Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who dominated Washington society for almost a century by reason of her birth, her charm, her beauty and the sharpness of her wit and tongue, died yesterday at her home near Dupont Circle. She was 96 on Feb. 12.
The cause of her death was cardiac arrest and bronchial pneumonia.
No other person, certainly no other woman, achieved the unbroken prominence in this city that belonged to Mrs. Longworth. She knew every president from Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) to Gerald Ford. Many were intimate friends; others were intimate enemies.
She was the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt and the widow of Nicholas Longworth, a speaker of the House of Representatives. But in a city that discards its ex-this and ex-that after every national election, as a bored child discards a used toy, Mrs. Longworth remarkably remained at the center of things.
"What always seemed to me so extraordinary about her," a relative once said, "was later -- when she had none of the advantages she had in the way of power through her husband and father -- she was still dominating the Washington social scene. It's an extraordinary feat and she did it by being enormously funny and entertaining; witty and very, very bright and enormously herself and no one else."
"And that self was a complicated thing. There was immense humor, style, courage and a keen mind that could dazzle with its total recall.
When she liked the company around her, she was capable of radiating a joyous ebullience felt by everyone in the room, who, in turn, seemed particularly witty.
But there was also a dark side to Mrs. Longworth. Her curious and total detachment -- she once said she viewed the world with "malevolent detachment" -- kept her from being a person one would consider loving or involved in other people, causes or crusades. Because of it, she was capable of cruelty and malice in her scorn, distaste and mockery of sentimentality, emotionalism, do-gooders and other things she simply did not understand.
Quickly intolerant of boors, foolishness, stupidity, bad manners -- "anything you don't do well in any field," as one friend recalled -- she reserved particular irritation for the ostentatiously virtuous.
"Poor cousin Eleanor" -- wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- was the constant butt of Mrs. Longworth's superb mimicry -- an act that was often the finale of Mrs. Longworth's famous tea parties.
Mrs. Longworth would pull her mouth down, seeming, somehow to protrude her long teeth, lift the distinctive "Roosevelt voice" a notch or two and there, in front of everyone, was "Poor Cousin Eleanor."
The biggest criticism leveled at Mrs. Longworth by many, including members of her family, was that such a keen mind was never put to anything useful, that she lived a totally self-centered pleasure-bent noncontributing life. Such criticism never bothered Mrs. Longworth, who once froze any suggestion of her accomplishing anything noteworthy. With great finality, she said, "I leave the good deeds to Cousin Eleanor."
And indeed, for many others, it was more than enough that Mrs. Longworth was simply around. To them her style and zest and acerbic wit made up for all the good deeds that escaped her.
It made their day to have a woman around who could say, "The secret of eternal youth is arrested development."
Or that comment after Wendell Willkie announced his nomination for president: "He sprang from the grass roots of the country clubs of America." pOr once, while having a portrait painted: "I want to look like a nice old leather saddle."
She also had the elan, years later, to admit that the marvelous quote attributed to her about Thomas Dewey -- "How can you vote for a man who looks like a bridegroom on a wedding cake?" -- was not hers. She said she merely spread it around, or "gave it currency," out of respect for the phrase.
One acquaintance can never forget in her early days how she forever dismissed a former beau, who inherited considerably more money than wit or charm. Watching the man's recent bride, a French woman, hovering over his evey move, Mrs. Longworth fastened her intense blue eyes on the couple, then said, "It's an odd thing, isn't it? For a French woman, a large fortune must be a secondary sexual characteristic, like a beautiful torso."
In later years, the quick retort was still going strong. In the late 1960s, a young woman came away enthralled after a conversation with Mrs. Longworth, saying, "She's cool. Almost like someone flipping out on drugs." When that comment was relayed to Mrs. Longworth, she lauged and said, "Do you suppose when I outgrew my hormones I started to manufacturing LSD?"
What probably solidified her slot in Washington was her political-mindedness. Her knowledge of Senate machinations, politicial intrigue and awareness of issues charmed and fascinated Presidents and political leaders from her White House debut in 1902 to the Nixon administration.
For years, she was an avid spectator of Congress, sitting in the visitor's gallery. She attended numerous conventions. She could, and did, with great agility, switch from astute poker player, which also enhanced her status with the men in her life. And unlike many of the great talkers, Mrs. Longworth also developed the art of being a good listener.
She was a favorite of Harry S Truman.
President Richard M. Nixon, telephoned her frequently from the White House. President John F. Kennedy would leave beautiful women to move to her side and listen. Close friends said in amusing tones that she and Robert Kennedy, although years apart in ages, had a "thing" for each other.
"I've never seen her bested, or express self-doubt, certainly not intellectually," recalled one. "I think that's why she had so much fun with Bobby -- he'd argue with her. Of course, he wasn't on a par with her. He didn't have her experiences or her total recall."
President Lyndon Johnson once moved a beautiful young female guest from her seat next to him at a White House dinner so that Mrs. Longworth could take her place. When a White House aide chided that the president, "didn't know what he was missing," Mr. Johnson replied, "Ah but I know what I'm getting."
Not all Presidents were admirers or admired by her. There was ill-concealed distaste for Woodrow Wilson. Her house became headquarters for the Reactionary and anti-League of Nations senators and congressmen.
She bitterly recalled in her autobiography, "Crowded Hours," (1933, Charles Scribner's Sons) in 1917 when President Wilson returned from Paris, "I got out of my motor and stood on the curbstone to see the presidential party pass, fingers crossed, making the sign of the evil eye and saying 'A murrain on him, a murrain on him, a murrain on him' reverting to the magic of youthful days."
Of President Warren G. Harding, Mrs. Longworth wrote, "It is odd to have seen so much of people whom I never liked as I saw of the Hardings. Harding was not a bad man. He was just a slob."
Mrs. Longworth said their frequent visits were to play poker. She played with the men, and Mrs. Harding, or "The Duchess" as she was called, tended bar.
Mrs. Longworth had immense courage. Her distaste for self-pity extended to herself. She was such a private person, and her problems were kept so quiet, that closest family and friends often did not know when she was ill.Anyone who would complain or discuss personal matters was a "perfect bore," she felt.
When she was 72, she had one operation for cancer, with one breast being removed. There were also several unpublicized bouts with pneumonia. In 1970, when she was 86, the other breast was removed, but she merely told friends that, like a decrepit car, she was going into the hospital "for an overhaul." Later, she joked, "I am the only topless octogenarian in Georgetown University Hospital."
During some illnesses she was attended by a doctor she personally didn't like, a man who was completely disliked by her close friends. With that detachment of hers, this never bothered her. She felt if he was a qualified doctor the need for a pleasant personal relationship was nullified.
In later years, the detachment that led to caustic observances about life and those around her, was directed to herself. She called herself a "Shriveled Twiggy," "an old crone," "a loathsome combination of Phyllis Diller and Marie Dressler."
Her lack of emotions, at least any that were ever displayed, once led a member of her family to remark that the one person Mrs. Longworth possibly was ever capable of loving was her father. Later, that was amended to include her granddaughter Joanna Sturm.
There was no question that magnetic Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt -- "the bridegroom at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral" -- haunted her life.
Her mother died two days after Mrs. Longworth was born.She grew up with her father, her stepmother and three half brothers and a half sister. She remembers her father heating a wire hairpin red hot and branding her small toy animals with the brands of his three different ranches.
Her first recollection of the White House was when her father took her there to see President Harrison. When she was 85 she recalled that visit: "He was like a rather solemn bearded gnome. Poor man. He had to be led in to be looked at by a child. It was tough on him. It was in the gloomy Red Room. I remember the gloom of the Red Room. I must have been all of 6. I have no recollection whether anything was said."
A few years later, "Princess Alice," the daughter of the President, was on the scene. She was a spoiled darling, who hid pet snakes in the bedroom and scandalized the Victorians by smoking. (In later years, when a young White House aide not recognizing the elderly visitor, asked her to put out her cigarette in the White House, Mrs. Longworth stopped him with, "Young man, I was smoking in the White House before you were born.").
Offended adults chided Theodore Roosevelt about his headstrong daughter, one of the first women to drive a car, and he replied he could either look after the country or he could look after Alice; no man was capable of handling both.
She was the first young girl in the White House since Nellie Grant, the daughter of Ulysses Grant. Official Washington was small. There were only five or six embassies, no movies or television for diversion, and "Princess Alice" and her shenanigans were duly attended with interest.
In 1905 she went on a trip to the Philippines with then Secretary of War Taft. "My father was president, I was without a particle of responsibility other than to enjoy myself, and I was alert for all that came my way."
On the train ride out West she celebrated the Fourth of July by shooting off firecrackers from the back platform "and shot my revolver at the telegraph poles."
Mrs. Longworth was stunningly beautiful and carried two hat boxes and trunkloads of clothes on the trip. She met kings and queens and empresses. When she walked into ballrooms, orchestras struck up songs in her honor. The song "Alice Blue Gown" was in honor of the shade of blue she wore.
After she returned, she announced her engagement to a young congressman from a prominent Cincinnati family, Nicholas Longworth. Fearing any sentimental comments from her family, Mrs. Longworth put off telling about the engagement. "Finally one evening I followed mother into her bathroom and told her the news while she was brushing her teeth, so that she should have a moment to think before she said anything."
Gifts from rulers all over the world poured in for the wedding of the year, Feb. 17, 1906, when she became the 10th White House bride. Until her final days, Mrs. Longworth still often wore one of her favorite wedding gifts, a string of pearls from the Cuban government.
Her marriage has been described in later years as "an odd and curious one." Longworth was moneyed, witty, fascinating, a hard drinker, and ladies' man, yet disciplined and powerful and effective in Congress. They were quite a match on the surface, yet those close to them felt that Mrs. Longworth never truly married for love.
Her book is in its own revealing for what it does not say. There is no personal information for insight into ther life. It tells of the constant round of the parties, the issues of the day that intrigued official Washington and Mrs. Longworth, the national conventions she attended, the political infighting she entered into.
Of her husband, who was 36 when they married (she was 22), Mrs. Longworth wrote: "His father had died 16 or 17 years before and he and his mother had a peculiarly close relationship. They were devoted to one another. I know how hard it was for her to have him marry at all; and I was not someone who 'merged' with the family she married into; not by a long shot, I fear."
Mrs. Longworth harbored intense dislike for those who did not support her father's Bull Moose progressive party and even admitted that she did not back her husband's congressional campaign, which was in conflict with her father's party. She later commented, "I have no use for people who take defeat seriously."
During prohibition, when Mrs. Longworth was in her 30s and 40s, she and her husband lived a life of liveried footman and butlers and influence. Their life was filled with acquaintances who "voted dry and drank wet." She wrote of those days: "The cabinet member who did not take a drink when it was offered to him was an exception. We bought pounds of making, and I recollect that we had a small still with which our butler managed to concoct a very passable gin from oranges." At a particularly dry party, Mrs. Longworth enlivened things for both men seated next to her by presenting them with her bottles that she had brought in inside her long white gloves.
There was during this time a famed newspaper feud, "The Dolly Gann War of Precedence." Mrs. Longworth said there was no truth to the story going around town that she refused to attend parties because Vice President Charles Curtis insisted that his sister, Dolly Gann, being his official hostess, should be placed before other dignitaries' wives. She said later that Nicholas Longworth just started the rumor as an excuse to keep from going to dry parties.
Never one to drink much, Mrs. Longworth developed a loathing for people who couldn't handle their liquor during those depression days that remained with her the rest of her life. She made a practice of coming late to dinner parties to avoid the cocktail hour.
At 41, Mrs. Longworth surprised everyone by giving birth to a daughter ("I'm always willing to try anything once") No mention is made of that daughter, born in 1925, in her book, published eight years after her birth. Paulina was a shadowy, pathetic child, considered "desperatley shy" and completly overshadowed by her mother. She was raised by a governess; Mrs. Longworth had little patience, understanding or interest in children in those days. Paulina married Alexander McCormick Sturm, was widowed at age 26 and died from a overdose of drugs when she was just 31.
When Nicholas Longworth died in 1931, Mrs. Longworth faced her own personal depression. The family fortune they had treated as inexhaustible was nearly exhausted. The grand manner of life disappeared and Mrs. Longworth went to work the only way she knew how -- she put her acid comments into print in a column in her book. The book, a potboiler to keep her out of debt, she said in later years, was looked on by her with loathing and embarrassment.
The five-story mansion on fashionable Dupont Circle went up for sale for $70,000 in 1934. for some reason, Mrs. Longworth did not sell it and she lived there for the rest of her life.
The 1930s were not vintage years for Mrs. Longworth. In addition to money troubles, she loathed the "New Deal" days. She was currently out of favor with Franklin -- who in other days used to bring his girlfriend, Lucy Mercer, to her house -- and Eleanor -- who openly disliked her -- in the White House.
But then, in the 1940s, following the war, Mrs. Longworth again emerged as a crony of President Truman and the people who were then running Washington. a
Official Washington again bored her during the Eisenhower era. She regarded him as a "nice old sort of thing." Then, as a relative recalled, "she was saved from any sort of oblivion by Kennedys. There she was, already really an old woman, and the Kennedy people turned up and instantly fell in love with her. Those were marvelous, brilliant times and there she was in the midst of it."
In the '40s, Mrs. Longworth maneuvered the kind of coups she loved. During gas rationing war days, she and several other grand dames, shared the services of a taxi driver named Turner. "There was hell to pay when they were all going to the same party," said a friend. After the war, much to the anger of the other women, Mrs. Longworth asked Turner to be her exclusive chauffeur. He agreed, on one condidtion -- that she buy a Cadillac. She did, and for 25 years, Mrs. Longworth, Turner and the Cadillac were familiar figures. In 1970, Turner retired and so did the Cadillac.
Turner was one person who fought with Mrs. Longworth; they often disagreed on directions. But there was a bond of friendship, and they used to attend boxing matches in Washington together.
Mrs. Longworth told the story of one of their evenings out, when Turner was sideswiped. "The driver, a white man, shouted, 'you black bastard!' at Turner. I put my head out the window and I very carefully said, 'Shut up you white son-of-a-bitch . . ."
All her life, Mrs. Longworth loathed being called "Alice." Close friends called her "Mrs. L"; her sister, Ethel Darby, referred to her as "sister," nephews and nieces called her "Auntie Sister."
Once the late Joseph McCarthy, whom she never liked, made the mistake, one of kissing her, and two, calling her Alice. Her eyes narrowed and she said, "The policeman and the trash man may call me Alice; you -- can -- not." The only friend she permitted to call her Alice was Dean Acheson. -
For many years Mrs. Longworth lived a life style that seemed curious to some and enviable to others. She lived in shabby gentility; once pictures went up on the walls, they stayed there, undusted, untouched.
The mansion sat in fading splendor near Dupont Circle, which had turned from fashionable to hippieland.
(One night when she stuck her head out the window during a Dupont Circle hippie clash with police, Mrs. Longworth reported to all her friends that she "got a dear little whiff of tear gas.")
Directly in front is a bus stop, people huddled at all hours, not knowing that President Teddy Roosevelt's daughter was inside. In fact, it looked as if no one was in there at all.Trees, brush and ivy grew to outrageous proportions. Little light came through curtained windows. Inside is a dim foyer, and the first thing one saw after entering were tattered animal skins -- reminders of Teddy Roosevelt's hunting days. They were hung on the walls leading up the stairs. At the top of the stairs is a small room where Peter Hurd's portrait of Mrs. Longworth stared from the wall.
This room leads to the main sitting room, where most afternoons Mrs. Longworth had tea with friends and took countless phone calls. She seemed always unimpressed with fame alone; she was intrigued with only those who could stimulate her facile mind.
One afternoon when she was 85, she got a phone call to have lunch with Stalin's daughter, Svetlana. Mrs. Longworth returned to the tea table and said, "Should I go? I suppose it would be fun, but I do hate to get up for lunch." So much for Svetlana.
In later years, Mrs. Longworth's day began around 1:30 p.m., with a light breakfast, prepared for her in a kitchen with its relics of long ago days -- buzzers unattached for years indicating "Mr. L's room, Mrs. L's room, the nursery."
She came alive at tea time, often attended by her granddaughter Joanna, a pretty and intellectual girl who lived a good part of her life with her grandmother. Mrs. Longworth went out often to dinner parties, if the invitation intriged her. Always she wound up the day reading into the night until dawn. Her reading was wide-ranged, everything from anthropology, and science to memoirs and biographies.
Her keen blue eyes would light up when she talked of books and when she was 86 was still memorizing poetry and passages by heart. When she was 85 she told of her interest in science, speaking of "quasars and quarks" as if they were intimate friends. "I had a small -- well it wasn't exactly a triumph. A young girl was staying here who was in physics and she was talking about vectors -- that they had direction and magnitude and I said, 'Yes, of course . . . scalars only have magnitude.' And she said she hadn't heard about scalars."
She seldom wrote letters but was clever at drawings. Friends and relatives would save her doodles in a third floor room she referred to as the Collyer room -- in honor of those two recluse brothers -- until her friends cleaned it up. She slept on the third floor, and refused to have help spend the night with her. A refrigerator on the third floor was fortified with thin buttered bread and caviar for her nocturnal snacks.
Although very much up on current events, Mrs. Longworth seldom went to movies. She walked out of the highly publicized 1969 movie, "I Am Curious -- Yellow" saying "it's the most boring thing I've ever seen." But she "adored" the rock musical "Hair" when she saw it at age 87.
In her own childhood, she was tutored.
"In my time, every wretched child had drawing lessons and music lessons," she once said. "I got as far as Rachmaninoff on the piano, but then I sprained by finger and said I couldn't practice anymore."
Her house was as casually filled with mementos as Mrs. Longworth was with memories. Countless pictures just sort of leaned on and around the piano in the sitting room -- a Wyeth, a Sargent water color of the White House, pictures of the Empress Dowager of China ("there's the old bird herself"), a portrait of her granddaughter. There is a worn rug, maroon flowered sofa, gold and wood lacquer Chinese carvings from an ancient temple, a TV partly hidden by an ancient screen.
A tapestry on one wall "was given to my stepmother and it hung over the dining room fireplace in the White House."
Mrs. Longworth would make a few unapologetic sounding apologies about the motheaten state of her animals -- "absolutely disgraceful" -- but never did anything about them. She delighted in telling the story about her cousin Stewart Alsop who "in a moment of facetiousness shook hands with the tiger and the paw came off in his hand." The paw rested for years on her mantle. With the self assurance of a woman knowing her friends were always coming to see her, and not her house. Mrs. Longworth never made a move to modernize the place.
In her later years, Mrs. Longworth's malice mellowed into mischief. There was a certain tolerance that had not been there before.
Never religious -- a friend said she lost her religion at the age of 15, reading Darwin -- Mrs. Longworth was an undaunted woman who never revealed fears or self-doubts or her deepest emotions to the end of her days.
A friend said that after her operation in August 1970, "I'm sure, like all of us she's afraid of death, but you'll never hear that from her."
The closest Mrs. Longworth came to not wanting to be reminded of death was in a typical tart sentence.At 86, she revealed there were two things she loathed: going to funerals -- and going to parties with any one her own age.
And in 1971, when President Nixon gave an 87th birthday party for her in the White House, Mrs. Longworth said of her celebration, "So gruesome. Everyone looks at you and wonders if she'll last another year."
Mrs. Longworth's survivors include her granddaughter, Joanna Sturm of Washington.