A first lady in her own way
The sizeable townhouse where Alice Roosevelt Longworth lived and hosted her political salon for decades still stands square and formidable, just off lively Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. It seems a fitting stage for Theodore Roosevelt's daughter, who was nothing if not formidable, and was always happy to be at the center of the action.
Alice was a rare bird for her time and place: a truly free woman with an independent mind, who did and said exactly what she wanted from her teen years as Princess Alice in the White House to her old age as the witty truth-teller of the 1970s. Though Alice lived in the public eye daughter of a president, wife of House Speaker Nicholas Longworth she kept her inner life private. Now, 27 years after her death, biographer Stacy A. Cordery is able to tell us more than we've ever known about what went on in Alice's head, thanks to access to her personal papers provided by the Longworth family. The resulting portrait in Alice shows a woman who came by her independence the hard way, as a defense against abandonment and grief.
Her mother died at her birth. Her father couldn't bear to be near a baby who reminded him of his dead wife. Her stepmother tried her best, but had a completely different personality. Her husband was a drunk with the sexual morals of a stoat. Her longtime lover couldn't leave his wife. And her only child died at 31, in a possible suicide. No wonder Alice became tough-minded the only alternative would have been collapse.
Cordery, the author of a Theodore Roosevelt biography, mines diaries and letters for insights into Alice's rebellious teen years, her marriage, and her love affair with William Borah, the maverick Republican senator from Idaho. Borah's coded love letters to Alice confirm what has been assumed: He, not her husband, was the father of Alice's daughter Paulina.
Borah and Alice were also political allies, and both were consistently on the wrong side of history. Alice inherited her father's brilliant mind, but not his broad-minded compassion. She fought the League of Nations, the New Deal, intervention in World War II. Her vicious attacks on her first cousin Eleanor Roosevelt still make ugly reading. Cordery is able to explain them as the byproduct of Alice's rage that lightweight cousin Franklin had usurped the position she thought her beloved brother Ted Jr. should have had. Alice calmed down in old age. She raised her orphaned granddaughter and befriended talented younger people of all political persuasions, among them Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. And she read. Alice was a lifelong autodidact with amazingly eclectic interests. After her political dinner parties at the house off Dupont Circle, Alice would retreat to her bedroom and read through the night poetry, biology, folklore, anything and everything. Cousin Franklin was famously said to have a second-rate mind and a first-rate temperament. Alice was first-rate on both counts.
Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.