Alice Roosevelt Longworth lived her entire life on the political stage and in the public eye, earning her the nickname "the other Washington monument." Historian Cordery presents a detailed and entertaining portrait of the witty and whip-smart daughter of Teddy Roosevelt. "Princess Alice" was a tempestuous teenager. Smoking, gambling, and dressing flamboyantly, she flouted social conventions and opened the door for other women to do the same. Her husband was Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth but--as Cordery documents for the first time--she had a child with her lover, Senator William Borah of Idaho. Alice's political acumen was widely respected in Washington. She was a sharp-tongued critic of her cousin FDR's New Deal programs, and meetings in her drawing room helped to change the course of history, from undermining the League of Nations to boosting Nixon. During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, her legendary salons remained the center of political ferment.--From publisher description.
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Cordery writes engagingly, and often wittily – several times I burst out laughing. A few quibbles: 1) I felt Cordery overstated her case for Mrs. L’s political significance. She was a raconteur with a wide circle of influential friends and acquaintances. I would have loved to think she was moved and shook Washington, but I don’t buy that wit and good press copy necessarily equates with true power. 2) I’m always troubled by biographers who engage in armchair psychoanalysis. Cordery alleges Alice was emotionally scarred by ‘abandonment’ (her mother’s death in childbirth, and her father’s placing her with a beloved aunt until the age of three.) Was it so unusual for late Victorians, particularly of TR’s social class, to be hands off in childrearing? If ‘abandonment’ was of such psychological importance, why did TR’s death – the ultimate abandonment – merit half a paragraph -- rarely to be mentioned again?
While the book itself was well researched and evocative of time and place, ultimately I found myself as repulsed by its subject as I am by modern era narcissistic celebrities. Egomaniacal to a fault, Alice Longworth wore her disdain and malevolence to others openly. Nevertheless, readers will find plenty of gossip in these pages about a DC icon whose sofa’s embroidered pillow read: "If you don't have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me."
Alice was well worth the effort although as she slows down in later life so does the book. An unexpected benefit of reading the full tomb was that it really prepared me for my visit to the Idaho capitol building last summer.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1884 1981), eldest child of President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, was known throughout her long life for her wide-ranging intelligence, piercing insights, love
Alice was a teenager when her father became president after McKinley’s assassination in 1901, and the country was fascinated with her and her daring exploits as she ran around Washington and then traveled the world as an ambassador for her father, charming everyone but ignoring social conventions and breaking boundaries proscribed for women in that pre-feminist time. Her While House wedding in 1906 was the social event of the season, and even after her father left the presidency Alice stayed connected and involved with politics, in part by being friends or frenemies with most of the presidents through Richard Nixon.
She never received much of a formal education but read so widely, including books of literature and science, that she educated herself. Alice had first hand experience of many of the important events of the last century, and it’s fascinating to read about The Great Depression, the pre-WWII America First movement, the McCarthy Cold War interrogations, and the Civil Rights era with regard to her informed but opinionated perspectives. Characteristically, she was playful even on her death bed. One of her final acts was teasingly sticking out her tongue.
This is a lengthy book, 483 pages of text and almost another 100 of notes, but time flew while I was reading it. It makes a great follow up volume to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s dual biography of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. After reading that book I really wanted to know more about Alice, a craving this book by author and historian Stacy Cordery went a long way towards satisfying.
Alice was the only daughter of TR's first marriage. Her mother died due to complications from childbirth. TR concentrated on his political career, never fully giving Alice the attention she needed. TR then married Edith, a long-time family friend. Although Alice and her stepmother eventually became good friends, Edith was never outwardly affectionate toward Alice. This did not give Alice excuse to behave as she did in terms of her independent antics that just bordered on scandal; however, it did mold her into the person she became who was at the center of Washington, D.C., politics no matter the administration in place.
Alice was an equal because she never saw herself as anything but. She studied (was a voracious reader) and educated herself in a wide range of subjects, displaying a keen sense of curiosity nurtured by a willingness to learn. She despised self-pity, and despised anyone who displayed such nonsense. She was not overly-affectionate, but a tremendously funny, sarcastic, quick wit with a penchant for adventure and laughter. Alice lived her life on her own terms, even when life did not turn out as she expected. She made chicken soup out of chicken shit and ate it with relish. It was a life well lived and lived without regrets.
I have her autobiography "Crowded Hours" -- unfortunately I am between residences and it is packed away in storage. I cannot wait to get my hands on it. Alice was not as brilliant a writer as she was a social speaker (social meaning 'informal' in that she was extremely shy and rarely gave official speeches). Her mannerisms and wit did not come through well on the written page. To know her personally was to delight in her.
This biography concentrates marvelously on Alice's position as THE go-to person in D.C. politics. She influenced more than a few national and international leaders. She WAS the D.C. political scene surpassing the clout of her husband, Nick Longworth (R-OH, Speaker of the House), and brother Ted (the only Roosevelt offspring to enter a political career). Socially, Alice did exactly what she wanted and displayed independence long before the ERA. If you condemned her, she did not care. If you fawned over her, she lost interest. If you could speak intelligently on any matter, you had her ear and her attention. She was a progressive Republican...my favorite kind. She has also long captured my admiration, esteem, and imagination.