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Alice Roosevelt Longworth at 90
By Sally Quinn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Feb. 12, 1974
"I still," she muses, rapping her bony fingers against her graying head, "more or less have my, what they call, marbles," and she pulls her flowered shawl around her a little closer, throws her head back and laughs gleefully.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth is 90 years old today.
"I may be an old crone but I can still put on the harness and lumber down the street."
When Mrs. Longworth, or Mrs. L. as she prefers to be called by intimates, turned 89 last year she had only a small tea party to celebrate.
"I'm saving my energy for a big bash next year," she said. ". . . if I'm still kicking around."
This afternoon at 5 she will have her 90th birthday party. "It will be a marvelous and horrible scene," she declares.
She will love every minute of it.
"I must say, I'm always on stage. All Roosevelts are exhibitionists," she says. "Am I? Decidedly so. That, my dear is what becomes of peasants."
And she agrees to an interview a few days before the birthday, set for 5 o'clock tea. "It's irresistible," she admits later. "The delight of pouring out yourself to someone who listens with rapt attention and takes down every precious word."
* * *
Her maid, Janie McLaughlin, answers the door and leads the way through the darkened foyer, up the stairs, past the rattiest looking animal skin that you ever saw, hanging on the wall.
The Siberian tiger skin belonged to her big-game hunting father, Teddy Roosevelt.
At the top of the stairs, one can hear a cheerful, lively voice on the floor above, chatting away on the phone. Janie picks up a large brass gong and an equally large mallet. The sound reverberates through the house.
The telephone conversation upstairs ceases. When Mrs. Longworth appears a few minutes later, she remarks laughingly, "Isn't it funny how things change? I used to sound the gong for my servants. Now they sound it for me."
Her living room is cluttered, cozy, comfortable and dingy, done in pale faded colors, some velvets and flowered prints.
The rugs and upholstery are so frayed that in some spots the threads barely hang together. Over the backs and arms of the furniture are pieces of yellowing plastic, a not very earnest attempt at preservation. One suspects that the decay might even be cultivated, a sort of scene-setter, a proper milieu for the venerable inhabitant of the old Dupont Circle mansion that she has occupied for most of her life.
And of course there is The Pillow — the needlepoint pillow that has been so often noticed and to which her detractors point when they deplore her mischievous nature. It, too, is wrapped in plastic and it says, "If you haven't got anything nice to say about anyone, come and sit here by me."
Alice Longworth is a controversial figure in Washington. Those who don't know her — the public, or "the great rancid masses" as she likes to say — see her only as a formidable, amusing, highly entertaining, iconoclastic old lady.
But among those in the inner sanctum those who frequent the Georgetown salons, those who refer to her as "Mrs. L," there is a sharp division of opinion about her which often causes unpleasant moments.
There are those who think she is cruel, mean and malicious, that she uses other people as the butt of her humor, that she will hurt someone for the sake of a catchy one-liner, that she is essentially cold and insensitive to other people's feelings. She outrages some with her scorn of her cousin Eleanor Roosevelt ("I leave the good deeds to Eleanor") and they readily point out that Mrs. Longworth has never really done anything worthwhile in her life.
* * *
Alice Longworth has lived in Washington since William McKinley was assassinated and her father became President in 1901. She was 17 years old. She has known every president since Benjamin Harrison, who was in office from 1889 to 1893. Some she liked and some she didn't; over the years she has never hesitated to reveal her exact sentiments about them, or anyone else for that matter.
She has been a favorite of Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, but there was no love lost between her and Warren Harding, and Woodrow Wilson. President Eisenhower bored her.
She supported her father when President Roosevelt was running in 1912 on the Progressive ticket and her husband, Cincinnati congressman Nicholas Longworth, whom she married when she was 22 and he was 36, was running for reelection on the Republican ticket. Her father was responsible for her husband's defeat. "It was too horrible, really, she says about that period. "Poor Nick, he stayed out, came back in two years, and then became Speaker, so all was well."
Her total fascination with politics and the people in politics has never waned, though she says now that it's far more interesting when "you've got family in it."
At 41 she had her only child, daughter Pauline, who was widowed at 26 and died at 31. She left an only daughter, Joanna Sturm, Mrs. Longworth's grandaughter is now 27 and lives with her in the Dupont Circle house.
In 1931, Nicholas Longworth, who then had become the powerful House Speaker, died. Mrs. Longworth never remarried, preferring to remain alone, leading the independent life she seemed always to want, unhindered by the restrictions being the daughter of a President or the wife of a Speaker of the House must have placed upon her.
* * *
After spending several hours with Mrs. Longworth it would seem that those who say she is a malicious person are unjustified. To be sure there is a bite to her tongue, but more often than not, statements that might be thought mean or shocking by some have an edge of truth to them.
Mrs. Longworth is honest. "That," she says, "infuriates people."
As for alleged lack of sympathy for others' problems: She never talks about her own sadnesses. "Never. I just don't want to," and she doesn't want to hear about anybody else's.
"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 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.'"
Having been a President's daughter and so often in the public eye, Mrs. Longworth has had her share of criticism.
But she thinks she is not as sensitive today. "Criticism doesn't bother me. It's so lovely to be able to say that."
"But," pipes up granddaughter Joanna, "You've been old long enough so that people don't criticize you anymore. They're all so overly respectful."
"Isn't it fascinating?" Mrs. Longworth asks. "It's that dreadful desire of human beings to worship."
* * *
Her granddaughter, Joanna Sturm, wearing pants and a sweater, has just entered the room and sinks into a chair next to the sofa as Janie brings in the tea tray: a silver kettle over a burner that Mrs. Longworth lights herself, bread and butter, cookies and a tiny fresh chocolate cake.
Joanna is tall with longish, light brown hair, a strong, pretty intelligent face and an open, easy, likable manner. She is completely at home with her grandmother, who, when she is in the room, relies on her for advice.
Joanna will often come out with an opinion Mrs. Longworth clearly agrees with, and the older woman will gasp with mock horror and disapproval.
"I," says Joanna, with an engaging smile, "am the silent accomplice."
"I'm full of respect for the younger generation," says her grandmother, smiling sanctimoniously at Joanna.
Alice Longworth finds the publicity about her "absolutely fascinating. I view it from a totally detached point of view but I suppose I can sort of see why they want to interview me. I am more amusing than most Presidents' daughters."
One of her most recent interviews was with another President's daughter, Julie Eisenhower, who wrote the story for the Saturday Evening Post.
"Totally inane," declares Joanna.
"Oh, Joanna," says Mrs. Longworth, laughing, "it wasn't either. It was lovely."
Later, Janie clears the tea things away and brings in Mrs. Longworth's dinner tray. Mrs. Longworth offers dinner to her guest, then peeks under the plate cover.
"Oh good, spareribs. I love spareribs. No one ever serves them. They're fattening too and I just can't seem to put on weight. . . . I only weigh 92 pounds."
As soon as she has inspected the meal and begun to dig in, Mrs. Longworth steers the conversation into the beginnings of a gossip session.
"I'll tell you who I think is awfully nice," she says. "Margaret Truman. I've always liked her a great deal. I haven't seen the Johnson girls at all. I always get them mixed up but they seem to have a good time. And Julie Eisenhower has got something. She seems rather smart. Joanna scoffed at her piece about me and I suppose it was rather scoffable, but I did it because I wanted to show that we're friends. 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?"
Mrs. Longworth keeps on munching, venturing opinions, trying out names for reaction.
"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.
"Ethel," says Mrs. Longworth, "is behaving very badly these days. There's a certain brash quality about her I never liked. I liked Bobby though, a great deal."
Mrs. Longworth cannot stand pomposity or false piety and will go to great lengths to skewer someone guilty of taking himself too seriously.
"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."
Alice Longworth is a survivor in a town where the word is an anachronism. She has been revered and feared, adored and detested, but there has never been a time when she has not been talked about. Her outrageous utterances about people and events began when she was a child and she is still adding to the list of quotable quotes.
She would admit that when McKinley was assassinated and her father became President that her feeling was "utter rapture," she was "ecstatic," a line that appalled people in its directness. But she'll just as readily mock herself. When she had her second mastectomy several years ago, she remarked later that she was the "only topless octogenarian in Georgetown Hospital."
* * *
Interviews are always one way of securing information. Mrs. Longworth is as curious and observant as an interviewer, taking the situation in quickly, optimistically prepared to be entertained, amused, informed; but just as braced, graciously, of course, to be bored.
She talks quickly, through her teeth in a rather upper-class way that she will exaggerate for effect from time to time. Often her verbal speed makes it difficult to understand.
Her eyes are very clear. They dart back and forth. Her hands rest in her lap but she twists her fingers as her mind leaps about. Occasionally she will leap up to point out some relic memento or photograph across the room.
She roars with laughter at the irreverent suggestion that one should prostrate oneself at her feet at the sound of her gong and points her finger admiringly. "Ah," she says, "you've got a wicked nature, horrid, I like that."
She is as ready with a topical jab about young people as she is about past generations, and just as much at home with young people as if she were in her 20s. A session with her and Joanna could almost be a women's consciousness-raising session, but for her irreverence about anything taken too seriously. And she once said, "I've never liked people my own age."
Joanna works for the National Women's Political Caucus and, in fact, the treasurer at the NWPC, Lucille Flannigan, lives with them on the top floor. Joanna tells Mrs. Longworth that Lucille will not be there for tea.
"I'm all for the women's cause," says Mrs. Longworth. "I saw too much of the 'silly little womanizing' over the years. But I'm not violent about it. I've never been treated as inferior by any man."
Mrs. Longworth is reminded of a story of a friend of hers in the old days (the turn of the century) who, after being forbidden by her father to see a young man, dressed in men's clothes and cut her hair. The father remarked, "What an odd revenge."
Mrs. Longworth laughs heartily, "Homosexuality and lesbianism were very fashionable in those days," she says.
"And it was quite acceptable. At least as far as I was concerned."
"Tell her about the incident in the White House garden," prompts Joanna.
It seems Margaret Cassini, Igor's mother and the daughter of a South American ambassador, had been a great friend of Alice Longworth's and they had taken a walk one day in the White House garden.
Miss Cassini proceeded to tell young Alice that a mutual friend was saying horrid things about her. Alice asked what, and the friend replied that a certain Miss Alice Barney was claiming to be in love with Alice.
"I don't think that's nasty, why I think that's lovely, so nice. I'm so glad to hear she is," Mrs. Longworth recalls saying with a mischievous smile.
Margaret Cassini apparently snorted with contempt, which pleased Alice enormously.
"Still," she says, "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 don't think I have ever been scandalized."
Mrs. Longworth was loving the conversation.
"Not in the sense of moral outrage," says Joanna. "But you're being esthetically outraged constantly."
"Yes, that's true," says Mrs. Longworth. "By sexual things, by tasteless things. And then some things I think are terribly funny. Like dear old men's things hanging all around them. I think that's terribly funny."
"Men's penises, my dear," she says very deliberately, leaning forward, waiting for a reaction.
As soon as she is greeted by a howl of astonished laughter, she leans back and howls delightedly herself and Joanna joins in.
"Oh, I can see it in the paper now," says Mrs. Longworth, "Dear old Mrs. Longworth sitting with her granddaughter talking about men's penises."
The talk moves to marriage versus living together. Would she, if she were Joanna's age today, have married?
"No, I never would marry again. I might live with people. But not for long. I really wouldn't want to do anything pondering or noble or taking a position about someone again. But I might rather just spend a night with them, or an afternoon or something."
She pauses, then reflects for a moment: "Still," she says, "I'm afraid I do believe in marriage."
"Why?" Asks Joanna. "You hardly reveled in it yourself."
"That's true. I hardly reveled in it."
"You hardly advise it for me," says Joanna.
"I suppose I'm just a neutral person," she muses. "But I followed my father's marriages. He was always so full of guilt. I loved my father but I was never particularly close to him. I enjoyed my stepmother. But it's mean to talk about your parents that way. I don't want to talk about my parents."
The subject changed.
Well, if Alice Longworth wouldn't have married if she were young today, what would she do?
"I would have run for office. If I were very young I would try to get over the shyness of speaking in public. I still have it. I shuddered with terror when people tried to make me get up and speak. It was just false pride I suppose. But I'm really very shy.
"Every once in a while it hits me. I was like a tenement child, you know, deformed with my legs (she had a disease a child that was suspected later to have been polio) and I was always very conscious of that. My stepmother used to stretch my legs every night."
Mrs. Longworth also feels shy, she says, because she was the only child of Theodore Roosevelt and his first wife. "My brothers used to tease me about not having the same mother. They were very cruel about it and I was terrible sensitive."
* * *
Often accused of being vain, because of her great beauty, Alice Longworth seems unaware of her looks and says she never really thought she was pretty, even when she was young. She jokes now about losing her hair and not having bought a new dress since she was 80.
"I thought I was a rather pathetic creature, terribly homely and that they were just saying I was pretty because I was the President's daughter. Sometimes I look at pictures of myself then, trying to see what they thought was pretty. But then I determined not to be a pathetic creature. I decided to defeat it so I became resistant, contrary, and I tried to be conspicuous. That feeling has lasted in some way."
The conversation moves to accents, and Mrs. Longworth says she apes whoever she is with. "Except LBJ," she chortles. "And I never aped Pat and Dick," she adds.
"Thank goodness," pipes up Joanna.
"Mean!" chides Mrs. Longworth.
What kind of people does she like, who amuses her, interests her?
"Oh, just the people in this very room, my dear," she coos.
"That's not usually true," says Joanna.
Does she like Gerald Ford?
"Who's Gerald Ford? Oh yes, the Vice President. Do I know Gerald Ford, Joanna?"
"I hope not."
"Oh, Joanna," she says with a grin. "You're so intolerant." She begins to warm up to the game.
What about the Nixons?
She suddenly goes serious and says a bit stiffly. "The Nixons are old friends. I've liked them for years. I've known them for a long, long time. I don't talk about them."
A pall comes over the conversation and for a few seconds there is grim silence.
"Well, that certainly put an end to that conversation," jokes Joanna. "Maybe we'd better change the subject."
Mrs. Longworth giggles and agrees and offers tea with honey.
That was not the end of that.
The temptation to get back to Nixon is too much. And later, in the midst of another conversation, Mrs. Longworth leans forward bursting with a less than flattering opinion about how Watergate has been handled by the President — for whom she has always until now, had only the highest praise. She goes on a bit, then leans back and says, deliberately savoring the pleasure of her remark, "But that my dear, is just between us and not for your story."
* * *
As she turns 90, Mrs. Longworth is not thinking about the end. Her phone rings endlessly, she has callers to tea everyday, she still reads till 3 or 4 every morning, and she still goes with friends to dinner parties, which she adores.
She has "plenty of money" as she will tell you, so there are no worries there.
"I have no problems," she will say. "It's easier to grow old if you are able to relax. I relax like mad and I'm interested in everything. Thank heavens I haven't gotten senile. I have good old gusto, that's all."
But in the last year Mrs. Longworth has not been terribly well. Perhaps her two bouts with cancer are taking their toll. She went to her first dinner party in six weeks the other day and was exhausted all the next day.
"I'm crumbling with old age," she says with a wry smile and adds, with just the tiniest trace of concern, "It's just in the last year that I have been getting obviously older."
Mrs. Longworth, for all her impeccable manner, is a snob. "I do believe in privilege," she says resolutely. And part of her snobbism is a kind of nose-thumbing. "Epater [titillate] les bourgeois," she will say with a nicely turned French accent.
Some people say she has mellowed in her old age. Does she think she has?
"No," she says brightly.
Alice Longworth can still laugh at herself and laughing at herself gives her license to laugh at others.
"When they start comparing you to the Washington Monument," she says, "you just have to open your eyes and take a good look at yourself."