A Kaleidoscope Of Life


Artwork: Muse by Elsie Russell.

The Improper Power Of Alice Roosevelt

Sue Marquette Poremba

Theodore Roosevelt and Owen Wister were meeting in the oval office, or so the story goes, when Roosevelt's oldest child, teenaged Alice, waltzed through, munching a sandwich, with little regard to her father or his guest. Wister complained to Roosevelt that something must be done about Alice, to which Roosevelt reportedly replied, "I can either run the country or control Alice. I cannot possibly do both."

Thank goodness he chose to run the country, because by "controlling" his daughter, we may have lost one of our great hidden treasures -- Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

Alice's place in history is usually stuffed into books about her father or about life in the White House. There are few biographies on her history and a couple of those, including her own autobiography Crowded Hours, are not very reliable sources. (Her autobiography has a selective memory and ignores important pieces to her life, such as her daughter.)

Yet, she was a woman who not only understood politics, but by working behind the scenes, may have altered the way history turned.

It would be easy to parallel her life with that of Eleanor Roosevelt, Alice's first cousin. Both were born in 1884, both lost their mother early in childhood, both were mentored by the same woman, their aunt Anna Roosevelt Cowles -- a strong woman in her own right, a woman who was considered the "real" politician within her family. Both Alice and Eleanor married political men (Alice's husband was Nicholas Longworth, a Congressman when they met and throughout most of their marriage. Nick eventually became Speaker of the House) who had trouble being married to strong women.

But while Eleanor was an apologist who for many years acted as though she should remain two-steps behind her man and society in general, Alice, the princess in the White House and most eligible woman in America, took the world by storm. I believe that many, if not most, of Alice's actions were steered by her own fears and insecurity within her family -- the family called her Sister, relegating her to a no-name status -- but those actions gave her a sense of power. The things she did were mild by 1996 standards -- smoking on the White House roof, jumping fully dressed into a swimming pool, meeting men unchaperoned. These things stirred the imagination of still-Victorian-minded America, and it brought Alice fame. Knowing she had the name recognition, she learned that she could, even as a "only" a political wife, be a force.

This first became evident in 1912, when her father decided that he would run for President as a Progressive. Incumbent President, William Taft, was from Cincinnati. Nick Longworth was Taft's Congressman -- not to mention, long-time friends -- and also up for re-election. No matter how she was treated as a child, Mrs. Longworth was by birth and by heart a Roosevelt. Because her father felt betrayed by Taft, Alice also felt betrayed. While Nick tried to remain neutral when it came to endorsing a presidential candidate, Alice decided she did not have to worry about such things. She was taking sides. At an Ohio rally for her father, she sat on the stage. She did not speak, but her presence -- and her loyalties -- were made known. Taft and Roosevelt both lost that election, of course. So did Nick Longworth. (Two years later, hating her "exile" in Cincinnati, Alice helped get Nick re-elected so she could return to Washington, where she spent the rest of her life.)

Returning to Eleanor for just a moment, she is often considered the greatest First Lady for her activist nature. Yet, deeper examination of her great works, show that she took up stereotypical women's causes, many ideas were brought to her from somewhere else -- and she literally nagged her husband into doing something about them, which he would do to get her out of his hair -- and many of the actions taken were failures. Eleanor had gone as far as to say that she would not deal with foreign affairs or budget issues --stereotypical male issues. Eleanor Roosevelt was a great woman and she did do good for the country. However, she remained in the role always defined for women and many of her great accomplishments were made because she annoyed her husband.

Alice Roosevelt Longworth, on the other hand, often laughed at Eleanor. Granted, Alice was no humanitarian. Her politics were extreme right-wing, and she was a member of America First, a near-fascist organization created to keep America isolated from World War II. But Alice understood politics in a way that Eleanor did not.

Alice, too, had an agenda. For many years, it was her father's agenda, and after his death, it was to protect his policies from being co-opted by FDR and others. But she did not make speeches. She did not parade or make a spectacle of herself in the name of politics. She took her role as political wife and turned it into political socialite. She arranged dinner parties to lobby Congressmen and Senators. (There is little question that some of her lobbying was done in the bedroom.) During the hearings for the League of Nations, she spent her days in the Senate gallery, listening intently. At night, she would make scrambled eggs for key members of the opposition, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, Theodore Roosevelt's best friend, who would discuss strategy. Did she discuss strategy with them? Alice denies having anything to do with the defeat of Wilson's League of Nation. Many don't believe it. Wilson was the number one enemy of Roosevelt and, after his death in 1919, Alice was determined to see Wilson's moment of glory go down in flames. She was instrumental in setting up the opposition, and she was in cahoots with Lodge.

Her Roosevelt name opened many political doors for Alice. But she preferred her role as a politician's wife. She had no desire to run for office (the opportunity presented itself with her husband's death when she was offered his seat in Congress, which she declined). She understood her power came from behind the scenes. As a socialite, she was witty, she had biting sarcasm, she was well-read and intelligent. She had her father's gift of conversation. But she modeled herself after her aunt, Anna Cowles. She listened. She counseled. She arranged for politicians who stood on separate sides of issues to meet at her house for tea, then let them hash out an agreement in her parlor. Her interests were in protecting America, in government workings. Her goals were to get her husband elected President for two terms, then have him succeeded by her brother Ted. (This didn't happen -- in part due to Nick's death and in part due to Ted's "Clintonesque" involvement in the Teapot Dome scandal, ie by association, not by deed.) Most importantly, she showed that the role of the political wife didn't have to be filled with formal yet empty social calls on other political wives, dropping your calling card in a basket just to prove you stopped by, but instead acted as an individual in her own right, with ideas and agendas that, as any other citizen is free to do, can be promoted, lobbied, and cultivated.

About Sue Marquette Poremba.

Artwork: Muse by Elsie Russell.

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