This time of year was always one of milestones for the woman dubbed by the press as the nation’s first “Princess,” Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the eldest child of President Theodore Roosevelt, the wife of Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth, first cousin of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Within a date range of just eight consecutive days, from the twelfth of February to the twentieth, she was born, lost her mother, married, gave birth and died.
She was born as Alice Lee in 1884, on February 12. Just forty-eight hours after she was born, her mother Alice Hathaway Lee, Roosevelt’s first wife, died, on February 14. She married Congressman Nicholas Longworth in the White House East Room in 1906, on February 17.
In 1925, Alice Longworth gave birth to her only child, daughter Paulina, on February 14, forty-one years to the day that her mother had died. In 1980, she died at age 96 years old, on February 20.
During the PBS documentary series The Roosevelts, her name would rise at just the right moment for some comic relief in the commentary. It was, as she predicted: history would make her “an interesting footnote.” And while her “cousin darling” Eleanor Roosevelt may rightly be best remembered for her compassionate humanitarianism, Alice Roosevelt is best recalled for her witty observations which nearly always had a malicious punchline that was yet also always truthful and somehow fair. Among her most famous lines: “If you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody – come and sit down next to me.” And yet, her sharp words were always based in an essential truth, and can even be considered fair. In passing judgement on others, she almost always pointed out her own subjective reasoning.
It was the American press of 1902 that first dubbed her “Princess Alice” when she christened the yacht of the German kaiser, along with that nation’s Prince Henry.
The nickname stuck but in due time she seemed more the Princess of the White House than the nation, or certainly at least of her beloved capital city. Except for the two years following her husband’s only failed congressional campaign, between 1913 and 1915, she made Washington, D.C. her permanent home.
Experiencing all but twenty years of the “American Century” she knew well many of its most legendary figures from the worlds of film, theater, literature, politics and science.
Yet Alice was always the go-to person for a quote on the long line of United States Presidents and First Ladies who flowed in and out of the White House over the course of her lifetime. She knew, or at least met all those who served from 1890 until 1976, and most often her presidential interactions took place in the White House about which someone once wrote, she moved into “when she was seventeen and never really left.”
So here, to mark Presidents Day Weekend, during the range of dates of this February child’s turning points is an overview of how Princess Alice perceived those men and their wives.
Mrs. Longworth’s recollections are taken from a wide variety of sources, including newspaper interviews and magazine profiles, biographies written about her both during and after her life, her autobiography, and this author’s own conversational telephone interviews with her while he was still a student researching the Presidents and First Ladies, particularly focusing on the Tafts and Hardings. Most helpful of all are the transcripts of taped interviews she made with author Michael Teague, which he published as Mrs. L: Conversations with Alice Roosevelt Longworth, (Doubleday, 1981).
Benjamin Harrison, President 1889-1893
The first time I had been there was when I was about six and I was taken to see President Harrison, who appeared to me a gnarled, bearded gnome of a man gloomily ensconced in a corner of the Red Room.
Grover Cleveland, President 1893-1897
A corpulent man, and always seemed bruised or swollen. I don’t believe he drank, really, though you could almost sense the sausage grease in his mustache. But my father was quite fond of him.
Frances Cleveland, First Lady 1893-1897
I have a memory of Mrs. Cleveland there – young, lovely and friendly.
William and Ida McKinley, President and First Lady, 1897-1901
We went to the Senate Chamber to see Father [Theodore Roosevelt] sworn in [as Vice President] and to hear him speak, and to listen to McKinley’s inaugural address….As I looked at President McKinley, I wondered, in the terminology of insurance companies, what sort of ‘risk’ he was. I had an ever present resentment at Father’s having been shoved into the Vice-Presidency….
I know that I regarded the President and poor frail little Mrs. McKinley as if they were two usurping cuckoos….McKinley had as much spine as a chocolate eclair….When I learned that he had been shot, I felt utter rapture.
Theodore Roosevelt, President 1901-1909
Father was the baby at every christening, the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral..
He was always so full of guilt. I loved my father but I was never particularly close to him….
In fact, he never ever mentioned my mother to me, which was absolutely wrong. He never even said her name, or that I even had a different mother. He was so self-conscious about it.
Edith Roosevelt, First Lady, 1901-1909
My stepmother made an enormous effort with me as a I child but I think she was bored by doing so. We became very good friends….We laughed at the same things. But she could be mean….
The only other incident I remember [of her White House wedding] was when I was leaving and saying good-bye to my stepmother….And…she said…’I want you to know that I’m glad to see you leave. You have never been anything but trouble.’ It was quite fantastic. It just came out like that…
We were certainly able to laugh and jeer about a good many things together.
Years later, just before she died, she told me that she thought she had been very unkind to me when I was young. She hadn’t really.
William Howard Taft, President 1909-1913
Dear Mr. Taft! I see him now, a great big pink porpoise of a man sitting in the back of an open touring car with his hands on his rotund belly. He was always very amiable to me. I think he had to stand a lot in the corner when young, because he had a most dutiful streak…
It was said he was a good hater, but I never saw any of that…I don’t think he was a particularly good politician….
He had a smile like a big saucepan of warm milk.
Helen “Nellie” Taft, First Lady 1909-1913
She was a woman full of gentilities and she quickly became very possessive of the White House. She had the idea of having liveried men at the front door and things like that. And she took to driving in state around the Potomac to listen to the band…
I think her personality had a lot to do with the breakup of Taft’s friendship with my father. There was an abrasive quality there….
When we left the White House, just before Taft’s inauguration, we drove away and I was sitting in the front with the chauffeur. I had perfected what I called Mrs. Taft’s hippopotamus face and was able to put it on just as we were going through the gates and say, ‘This, darlings, is what is coming after you.’
She laid down the law and had all the doorman shave their beards. I wondered aloud why she didn’t ask the same of all those bearded ladies w she went about with on her social welfare project adventures.
Woodrow Wilson, President 1913-1921
Wilson was probably rather an interesting man but we had to put on a show of hating him. There was a sanctimonious quality about him which was frightfully annoying. Cabot Lodge scorned him because he wasn’t really an intellectual like the Boston intellectuals.
Then there was this image of a wonderful man who was saving the world, and we all made fun of that.
We made base jokes about him and the various lady friends who worshipped him.
Horrible man, we all said, chasing after women and then saying his prayers before leaping into bed with them. All that sort of thing.
Ellen Wilson, First Lady 1913-1914
I only met her at a reception and recital. She left no particular impression on me. Her daughters seemed greatly engaged and all quite different.
Edith Wilson, First Lady 1915-1921
Mrs. Wilson was a formidable-looking woman. She was given to wearing huge carnivorous-looking orchid corsages in the evening. We used to say that after dinner she would go upstairs, eat her orchids and go to bed….
I may have been sleuth at times, like a submarine plunging political waters, but that woman was a full-on war battleship. Ferocious!
Warren G. Harding, President 1921-1923
I think everyone must feel that the brevity of his tenure of office was a mercy to him and the country. Harding was not a bad man. He was just a slob….
All forms of rumor circulated about the circumstances of his death, that he committed suicide, that his wife poisoned him. I think he just died – of Harding of the arteries.
Florence Harding, First Lady 1921-1923
The Hardings never liked me and I can hardly blame them. She was a nervous, rather excitable woman whose voice easily became a little high-pitched strident….
…in the course of conversation she told us, rolling an eye never never quite met ours, that she had kept a little red book which contained the names of the people who had not been civil to her and ‘Warren Harding.’ Those people were to realize that she was aware of their behavior.
She usually spoke of Mr. Harding as ‘Warren Harding.’ It is impossible to convey her pronunciation of the letter R in print. Something like Wur-r-ren Ha-ard-ding.
Calvin Coolidge, President 1923-1929
Coolidge was a precise little object….a little bit of whalebone….
I didn’t invent the phrase about him looking like he was weaned on a pickle but I certainly gave it currency. He did look just like that.
Coolidge could be taciturn to a degree. He came to dinner with us just before he left the presidency. Nick was the Speaker [of the House] and, when he toasted the President, Coolidge said absolutely nothing. Just sat there.
Grace Coolidge, First Lady 1923-1929
Mrs. Coolidge kept on calling me Alice and I was in the embarrassing position of not being able to call her by her first name because I didn’t know it and I didn’t feel I could very well ask her husband what it was….
[She had] a simplicity and charm…
[She] was amused by all of the official functions and attentions, yet was always absolutely natural and unimpressed by it all.
Oh, but she was really a delight.
Herbert Hoover, President, and Lou Hoover, First Lady, 1929-1933
I rather liked Hoover, especially in retrospect…he had one of the best brains. But he also had that stiff-collar quality, which was most unfortunate.
I took [her daughter] Paulina down to see the Hoovers off the say goodbye before Franklin [D. Roosevelt] was inaugurated.
There they sat like waxworks, all stiff, bruised and wounded in the Green Room.
The next day I went to see him off at the station…He didn’t wave. He didn’t look around. There was no expression.
He looked like a rather disappointed tortoise.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, President 1933-1945
He was onr-tenth mush and nine-tenth Eleanor… I think Franklin was very much in love with Eleanor when he married her….
I liked Franklin rather more than the rest of the family did. One could always have fun with him. And he was great to tease.
We used to call him Feather Duster (for Franklin Delano) because he pranced around and fluttered….
I really could have had a lot of fun with Franklin if only the damned old presidency hadn’t come between us….if I hadn’t had that feeling that it would be disloyal to my family….
We had a lot of laughs but also had some clashes…..I said some rather mean things about him. For example, I said – and this quite rightly made him hopping mad – that nobody should ever underestimate the way he behaved when he had infantile paralysis and how him had managed to adjust himself to a permanently crippled position. I maintained that, in the same way he was trying to adjust this great lusty country into the same condition as his own. I suppose that was pretty nasty, but I happened to believe it was true at the time.
We often forget that he was disabled. But he was, and there was never a recovery. Just bolstering up.
Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady 1933-1945
Much of her shyness and sense of insecurity stemmed from her enforced separation from him [her father] and the unhappiness it created….She had an idealized image of her father and I had one of my mother.
But whereas she responded to her insecurity by being go-goody and virtuous I did it by being boisterous and showing off. She got so little enjoyment out of things. If only she had dug in once in a while….Many aspects of Eleabnor’s childhood were indeed very unhappy, but she had a tendency, especially later in life, to make out that she was unattractive and rejected as a child, which just wasn’t true. She claimed that nobody liked her. Well, we all liked her.
I envied her long legs….She was really rather attractive. It’s true that her chin went in a bit…if only her hateful grandmother had fixed her teeth.
I think that Eleanor today would have been considered a beauty, not in the classic sense but as an attractive, rather unusual person in her own right.
I had a lot of admiration for her. But I did – still do – get bored with her type of piety.
I can still see those large blue eyes fixed on one, worrying about one, and wanting you to know that in her you had a friend. She always wanted to discuss things like whether contentment was better than happiness and whether they conflicted with one another. Things like that, which I didn’t give a damn about.
She had one of those rather high, emphatic voices…of well-brought-up little brownstone-front girls. I can imitate it pretty well and it is true that Eleanor asked me to do so at a party once at the White House and I was only too happy to oblige….
She took to wearing some very bizarre-looking battered hats and bits of cat fur strung around her neck….
She had high visibility and she worked tremendously hard….Eleanor’s tendency [was] to treat this country as one giant slum area and it is true that she could be both a prig and a bore but that doesn’t detract from some of her really remarkable achievements. She had an extraordinary career.
Of all the Presidents’ wives, none used her position in quite the same effective way that Eleanor did. I only wish she had learned to enjoy herself a little more in doing so. She had so little enjoyment, so little amusement. She was so insecure about so many things….
Some writer once stated that I was frightfully put out because Eleanor was so much more like my father than any of his own children. In some respects, she probably was and indeed he was very fond of her. Certainly he had a do-gooding side to him too, which I suppose he got from his father. I’m all for it as long as I don’t have to do it myself….I leave the good deeds to Eleanor.
Harry Truman, President 1945-1953
He seemed perfectly fine enough. He liked me for some reason. I didn’t know him well, not at all.
He seemed entirely incapable of overcoming that Cincinnati quality, if you know what I mean. Even though he was from Missouri. One wonders if, after wearing that as a persona for so long, it just became him.
Bess Truman, First Lady 1945-1953
She gave us nothing to think about her, didn’t she?
…I’ll tell you who I think is awfully nice. Margaret Truman. I’ve always liked her a great deal.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, President 1953-1961
Eisenhower was a pleasantly avuncular figure, ideal, I suppose, for the times, but there were certainly no sparks there…
You could sometimes just watch him trying to find the right words and arranging them in his head. Like Scrabble.
Mamie Eisenhower, First Lady 1953-1961
It was rather amusing to see how Mamie was held up as this Exhibition Mother-in-Law thing, in Nixon’s time, when you think how Eisenhower did his best to dump Dick Nixon when he was Vice President….
[She was] maniacally chirpy, never at a loss for something to say and yet there is not one thing she said to me that I suppose I find memorable enough to recount.
John F. Kennedy, President 1961-1963
People like my father, like Franklin, like Jack Kennedy, were very engaging to begin with. When you add to that the glamor attached just to being in the White House, they become almost irresistible.
The particular charm of the Kennedys was that they had a good deal of fun and often had their tongues in their cheeks at the same time….
The Kennedys were a fascinating, incredible outfit. There hasn’t been anything like them since the Bonapartes.
I had great fun with them, especially Jack. He loved to tease and he could be very amusing. He also had a real feeling for learning.
Both he and Bobby were eager to supplement their education by learning more. They really wanted to know…
Jack was so attractive…
Such a lusty young man, a really likable creature.
Jacqueline Kennedy, First Lady 1961-1963
Jackie is someone I can always laugh with. It’s fascinating to see how that golliwog of a girl developed into such an enchanting creature. She really bloomed, especially in the White House. Now she looks like a figure out of a Minoan frieze….
I like Jackie very much. But I’ve always wondered what on earth made her marry Onassis. He’s a repulsive character. He reminds me of Mr. Punch.
Lyndon B. Johnson, President 1963-1969
I was rather fond of the Johnsons. Lyndon was an engaging rogue elephant of a man. He used to complain that he couldn’t kiss me under my hat and I told him that was why I wore it.
Lady Bird Johnson, First Lady 1963-1969
[She is] working so hard to make things better and pleasanter for people she had unfailing good humor and knows what goes on with politics…..
She’s doing her part by getting Lassie to drop a bit of trash into a can.
Richard Nixon, President 1969-1974
I seem to have known the Nixons ever since they came to Washington in the late forties. There was always a stubborn persistent quality about him which some people admired and others couldn’t stand.
They minded him so, even long before Watergate. A lot of hatred focused on him in much the saw way as it had done on McCarthy…
Pat Nixon, First Lady 1969-1974
Dear Pat, she is really doing such a great job [campaigning.]…
She is just too thoughtful of others, always with the small personal touch…..I like Pat so much.
Wasn’t she marvelous in China? She was having the time of her life. She’s wonderful, but I wish she wouldn’t call people ‘kiddo.’ She called me ‘kiddo’ just the other day, and frankly, I can’t stand it.
Gerald Ford, President 1974-1977
I didn’t know him, not at all.
Betty Ford, First Lady 1974-1977
Such fun, a breezy, natural person. She laughs easily. A delight, perfectly lovely.
Jimmy Carter, President 1977-1981
[Alice Roosevelt Longworth was invited to the White House by President Jimmy Carter. She seemed ready to go, but apparently after a perceived slight, she decided not to attend. She died in the last year of his presidency.]