In 1901 President McKinley was assassinated and his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt became the United States’ 26th president. Roosevelt had already proven that he had an adventurous and bold spirit. He had overcome many tragedies in his lifetime and now his career had taken him to the highest position in the country. Luckily for the world, Theodore Roosevelt had passed along his spirit to his daughter, Alice Lee Roosevelt.
Born on Feb 12 of 1884, Alice’s entry into the world was overshadowed by tragedy. Two days after birth her mother passed away from an undiagnosed kidney disorder. Theodore Roosevelt’s mother had died only 11 hours earlier. While the future president took his grief out west to North Dakota, he gave Alice to his sister to care for. Alice would spend the next 3 years of her life with her aunt before her father married and she moved in with him and her stepmom.
When Theodore became president in 1901, women did not have the right to vote. That did not come for another twenty years. The lives of women at that time were significantly different than they are now. As a 17 year old Alice captured the adoring gaze of the press and became one of the first global celebrities. Though she had beauty and sharp wit, it was her scandalous behavior that the press loved to report.
The interesting thing about Alice, is that she inspired an entire generation of women by doing things that today seem quite unremarkable. Things that Alice did that were seen as scandalous included: smoking cigarettes in public, riding in cars with men. Without a chaperone!! Partying late. She spoke her mind and did not care what people thought. So much so that during one meeting in the Oval Office where Alice had interrupted her father with an adviser he remarked, “I can run the country or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both”.*
In 1906 Alice married a congressman named Nicholas Longworth. Her wedding was held in the White House and true to the brides flair she cut the cake with a ceremonial sword. She and Nick had become engaged after a cruise through Asia where she once again shocked the world by jumping into a pool with her clothes on.
Seriously. These are the things that were considered a scandal over 100 years ago. A woman jumping into a pool with her clothes on. Smoking cigarettes. Partying with men. To us they are frivolous and even ridiculous. But as the world was emerging from the Victorian era, these were very big things. How women conducted themselves was incredibly important. With the Press following Alice’s every move, and reporting on every scandal, she was an inspiration for women in gaining new social freedom. People found her fascinating and crowds would follow her everywhere. She was even nicknamed, “Princess Alice” by the press.
In the interest of being fair, I will say that Alice did do a few things that do seem a little bizarre by today’s standards. She had a pet garter snake named Emily Spinach that she liked to carry around with her. Not scandalous in 2018, but still a little odd. There was also the fact that she was known to have placed a voodoo doll in the White House garden to bring bad luck to the Taft administration. That was more of a lark then any serious belief, though. An outrageous stunt that gives insight into Alice’s humor. One that led to her being banned by White House by the Taft Administration.
That’s right! Alice was banned from the White House. Not just by the Taft’s either. She made some remarks against Woodrow Wilson that had her banned from the White House during his administration, also. Her heated support against many of the Wilson policies contributed to this as much as any remarks she may or may not have said. The banning was what caught my attention and had me start reading about Alice. However, it was just tip of the iceberg of fascinating things that I learned about this woman.
Later Alice’s marriage did sour and she had an affair with a Senator from Idaho by the name of Borah. Letters that were released to the public in 2007 have confirmed that Alice’s only child. Paulina, was a product of this affair with Borah. The affair was well-known, though Nick Longworth was also a known philanderer. Adultery is not something that is new. As long as you go back through history you will find records of adultery. It is one of those things that tend to be a scandal regardless of the age.
Yet, Alice still remained an inspiration. It was not just women who Alice inspired in her life. When her father left the White House in 1909 Alice continue to work behind the scenes of politics until her death in 1980. She spent countless decades in Washington where she was intimately involved behind the scenes in some of the biggest happenings of the twentieth century. Dinners at her home frequently included the leading politicians of the day and despite having been banned by the Taft and Wilson administration, she was a frequent visitor at the White House.
She was good friends with the Kennedys and Nixon. Yet her relationship with her cousin Eleanor Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were at times very shakey. Though Eleanor and Alice were close when they were younger, their differences in politics played a part in them drifting apart. Alice was quite vocal in speaking out against her cousin FDR and the press loved to report on this and her relationship with Eleanor. In 2016, Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer published Hissing Cousins: The Lifelong Rivalry of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. A fascinating book that details the lives of both women as well as their relationship with each other.
No one lives to be 96 without her share of hard times. In 1957 her only child Paulina Longworth Sturm died. Alice then took over the raising of her granddaughter Joanna Sturm. She had breast cancer twice and a mild case of polio. She experienced life to the fullest, both the ups and the downs.
Alice has been criticized by some people for not putting her celebrity into causes and charities the way her cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt had done. But Alice had no desire for that. She said she “left the good works to Eleanor.” Alice’s passion lay in other areas. She was fascinated by politics and loved working behind the scenes influencing politicians and overseeing the debates in Congress. That’s what made Alice special. She lived her life the way she wanted. That is the true inspiration of her life. She did whatever she damned well pleased. And she did it at a time when women did not have the freedoms we have today. Ending up with the nickname, The Other Washington Monument, tells you a lot about the impact of this woman.
*I found several versions of this quote, but I used the one that I found referenced he most.