Alice by Stacy A. Cordery


The Alice in question is Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who became known as a White House Princess and then a Washington Power Broker, as the subtitle has it. Her life began inauspiciously:  her mother died within two days of her birth, leaving her father Teddy Roosevelt bereft, especially so, as his mother died that same day. She was born in 1880, had her debutant ball in the White House in 1902, married in the White House to a future Speaker of the House in 1906, had a child by a Senator at age 41, and died in 1980.

She was a true celebrity by the time her father took office after McKinley died; crowds showed up wherever she appeared and newspapers followed her every move, looking for her outrageous behavior like smoking and driving a car. She was well-read and interested in politics and acted as hostess at the White House with her father. When she was 25 years old Teddy sent her as a goodwill ambassador to East Asia, as he was mediating peace between Russia and Japan in 1905. She visited the Philippines, China, Japan, and Russia and acquitted herself very well.

She married Nicholas Longworth, for whom one of the House office buildings is named. He was from a prominent family in Cincinnati and though he wasn’t as intellectual as Alice, he did speak French fluently and was a much respected violinist. He was successful in politics, but was prone to drinking and had many affairs. He surely knew he was not the father of Alice’s child, but he doted on her for the six years he lived after she was born. Paulina’s father was William Borah, Senator from Idaho, who was thrilled to have a daughter, even one he could not acknowledge. He and Alice were political allies and more.

Alice was always involved in politics of the back room variety. She strongly opposed the League of Nations and later the United Nations. She always opposed whatever Franklin was up to and from their girlhood, was contemptuous of her cousin Eleanor. When JFK became President, her stock rose as those in power appreciated her intelligence and style.

The political history background necessary to her story was sometimes written very clearly, in particular about the momentous election of 1912 (when Teddy ran on the Bull Moose ticket). Both the background and Alice’s role and thoughts were done well. I found other periods more murky and occasionally I would have preferred greater focus on Alice.

And there are her witticisms. The first two are her best known:

“My father always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening.”

“If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”

A few others recounted in the book are impressive:  “having a baby is like trying to push a grand piano through a transom” and my favorite:  the oversized purse she carried was “half filing cabinet, half psychosis.” She was well known for wearing large-brimmed hats. LBJ complained he couldn’t kiss her because of the brims. “That, Mr. President,” she told him drily, “is why I wear them.”

The journey through so much of the 20th century with this amazing woman was pretty great.

Stacy A. Cordery, Alice, Viking, 2007, 590 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.

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