AT THE 15TH STREET entrance to this building, one of the ancient page-one engraving-plates arrayed as decoration over the old red linotype machine bears our favorite headline of all time: "On a Sun-Kissed Day in a Room Abloom The Eyes of the World Beholding, Alice Roosevelt the President's Fair Daughter Becomes Mrs. Nicholas Longworth." The indulgence; the extravagance; the lush, orchidhued romanticism of it all.No economy of words there, no pretense of objectivity. Why should there have been? It was February of 1906, not 1980.
It is a tribute to Mrs. Longworth, who died yesterday at the age of 96, that she survived, defied and confounded these prettifying circumstances of her young womanhood. Success didn't spoil Alice Longworth. It made her tougher and sharper and (occasionally) meaner and shrewder and funnier. She became a kind of one-woman Greek chorus on Washington, providing, from right up there on the stage, a series of memorable critiques and asides that put the political high life of the capital in its proper place over the years: down.
The distinctive style was evidently there from the beginning.Even amid those turn-of-the-century rooms abloom, Mrs. Longworth was known for a kind of rebellious independence, and this characteristic stayed with her for the next 70 years. She became something of a legend, and as is always the case, the legend didn't quite fit the person. Her acute and frequently awful perceptions of the Washington high political scene -- she would "leave the good deeds to cousin Elanor," she asserted in one famous jab -- got her known, wrongly, as a kind of upper-class, female comic of the one-liner school. And her disinclination to plunge into good works (or even bad works) to occupy her time also generated plenty of criticism.
But there was Mrs. Longworth, a true oddity of modern-day Washington in that she did not need any of the common kinds of occupation to ward off boredom or despair. She was a reader, a watcher, an engager and occasional troublemaker in other people's lives, a woman of endlessly renewed intellectual energy, who just plain liked life -- especially her own. That, you will say, is no trick if you have all the advantages this once-beautiful and indulged woman had. But Mrs. Longworth's story, in some sense, could be read as a prescription for another conclusion -- one of petulance, resistance to change, refusal to "adjust" to the new ways and realities or to take seriously the inheritors of that power and celebrity that she and her family had once enjoyed.
Far from sinking into this, Mrs. Longworth stayed right at the scene of the action, from the Hickory Hill revels of the Kennedy years (she provided amused and troublemaking corroboration of the denied swimming-pool dunking stories of the time) to the Dupont Circle police-student confrontations of the '60s and '70s (she got a whiff of tear gas, which did not seem to trouble her much in her ninth decade). Mrs. Longworth -- "the President's Fair Daughter" -- was headed places on that day back in 1906 that no one present could have guessed at.She took it all in stride -- and made it infinitely more entertaining.