. She helped establish the house as a National Historic Site after her mother died there in 1948.
Ethel lived in Oyster Bay until her death in 1977 at age 86. She’s buried in Youngs Memorial Cemetery.
While all the Roosevelt children treated the White House as their playground in one way or another, a few of Archibald’s antics were especially memorable. It was Little Archie who smuggled a Christmas tree into the White House in 1902, and his Shetland pony, Algonquin, reportedly rode the White House elevator to visit him while he was recovering from the measles the following year.
Archie, TR’s second youngest son, had inherited his father’s sense of adventure and uncanny lack of fear. His younger brother, Quentin, was his sidekick in the White House and beyond.
As Morris wrote in Colonel Roosevelt, the two brothers were “as different as Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.” Quentin was “easygoing and uncompetitive,” whereas TR’s aide called Archie “the pugnacious member” of the family. “He takes up the cudgel at every chance,” the aide wrote.
Archie’s favorite companion may have been Quentin, but his personality mirrored his older brother Ted Jr.’s. In many ways, so did his career. Like Ted, Archie worked for a carpet company after graduating Harvard, and was wounded in France during World War I.
After the war, Archie spent a few years in the oil industry before founding his own investment firm. His success kept his wife, Grace, and their four children from feeling the worst of the Great Depression.
But Archie abandoned the comfort of his office to join the American effort in World War II. He fought in New Guinea, and suffered wounds to the same arm and leg that had been shattered in World War I. Though Archie survived the war, he never completely recovered. He had always been politically conservative, but his post-war years were characterized by paranoia and conspiracy theories about communism.
He eventually retired to Florida, where he died in 1979 after a stroke. Archie was 85 years old. During his last days, at least, it seems like the ravages of war fell away, and he returned instead to happy memories of his boyhood in New York.
“I’m going to Sagamore Hill,” he kept repeating.
And, finally, we have Alice—or, as she was known in D.C., The Other Washington Monument.
In the end, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, whom we covered at length in a previous episode, outlived all of her half-siblings. She was TR’s oldest and arguably wildest child, the only one from his first marriage. She died in 1980 at age 96, and she’s buried in Washington, D.C., with her daughter, Paulina.
We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with another bonus episode of History Vs.
History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Ellen Gutoskey, with fact-checking by Austin Thompson.
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.
To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, check out our website at mentalfloss.com/historyvs.
History Vs. Is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.