Fill what’s empty, empty what’s full, and scratch where it itches.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth
The bigger perspective, a rational cynicism, a sense of the ridiculous, self-deprecating irony, doing what comes naturally. The unreal reality of having a nation presume to know you well teaches most First Families to develop at least one of these character traits as a means of enduring such an experience.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth had all of them.
Born February 12, in 1884, part of her legendary persona was due to the fact not only that she was the daughter of 26th President Theodore Roosevelt, wife of House Speaker Nicholas Longworth, and first cousin of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, but that, as a Washington resident for 79 years, she knew every presidential couple from the McKinleys to the Fords.
That’s why I cold-called her with questions for an “oral history interview” which had to draw on a first-person account as the basis for the assigned subject of the President Warren Harding and First Lady Florence Harding.
At no loss for words, she regaled me with tales of playing poker and drinking whiskey with him, accidentally encountering one of his “girlies” with whom he was about to rendezvous at the estate of their mutual friend Evalyn McLean and then, how she somehow passively let Florence Harding know about the encounter. I wasn’t sure how to respond to this, but it didn’t matter: she talked on until she mumbled, sighed, laughed a bit to herself, said I could call again and just hung up without saying goodbye. I did call back, within days with follow-up questions and she seemed to remember me immediately, returning to her treasure trove of Harding stories, most of which I was able to corroborate with other documentation in the years to come. Only later did I realize that, more important than her anecdotes was her keen analysis of what the Hardings did and said, considering their fears, ambitions and other behavioral patterns as a reflection of the inevitability of human frailty, among even the famous and mighty. Alice Longworth was expert at unraveling tautly-bound public personae because she’d constructed one of for herself, as if it were an art form.
By the time her father assumed the presidency upon McKinley’s 1901 assassination, 17 year old Alice Roosevelt had enough wherewithal to inform him that she would never join any organized religion and further threatened him if he insisted on forcing her to attend a traditional school. “If you send me I will humiliate you,” she told him. “I will do something that will shame you. I tell you I will.” Alice taught herself everything she learned through a lifetime of voracious reading, often up until five the morning to complete a book a day, even teaching herself how to speak rudimentary Greek. More famously, the president’s daughter danced on top of a car, kept a snake in her handbag (and a dagger and copy of the Constitution), drank gin while watching the Wright Brothers make trial flights, and frequented the racetrack. When her father refused to permit her to smoke in the White House, she sat on it, puffing away from the roof. Long years later, she loved telling of some vague lesbian romancing she gleefully spied one night as it furtively unfolded on the South Lawn, while a party went on in the state rooms, using it to illustrate her theory that nothing really changes about secrecy and sexuality.
Her outrageous antics always made the papers and wowed the public. Rather than be victimized by the gossip that had begun to appear about her in Town Topics, she phoned in tips about herself – and got cash for providing them.
The public couldn’t get enough of the brash and beautiful First Daughter. Alice sheet music and Alice postcards were hot sellers. Young women all wanted clothes in the specially-dubbed color shade of “Alice Blue.” It was her display of an aristocratic manner equal to that of Prussia’s Prince Henry when she christened his yacht Meteor in a 1902 Washington ceremony, that led the press to dub her “Princess Alice.” The handle stuck, and she didn’t mind.
Her father was less enamored with her antics. “I can do one of two things,” he famously told a friend, “I can be President or I can control Alice. I cannot do both.” He sent her on a lengthy 1905 cruise to China, Japan, Korea and the Philippines. The presence of the First Daughter also served as an intentional distraction to the press on the trip, from the secret negotiations which let the U.S. turn a blind eye to Japan undermining Korea’s sovereignty on the promise Japan not interfere with the American colonial control of the Philippines, all of this conducted by her chaperone War Secretary William Howard Taft.
Distract Alice did.
On the cross-country train trip to the port of San Francisco, Princess Alice brandished a pistol and took shots at small targets atop electric poles. On the Pacific voyage she jumped fully-clothed into a pool. In Hawaii, she splashed with laughter when her outrigger overturned in the ocean. In Japan, she was cheered with peculiarly absurd chants of “Ohio! Ohio!” In China she was carried by rickshaw into the Forbidden City to meet the forbidding Empress. In Korea, she brazenly walked arm-in-arm and flirted with Ohio Congressman Nick Longworth, who was along on the junket. When Taft finally asked her if she was in love with Longworth, she drawled, “More or less, Mr. Secretary, more or less.”
Princess Alice Fever hit a peak with the February 1906 White House wedding of the First Daughter and the Congressman. Extravagant gifts of jewelry, tapestries and furniture clogged the lower hallway of the executive mansion, Alice insistent on keeping all her “loot” as she called it. She cut the cake with a military aide’s sword.
And on and on and on, she went.
In the Jazz Age, Alice openly defied Prohibition with a taste for bathtub gin – dodging any of the illnesses such homemade brew usually brought on. In the Depression, the widowed Alice wrote a newspaper column and appeared in a cigarette promotional advertisement to stay afloat.
Eternally independent, she took a right turn into isolationism and a left turn into civil rights, once cursing out a cabbie that cut off her African-American driver with a racist explicative. In the 50s, she became an advocate for full voting rights of District of Columbia residents.
She voted for Democrat LBJ in 1964. When he lifted his shirt to show the press his stomach wound after gallbladder surgery, Alice drawled, “I suppose we must be thankful it wasn’t prostate surgery.” Ostensibly, she remained a Republican, going from conservative for Bob Taft in 1952 to moderate by the 60s, against Goldwater. She was outraged by the hearings on Un-American activities. “The trashman may call me Alice. The cop on the corner may call me Alice, but you Senator McCarthy may not,” she told the Atomic Age Red-baiter. She came out for Bobby Kennedy in 1968, but after he was killed, voted for Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon. Always a strong Nixon supporter, she snapped at reporters hoping for a quote to draw a comparison of her White House wedding to that of his daughter Tricia’s in 1971, which she attended: “It doesn’t bring back one goddamned memory.”
Generally, however, Alice loved journalists, especially eager to be updated on their investigations and pass on to them what she’d heard. After awhile, long-time Washington insiders pondered why the general public never quite tired of Mrs. Longworth’s witty malice as they had begun to whenever her cartwheel hat bobbed nearby at cocktail parties. A newer generation of journalists complained that, for all her privileges Mrs. Longworth was a mere novelty, good only for a quote, not as a source for news stories. They failed to see how she used her status to keep herself more objective than many reporters, free from any partisan loyalty or to any one politician, and thus feared for her unpredictable compulsion to detect hypocrisy and buffoonery of even the most monumental of egos and golden of idols. Then, instead of tortured analysis, she crystallized what she heard and observed with one quick, crisp turn-of-phrase, and was on to the next topic. With the 20th century Presidency as her specialty, Alice Roosevelt Longworth was a natural at Twitter – before the mobile phone was even invented.
In describing a 1933 meeting with Herbert Hoover in which she said he “stood about like a bruised waxwork,” for example, she encapsulated the fact that even after his re-election defeat in the midst of the Depression, he remained so isolated that he failed to acknowledge the reality of human suffering, his ego wounded by the fact that people found reason to criticize him. After seeing Jackie Kennedy Onassis in the winter of 1969, months after her marriage to Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, Alice characterized her as “a Minoan frieze.” The reference to engravings in stone of classic Greek figures summarized Alice’s belief that the newlywed was still frozen in emotional numbness from the assassination of her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy seven months earlier and failed in her effort to convince old friends that her subsequent remarriage, four months earlier, had erased that pain. Calling Warren Harding “just a slob,” was less about his tobacco-stained shirt than his failure to detect the dishonesty of Cabinet members he trusted. If others failed to decode her shorthand, well – at least they got a laugh. What Alice Longworth did expertly, in fact, was look through the most carefully constructed of national public personae to discern the personal human beings behind those masks.
Alice Longworth knew all too well about the armor of persona to hide emotional pain.
Two days after Alice Lee Roosevelt was born, her mother died, and later that day her paternal grandmother died. Losing his wife and mother on the same day so overwhelmed Theodore Roosevelt that he abandoned his infant daughter, left to be raised by his sister. When he returned from the West three years later he did the “proper” thing by claiming her, but Alice became a living symbol of traumatic loss to him. Swollen with pride over his self-proclaimed courage, nothing more starkly proved the bluff of Teddy’s bully than his cowardice in refusing to ever even acknowledge to Alice the existence of her mother. She had to ask other relatives to learn about her.
Any chance she may have had to more closely bond wit her father was thwarted when he turned with protective devotion to a niece orphaned by his brother’s death. Only eight months apart, this first cousin of Alice’s was Eleanor Roosevelt.
To stepmother Edith, whose youthful intent to marry Roosevelt was crushed when he had chosen Alice’s mother instead, the girl was a resented reminder that she had been Theodore’s second choice. Spite mounted into venom until Edith auspiciously chose Alice’s February 17, 1906 wedding to cut the last link with the late, first Mrs. Roosevelt – three days after the anniversary of her death. Edith spewed on Alice, “I want you to know I am glad to see you leave. You have never been anything but trouble.”
If Alice hoped marriage would make her an object of love, chronic adulterer Nick disappointed. Her only child, a girl named Paulina, was born two days after her own birthday – the anniversary of Alice’s wedding day and, as stated above, the day her mother had died . For whatever reason, Alice was an indifferent mother with bouts of over-bearance. More revealing is that Alice never attempted to keep secret the fact that Senator William Borah had fathered her child, nor was she insulted about people clucking over it. In fact, in open mocking of herself and the situation, she considered naming her Deborah. Paulina died of a toxic combination of alcohol and prescription drug overdose, with suicide legally ruled out. The death of her daughter knocked Alice Longworth emotionally as nothing else ever did.
The public knew none of this, perceiving Mrs. Longworth’s ongoing antics and quips as just the high-handed fun of the nation’s first and forever Presidential Princess, not performance art to grasp her father’s attention. Today, however, recognizing the treatment she received from her father, stepmother and husband offers the context for her often harsh one-liners, perhaps calculated less to offend others than to protect herself. It seems that Alice almost transmitted a sense that she didn’t need to be happy, only amused. As she matured, this outlook firmed into a core which couldn’t help but make her find humor in all aspects of human nature. Her most famous motto, sewn into her sofa pillow – “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me” – gave her a shock value schtick. Not saying “something good,” however, didn’t mean being intentionally nasty as much as it meant she felt entitled to acidly state the truth as she saw it. Alice always had an opinion, however cruelly ironic or unsentimental her assessment. When her cousin Stewart Alsop, for example. told Alice that he had cancer, she shot back, “What a bore.” It was a reflection not on him but only his having to deal with the tedium and uncertainty of medical treatments which drew his energy away from an interesting life. She was not unsympathetic: she was twice a cancer survivor. In the depths of the Depression when told of the tumultuous crowd reactions to her cousin Eleanor’s husband, Franklin, then running for President, Alice remarked that it was less applause for him than it was the “hysteria of despair.” Objectively speaking, the massive unemployment had caused despair and a need for the public to believe a new leader would change the situation. She herself later described the tone of her analysis as “malevolent detachment.”
The point where her sharp clarity was compromised by personal emotions came on March 4, 1933 when F.D.R. became President and Eleanor Roosevelt became First Lady. Even in consideration of Alice’s genuine political differences with them, it is not hard to recognize the simmering jealousy in her criticism of them.
While her father had ignored Alice’s emotional health, his unbridled love for niece Eleanor so inspired her activism that many family members declared that this wife of FDR was more like her uncle Theodore Roosevelt than Alice could ever be, no matter how hard she tried to emulate him.
In their youth, Alice had always enjoyed her more distantly-related cousin Franklin for his wit and teasing. Startled when he married Eleanor, she was furious when he won the presidency. She later admitted that she had longed for a “restoration of the right Roosevelts.” To that end she had encouraged her half-brother Ted, Jr.to follow the same political path of their father. Fueling her frustration was the fact that Eleanor campaigned against Ted in his 1924 quest to become Governor of New York. He never made it near the presidency. From start to finish. Alice tossed barbs at Franklin until they finally got to him. “I never want to see that woman again,” he snapped to an aide after she made insulting remarks about him at a White House event he hosted. “No man is good three times,” she snapped when Franklin ran for his unprecedented third term.
The telling moment of truth in the life of Alice Longworth came relatively late in it, long months after Eleanor Roosevelt wrote her a moving letter after Paulina’s 1957 death. Alice finally picked up her pen to respond, admitting to her cousin with full vulnerability, “Every time I tried to write you, I simply crumbled.” While she would still enjoy regaling later generations with her spot-on impersonation of Eleanor and asides about her cousin’s “female impersonator” friends (meaning mannish women), Alice vehemently defended Eleanor’s activism and spoke proudly of her accomplishments – even if she politically disagreed with them. And it was Alice that Alice took to task for the bad feelings between them – not Eleanor. With the same blunt assessment she’d used on others, Mrs. Longworth described herself as being “awful” and “childish” in her attitude towards the FDRs. What she may have realized as a result of Eleanor Roosevelt’s empathy for her at the time of Paulina’s death was that there had always been someone in her family who’d cared about her.
The worst remark Eleanor Roosevelt ever made about Alice was that she seemed to be pursuing “pleasure and excitement and rather little real happiness.” Still, Eleanor always invited Alice to White House events and even wrote kindly of her in her newspaper column, while acknowledging their political differences. As Alice reflected later on the FDRs, they all “could have had a lot of fun … if only the damned old presidency hadn’t come between us.” By the time she was able to write her response to Eleanor, Alice was orchestrating her own inspiring epilogue to her daughter’s death. Well into her 70s Mrs. Longworth committed herself entirely to raising her granddaughter, who became her joyous companion for the rest of her life.
In the last months of her life, Alice Longworth also wrote a note – to me.
I had called her a few more times after our two initial conversations. Once, reminding her we’d been talking about the Hardings, she roared with relief that it wasn’t about “Cousin Darling and Cousin Dearest,” her sarcastic reference to Eleanor and Franklin. On another occasion, I called to express my sympathy on the death of her half-sister. “Ethel’s dead! That’s terrible!” she gasped. Before I began apologizing for being the stranger to call with this news, she clarified her horror: “Imagine nobody up there calling to tell me – that’s terrible, terrible.” The singularly impressive aspect I derived from our contact was that despite her emphatic loathing of Florence Harding, she repeated, “yes, yes you must do more” about her old nemesis; that she deserved her own full-fledged biography. “Her story will make a very good book.” And so an uncertain college student would eventually do just that, writing the first full-length biography of the Jazz Age First Lady. To thank her for having helped me and taken my calls, I sent her a small sculpture I’d made of her, along with her trademark black cartwheel hat, a top-heavy touch for clay. Notorious for never answering, let alone reading all her mail, I called one more time to be sure she got the statue. “Yes!” she piped up. “The head came off and I like it better that way.” Without ceremony, the phone was handed to someone else who asked my name and address. A week later, lo’ and behold I received the little calling card formally engraved with Mrs. Longworth’s name and address. On one side, she autographed her full signature; on the other, she wrote beneath her engraved name – “thanks you for your kind gift of sculpture.” For a woman nearly a century old, pestered by a college kid calling with questions, I considered it a great gift and gesture of thoughtfulness.
My only regret is that her distinct voice had to remain a memory, there being no recordings of it publicly available. Some years ago, I found an old VHS tape simply marked “Inaugurations,” at a flea market. I bought it and some weeks later, watched and listened to it. Unexpectedly, suddenly came up a familiar voice, one brief recording of Alice Longworth speaking. Especially interesting is that in laughingly telling her anecdote, she called out the hypocrisy of none other than her sacred father (the recording can be heard in the youtube link at the end of this article).
As an very old woman, Mrs. Longworth had come to view him not just as “Father,” but also President Theodore Roosevelt, flawed human being and overblown persona. She saved one of her sharpest-tongued critiques for him: “Father needed to be the baby at every christening, the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.”
Her change in attitude about him was only emboldened by the unexpected moment of liberation which came as she watched President Nixon on television as he delivered his farewell speech the day he resigned in August 1974. Nixon quoted directly from Theodore Roosevelt’s diary entry. So many long decades after the fact, Alice Roosevelt Longworth finally heard her father speak of her mother, the depth of his love for her mother and the effect of her death:
“She was beautiful in face and form and lovelier still in spirit. As a flower she grew and as a fair young flower she died. Her life had been always in the sunshine. There had never come to her a single great sorrow. None ever knew her who did not love and revere her for her bright and sunny temper and her saintly unselfishness. Fair, pure and joyous as a maiden, loving, tender and happy as a young wife. When she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be just begun and when the years seemed so bright before her, then by a strange and terrible fate death came to her. And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever.”
Here is the recording of Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s voice with music she asked the Marine Band to play, the first time ragtime was heard in the White House: