Oh, Mrs. Longworth, how we're going to miss you. Just knowing you were there with a candid quip or an honest reaction gave heart. Alice Roosevelt Longworth was brave. Not nice or sweet or charming or good. Especially not goody good.
It is hard to be brave in a city like Washington where life feeds off images and appearances and facades. Where deception is the order of the day. And saying what you really think about someone is rare.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who died yesterday at 96, was one of the greatest practitioners of honesty, the queen of candor, the mistress of mischief.
Just listen to her:
On Tricia and Julie Nixon: "I like Julie better than Tricia. I've never been able to get on with Tricia. She seems rather pathetic, doesn't she? I wonder what's wrong with her?"
On Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. . . . "I like Jackie very much. But I've always wondered what on earth made her marry Onassis. He's a repulsive character. He reminds me of Mr. Punch . . . Jack was so attractive."
On Ethel Kennedy: . . . "Ethel is behaving very badly these days. There's a certain brash quality about her I never liked. I liked Bobby though, a great deal."
Those quotes came from an interview Mrs. Longworth gave me six years ago this month on her 90th birthday.
I had been after her for nearly three years and she kept putting me off. "Let's wait until I'm 90 years old and do it right," she kept saying.
I had met her and talked to her many times in the old days when I was covering parties around town and she had been, even then in her 80s, one of Washington's leading social lions.
Mostly, though, she was a source. One knew never to call her before 2 p.m. because she slept late. Any time of night was okay -- which was especially helpful for those of us on the late party shift. She also loved to give us a quote for a story on deadline and she never failed to make it as juicy and controversial as she could. She was a reporter's dream.
I had just ended a disastrous six-month television career as the "CBS Morning News" anchorwoman and was out of a job. I was to do the piece free lance for The Washington Post.
When I reached her that January morning she cackled with glee and pointed out to me. "You've certainly made a mess of things, haven't you? I've been reading all about it."
But she agreed to the interview without hesitation. "I never to back on my promises."
I was invited to join her for tea the following week.
Tea was at 5. I arrived at her Dupont Circle home and was seated in her upstairs drawing room. Prominently displayed across the room on a sofa was her now famous needlepoint pillow. "If you haven't got anything nice to say about anyone, come and sit here by me."
Shortly Mrs. L., as she was called, appeared, practically rubbing her hands in anticipation of the interview.
I was terribly nervous. It would be the first piece I had written since I left The Post the summer before.
I needn't have worried.
Mrs. Longworth conducted the interview for me.
"It's irresistible," she said. "The delight of pouring out yourself to someone who listens with rapt attention and takes down every precious word." She began by asking me questions about my CBS experience, shrieking with laughter at the particularly painful details. This was stunning to me because I hadn't yet been able to see the humor in what then seemed tragedy.
Her granddaughter, Joanna Sturm, appeared for part of the "interview," but as an amused observer, not a participant.
Before long we were both shouting and laughing and gasping as we exchanged stories and anecdotes and gossip.
It was her honesty, she would say, that "infuriates people . . . I don't think I am insensitive or cruel, I laugh, I have a sense of humor, I like to tease. I must admit a sense of mischief does get a hold of me from time to time. I'm a hedonist. I have an appetite for being entertained. Isn't it strange how that upsets people? And I don't mind what I do unless I'm injuring someone in some way . . . I had a pious cousin who used to say she lived in the palace of truth and she would go up to some horrible looking creature with an ugly red nose and say, 'You have an ugly red nose.'"
. . . "I'm probably bad about people who have noble, fine and marvelous thoughts. That's so depressing. I never could stand the little pious family things that my sanctimonious cousins used to do. But they're all dead now."
And she would admit, much to people's horror that when McKinley was assassinated and her father, Theodore Roosevelt, became president that her feeling was "utter rapture," she was "ecstatic."
She loved to talk about sex, especially in the days when her father was president.
"Homosexuality and lesbianism were very fashionable in those days," she would say, and tell a little story about how another woman was in love with her, when she lived in the White House.
"Still," she said, "usually I thought it better to keep away from joking about the lesbian thing since my father was president.
"But you know, in those days people were always having love affairs with their poodles and putting tiny flowers in strange places. But they talked amusingly about their affairs. My family didn't though. They would have gone absolutely mad with horror. Especially my younger sister Ethel. She would have fainted dead away. But I don't think I have ever been scandalized. . . ."
When the story appeared on her 90th birthday, Feb. 12, 1974, people were appalled at the outrageous quotes I had attributed to this "poor, sweet, innocent, old lady." She obviously didn't know what was happening, they complained. I had taken advantage of her. Poor Mrs. L., they cried, what a tragedy for her.
She loved the piece. She never said so. She just kept inviting me to come for tea and to her subsequent birthday parties and prolonging our occasional chats on the telephone. And she said of me at the time. "You've a wicked nature, horrid. I like that."
Poor Mrs. L.! How could anybody who had even spent five minutes with this woman even call her poor anything? Not only did she know exactly what she was doing, but if anyone had been used, it was I.
What I suspect she loved the most was the pious clucking of those around her who continued to sympathize with her over this horrendous hatchet job.
What nonsense, that clucking. She was a cynic and why not. She saw Washington for what it was and still loved it. She saw the grasping and clawing of those striving for power, the desperation of those who had lost it, and mostly the constant fear of those afraid to lose it.
She chose to operate by Washington's rules and she was one of the few people who understood them.
The president and his wife are perfect. Senators and congressmen are perfect. Their families are paragons of virtue, their lives are dedicated to the highest ideals as are those of all public figures in Washington. They go to church, they read uplifting books, they never gossip or swear or drink or flirt or have affairs. This is the line they sell to the public and this is the line that is bought.
She saw through those rules and if the purveyors did slip, then by Washington's rules they had lost and were fair game. And God help them if they slipped. Alice Roosevelt Longworth wouldn't.
It would have, I suppose, been much easier for her to sit back and be quiet, keep her smart mouth shut, have her quiet little teas and act like a former president's daughter, the wife, then widow of a speaker of the House.
But then nobody would have been outraged, or shocked or scandalized or enlightened.
And then she would have been boring.
That, to her, would have been the only sin.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth was never boring.