Princess Alice: The Irrepressible Miss Roosevelt

alice rooseveltSecond only to her father, Theodore Roosevelt, of this time period, no one represented Washington D.C. and the White House more than Alice. It was her antics that caused the exasperated TR to opine “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both,” and it was her high-spirits and unconventionality that won her the hearts of America and garnered the nickname “Princess Alice.” Her trip to Asia created headlines, particularly when she jumped into a pool fully-clothed, and was given so many costly items, the press dubbed the government sponsored trip “Alice in Plunder Land.” She inspired songs and colors, and millions of American girls, all on the cusp of the “new woman” movement, emulated everything she said and did.

Doug Weald named Alice’s 1906 marriage to Rep. Nicholas Longworth as the “grandest White House wedding of all” and “the greatest most spectacular social event probably in all of American History.” The decorations at the wedding were along a value sufficient for a king’s ransom. The ceremony took place in the East Room, in front of one of the windows which was draped with cloth of gold rimmed with curtains, the whole being ornamented with ropes of smilax and Easter lilies. Presents included curios and fine perfumes from the Empress of China; a 25,000 dollar Gobelin tapestry from the President of France; a Florentine mosaic from the King of Italy; two Sevres vases from former President Loubet of France; antique jewelry from the King of Spain; and a pearl necklace, worth 25,000 dollars from the people of Cuba, in “appreciation for services rendered to their country by Americans, and by Mr. Roosevelt, who himself fought for Cuban liberty.” The most startling party of the wedding ceremony was when Alice, irritated with the knife used to cut the cake, borrowed an officer’s saber and “brandished it aloft and began slashing the cake with it…the slices fell right and left, and great was the scramble among her friends for it.”

You can imagine my fascination with Alice when I first stumbled upon her a few years ago, and luckily, I’ve been able to conduct an interview with Dr. Stacy Cordery, author of Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker (2007), and professor of History at Monmouth College, in Monmouth, Illinois.

alice roosevelt longworth

Alice has been the subject of two other well-received biographies and a conversational autobiography. What inspired you to take up the subject once more? Why do you think the story of Alice Roosevelt Longworth is so timeless (a children’s book was even released last year!)?

The book grew out of a graduate class I took at the University of Texas where I earned my Ph.D. in History. The course was about Theodore Roosevelt and his era and was taught by the Dr. Lewis L. Gould. He wisely suggested Alice as a topic. The book really got going when I was given full access to thousands and thousands of documents belonging to Alice Longworth’s granddaughter. No historian knew these documents existed, and they included a wealth of correspondence from politicians, artists, writers, foreign dignitaries, Supreme Court justices–not to mention family and other friends. There were drafts of her newspaper column and speeches, doodlings, social calendars, the book listing her wedding presents, and lots more–it was a treasure trove.

Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s story is timeless in some archetypal ways: she overcame the tragedy of her mother dying as she was born. She felt like the outsider in her family, but didn’t let that interfere with her developing her own style and interests. And of course, Alice Longworth was glamorous and famous. When she was First Daughter crowds of hundreds and thousands used to appear to see her. People named babies after her, named a color for her, wrote music for her, asked for her autograph. She could hardly shop for a trousseau because of the spectators. Her fame never abated throughout her 96 years. She held sway in an earlier Washington where politics and socializing were intimately connected–and her drawing room was ground zero for that era’s networking. She was a model of the independent woman, doing, for the most part, exactly what she wanted, when she wanted, with whom she wanted. When I give talk about her, someone always comes up afterward to tell me how Alice Roosevelt Longworth had been an important “bad-girl” model! There’s that certainly, but in the book, I wanted to explain why Alice led a life so gloriously unconcerned with other people’s judgments about her.

tr-familyAlice’s relationship with her father was conflicting. On one hand, he ignored the topic of her mother and closed the door to a true emotional relationship, yet on the other, he turned to her for advice and she was his biggest advocate. Did your research help you understand Alice–and in the process, T.R.–or was she even more of an enigma?

Well, every biographer treds with trepidation on that question of “understanding” one’s subject because the historical record is incomplete. I would like to think that between her voluminous writings (her diaries and letters), the letters from family and friends about her, her own memoir, the interviews I conducted, and the contemporary sources, I had a pretty good understanding of her. I hope the book provides a nuanced sense of the relationship between TR and Alice. Sometimes, though, the sources aren’t there. When he died, she did not comment–in public or in private. I did not have the evidence to assess the depth of her grief. I could read only the silence–and it was a silence remarkably like TR’s silence at the death of his first wife, Alice’s mother. Yet I remain convinced that TR is the key to understanding Alice. Their relationship was conflicted, and for many complicated reasons, not the least of which is that she was so very much like him, especially when she was young.

Considering the era in which she was born and reared, do you find Alice’s unconventionality natural and ahead of her time, or did she behave outwardly outrageous for attention, but remained inwardly conventional?

I find Alice’s unconventionality natural for her and ahead of her time. In some ways she did behave outrageously for attention’s sake. She almost never had the undivided attention of her father or her step-mother, and she acted out in ways that forced them to notice her. Luckily for her, Alice Roosevelt came of age both in the public crucible of the White House and at a time when the country was fascinated with the glowing potential for change in the new century. TR assumed the presidency in 1901 and Alice personified all the breathtaking possibilities for young women at the dawn of the twentieth century–or more precisely, she created possibilities for women, like driving a car, smoking in public, betting on the horses, playing poker. These were trespasses on socially defined men’s territory. Once she was no longer First Daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth continued to shatter conventions: she wore slacks in public, she stopped the convention of calling, she eschewed traditional women’s war work, she had an extramarital affair and gave birth to a baby at age 41–the result of that affair.

Though Alice’s memory and prestige has faded considerably in the general public, when she is mentioned, people either love her or detest her. What were your initial impressions of Alice? What do you think of Alice after having written her biography?

Initially I was fascinated with Alice Roosevelt as a celebrity First Daughter. Then I wrestled for years with the body of evidence left by people who, as you suggest, detested her. At that point, someone who knew her well, Kristie Miller, asked me to think about how it could be simultaneously true that so many people hated her, yet everyone from tourists to presidents wanted to have tea with her. I learned from others who knew her, like Robert Hellman and Stephen Benn and James K. Galbraith that she never made fun of the vulnerable or those whom she thought could not handle it. She would never, as she put it “hit a blind lamb on the nose.” And everyone attested to her charm. Mrs. Longworth was brilliant, witty, and politically engaged to a degree that we have forgotten. She could be malicious, but I think her malice was directed chiefly at Democrats (particularly her cousins, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt) during the New Deal years when she felt that everything was on the line: the economy had tanked, fascism was on the rise. The world was a scary place and at that stage of her life she was bitterly partisan.

nick_longworthWhy do you think Alice remained content to take swipes behind the scenes, but to never take a stand politically? If Nick ran for President, would she have been a good First Lady?

Alice remained beind the scenes only in that she did not run for elected office, and her political stands were well-known. She worked hard–and successfully–to defeat the League of Nations. She was a board member of America First. She wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column for a short while, and she did campaign occasionally. She was told to sit out the 1912 election for fear of helping her husband and hurting her father, or vice versa, as they were in two different political parties that year. She was asked to take Nick’s House seat after he died, but she had a horror, as she said, of women “using their husband’s coffins as springboards” to office. Despite the fact that she was acknowledged the smartest of TR’s children, and the important fact that she knew just about everybody in Washington, Alice Longworth never ran for political office because she was shy. She was also not extremely wealthy. She did not control her money, but the trust fund from her mother was doled out to her.

As she got older, her politics became less partisan. She referred to herself in later years not as a Republican, but as a Bull Moose. She crossed party lines to vote for Lydon Johnson and she was great friends with the Kennedys, whom she admired.

Would she have been a good First Lady? She would have been an extremely unconventional First Lady for her time. She–and this is what-if history, now–would have cared passionately about the legislation and the politics, like Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosalynn Carter, and Hillary Clinton. She would have been much less interested in the formal entertainments. That would not have gone down particularly well in the 1920s, when a woman’s role was much more circumscribed.

Nicknamed “Princess Alice” during her stint as a First Daughter, was the political/diplomatic climate easier or more difficult than today for a president’s child to be treated rather in the manner of royalty?

Theodore Roosevelt was a Progressive Republican who loathed the idea of his family turning into some sort of antithesis of democracy. He kept putting the brakes on Alice as First Daughter being treated as a princess. She was the first First Daughter to serve as a goodwill ambassador for her father when she toured Asia in 1905. There, it was very difficult to keep the royal treatment at bay, especially because TR was half a world away in Washington. You would have to ask Chelsea Clinton or the Bush daughters, but my sense is that everything is more difficult now because we have 24/7 news coverage, cell phones that take photographs and can be flashed around the world in seconds, and citizens with an easier time communicating their concerns to the White House. While Americans knew much of what happened in Alice Roosevelt’s life while she was First Daughter, they did not know everything–and so she could get away with some royal treatment. Also, at the turn of the century, the United States was in a much different place in relationship to the rest of the world. Americans then took great pride in the fact that their First Daughter was being treated as an equal by Japanese princesses and the Empress Dowager of China. For the most part, Americans reveled in the antics of the irrepressible First Daughter and found in her a mirror of their own aspirations. Young women copied her dress, her actions. Young men wrote for her photograph.

William BorahAlice’s relationships with her family were filled with conflict; however, based on the letters between she and William Borah, Alice seemed somewhat free of emotional turmoil. Do you subscribe to the idea that they were a perfect match? Would Alice have been happier and fulfilled had she been free to wed Bill Borah?

Bill Borah was the Senate’s best orator, the powerful chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the handsome “Lion of Idaho,” a self-made man full of the romance of the West. He could quote reams of poetry and political philosophy just like Alice could. While I wrote in the book–and I think it’s true that–that Senator Borah was the love of Alice’s life, I don’t actually think that they were a perfect match. I think she was a frustrated Lady MacBeth to Borah. It was notoriously difficult to get Borah to see a bill through to its passage, for example, and the same seemed to be true of the attempts he made at securing a presidential nomination from the Republican Party. He didn’t commit to much, long-term. I think they had many important things in common, and they probably were really in love, but I suspect, in my biographer’s heart, that the relationship would not have lasted because he was not as ambitious for himself as she was for him, nor was he as politically astute as she was.

Finally, did you ever find it ironic that Alice outlived her entire immediate family?

Ironic, no. A bit sad, perhaps. But it is extremely important to realize that at the end of her life, Alice had good and loyal friends and more importantly, she had her granddaughter, Joanna Sturm. The relationship between grandmother and granddaughter sustained them both, from everything I’ve been told, and provided great happiness to them both.

Further Reading:
Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker by Stacy A. Cordery
Princess Alice: The Life and Times of Alice Roosevelt Longworth by Carol Felsenthal
Crowded Hours by Alice Roosevelt Longworth
Mrs. L: Talks with Alice Roosevelt Longworth by Michael Teague
Alice: The Life and Times of Alice Roosevelt Longworth by Howard Teichmann
Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth by Marc Peyser

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4 replies on “Princess Alice: The Irrepressible Miss Roosevelt”
  1. says: Don Brynelasen

    I’ve been in love with Alice since I first discovered her in college in the early 80’s, and wish I could have known her in her young and wild days and wittnessed some of her antics such as her fully clothed plunge into that shipboard swimming pool during her 1905 Far east Trip.

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