Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Frank Like Alice

“If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” –Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from the sitting room of her Dupont Circle home

In a time when women were just finding their voices, Alice Roosevelt proved to be one outspoken, dashing, limelight-seeking, stubborn woman. (Alice at left in 1902, in one of her signature hats)

Learning of President McKinley’s assassination, Alice and the other Roosevelt children danced a wild jig. The White House was theirs! Alice was at home in Washington right away, taking up a bedroom in the Northwest corner of the White House looking out at the affluent Lafayette Square. She had moved in just as she was about to cast childhood aside and take on her role as a woman in late Victorian society. One of the first big events at for the Roosevelt family was her debutante ball in 1901. Alice was ready for a party, yet was crushed when she realized that being the First Daughter was not all fun and games. Perhaps to assuage a growing temperance movement, Alice’s stepmother Edith chose to serve punch instead champagne at the ball, much to Alice’s mortification. But despite this hurdle for poor Alice, there was plenty of other fun to be had around town.

I confess that when I started reading about Alice, I was hoping to learn about a strong woman ahead of her time, who broke through gender barriers at every turn. In some ways she was just that. She drove around town in a $2500 “red devil” sports car in an age where women were not to be driving. She bet money on horses and played poker, when most women played bridge.

I had hoped that Alice would be a diplomat, working behind the scenes, like her cousin Eleanor Roosevelt. But in fact, she was more concerned about the publicity. When Kaiser Wilhelm II visited DC, she practiced smashing champagne bottles in the backyard of the White House, for she had been invited to christen the Kaiser’s new ship.

Frankly, I find her shallow. She fretted terribly over the parties she would attend and resented the White House secretary for handling her correspondence, a major hindrance to her youthful flirtations. She often stared at herself in the mirror, comparing herself to the Gibson Girl pictures of her in the press. She married Congressman Nick Longworth (for which Longworth HOB is named), publicly criticized him when he supported the Taft presidency, and cheated on him with Senator William Borah’s son (with whom she had a child, Paulina).

In her defense, when Senator Joseph McCarthy greeted her in the 1950s with, “How are you, Alice?” she famously looked him dead in the eye and replied, “No, Senator McCarthy, you are not going to call me Alice. The truckman, the trashman, and the policeman on the block may call me Alice but you may not.” Okay, so maybe I admire her a little…

Sources: Stacy A. Cordery, Alice.

Carol Felsenthal, Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

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