Del Quentin Wilber is a reporter for Bloomberg News and the author of “Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan.”
Quentin Roosevelt was a fighter pilot who was killed battling the Germans in World War I. What else can be said of a man, even a war hero, who died at the age of 20, nearly 100 years ago — a life too short to amount to much consequence, even if he was a son of a former U.S. president?
To me, the question is a personal one. As you can see from my byline, Quentin is my middle name, and it is a direct link of sorts to the daring pilot and his larger-than-life father. The name was given to my grandfather, and then my father and then me. Though the circumstances of the first bestowal are somewhat murky, family lore suggests that my great-great-grandfather had hunted with Theodore Roosevelt. (I have not been able to confirm this, and my grandfather was a teller of tall tales.) At the very least, my grandfather was given the middle name to recall the sacrifices of a son and a famous father.
Quentin’s death was greeted with grief by the American people, many of whom recalled his exploits as a youngster in his father’s White House; I’m sure others received his name, especially during and right after World War I (a town in Pennsylvania even swapped its name from the too-German Bismarck to Quentin).
Eric Burns, a former NBC News correspondent, has taken on the difficult task of reconstructing the young man’s life by placing it in the context of his overachieving and history-making father. His book, “The Golden Lad,” is at once fresh and illuminating, a fast-paced read that focuses on President Roosevelt’s private life and his role as a husband and father, and on a young man inspired by the Rough Rider to fight and die for his country. It is the kind of biography that more authors should embrace: concise and lively. I imagine this is how an arborist tells the broader story of a forest through the rings on a single tree.
The book, which relies extensively on the Roosevelts’ trove of correspondence (they “were an epistolary clan,” Burns writes), starts in 1897 with Roosevelt, then Navy secretary, agitating for combat in the Spanish-American War just as his youngest of six children, Quentin, was born. The boy turned out to be a lot like his father and, like Dad, was sickly as a child.
Roosevelt expected much from himself and his children, particularly his four sons. One of the first two letters Roosevelt wrote upon Quentin’s birth was sent to the headmaster at the prestigious Groton prep school, asking him to consider Quentin for admission. (To Roosevelt’s credit, he sent Quentin for a time to a public school near the White House.)
The elder Roosevelt wasn’t just a war hero. He served as New York police commissioner, secretary of the Navy and governor of New York before being tapped in 1900 to run as vice president with President William McKinley. When an assassin killed McKinley in September 1901, Roosevelt became president and brought his family to the White House. There, the commander in chief played with his boys and was known for engaging in a bit of mischief himself; he earned an honorary spot in Quentin’s “White House Gang” of young boys, one of whom was the son of future president William Howard Taft, who at the time was secretary of war. Roosevelt took particular joy in exchanging playful and grotesque looks with Quentin and generally horsing around.
Quentin earned a reputation for roughhousing and causing trouble — whether breaking furniture or throwing snowballs at guards. Burns writes that Quentin once barged into a meeting between his father and the attorney general — with a large snake wrapped around his body. Roosevelt immediately sent the youngster, who also had snakes clutched in each hand, to entertain waiting congressmen.
At a social function, a haughty matron asked Quentin how he dealt with the more “common boys” at his public school, and the youth’s response surely made his father quite proud. “I don’t know what you mean,” Quentin told her. “My father says there are only four kinds of boys: good boys and bad boys and tall boys and short boys; that’s all the kinds of boys there are.”
In Burns’s telling, Quentin was Roosevelt’s favorite child, and they shared a bond — whether in writing letters or engaging in pillow fights or other shenanigans. Quentin attended Groton, where he struggled with its strict rules, and then Harvard. When the nation entered World War I in 1917, he joined the nascent U.S. Air Corps, becoming a pilot (his three brothers fought with the Army). Their father, who had vocally called for America’s entry into the conflict, could not have been more pleased by his sons’ service.
In France, Quentin earned a reputation for being a solid officer, if a somewhat reckless pilot, perhaps not the best trait for an airman dodging bullets in a plane made of wood and fabric. Quentin shot down at least one German plane, perhaps two, but his own end came just four months after he was sent to the front lines. On July 14, 1918, he crashed and died, most likely after being shot down in a dogfight. His remains, along with those of an older brother, Theodore Jr., a top Army general who died in World War II, are interred at a U.S. military cemetery in France.
Burns writes that Quentin’s death sped the demise of his father, a man already weakened from a near-assassination and a torturous journey into the Amazon jungle. “His sorrow,” Burns writes, “overwhelmed all other emotions,” except perhaps his guilt. Roosevelt had pushed hard for the nation’s entry into the war. When he was asked to send an inspirational message to the people of France, he declined: “I have no message for France; I have already given her the best I had.” When he was approached to run for president in 1920, he demurred. “I am indifferent to the subject. Since Quentin’s death, the world seems to have shut down upon me.”
The former president had endured much loss in his life: his father and his brother; his first wife and his mother died on the same day. After heartbreak, he bulled ahead. But after Quentin’s death, Burns writes, the former Rough Rider could no longer find the courage or energy to charge the hill. At the age of 60, he died, just six months after Quentin was killed.
“For Quentin’s death was not just another loss: it was the loss,” Burns writes, “the ultimate tragedy for Theodore Roosevelt, an occurrence that called into question everything for which he had stood in his life.”
By Eric Burns
Pegasus. 200 pp. $26.95