by Jo Freeman
Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker
by Stacy A. Cordery
Published by Viking - Penguin Group (USA); October 2007, 590 pp.
The United States doesn’t have a royal family, but sometimes it has royalty. Dubbed Princess Alice by the press, the eldest daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt acted the part and kept the nickname — not always happily — for the rest of her 96 years.
Moving into the White House at age 17 when her father succeeded the assassinated William McKinley, she was an instant hit with the press. Smoking, gambling and driving automobiles at a time when proper young ladies just did not do those things, her actions and words sold papers. Indeed, the widely read stories about her shenanigans encouraged other young women to emulate her long before the flappers of the 1920s.
TR took advantage of people’s fascination with his teen-age daughter to send her on political and diplomatic missions where she was treated like royalty. She loved the attention, and politely stood in endless reception lines as a representative of her father.
Born on February 12, 1884 to TR’s first wife Alice Lee, who died two days later, she was raised by her aunt for her first three years, joining her father only after he married again. Step-mother Edith added four boys and another girl to Teddy’s brood, but none would ever be as demanding, or as well known, as Alice.
Although the star at the first debutante ball ever held at the White House, she was jealous of the "better" one given her sister six years later. President Roosevelt once commented to a friend that "I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both."
Typical of a daughter of the privileged class, she lacked formal education but not money. A trust fund from her mother’s family gave her an annual income but she always felt like she couldn’t keep up with her very wealthy friends. During the social season she looked for a rich husband and settled on Nicholas Longworth, a Member of Congress from Ohio, 15 years her senior with family wealth of his own. With him she lived in comfort until his death in 1931.
Nick was a rising star in Congress when they married and a powerful one as Speaker from 1925 until the Democrats won the House in the election of 1930. They shared a passion for politics and an active social life, but not much else. Nick had several mistresses, dying in the home of one them. Alice had her own lover, Senator William Borah of Idaho, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the 1920s, with whom she had a daughter in 1925.
She forgave Nick his sexual disloyalty but not his political disloyalty. In the election of 1912 he supported the re-election of fellow Ohioan William Howard Taft (his mentor in politics) for President rather than her father. (TR beat Taft, but Wilson won the election). The Longworths stayed together as a Washington power couple (divorce was socially unacceptable) but otherwise went their own ways.
Alice did not like Nick’s family, or Ohio. While she rejected suggestions that she succeed Nick in Congress, she maintained a residence in Cincinnati so she could vote and be a delegate to Republican National Conventions. But she lived out her life in the District of Columbia, where she eventually became known as "the other Washington Monument."
With the access and status conferred by her father, her husband and her lover, Alice played the game of Washington insider for several decades. She educated herself on the issues of the day through prolific reading, conversations with some of the best minds in the country, and attendance at Congressional committee meetings and debates. Her political acumen was lauded by her contemporaries. Her house became a salon and her dinner parties the place to find out what was really going on.
Although petrified by public speaking, in an intimate atmosphere she was captivating. Senators John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon said that she was their favorite dinner partner and she never lacked for male companionship. After Borah’s death in 1940, United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis became her "steady companion" for many years.
Alice acquired a reputation as a wit, noted for her barbs and repartee. She often said that she cared nothing for social convention or what other people thought of her. She liked being outrageous and spoke her mind with an attitude of "detached malevolence" (her words). One of her best friends gave her an embroidered pillow which Alice proudly showed off. It said: "If you haven’t got anything good to say about anyone come and sit by me."
Her acid tongue became more vitriolic when her fifth cousin became President. She despised FDR and his programs, and never passed up an opportunity to say so — even though cousin Eleanor still invited her to the White House. In 1935 she began a regular newspaper column with critiques of the New Deal that readers wouldn’t find in Eleanor’s "My Day" column.
Following her father, Alice began as a progressive Republican but over time became an isolationist and a conservative. She was a central figure (along with Borah) in the Irreconcilables who lobbied against the League of Nations; her home was their headquarters. Twenty years later she became a charter member of the America First Committee which demanded that "Congress refrain from war, even if England is on the verge of defeat."
She supported Taft over Eisenhower in 1952 — even though he was the son of her father’s 1912 opponent. In the 1960s she shifted direction, supporting Lyndon Johnson, the civil rights movement and eventually feminism and gay rights (though she stood by Nixon when few others did).
This book is full of fascinating stories about a fascinating woman. Like the British aristocracy, Alice was so secure in her position that she could do and say what was not proper without fear of social ostracism. The rules just didn’t apply to her.
While telling Alice’s story, the author also provides insight into this branch of the Roosevelt family. They and their marital partners had more than their share of alcoholism and suicides. Alice’s uncle (Eleanor’s father), at least one brother, husband, and son-in-law, all had their lives ruined or shortened by alcohol — even during Prohibition.
There are also glimpses into the social mores of the upper class. It appears that while divorce would have been scandalous, sleeping around and stealing each other’s mates was not — even for socially proper women. While Alice imbibed as a teenager, she became a Dry during Prohibition out of disgust at the way her social class misused alcohol (she did like to go against the grain).
This book is more than a biography. It’s a social history and a family history. As Alice did with many of her books, you will stay up late reading for the sheer pleasure of it.