October 26, 2020

Alice. Ten Feet Tall

Alice...Ten Feet TallThere’s a lot of talk about the testicles that Hillary Clinton will need to bring to the Presidency if elected. A woman has to be tough. When you’re leading The Free World and dealing with an All-Star Rogues’ Gallery of Kim Jong-Il, Muqtada Al-Sadr, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the 6′ 4″ diabetic George Bush stopped talking about after he let him get away, there’s no time for crying and dissecting feelings and emotions. You’ve got to be HARD (just not Barack-hard). In other words, the White House isn’t The View. It’s no place for girls.

If she makes it, she’s not going to be the toughest female ever to call the White House home. Never mind her own time sleeping in a separate bed next to her husband. Never mind Eleanor Roosevelt, formidable though she was. Never mind Lady Bird Johnson. Never mind the rough-edged pluck of Amy Carter. There’s never been a set of X chromosomes at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue mightier than those of the most famous First Daughter, the progeny of Theodore Roosevelt, and the Roughest Rider in the Roosevelt brood, Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

Of all TR’s accomplishments, few were more consequential—or salitier—than his daughter, Alice. A notorious rake, 20th century history is resplendent with delightful quotes and anecdotes from and about Teddy’s challenging daughter who in a 1974 interview with Eric Sevareid proclaimed herself “a hedonist”–at the age of 90, no less–and “an ambulatory Washington monument”. It was Alice who claims ownership of the phrase “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anyone, come sit next to me.”, which she also had embroidered on a pillow on her sofa.

In a 1998 biography of former First Lady Florence Harding, Alice appears in the index more than 60 times. Some of the references include “spitefulness of” and “WH (Warren Harding) disparaged by”. Her recreational pursuits were legion, including target practice at telegraph poles from a moving train, betting on the horses (often being seen placing the bets with known bookies), smoking cigarettes on the White House roof (her crafty solution after she was explicitly forbidden by her parents from smoking under their roof), keeping a pet snake named “Emily Spinach”, and driving her own car around Washington DC at speeds many would consider imprudent. Never one to be outdone, when feather boas were all the rage in America, Alice took the fad one step further and donned a real boa constrictor around her neck.

When her father was succeeded in the White House by Secretary of War William Howard Taft, Alice–by now in her mid-20s–made no secret of her enmity of incoming First Lady Nellie Taft and buried a voodoo doll of her on the White House grounds and made great fun of mocking her “hippopotamus face”. Mrs. Taft would ban Alice from the White House (she was also banned during the next administration for a disparaging joke about President Woodrow Wilson). Alice was never shy about dispensing her often-scathing opinions very publicly, and her pejorative description of New York Governor Thomas Dewey as “the little man on the wedding cake” was said to have lost Dewey a not-insignificant number of votes in his two Presidential bids.

The gods didn’t exactly bring her into this world on the most blessed and inviting note: Just two days after she was born, her mother died from complications related to her pregnancy, and her grandmother also passed away, in the same house in which Alice was born. She was lavished with gifts as a child, but wanted for attention from her ambitious and often-absent father and, after Teddy remarried, would have a very strained relationship with her stepmother. When Teddy was Governor of New York and her parents proposed sending her to a girls school in New York City, Alice threatened, “If you send me I will humiliate you. I will do something that will shame you. I tell you I will.” The girls school idea was dropped.

Alice loved her father, but certainly wanted for more attention from him, as he was constantly on the move on one avocational or vocational adventure after another. Alice inherited from Teddy his need for attention. “He wants to be the bride at every wedding, the corpose at every funeral, and the baby at every christening.”

A pistol-wielding admirer once showed up at TR’s Sagamore Hill estate announcing that he was there to ask for Alice’s hand in marriage. Given the circumstances surrounding the man ‘s visit, and the fact that he was carrying a firearm, it was speculated that he might have mental health issues. “Of course he’s insane,” said Teddy. “He wants to marry Alice.”

After assuming the Presidency, an exasperated Teddy said to his visitor at one point, after another office interruption by Alice prompted TR to threaten to throw her out the window, “I can either run the country, or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”

Alice was her father’s daughter, and lived her life by a truly suitable-for-framing maxim:: “I have a simple philosophy: Fill what’s empty. Empty what’s full. Scratch where it itches.”