Longworth, Alice Roosevelt (1884–1980)
Longworth, Alice Roosevelt (1884–1980)
Longworth, Alice Roosevelt (1884–1980)
American socialite, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, who captivated American society throughout much of the 20th century with her iconoclasm and witticisms. Name variations: Alice Roosevelt. Born Alice Lee Roosevelt on February 12, 1884, in New York City; died in Washington, D.C., on February 20, 1980, from cardiac arrest and bronchial pneumonia; daughter of Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919, a soldier and 26th president of the U.S.) and Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt (1861–1884); married Nicholas Longworth III (U.S. congressional representative), on February 17, 1906 (died, April 10, 1931); children: Paulina Longworth Sturm (1925–1957).
Mother died (February 14, 1884); father married Edith Kermit Carow (December 2, 1886); family moved from New York City to Washington, D.C. (1889); family moved from Washington, D.C. to New York City (1895); family moved from New York City to Washington, D.C. (1897); family moved from Washington, D.C. to Albany, New York (1898); father became president of U.S. (1901); made formal debut (January 3, 1903); father died (January 6, 1919); published Crowded Hours (1933); daughter Paulina married Alexander McCormick Sturm (August 26, 1944); grandchild Joanna Sturm born (1946); son-in-law Alexander Sturm died (November 13, 1951); daughter Paulina Sturm died (January 27, 1957).
After returning from her European honeymoon, Alice Roosevelt Longworth apparently had had her fill of royalty. "If I see one more king," she said, "I'll have him stuffed." Yet, Alice herself was called Princess Alice. As such, she had begun captivating the American public while still a teenager, as the daughter of one of America's most popular presidents. When she died in 1980, The New York Times referred to her as Washington's "dowager empress" who had continued to reign nearly 80 years after she went to live in the White House. Unlike monarchs who have become figureheads, America's princess through the years had "influential political connections." Alice once said that her father "always wants to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding, and the baby at every christening." Whether she intended it or not, Alice, too, attracted constant attention, not only because she was a president's daughter who had an abiding interest in politics, but also because, as The New York Times put it, she was "renowned for her caustic wit" and "her happy iconoclasm." Her home was for many decades a gathering place for political luminaries of all stripes. "You have to have a bit of malice to be a good hostess," she once noted. "I'm afraid I'm rather malevolent about people." Of her 1935 visit to the capital, Rebecca West wrote, "Physically, the city is dominated by the Washington Monument. … Intellectually, spiritually, the city is dominated by the last good thing said by Alice Roosevelt Longworth."
Alice Roosevelt was born in New York City in 1884 on Abraham Lincoln's birthday, the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt and Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt . Two days later, on St. Valentine's Day, both her mother and her paternal grandmother, Martha Bulloch Roosevelt , passed away. Distraught, Theodore Roosevelt moved to the Dakota Territory to become a rancher and left Baby Lee, as he called Alice, in the care of his sister Anna Roosevelt Cowles , called Bamie or Auntie Bye. Over two years later, on December 2, 1886, Theodore Roosevelt married Edith Carow (Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt ). In a letter, Anna offered to continue raising the baby, but Theodore responded, "I hardly know what to say about Baby Lee. Edith feels more strongly about her than I could have imagined possible." It finally was determined that the child would live with her father and stepmother. "It almost broke my heart to give her up," said Anna years later.
After his second marriage, Theodore Roosevelt saw his family grow rapidly with the birth of Theodore, Jr. (1887), Kermit (1889), Ethel Carow Roosevelt (1891), Archibald (1894), and Quentin (1897). Possibly because this expanding family required much of her stepmother's time and energy, Alice never felt entirely wanted in her own home. While Edith was a rather strict disciplinarian, insisting that Alice call her "mother," Alice was a free spirit chafing under the code of conduct expected of her. (A friend of her father's later inquired as to why he did not "look after Alice more." Theodore Roosevelt responded, "I can be President of the United States—or—I can look after Alice!") Biographer Carol Felsenthal notes that "at the core of the mother-stepdaughter relationship was a profound difference" over religion. Whereas Edith took religion seriously, Alice considered Christian dogma "sheer voodoo," and, when her father dragged her to church, Alice would often read a book or practice her "one-sided nose wrinkle" during the service.
After returning from the Dakota Territory, Theodore became ever more involved in politics. In 1886, he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City. In 1889, appointed Civil Service commissioner by President Benjamin Harrison, Theodore moved the family to Washington. When Mayor William Strong named Theodore chief police commissioner, they went back to New York. In 1897, the Roosevelts returned to Washington when President William McKinley appointed Theodore assistant secretary of the navy. After the Spanish-American War, during which Theodore won fame as a leader of the Rough Riders, the citizens of New York elected him governor which meant another move, this time to Albany. The stage was set for his nomination at the Republican national convention as McKinley's vice-presidential running mate. When McKinley won reelection, the Roosevelts again pulled up stakes and returned to the nation's capital.
During these early years, the relationship between Alice and her father was ambivalent. Felsenthal writes that Theodore "couldn't resist, after long days at the office, leading his children in games—or, as Alice characterized them, 'perfectly awful endurance tests masquerading as games.'" Theodore surely did not ignore his children, but certain physical activities led by her father "terrified Alice to the point of tears" for she wore ankle-to-knee braces for prevention of orthopedic problems from age 10 until she was 13. Alice also seemed envious of her first cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt , because of the attention Theodore gave Eleanor, especially after the death of Eleanor's father.
Soon after William McKinley began his second term in 1901, he was assassinated by Leon Czolgosz. Alice later admitted that she danced "a little jig" upon hearing the news that her father was now president of the United States. The 17-year-old Alice was soon fascinating the nation with her antics. When her father said that she could no longer smoke in his house, she climbed on the roof and smoked on his house. At a time when few women took the wheel of the still newly invented automobile, she drove her car around Washington with such abandon that she was once stopped for speeding. She bet on the horses and boasted of her winnings. When one eccentric suitor persisted in his attempts to wed his daughter, Theodore responded, "Of course he's insane. He wants to marry Alice."
If you haven't got anything good to say about anyone, come and sit by me.
—Alice Roosevelt Longworth
Alice made her debut in the East Room on January 3, 1903, the first American president's daughter to have such an event staged in the White House. In planning the festivity, Alice and her stepmother disagreed as to whether champagne should be served. When Edith finally vetoed the idea, Alice complained, "I think my coming-out party was a hangover from the brownstone-front existence of my stepmother when they had little parties with a modicum of decorous dancing and an amusing fruit punch." Some 600 guests attended the gala, including Alice's fifth cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt. "From start to finish it was glorious," he wrote. Franklin, then a student at Harvard, twice danced with Alice, and although he seemed taken with her, Alice did not respond in kind. Throughout her life, Alice held Franklin in rather low esteem; a Little Lord Fauntleroy, she called him, "a good little mother's boy" who was afraid to "rough it." When on March 17, 1905, Franklin married Eleanor Roosevelt, Alice's father gave away the bride while Alice was maid of honor.
In 1905, Alice traveled with a group of some 80 U.S. congressional representatives and their spouses to the Orient on what was billed an inspection tour. Although Alice had many interesting experiences, including a proposal of marriage from the sultan of Sulu, the most significant happening was the evolvement of a relationship with Nicholas Longworth III, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Ohio. Although Longworth was 14 years older and at one point Alice referred to him as "that old bald-headed man," by the time the tour ended she had fallen madly in love. In her diary, she wrote, "I love you with everything that is in me Nick, Nick, my Nick." In December 1905, the engagement of Alice Roosevelt to Nicholas Longworth was formally announced despite some misgivings by Alice's stepmother.
In America, Alice's wedding seemed to transcend all other events as newspapers concocted front-page stories "out of the smallest detail." The time set for the social event of the year was Saturday, February 17, 1906; the place was the White House. Prior to the occasion, much to Alice's dismay, Theodore Roosevelt stymied an attempt by certain Americans to raise $800,000 as a wedding gift. Other gifts were received from monarchs around the world, including the kings of Italy, England, and Spain, the emperors of Japan and Austria-Hungary, the kaiser of Germany, and Cixi , the empress-dowager of China. By eleven o'clock on the day of the wedding, the White House grounds were filled with many of the curious who were not among the fortunate invited to the festivities, and every florist's shop in the city had been emptied. At noon, the ceremony began. Alice chose to have no bridesmaids, for she intended to be the "star of the show." The Episcopal bishop of Washington, the Right Reverend Henry Yates Satterlee, officiated; Douglas MacArthur, who would become an American hero during World War II, was one of eight ushers; Theodore Roosevelt gave the bride away; and Cousin Franklin Roosevelt attended with his mother. Near the end of the reception, as the newlyweds prepared to leave, Alice thanked Edith for the memorable day. Her stepmother responded, "I want you to know that I'm glad to see you go. You've never been anything but trouble."
Alice's two-month European honeymoon was one befitting a princess, though Nick at times became exasperated when he heard himself called Mr. Alice Roosevelt. In London, Princess Alice and her consort stayed with Elisabeth Mills Reid and Whitelaw Reid, the American ambassador to Britain. They dined with King Edward VII and Alexandra of Denmark , along with Winston Churchill and Lord Curzon. The famous operatic tenor, Enrico Caruso, entertained. In France, the president of the Republic served as host at a function at which Georges Clemenceau, the famous World War I French leader, sat on Alice's right. In Germany, they visited Kaiser Wilhelm II aboard his royal yacht, the Meteor.
With a husband who served in the House of Representatives for many years and a father who became one of America's most popular presidents, it seemed inevitable that Alice would become
deeply immersed and interested in American politics. Some political analysts consider Theodore Roosevelt's 1904 pledge not to seek another term to be one of his greatest mistakes. (Alice thought so too.) In 1908, Alice Roosevelt Longworth demonstrated little enthusiasm for her father's handpicked successor, William H. Taft. "They called Taft great," she mocked. "Great in girth, perhaps, but great in nothing else." Some years later, when Taft became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, he remarked that he enjoyed the position so much that he hardly remembered being president. Cracked Alice, "Neither can the country."
Despite Alice's advice that he not openly challenge Taft for renomination in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt did so anyway. Even so, Alice loyally stuck by him and worked steadfastly for his nomination. When the Republicans nominated Taft, the Bull Moose Party came into being, with Theodore Roosevelt as its presidential candidate. While her husband backed Taft, Alice openly supported her father, especially after a would-be assassin wounded him in Milwaukee.
Politically, the year 1912 was not a good one for the Republicans and the Roosevelt family. Woodrow Wilson became the first Democratic chief executive since Grover Cleveland while Alice's husband lost his seat in the House of Representatives. Not much love was ever lost between Wilson and Roosevelt, but relations worsened during World War I when Wilson refused Theodore's request to raise and lead a division of volunteers to fight in France. After Wilson denied permission, Theodore called the president an "infernal skunk," and Alice felt the same. After the war, she used her influence to prevent the realization of Wilson's dream which was ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and participation by the United States in the League of Nations. She stayed in constant touch with League opponents such as Senator William Borah of Idaho. When Senator Henry Cabot Lodge demonstrated any sign of compromise, she called him "Mr. Wobbly." She prayed for "a murrain" on President Wilson and celebrated victory when, for the third time, the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles in March 1920.
On the personal side, Alice had little to cheer about throughout the next decade. Although Nicholas recaptured his seat in the House of Representatives in 1914, he began to drink more and spent countless hours playing poker with the "boys." Their marriage began to unravel as he became "attracted to more than one pretty girl." Alice herself struck up a relationship that was more than political with Senator Borah of Idaho. She, who had seemed so in love with Nick, later commented on her marriage, "I didn't exactly revel in it." In addition, Alice's youngest brother Quentin died fighting in Europe towards the end of World War I. Theodore Roosevelt had little chance to win the Republican nomination in 1916 because he had bolted the party in 1912; it seemed that after more time had elapsed, he might have been the nominee in 1920. However, he died on January 6, 1919.
In 1920, the Republicans recaptured the White House when Warren G. Harding defeated James M. Cox. Franklin Roosevelt had been Cox's running mate. Although Alice referred to the 1920s, a period when the Republicans held sway, as a time when "the golden calf gave triple cream," no one, as far as Alice was concerned, could equal her father. Warren Harding, said Alice, "was not a bad man. He was only a slob," although she also commented that he resembled "a debauched Roman emperor." (This comment is particularly apropos in light of the infamous corruption, including the Teapot Dome scandal, of Harding's administration.) Harding, like Alice's husband, seemed taken with attractive women, poker parties, and alcoholic beverages. When Harding died in August 1923, he was succeeded by Calvin Coolidge who smiled little and to Alice seemed "as if he had been weaned on a pickle."
On December 7, 1925, Nicholas Longworth was elected Speaker of the House and served in that capacity until the Democrats gained control in 1930. In 1928, there was enough speculation about Nick being nominated for president to warrant this newspaper headline, "Will Princess Alice Return to the White House?" As it turned out, the Republicans chose Herbert Hoover, who won the nomination but lacked the charisma of both her father and cousin Franklin. Noted Alice, "The Hoover Vacuum Cleaner is more exciting than the President. But, of course, it's electric."
On February 14, 1925, Alice gave birth to her only child, daughter Paulina; the news was reported around the world. "I'm always glad to try anything once," said Alice to those who wondered whether, at 41, she really wanted a baby. On April 10, 1931, Nicholas Longworth died. Soon after the funeral, House Republicans urged Alice to run for her husband's seat. She refused, saying she wanted to spend as much time as possible raising her daughter. Despite her refusal, Alice Longworth was as involved in politics as she had ever been. In 1932, she became a member of the board of counsellors of the women's division of the Republican National Committee, and in 1936 served as delegate to the Republican national convention. For a time, she published the column "Capital Comment" which sometimes appeared side-by-side with Eleanor Roosevelt's "My Day." Longworth also published her memoirs, Crowded Hours. During the 1930s and early 1940s, years of Democratic hegemony, Alice staunchly opposed her cousin Franklin and his New Deal. She refused to call him "Mr. President," referring to him as a "feather duster." Eleanor, said Alice, was "a great dear but a very boring dear."
In 1932, Longworth campaigned for Republican nominee Herbert Hoover and in 1936 for Alf Landon, whom she knew lacked the appeal of her popular cousin Franklin. "Do you know J.P. Morgan won't allow the name of Franklin Roosevelt to be mentioned in his presence because it raises his blood pressure," said Alice. "I'm for Landon, but I do wish he'd stop lowering my blood pressure."
By the end of the 1930s, foreign policy became an important issue, especially after the start of World War II in 1939. Longworth proved to be a strict isolationist and entertained leaders of the America First Committee. An organization determined to keep America out of war and championed by Charles Lindbergh, America First was strongly right-wing and anti-Semitic. (There is little evidence that Alice, though a bit of a snob, was herself anti-Semitic or otherwise prejudiced. The following exchange took place some years later, when a car with Southern places cut in front of Alice's car, which was being driven by her African-American chauffeur: "'What do you think you're doin', you black bastard!' the other driver shouted. Without a pause, [she] rolled down her window [and answered] 'Driving me to my destination, you white son-of-a-bitch!'") She supported Senator Robert Taft for the Republican presidential nomination both in 1940 and 1944. When Wendell L. Willkie won the 1944 nomination, seemingly with much grass roots support, Alice quipped, "Willkie sprang from the grass roots of American country clubs." About Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican nominee in 1944, Longworth wondered how Republicans could expect Americans "to vote for a man who looks like a bridegroom on a wedding cake."
Within Alice's family, death continued to claim a sibling from time to time. On June 4, 1943, her brother Kermit committed suicide. The following year, her oldest brother, Theodore Jr., a brigadier general in the U.S. Army, died shortly after distinguishing himself when the Allies invaded France. On August 26, 1944, Alice's daughter, Paulina married Alexander McCormick Sturm. In 1946, Alice's only grandchild was born when Paulina gave birth to a daughter named Joanna Sturm . Alice's son-in-law died on November 13, 1951, and then a little more than five years later on January 27, 1957, Paulina died, leaving Joanna without parents. Alice took custody of her and became a doting grandparent, resulting in a close relationship between grandchild and grandmother.
After Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945, Alice seemed to become less partisan, less reactionary than she had been during the days that FDR occupied the White House. She continued to arrange dinner parties to which she invited both Republicans and Democrats. She took delight in inviting, to the same gathering, guests who had a decided dislike for each other. Said Alice, "I put people next to each other who are going to fight, who are disagreeable to one another." Alice kept a pillow in her sitting room upon which was embroidered her well-known quote, "If you haven't got anything good to say about anyone, come and sit by me." She retained her sense of humor after her second mastectomy at the age of 86. After the surgery, she referred to herself as Washington's only "topless octogenarian."
The Kennedys' style pleased Alice as well as the fact that they were "all for one and one for all … which is quite different from our family, who were completely individualistic." She had "an affection for them," she said, and the press often compared Jacqueline Kennedy to Alice in her heyday. (Later, upon hearing of the former first lady's impending marriage to Aristotle Onassis, she wondered, "Hasn't anyone ever warned [her] about Greeks bearing gifts?") Alice also liked Lyndon Johnson, whom she called "a lovely rogue elephant," despite his inclination to touch. Longworth's signature apparel, a wide-brimmed hat, made it impossible for him to kiss her, said LBJ. Retorted Alice, "That's why I wear it." When he took to lifting his shirt in front of all and sundry to display the scar from recent surgery to remove his gallbladder, she commented, "Thank god, it wasn't his prostate."
Although for a time she found Joseph McCarthy interesting, when the Wisconsin senator became too friendly with her during the HUAC days, Alice admonished, "My gardener may call me Alice, the trash man on my block may call me Alice, but you, Senator McCarthy, may call me Mrs. Longworth." She supported Richard Nixon because she thought him to be a fighter like her father. Her friendship began to cool with Watergate (which she later called "good unclean fun"), not because Nixon had broken the law, but because he seemed indecisive. She felt he should have destroyed the infamous tapes that incriminated him. "Dick is a weaker man than I thought him." Even she had little to say about President Gerald Ford. Informed of the election of his successor, Jimmy Carter, she asked, "Oh, the one who's always so happy and smiles so much?"
Alert to the last, Longworth, who once claimed that "the secret of eternal youth is arrested development," was cared for by her granddaughter Joanna as her life drew to a close. She died, age 96, on February 20, 1980.
Bingham, June. "Before the Colors Fade," in American Heritage. Vol. 20, no. 2. February 1969, pp. 42–43, 73–77.
Brough, James. Princess Alice: A Biography of Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1975.
Felsenthal, Carol. Alice Roosevelt Longworth. NY: Putnam, 1988.
Teichmann, Howard. Alice: The Life and Times of Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979.
Vanden Heuvel, Jean. "The Sharpest Wit in Washington," in Saturday Evening Post. December 4, 1965, pp. 30–33.
Hagedorn, Hermann. The Roosevelt Family of Sagamore Hill. NY: Macmillan, 1954.
Harbaugh, William Henry. Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, 1961.
Longworth, Alice Roosevelt. Crowded Hours: Reminiscences of Alice Roosevelt Longworth. NY: Scribner, 1933.
Teague, Michael. Mrs. L: Conversations with Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth Collection and Nicholas Longworth Papers located in the Library of Congress.
Robert Bolt , Professor of History, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan