A Roosevelt who married one politician and bore another's child.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker
By Stacy A. Cordery
Viking. 590 pp. $32.95
Alice Roosevelt Longworth died in her house just off Dupont Circle in February 1980, two weeks past her 96th birthday. She had led an extraordinary life. The eldest child of Theodore Roosevelt, she spent her teenage years in the White House, where she became known as Princess Alice and enjoyed remarkable celebrity. She married a powerful congressman, Nicholas Longworth of Ohio, in a White House ceremony, yet her only child was the product of an affair with another prominent political figure, Sen. William Borah of Idaho. After the deaths of both men, she held court for four decades, presiding in her house on Massachusetts Avenue over a salon to which everyone who could wangle an invitation eagerly reported. Stacy Cordery writes:
"Alice . . . was sometimes accused of inconsistency, yet much was constant throughout her life: books; her intellectual curiosity; the need to be at the center; her conviction that the United States should not become entangled in the business of foreign countries; her dismissal of whiners, complainers, and those who indulged in regrets; her belief that what a later generation would call self-fulfillment, and what she called 'an appetite for being entertained,' was just as viable a path as 'do-gooderism'; her support for conservative national fiscal policy; her loyalty to her friends; her shyness; her loathing of drunkenness; her fear of losing control; her commitment to independence."
In a country that professes to repudiate royalty but has a soft spot for it anyway, Alice Roosevelt was a princess if not a queen, the only one the country had until Jacqueline Kennedy replaced her on the throne. She pretty much faded out of the national headlines around the time of World War II, in part no doubt because she had been an outspoken isolationist during the pre-war debate, but here in Washington she remained a Force right up to her death. She was renowned for her tart aphorisms -- most famously, in the 1944 election she dismissed Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican presidential nominee, as "the little man on the wedding cake" -- but people who knew her well insisted that her self-deprecating self-characterization as "more a wit than wise" was off the mark. She was a woman of great intelligence and considerable erudition, though the latter was somewhat scattershot.
Cordery -- professor of history at Monmouth College in Illinois and bibliographer for the National First Ladies' Library -- believes that Alice's strengths and weaknesses can be traced to "abandonment" by both of her parents and her favorite aunts. Her mother, Alice Lee Roosevelt, died giving birth to her in 1884. Her father, shattered by grief, turned away and "did not act as a father to her for the first three years of her life." His sister Anna, known to all as Bye, "became the inheritor of the most painful and precious part of her brother's broken life: the infant Alice," and filled that role with dignity and love, but in time she married and turned her focus elsewhere. In addition, Alice always had a complicated relationship with Edith Carow, whom her father married in December 1886 and with whom he had four more children. On top of all that, she was the daughter of the most famous and important man in the country, so that as she became famous, and as men swarmed around her, she never was entirely sure where the credit, or the blame, actually lay:
"Alice Roosevelt's inability to trust wholeheartedly created a potent and troubling mix when added to the celebrity status that caused her to question the intentions of friends and suitors. Her ferocious desire to be free of confining rules may have been a test: who would love her even when she pushed the furthest boundaries? Alice's teenage years predated the 1920s and the 1960s, two eras famous for youth rebellions. In the first decade of the twentieth century, a woman's goal was marriage, which required behavior beyond reproach. But Alice had a special worry: she could never trust that any man loved her for herself. The more she gave in to her fears and became a female caricature of her father's most criticized traits -- impetuosity, stubbornness, insensitivity -- the more she alienated some men, and perversely, the more she also became a hero to others. The end result would be a woman who fit no mold. The journey to that late-life, serene self-possession was painful; all the more so because so much of it occurred in public."
Thus, unsurprisingly, she often wondered about the depths of Longworth's feelings for her. He was "wealthy, sought after, and utterly charming," as well as "much older, a womanizer, a lover of alcohol and gambling, and given to long hours on the floor of the House or on floors of houses other than his own." He also was fiercely ambitious. It was scarcely unreasonable for Alice to wonder whether he loved her for herself or because she was the president's daughter -- or whether he loved her at all -- and when he resumed chasing other women after their marriage, her insecurity intensified. Cordery reports that Alice disliked physical contact with other people, leading the reader to wonder whether she and Longworth had a satisfactory amatory life, but the suspicion here is that the marriage was doomed from the outset by the combination of Alice's self-doubts and Longworth's philandering.
Yet they managed to make a go of it right up to Longworth's death from pneumonia in April 1931. They had long since reached a modus operandi that permitted each to travel separate paths without recrimination. Alice was well aware of her husband's many affairs and eventually simply resigned herself to them. Whether Longworth knew about her affair with Borah -- or, if he did know, how much he knew -- is not clear. When she became pregnant in 1924, at the age of 40, she may or may not have been able to cover up -- presumably by sleeping with Longworth at a propitious moment -- but when her daughter Paulina was born, "by all accounts Nick Longworth took one look at the child thrust into his late midlife and fell irredeemably, irrevocably, head-over-heels in love with her." It was not until many years later that Paulina learned, through an overheard conversation, that Longworth was not her father.
Obviously, it is no coincidence that both of the men with whom Alice slept -- and, presumably, the only men with whom she slept -- were politicians, and Republican ones to boot. "Alice lived for politics," Cordery writes, and she was exceptionally knowledgeable about it, not to mention well connected: "Her political acumen was so widely recognized that she was even briefly considered for the vice presidency on the Republican ticket at the 1928 convention." In the words of her intimate friend Ruth McCormick, who in 1928 became the first woman elected to Congress from Illinois: "Alice is a statesman and I am a politician. . . . She has no patience for the drudgery of details, but she has wonderful intuition as to where this or that tendency in politics is going to carry us, has an uncanny certainty in predicting results, and she dearly loves a fight."
That most emphatically included a family fight. She liked her distant cousin Franklin personally but "loathed his politics, especially his foreign policy," and wasn't shy about saying so in public. She was a ferocious critic of the New Deal and submitted it to a ceaseless "public drubbing." She wasn't kind to Eleanor Roosevelt either -- "Franklin deserved a good time. He was married to Eleanor," she said -- and encouraged the renewal of Franklin's old love affair with Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, to the extent of inviting him to bring Lucy "to dine at Alice's home at least once."
Mainly, though, she was a queen of society. How much value one places upon that will be determined by how one feels about what passes for high society, i.e., political society, in Washington. Given that its salient characteristics are opportunism, cynicism, disloyalty, insincerity and shallowness, one is left to wonder whether, for all her wit and intelligence and (when she cared to turn it on) charm, she wasn't just as superficial as everyone else. A lifelong Republican, and by all the evidence an ardent one, she nonetheless had no difficulty welcoming the Kennedys into her embrace. Was it because they, too, were witty and intelligent, or was it merely because they were glamorous?
There's no answer to it, but the question is worth asking. After nearly 500 pages of Cordery's competent if rather pedestrian biography, the reader -- okay, this reader -- is inclined to suspect that, to borrow from Sam Goldwyn, deep down Alice was shallow. She led a life of glamour, style and publicity, but in the end it didn't add up to much. ¿
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.