, insane with happiness, not only celebrated his 22nd birthday but his marriage to Alice Hathaway Lee
, a fair-haired beauty he met while at Harvard two years before, on October 27, 1880.
The joy turned out to be short-lived. Three and a half years later, TR was nearly insane with grief. Heeding an urgent call to Albany, where he was a rising young politico in the state legislature, he rushed home to find not only his beloved mother on her deathbed, but his wife about to die of Bright’s Disease, only two days after giving birth to their only child.
The story of Theodore and Alice Roosevelt (in the image accompanying this post) holds interest that extends far beyond those (like myself) who are endlessly fascinated by America’s 26th President. It also offers a real-life, Harvard-set Love Story far quirkier and interesting than the one that Erich Segal wrote 40 years ago; a look at how Victorian-era Americans dealt with sex and grief; and how TR’s psychic survival mechanism may have damaged the product of his first union.
Two decades after Alice’s marriage and death, as Americans absorbed every morsel of information they could about the energetic young President and his bustling young family, few knew much, if anything, about the woman who preceded First Lady Edith Carow Roosevelt
as Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt.
This was no accident. TR was so distraught by this double tragedy that he refused to allow anyone to mention Alice’s name, or allude to her in any other way, in his presence.
More than a half century later, Americans still knew comparatively little about Alice. Richard Nixon’s reference to TR’s distraught diary entry (''the light has gone out of my life'') in his farewell address to staffers in August 1974 was one of the few shards of concrete documentary evidence that most historians knew about this. Not only had Roosevelt not mentioned Alice’s name in his 1913 autobiography, but after that brief diary in the diary, he mused no more about his grief at all in print.
And so matters stood until late in the 20th century, a century after TR and Alice’s short union, and only because of another Alice, the couple’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth
, who became a D.C. institution all her own on the strength of a legendary wit. (One of her best-known sayings was “If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me,” though I think a pithier, more characteristic motto for her was “My specialty is detached malevolence.”)
Ms. Roosevelt had in her possession her parents’ correspondence. Though the letters were far too sentimental for her liking, she did not, thank God, destroy them, but instead donated them to the Houghton Library at her father’s alma mater. Nathan Miller was the first TR chronicler to make use of this unexpectedly rich treasure trove, in his 1993 biography.
"As long as I live, I shall never forget how sweetly she looked, and how prettily she greeted me," Roosevelt wrote later. But Alice Lee did not take so quickly to him.
Speaking in a high-pitched voice, looking more like he hopped rather than danced with a partner, and covered with the formaldehyde that showed his longtime interest in taxidermy, TR hardly appeared future Presidential material. His letters indicate that he campaigned for her perhaps more strenuously than he would for any office in the future. He didn’t even give up when she rejected his initial proposal (impetuous fellow that he was, he even ordered dueling pistols in case he became involved in a dispute with another suitor). Her acceptance of his hand just before Valentine’s Day in 1880 made him ecstatic. (Though some accounts would have it that his constant attention to her after their engagement distracted him from his studies, it couldn’t have been that bad, since he graduated cum laude from Harvard four months before their wedding.)
Theodore would not have protested at all about daughter Alice’s characterization of the letters as sentimental; indeed, he would have pointed to the same quality in the greatest of Victorian novelists, Charles Dickens. In this light, his wives can be likened to the two spouses of the title character in Dickens’ David Copperfield. The parallels would not have been lost on Edith Roosevelt, like her husband a great bibliophile.
Alice was TR’s Dora, the pretty, impractical and doomed first wife; Edith was his Agnes, the childhood sweetheart there to catch him on the rebound, sensible and indispensable in creating a lasting marriage. The contrasts ran even deeper between Alice and Edith: golden-haired vs. dark, flirtatious vs. serious, unintellectual vs. literary, sweet-natured vs. unexpectedly tart. (Indeed, Edith might find a kindred spirit in Laura Bush, another booklover forced on occasion to rein in her manchild of a husband.)
What would have happened if Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt had survived? Nothing like a divorce (that was, of course, a social no-no in those days), nor even adultery (TR was about as conventional a husband as you could get, one reason he was so enraged when younger brother Elliott had an affair with a servant). But there is a question whether she would have possessed Edith's strength and equanimity in handling a growing household as her husband’s political star rose, and whether she might not have pushed him into a quieter field, like academe.
As it was, consequences did ensue after Alice’s death, besides the obvious one of intense grief. TR’s strategy for coping with savage loss was twofold: frenetic activity (“Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough”) and emotional suppression.
In the Age of Oprah, of course, the second strategy would be verboten. Political handlers would strongly advise TR to share his feelings, not just with his family but with the entire electorate, in the belief that voters care more about personalities than policies. Psychiatrists would warn about the dangers to families spelled by bottling up the deepest feelings about the loss of a loved one.
Events in the Roosevelt family would bear out the concerns of psychiatrists. First, immediately after the tragedy, TR left his infant daughter in the care of sister Bamie while he headed out for the Dakota Badlands, working as a ranch hand and assistant sheriff, trying to forget. Upon his return, he not only refused to let anyone speak of his first wife in his presence, but instructed Edith not to tell daughter Alice about her mother.
This left the young girl—already resentful that her father was spending more time with his five children with Edith than with her—furious at her stepmother. So unrelenting was this annoyance that Edith would at times lash out at “Princess Alice” that her mother was “an insipid, child-like fool”—Dora, in Dickensian terms.
Young Alice would grow up to be a beautiful, willful rebel--smoking (at a time when proper young women didn‘t do that), going around unchaperoned, tossing off wicked bon mots, and, upon discovering that husband Nicholas Longworth was philandering, embarking on an affair of her own with Senator William Borah that resulted in a pregnancy. She might have been a delightful dinner companion, but was also far removed from the nickname that her mother’s family had for the first Alice Roosevelt” “Sunshine.”