Roosevelt, Edith Kermit Carow (1861–1948)
Roosevelt, Edith Kermit Carow (1861–1948)
First lady of the United States from 1901 to 1909. Name variations: Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt; Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. Born on August 6, 1861, in Norwich, Connecticut; died on September 30, 1948, in Oyster Bay, New York; eldest daughter of Charles Carow and Gertrude Elizabeth (Tyler) Carow; attended Miss Comstock's Academy in New York; became second wife of Theodore Roosevelt (U.S. president, 1901–09), on December 2, 1886, in London, England: children: Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (1887–1944), Kermit Roosevelt (1889–1943), and Quentin Roosevelt (1897–1918), all killed while in service to their country; Archie Roosevelt (1894–1979), who served in both world wars; Ethel Carow Roosevelt (1891–1977); (stepdaughter) Alice Roosevelt Long-worth (1884–1980).
Edith Kermit Carow was born in Norwich, Connecticut, in 1861 and spent a carefree, privileged childhood in New York's Union Square—not far from her future husband, Theodore Roosevelt. The Carows and the Roosevelts traveled in the same social circle, and their children became neighborhood pals. As youngsters, Theodore and Edith shared a love of outdoor activities and often swam and hiked together at the Roosevelt summer retreat on Long Island. They may have been romantically linked for a time as teenagers, but their paths separated when Theodore entered Harvard University. There he met and fell in love with Alice Lee (Roosevelt ), whom he married in 1880. But Alice died four years later, shortly after giving birth to their daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth . Although Edith attended Theodore's wedding, she did not see or hear from him until he contacted her again in 1885. It was an uneasy reunion. His torians speculate that Theodore harbored some guilt and Edith may have resented second-choice status. They apparently resolved their problems or found a way to live with them, however. Theodore traveled to London, where Edith had moved with her
mother, and they quietly married there in December 1886. After a long honeymoon, they returned to New York.
Edith insisted that Theodore's daughter Alice live with them. With the addition of five children of their own, it became a large and lively family. With residences in New York City and Long Island, Edith tended to home and children while Theodore pursued his political career. Within 14 years, he served as president of the New York City Police Board, assistant secretary of the navy, and governor of New York State. He also established himself as a colorful and controversial character, and it was often Edith who provided advice when things got out of hand. He begrudgingly admitted, "Whenever I go against her judgment, I regret it." Concerned about the drain on family finances, Edith opposed Theodore's attempts to win public office, and she did not widely participate in the campaign for the vice presidency in 1900. After the election, she rarely went to Washington, until President William McKinley's assassination elevated her young husband to the presidency in 1901.
The Roosevelts brought renewed energy and vibrancy to the White House. The children, ranging in age from debutante Alice to four-year-old Quentin, had little respect for the dignity of their environment as they raced down halls, slid down banisters, and tried, without much success, to keep tabs on a barnyard assortment of pets. It was not unusual to glimpse a pony en route to the children's rooms via the mansion's elevator. In the midst of this unruly brood, Edith is said to have stood apart, sometimes appearing "detached" from the world around her. She has been characterized as possessing such a remarkable sense of self that neither her large family nor her status as first lady could "shake her certainty that she knew what was appropriate." It was, no doubt, this self-confidence that allowed her to risk making substantial changes in the way the White House was managed.
In an effort to shield her family from what she considered an overzealous and intrusive press, Edith banned reporters from the White House, releasing instead posed portraits of herself and the children. Although very little information accompanied these photographs in various publications, public curiosity appeared to be satisfied. Edith probably would have opted for the additional privacy of a separate presidential residence, but settled instead for extensive renovations of the mansion, creating a distinct division between official and family quarters.
To handle correspondence and to control the information that went out of the White House, Edith hired a social secretary, Belle Hagner . She also employed professional caterers to provide food for official dinners, thus saving herself for what she considered more urgent duties. Through weekly meetings with Cabinet wives, Edith set limits on entertainment, kept expenses down, and gained assurance that her parties would never be judged inferior. She may have also used these occasions to set boundaries on behavior. It seems that during one such meeting, she firmly advised a married woman to end her relationship with a foreign diplomat or risk being excluded from Washington's social events.
The first lady presided over an abundance of social occasions, most not lavish, but renowned for their interesting mixes of distinguished men and women from all walks of life. In their first full year in office, the Roosevelts held some 180 events in a six-month period. The press marveled at Edith's stamina. The social highlights of the administration were the debuts of daughters Alice and Ethel Carow Roosevelt , and the wedding of Alice to U.S. Congressional Representative Nicholas Longworth in 1906.
Edith took care to insure that her own contributions, as well as those of past first ladies, would be remembered. She continued the presidential china collection, begun by Caroline Harrison , with the addition of her own 120-place setting of English Wedgwood. She also initiated a portrait gallery to memorialize all the presidents' wives. Following her example, subsequent administrations arranged for official portraits of first ladies as well as of presidents to be left behind as a permanent record.
After winning the election of 1904 with an unprecedented popular vote, Theodore had vowed not to run again. He turned over the White House to William Taft in 1909 and embarked on an African adventure, leaving Edith behind for 15 months. They met in Egypt for a subsequent world tour. Following Theodore's death in 1919, Edith set out on her own adventure, which she called "Odyssey of a Grandmother." Traveling extensively, she rejoiced in being free of the shackles of married life, which she felt impeded "those born with the wander-foot." She later contributed some of her experiences to a travel book written by her children, and also teamed up with her son Kermit to write a book on her ancestors. Throughout her later years, she remained active in the Republican Party and campaigned for Herbert Hoover in 1932. Outliving three of her sons, Edith Roosevelt died at age 87, and was buried next to her husband in Young's Cemetery in Oyster Bay. Her portrait, with daughter Ethel Roosevelt, was painted by Cecilia Beaux .
Caroli, Betty Boyd. First Ladies. NY: Oxford University Press, 1987.
McConnell, Jane and Burt. Our First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Lady Bird Johnson. NY: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1964.
Melick, Arden David. Wives of the Presidents. Maple-wood, NJ: Hammond, 1977.
Paletta, LuAnn. The World Almanac of First Ladies. NY: World Almanac, 1990.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts