Edmund Morris, the biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, delivered these remarks yesterday at the memorial service for Archibald Roosevelt, former intelligence officer, banker and grandson of TR, who died last week at the age of 72.
On the last weekend of his life Archie Roosevelt spent 10 patient minutes explaining to me the correct spelling of a German obscenity. "The 'e' must come before the 'i,' " he said, "or else it will read schiess, and I don't think that's the word you want."
He stood looking at me as I sat with pen and paper in the library of a friend's house in Connecticut. It was a glorious spring morning, of the kind that draws all normal people out of doors to walk and swim and play. But Archie could no more resist a library than an ant can bypass a blueberry pie. The written word, be it lyrical or factual or bawdy, was to him a berry to be sucked right down to its tiniest etymological seed. The Oxford English Dictionary is commonly cited as the ultimate authority of word origins -- but only by academics who lacked Archie's phone number. I remember calling him once to say that the OED was giving me identical derivations of the words "obfuscate" and "obscurate." "Well of course obfuscare and obscurare do mean the same in Latin," he said, "but if you'd been a well-educated Roman, you'd have known that the one word was Indo-European in origin and the other Etruscan -- so to get the real difference you'd have to contrast Oriental and Mediterranean concepts of darkness." That was Archie Roosevelt: an intellect who knew the origins of origins, and the meaning beyond meaning.
I thought to myself that weekend in Connecticut, as he stepped away from my desk and began to browse the bookshelves around us, "There but for a hundred pounds of fat goes Theodore Roosevelt." The small-boned body, the peering myopia, the nervous wreathing of his facial muscles, the teeth, the crooked spectacles, the harsh voice, the frail toughness, the gentlemanliness, the naivete' that was part idealist, part 6-year-old boy -- here at least were derivations I could understand. The touching thing is that Archie himself was sublimely unconscious of any physical and intellectual identity with the 26th president. Or at least he had been until about 10 years ago, when I published a book describing Theodore Roosevelt in documentary detail. Archie was amazed, and his wife partly consoled, to discover that his most eccentric characteristics were inherited rather than inherent. When he presented me a copy of his own book, he wrote on the flyleaf, "To Edmund -- who gave me back the grandfather I lost just after birth . . . at the beginning of my voyage to Samarkand."
TR, one feels, would have been more supportive of Archie's lust to set out on the golden road -- through fields equally fertile with romance and learning -- than were his own parents. His father, a frustrated militarist of limited intelligence, did not know what to make of a youth who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, and could have been summa if he hadn't absent-mindedly forgotten an examination. Archie Senior tried to make Archie Junior an all-American outdoorsman, but discovered that while the boy was physically unbreakable, he was also seriously bored. Mrs. Roosevelt hoped that her son's Arabian inclinations would make him feel at home in the sands of investment banking, but words won out over numbers, and Archie became a reporter instead. Were it not for Pearl Harbor, he might have wasted his gifts in the morgues of provincial newspapers; but the Army, seizing on him as intelligent, put him with military logic into its intelligence corps, and a distinguished career was born.
His life in what eventually turned into the CIA had everything he had dreamed of finding along the Golden Road: intrigue, adventure, exotic locales, the companionship of like-minded travelers, and even -- mirabile dictu! -- a dark-eyed houri, out of Beirut by way of Vassar, who became his permanent tent-mate. Most of all, however, the CIA gave Archie what he had lacked as a polychrome growing up in a monochrome community: a sense that his colorfulness was useful and desirable, that his prismatic mind, his array of languages and learning, were enlightening at a dark moment in our history.
Ironically, he pitched his last tent in the very sands he had avoided as a youth, but the Chase Manhattan Bank, to its credit and profit, employed him to the end as a cultural resource. However I detected a certain wistfulness that last weekend in Connecticut, when he told me that even as we spoke, a team from the bank was visiting Samarkand. "Why didn't you go, Archie?" "Well, obviously because I'm not very fit." "No, I mean, why didn't you go in the past?" But to that he had no answer.
TR, I could not help thinking, would have gotten to Samarkand alone, and on foot if necessary, had it been his ambition. Archie needed to be taken there, and when the time came, the caravan passed him by. Such are the ironies that distinguish presidents from men who are merely lovable -- but since Archie was that, let us remember him not as the grandson of his grandfather, but as a unique personality who walked among us for 72 years. Perhaps I should say "walked and tripped," because he was a klutz of amazing virtuosity. He never saw a plate-glass door that he saw, and to take a drive with him in his little yellow car was an education in the values of life insurance. Somehow, even his faults were endearing. That carborundum laugh did serious damage to the inner ear. He would walk 10 miles in tight shoes for a dollar. His summer clothes, when worn overseas, amounted to a national humiliation for the United States. And he could always be relied on, halfway though dessert, to tell a joke so disgusting that you had to push your plate away, which of course was his motive, because he wanted the rest of your chocolate mousse.
Well, if those were the worst things Archibald Bullock Roosevelt perpetrated upon us, we are entitled to laugh at them, while the best things he left behind merit our admiration and tears.