June 24, 2014

Alice Roosevelt's Sad, Amazing Life

Alice Roosevelt being the boss.
Theodore Roosevelt's oldest daughter, Alice, is a fascinating character. Her life cries out — cries out — to be made into a movie.

Theodore married Alice Hathaway Lee when he was 22. Four years later, she died after giving birth to their daughter, Alice Lee Roosevelt. TR was devastated, and after depositing baby Alice with his sister, left for North Dakota for a few years.

When he came back East, he had regained his good spirits and soon married Edith, his childhood sweetheart. For the rest of his life he never mentioned his first wife again, even to their daughter, and he omitted any mention of her from his autobiography.

Except of course he had a daughter with the exact same name, which hurt his pretend-that-never-happened strategy. After he and Edith got married, she insisted that they take Alice back from her aunt and raise her, starting a long cycle of Alice getting shuttled from house to house (aunt, parents, grandparents for the summer, cousins), really strengthening the impression she had that no one really wanted her around, and that her father saw her as little more than a sad reminder. But, she worshiped her father, and wanted his attention as much as she wished she could be independent of him.

Then she grew into her good looks, which thank heaven she got from her mother, and became a TEENAGE DYNAMO. Beautiful, attention-starved, and largely left to her own devices by her father and stepmother, she became America's first daughter at the age of 17. AWESOME. (Guess who didn't like her: her cousin Eleanor, obviously.)

She quickly befriended the niece of the Russian ambassador (except she wasn't really his niece she was his mistress lol), who taught her to smoke and drink. Alice had a pet snake that she carried around with her, and would sometimes smoke on the White House roof where everyone could see her. She was one of the first women in Washington to drive a car, which she did recklessly and very fast. Teddy once said, "I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both."

It hurt her deeply to see her father dote on her 5 younger half-siblings — attention she had never received from him at the same age. It's ironic that, neglected by him because of who her mother was, she was more his daughter than any of them.

She was immensely popular with the American public, of course, and was sent on an official delegation to Asia during TR's second term. There she charmed all the royalty in Japan, China, and Korea, and spent the ship voyage there and back making out with Congressman Nick Longworth, whom she would marry soon after.

They married while TR was still in office, meaning that Edith got to enjoy the last 2 years of his term with Alice living somewhere else. Their wedding photo is something else. TR, usually the life of the party, was stiff and quiet on his daughter's wedding day. In the photo he took with her and her new husband, he's visibly leaning away from her. Morris surmises that this might have something to do with Alice's dress being made out of material from her mother's wedding dress, and TR's memories of marrying that Alice. FATHER OF THE YEAR, TR!

Alice and Nick were happy for a few years, but in 1912 they took opposite sides in a presidential primary and the rift was permanent. Nick had a long string of affairs for the remainder of their marriage, and Alice had one big one, with Senator William Borah, who was the father of her only child (a fact she admitted to in her autobiography because you can't keep Alice in a corner).

Nick died in 1931, after 25 years of marriage, and Alice outlived him by almost 50, continuing to be a fixture of Washington social and political life until her death in 1980. It was once noted that she knew every president from Benjamin Harrison to Jimmy Carter personally. She was close friends with Bobby Kennedy and Richard Nixon, until the latter quoted her father in his resignation speech.

As the grande dame of Washington, she's described as malicious, intimidating, and quick-witted. She was banned from both the Taft and Wilson White House for being rude. All will fear her and despair, essentially. Her daughter Paulina died from an overdose of sleeping pills at age 32, and Alice got custody of her granddaughter Joanna, whom she raised with much more care and attention than she had her own daughter, or than her parents had with her.

I'm fairly certain Alice would reject my pity, but I can't help but think of her as poor Alice every time she comes up.

June 23, 2014

John Hay

Abraham Lincoln, William Seward, John Hay

One of the things that make At Times Dull cozy for me is the secondary characters of American history that I get to follow through 3, 4, or in this case 7 biographies. John Hay is one of my favorites. John Hay was born in Indiana (woohoo!) in 1838, and after graduating from Brown found himself clerking at a law office in Springfield, Illinois, right next door to the law office of Abraham Lincoln.

Hay and Lincoln got to know each other via proximity and Hay's school friend John Nicolay, and after being elected president Lincoln took both of them to Washington with him as his personal secretaries. In Spielberg's Lincoln, Hay is shown as the sweet and slightly befuddled right-hand man to Lincoln (as pictured above), and while it's true that their relationship was very close and loving, Hay was more like the life of the party. He was smart, funny, and boyish — the Josh Lyman trifecta — and a big hit with men and women alike. (Notable exception: Mary Todd Lincoln.) He and Lincoln used to wake each other up in the middle of the night to hang out, and they went horseback riding in the summer. He might have been closer to Lincoln than anyone.

While his relationship with Lincoln is the first line of his obituary, he went on to have an illustrious career in public service. Under Johnson and then Grant he was a US diplomat to Paris, Madrid, and Vienna, before leaving politics for a few years to write and edit for the New York Tribune.

Hayes pulled him back in as Assistant Secretary of State for the last 2 years of his term, but then Hay sat out the next 5 administrations. He spent that time in part working on the 10-volume biography of Lincoln he co-wrote with Nicolay, which remains the bedrock and final word on Lincoln’s legacy.

Then in 1897 William McKinley asked him to be US Ambassador to the UK, and a year later named him Secretary of State. When McKinley was assassinated, Hay reluctantly stayed on at State under Roosevelt and held that position until his death in 1905, eventually coming to love and admire him.

Hay had learned almost as much from William Seward (Lincoln’s SoState) as he had from Lincoln, and was a remarkable statesman. He helped negotiate the end of the Spanish-American War, authored the treaty that would allow construction of the Panama Canal, wrote the Open Door policy in China, and settled the eastern border of Alaska. Despite how good he was at his job, it never hurt that people saw him as the surviving link to Abraham Lincoln, and as his biographer said, he mourned Lincoln for his entire life.

Shortly before his death he was returning to the US from abroad, and getting ready to report to Roosevelt. While on the ship, he dreamt that he reported to the White House and was greeted instead by Lincoln. It’s no surprise that he never got over Lincoln — nobody really has. A statesman whose career began at the right hand of Lincoln and ended at the right hand of Roosevelt, he understood better than anyone the rarity and impact of a great man in the presidency. On the occasion of Roosevelt’s second inauguration, aware that his own life was coming to a close, he gave the young president a ring that contained a hair from Lincoln’s head.

June 22, 2014


Much like Margaret Leech before him, Edmund Morris is really good at the political biography insult. Here are just two of his descriptors that I've come across recently:

"that jovial Methodist bison Senator Jonathan P. Dolliver"

"a senator who generally displayed a public appetite for pork such as the Armour Brothers meat-packing company might fail to satisfy"

June 07, 2014

Roosevelt's high horse

Roosevelt loved horse-jumping, of course. Even more, he loved pictures of himself. So when he got a picture of himself on a horse jumping over a fence he gave AUTOGRAPHED COPIES TO MEMBERS OF HIS CABINET. I hope these copies still exist as treasured family heirlooms.

I have picked up where I left off almost a year ago, as Roosevelt is settling in to his role of president in 1902. The main issues he has to deal with in the term he inherited from McKinley are trusts, monopolies, a coal strike, and its consequences for labor nationwide. Although these are not the mythical tasks Roosevelt dreams himself to be born for, he's uniquely suited for them — as someone who grew up among the upper class in New York and Harvard but has also ranched in North Dakota and fought on the front lines (of a war that he started), he can identify with both the industrialists and the workers, and both sides trust him to understand their position, if not to back it.

Edmund Morris's chapters are mercifully short - averaging around 10 pages - during this time, as if he knew that he'd have to break railroad merger negotiations into digestible bits. God bless Edmund Morris.

And if I may; thanks so much to those of you who have contacted me via the comments, twitter, or email over the past year to ask if At Times Dull was going to be Forever Dull. I did not intend to neglect it for so long. I've been much busier with other writing projects for the past year, which is a great thing, but unfortunately ATD is the easiest thing to put off. I'm hoping to balance them more successfully going forward. After all, I made it to the 20th century! I must make it to the 21st!