ALICE ROOSEVELT LONGWORTH
By Carol Felsenthal
Putnam's. 320 pp. $19.95
THIS BOOK could give you a whole new slant on the summit. There can't be a nuke in all Russia that's a match for some of the poisoned darts thrown by Alice Roosevelt Longworth, whose reign of verbal terror spanned the administrations of 13 U.S. presidents, beginning with that of her own father, Theodore Roosevelt. He inherited the job when President McKinley was gunned down in Buffalo in 1901, the year Alice turned 17. The assassin barely beat Alice to the punch. Furious that her father was only second in command, she had already thrown a voodoo doll with pins in it onto the White House lawn and later claimed that she danced "a little jig" when she learned of McKinley's death.
Carol Felsenthal's unblinking text may lack the courtly elegance of, say, Robert Lacey's portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. But so does her subject. Mrs. Longworth's bloodlines stretch straight back to the promenade deck of The Mayflower, but she had the grace and tact of a piranha.
On the plus side, the author deftly disentangles the Hyde Park Roosevelts (FDR and Eleanor) from the Oyster Bay Roosevelts (TR and Alice Longworth); burrows to the roots of other relevant dynasties; traces the sources of their wealth; and sketches the social and political dynamics that serve as background for events. If there is irony in her tone, it is invited by the facts. You don't meet many people you'd want to buy a used car from in this crowd, and even Eleanor, the cult-figure Roosevelt, showed serious signs of wimphood before she seized control of her life.
Young Alice got off to a textbook bad start and kept going from there. Her mother died soon after she was born. Her grieving father first ignored her, then remarried and produced a second family of five attention-grabbing siblings. Getting even became the metaphor of her life.
Few schools could cope with her, and she mostly educated herself, reading all night and sleeping the mornings away. She could swallow a book whole and recite it by heart. The powers of the presidency, her father soon learned, conferred no control over Alice. He could only fume helplessly as his daughter's antics nudged his policies off the front page. She appeared on a railroad station with a boa constrictor around her neck, was thrown out of a Boston hotel for smoking in the lobby and ate asparagus with her fingers at a White House dinner without removing her gloves. Sulking at her White House coming-out party because her stepmother refused to serve champagne, she said the floor covering looked like "the underbelly of a fish."
But men swarmed around her wherever she went, drawn by her defiance and eviscerating wit. For her part, she liked men with power and sharp minds that she could spar with. Most of the big guns of her time paraded through her life, and occasionally through her bedroom, on the way to their destinies. What they stood for mattered less. She called Stalin her "pin-up boy" and was charmed by Fidel Castro, whose photo had a place of honor next to Joe McCarthy on her piano.
She scorned her cousin Franklin Roosevelt, mocked his infirmities when he was stricken with polio and was so angry at his election she said she could "grind my teeth and blow them out my nose." She showed no mercy to Eleanor and perfected a cruel imitation of her that became standard fare at Washington dinners. She invited Lucy Mercer and FDR -- minus Eleanor -- to dinner when she learned of their affair. She was prudently civil to her stepmother. But when Edith Roosevelt died she left Alice $500 less than she left her maid.
She was married in East Room splendor to Nicholas Longworth, Speaker of the House, 15 years older, a foot shorter and a world-class boozer and womanizer. His main attraction seemed to be that one of her women friends wanted him too. She also liked the loot. TR banned all gifts from foreign governments, but not before the French had weighed in with a Gobelin tapestry; Edward VII with a gold snuffbox with his miniature set in diamonds on the lid; the Kaiser with a diamond-studded bracelet and the Cubans with a rope of pearls. She opened the most lavish and presents and ignored the rest. (Later, when her daughter was married, the young couple amused themselves by throwing their wedding presents down a well.)
The Longworths were received like royalty on their honeymoon abroad. "If I see one more king," said Alice, "I'll have him stuffed." (Asked if Tricia Nixon's White House wedding brought back any memories, she snapped, "Not a goddamn thing.")
Eventually, at 41, she gave birth to a daughter, an experience she likened to "trying to push a grand piano through a transom." The child bore more than passing resemblance to Senator William Borah, said to be Alice's lover at the time. Longworth, busy with his own conquests, apparently did not object and came to adore the girl, who was heartbroken when he died. Alice was not, and methodically put the torch to his most cherished possessions -- including a Stradivarius violin.
Only when her daughter died of an overdose of barbiturates -- which Alice refused to call suicide -- did remorse appear to set in. She insisted on bringing up her frightened granddaughter, who fled when she approached, and the odd twosome developed a touching and tender relationship. Deep into her nineties, Alice became "mad as a hare and incorrigible too," as one friend said, with only her granddaughter standing by. All the glittering ones who had supped at her tables were somehow too busy to call. She evened the score when she died, by ordering that no funeral be held.
If this book falls short of explaining Alice Longworth, or probing beneath the surface of her life, it does at least lay bare the shallow heart of Washington, which was so quintessentially her turf. It reminds us once again, lest we forget, that if you want a friend here, get a dog. ::
Anne Chamberlin is a Washington writer.