EDITH KERMIT CAROW became the second wife of Theodore Roosevelt in December 1886. The stepmother of Roosevelt's daughter Alice by his former marriage, she subsequently bore Roosevelt five children of her own, and presided in turn over the Governor's Mansion in Albany, the White House in Washington and the Roosevelt family home at Oyster Bay on Long Island. Edith Roosevelt survived her husband, who died in early 1919, by nearly 30 years, dying herself in 1948 at the age of 87. Now for the first time we have a complete, indeed almost overwhelmingly detailed, account of this long life -- in terms of presidents and wars, from Lincoln and the Civil War to Truman and the post-World War Ii period -- by Sylvia Jukes Morris, who husband Edmund Morris is the author of widely praised biography, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.

Inevitably and desirably, much of the public career of Theodore Roosevelt is rehearsed by the biographer of Edith Roosevelt. We pass again through the early political maneuvering, the charge up the San Juan Heights, the accession to the presidency after the death of McKinley, the Russo-Japanese treaty, the BullMoose campaign of 1912, the time of world acclaim, TR's angry restiveness over Wilson's delay in bringing the United States into the Great War. But Morris, drawing upon a huge and recently discovered cache of letters and diaries, has adroitly shifted the perspective, and the unfolding historical drama becomes a backdrop against which there is played out the more privately eventful story of a remarkable woman -- as daughter, wife, sister-in-law and mother.

Within that perspective, varieties of episodes loom up in new and striking ways. Morris can only guess at the shock to young Edith Carow when she learned in 1880 that her much-loved childhood friend Theodore Roosevelt was about to marry another woman (the former Alice Lee, who died during childbirth after scarcely three years of marriage). Later, Edith's children's routine illnesses and mild misbehavior at school are occasions for material alarm verging on panic. But there were genuine catastrophes as well. Her father Charles Carow failed at business, became a drunk, suffered permanent head-damage as the result of a fall, and died young; an unsatisfactory husband -- Edith's mother went gloomily to a fairly early grave -- but a touchingly affectionate father. Edith's brother-in-law Elliott Roosevelt turned into a raging alcoholic, was placed in an asylum and declared legally insane, and finally went berserk and died in convulsions. Worst and last of all, Edith's favorite son, Kermit Roosevelt, an engaging and self-destructive character, lurched from disaster to disaster until, in 1943, he committed suicide.

Husband Theodore, meanwhile, allowed his wife little peace of mind. There is no doubt that the two adored each other from start to finish -- Morris introduces several extremely moving love letters -- but this Ernest Hemingway among our presidents had Hemingway's proneness to physical injury. He breaks a arm here and a rib there; is thrown from one horse after another; is nearly crippled for life in an accident in 1902; and is hit (not seriously) by a would-be assassin's bullet in 1912. At San Juan, incomprehensibly, TR got away with nothing more than a scraped elbow.

Edith Roosevelt had none of the political-activist spirit of her neice Eleanor, though we catch a somewhat unhappy glimpse of Edith, in her old age, campaigning for Hoover and against Eleanor's husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But in her poised and rather queenly way, she was, as Morris makes clear, a superb White House hostess, a first lady in the most resonant meaning of those words. And she appears to have been in good part responsible for the massive renovation of the White House undertaken in 1902 by the architect Charles McKim -- the making of the modern executive mansion, with the new presidential offices and the enlarged and beautified East Room and State Dining Room.

Edith Kermit Roosevelt is an endlessly engrossing book, at once of historical and of human importance. It must be said that Morris proceeds in a doggedly chronological manner, from week to week and even day to day, and a number of critical relationships and developments have to be pieced together from a dozen different places. But if Edith herself remains elusive as a personality, it is partly because others tend to pale a little whenever TR is around -- her father, wrote Alice Roosevelt Longworth, always wanted to be "the bride at every wedding the corpse at every funeral." Even more, it is because Edith Roosevelt, standing just behind the scenes, kept a tight hold on her own inwardness. "Just as the camera is focused," remarked an astute and close friend, "she steps aside to avoid the click of the camera." Morris' indefatigably busy camera catches everything that is catchable. The result is a narrative that one will want to return to and mull over, conscious of the hundred and one details that might have been missed the first time round, and with a reader's freedom to speculate that Morris admirably denies herself.

A footnote. This is the best and most intelligently illustrated biography I have come upon in a long time. The publishers have been generous not only in allowing more than 60 photographs, but in placing them where they belong in the text.