By Stacy A. Cordery – Drawing on diaries and personal papers previously unavailable to biographers and scholars, this detailed portrait of Alice Roosevelt Longworth reveals a woman passionate in her opinions who kept herself in the middle of Washington’s political scene for eight decades. Although she’s known as a wit and for her legendary skewering of political figures, especially her disdain for the Hyde Park Roosevelts—Franklin for his politics and Eleanor for, well, being Eleanor—it was her ability to converse on any subject, her vivacious style, and her political acumen that made her parties the refuge of Washingtonians in and out of office. When the Kennedys invited Pablo Casals to the White House, they seated Alice next to him, and the two talked about his previous visit there, in 1904, when Teddy Roosevelt was President.
Alice was 16 when her family moved into the White House in 1901, following the assassination of William McKinley. The media and the public fell in love with this high-spirited teenager and soon dubbed her Princess Alice. When Teddy Roosevelt received complaints about her behavior, he said, “I can be President of the United States—or—I can attend to Alice. I cannot possibly do both.” Nevertheless, when she was only twenty-one he sent her as a goodwill ambassador on a four-month East Asia trip where she impressed the 75-person U.S. delegation as well as the leaders of the countries visited. It was a remarkable transition from teenage party girl to trusted political adviser, a shift made in large part to gain the elusive attention of her adored father.
Ultimately she was just too smart to for him to ignore. And from Teddy Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter, few Presidents did, even when they disagreed with her strongly held views. For Republicans, as Cordery says, she was “part court jester, part Machiavelli.” Not surprisingly, Richard Nixon found her “the most fascinating conversationalist of our time.” An autodidact, she read incessantly, could recite poetry by the yard, and could converse easily about history, science, philosophy, and first, last, and always, politics. She opposed the League of Nations and entry into World War II, yet socially she was liberal. The famous needlepoint pillow that read, “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me” shows she was good-humored about her jibes, and she did rip off some good one-liners. When told the nomination of Wendell Willkie as the Republican presidential candidate in 1940 came from the grassroots, she melded her quick wit and political savvy, saying, “Yes, from the grassroots of 10,000 country clubs.”
Unfortunately, the men in her life never achieved the high ambitions she had for them. Her father lost his 1912 presidential bid and died before he could make a comeback. Her brother Ted lost a close race for New York State governor, was appointed Governor of Puerto Rico and Governor-General of the Philippines, and died in France in World War II after heroic action on Utah Beach. Alice’s husband Nick was Speaker of the House, but further career advancement suffered from the combination of alcoholism and womanizing. And long-time lover Idaho Senator William Borah (father of Alice’s only child) repeatedly missed opportunities for national leadership through a stubbornness of personality. As Janet Maslin in her New York Times review put it, “However fraught her relationships with men may have been, politics remained her first love.”
Alice Roosevelt Longworth died in 1980 at age 96.
Cordery chairs the history department at Monmouth College in Illinois and obtained access to the remarkable cache of personal documents that informed this biography through Alice’s granddaughter, with whom Alice had an unusually close relationship. This biography would appeal to anyone interested in 20th century U.S. political history or feisty women!