In 1935 REBECCA WEST SAID that although Washington is "physically . . . dominated by the Washington monument . . . intellectually, spiritually, the city is dominated by the last good thing said by Alice Roosevelt Longworth." Collecting her one-liners and preserving them for posterity may be the best thing Howard Teichmann does in his new biography of the 95-year-old daughter of our 26th president. Some of them, in case you've forgotten, are beauties. On FDR: "Ninety percent mush and ten percent Eleanor"; on Thomas E. Dewey: "a bridegroom on a wedding cake"; on LBJ when he displayed his gall bladder scar: "Thank God it wasn't his prostate."
Teichmann has rummaged through the quips and quotes, the clippings and the Roosevelt books and laid out everything known about Alice Longworth in a readable form. He has added a few new interviews and a great many footnotes -- so you can pin each bit of memorabilia to its source even if you cannot always separate Apocryphal Alice from the real thing. But as for the essence of this irreverent and fascinating woman -- as for anything new from her -- you won't find it here. Although there are more than 250 pages of what other people have said about her, from the primary source herself there is simply nothing. Teichmann did not interview her, and he does not come close to catching the brilliance of her personality -- the keenness, the dazzling smile, the eager lilt of voice and elegant accent, the special charm -- which Joseph Alsop calls a "combination of fancifulness and extreme verbal exactitude."
What Teichmann has brought forth instead is a slick and pleasant pop rendition of her life. And it is interesting to be reminded of some of its details. For example, that her mother, Alice Lee Roosevelt, died three days after her birth in 1884 and that her father, Theodore Roosevelt, never once spoke of her to Alice. And that she is entirely self-educated. Perhaps because TR made his eldest daughter "learn something new out of a book every night before she went to bed and tell him what it was at breakfast every morning," she became a voracious nighttime reader of extraordinary range and learned, as Joe Alsop also puts it, "to use language with more precision than anyone I have ever met."
Probably nobody enjoyed living in the White House more than she. Asked, years later, her reaction when her father became president on McKinley's death, she immediately answered, "Utter rapture."
Alice Roosevelt was born mischievous. By the time her father became president in 1901, she was 17 and well on her way to becoming what her sister later called "a hellion." When her father forbade her to smoke under his roof, she climbed out the White House window and smoked on top; travelling west by railroad when she was 21, she amused herself by shooting at passing telegraph poles with her revolver; on a voyage to Asia in 1905, she plunged fully clothed into a canvas swimming pool rigged up for her on the S.S. Manchuria. Theodore Roosevelt said to his friend, Owen Wister, "I can be President of the United States -- or -- I can attend to Alice. I can't do both."
Even after her marriage to Congressman Nicholas Longworth (later Speaker of the House), she continued to create a stir. She played poker with the boys; made gin in the cellar during Prohibition and took to wearing "pantalettes" in public. Liking nothing better than a good row, she enjoyed seating enemies next to each other at her dinners. When Nicholas Longworth protested "'They hate each other,' . . . Alice would clap her hands and say, 'Marvelous!'" She was always good copy and developed such a following that in 1925 when she returned to Washington with her baby, Paulina (born after 18 years of marriage), troops were called out to control the crowds that lined the streets from Union Station to the Longworths' M Street house.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth so thoroughly relished her father's eight years in the White House that the occupants thereafter must have seemed like plain usurpers. In any case, she had scarcely a good word to say for one of them. Not for William Howard Taft, the 350-pounder, whom she said was "great in girth . . . but great in nothing else." Nor for Woodrow Wilson, whom she despised for not allowing TR to raise a division for World War I (and whom she repaid by helping to defeat the League of Nations). Nor Warren Harding ("Saying that Harding is second-rate is one of the biggest compliments anyone can pay him.") Although she seemed quite fond of Coolidge, she is credited with saying he looked "like he was weaned on a pickle." But it was the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, a fifth cousin, that held a special bitterness. "Anything to annoy Franklin" became her motto, perhaps because she felt he achieved the presidency on his name -- her name, her father's name. She later said: "Franklin very possibly wouldn't have emerged if my father hadn't emerged, and my father might not have emerged if Czolgosz hadn't killed McKinley . . . Were it not for Czolgosz, we'd all be back in our brownstone-front houses . . . And I would have married for money and been divorced for good cause."
It wasn't until a new political generation emerged in 1960 that Alice Longworth warmed up to another president -- John Kennedy -- and to a possible president, his brother Bobby. "Both brothers," she said, "were firstrate." Later she was fond of the "lovely, rogue elephant," LBJ. And she took to Richard Nixon right from the start. But perversely -- and typically -- she probably enjoyed his downfall, Watergate, even more. "Watergate! Oh, how I love it. I thoroughly enjoy it. Oh, to see what comes next!" she is reported to have said -- when she was rounding 90.
A zest for "what comes next" as well as for "the latest" has been a lifelong Longworth trademark. Alice was the first to know the juciest bits -- about Harding's poker games at the little house on K Street, about Lucy Mercer's romance with FDR -- which she encouraged. "Every man in Washington has a 'summer wife,'" she said, "and Franklin deserves one because he is married to Eleanor." When Alice Longworth once said, "I specialize in meanness," she might have been thinking of the fun she poked at her plain, sober, virtuous cousin Eleanor.
Teichmann gives a single glimpse of the private side of this very private although public woman. It is one sentence from a letter which she wrote after the death, from "an accidental overdose of medication," of her only child, age 31: "For months after Paulina died, whenever I tried to write, I simply crumpled."
Alice Longworth anecdotes are spliced into the text with little vignettes of cultural history that sometimes seem flip and awkward. For example: (in the 1950s) "Rock began to roll. The kids watched Howdy Doody, chewed bubble gum, and squished something called Silly Putty in their hands. All this new personal freedom and fun, and in the midst of it, Alice's son-in-law died of hepatitis."
Howard Teichmann has previously written about such notorious quipsters as Alexander Woolcott and George Kaufman and he was co-author of The Solid Gold Cadillac. Perhaps it is his fondness for a gag and his weakness for the cute phrase (Hollywood is "the land of orange juice and green money") that gives this book a musical comedy air. I kept thinking of it as "The Unsinkable Alice Longworth," starring Debbie Reynolds.
Teichmann has set down a peppy rendition of The President's Daughter and The Public Wit. For the private Woman, the irresistible charmer, the real Alice, we will have to wait.