Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker

How many Americans wish they had a royal family to dote on? Probably a great many: witness the outpouring of adulation (and then grief) over Britain’s Princess Diana. A hundred years ago, we had one of our own. Her name was Alice, and she was the firstborn daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt (TR). Beautiful and stylish, she could draw admiring crowds merely by showing up. She knew how to have fun and could be fun to be around. At the same time, she was always a “problem,” mostly for her father and stepmother, but also for some of her relatives and friends. When she was young, TR used to quip that he could be president of the United States or attend to Alice, but he could not do both.

Her unconventional approach to life endeared her to the press and to a long string of admiring men and women. Losing her mother two days after her birth in 1884, she spent her childhood trying to get her grief-stricken father’s attention. “Bad” behavior did the trick. She drove an automobile unchaperoned, smoked in public, bet on poker, and danced the Turkey Trot. She and her friends founded a “Race Suicide Club,” writing parodies of her father’s famous charge that white Anglo-Saxon women were neglecting their duty to propagate the race and therefore causing it to commit suicide. These attention-getting devices were to no avail. Her father still neglected her because, she later said, to him she symbolized his two infidelities: to his second wife, Edith, for marrying her mother, and to her mother for then marrying Edith.

Stacy Cordery’s new biography, Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker, happily matches its subject’s sense of fun. Because Cordery, who teaches history at Monmouth College, had access to Alice’s unpublished diary and letters, she offers not only new information about Alice but also keen psychological insight into the complexities of her life. Her book should appeal to a variety of readers: lovers of biography, especially of interesting women, as well as serious readers of political history, including admirers of TR. A woman of pedigree and privilege, Alice was never content to be mere decoration. She kept herself well informed about political issues and wanted to exert an influence on the course of political events. It’s no wonder that, in learning about her life, we also see revealed some hidden aspects of modern American politics.

The book’s thesis is that Alice was a “politician.” “Never elected” but “always involved,” she studied the issues, expressed herself with acerbic wit through epigram or satiric poem, helped the political men in her life with their speeches, and campaigned unabashedly for the causes she believed in. As an adolescent, she took part in international diplomacy, in 1905 representing her father’s administration during the negotiations that ended the Russo-Japanese War. As a young woman married to Congressman Nicholas Longworth (R-Ohio), she raged against the Treaty of Versailles and U.S. entry into the League of Nations. In her maturity, she channeled her considerable energies toward defeating anything her cousins, the “other” Roosevelts (Franklin and Eleanor), favored, including the New Deal and American involvement in the European conflict that became World War II. And in her old age, as her “verbal daggers” became more malevolent, she became “Washington’s other monument,” whose political salons and lively poker games provided capital insiders with “an essential means of communication.” She was, in short, a woman of “influence.”

Until women began to enter public office in appreciable numbers in the late 20th century, women’s roles in politics and policymaking were hard to reconstruct. Historians know they were involved, both as individuals and through group action, but the paper trails to prove that involvement have been tricky to find. That’s one reason a biography like Cordery’s is so useful. Rooted in a scrupulous exploration of sources — published, unpublished, and oral — it provides a reliable (and also amusing, sometimes even delicious) example of how one celebrated woman maneuvered (or tried to maneuver) behind the scenes at the center of American political life.

But as a life of a woman in politics it has its limitations, particularly if it’s an unorganized life. Alice’s chief goal in life seems to have been to have a good time. Other than promoting the careers of her father, her husband, her lover Senator William E. Borah (with whom she had her only child, a daughter, in 1925), or the careers of friends, she had no sweeping political agenda of her own. So, was Alice Roosevelt Longworth a “politician”? It all depends on how you define the term. She certainly loved politics and was seriously involved in it. A great reader and talker, she knew an enormous amount about what was going on at all times and had positions on almost everything. But in the end she lacked both the depth and the desire to get things done possessed by Eleanor Roosevelt. (Cordery knows that, of course, reporting that Alice liked being the “un-Eleanor.”)

As a result, reading this book I often felt like I was watching Tom Stoppard’s famous play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, in which the main events of Shakespeare’s Hamlet take place behind the scenes and the minor characters are front and center. Organized chronologically and offering sufficient (although sometimes cryptic) information on national elections and issues, Cordery’s biography has to focus more on Alice’s personal life than on public events. It’s pleasurable to read about that life, and Cordery presents it skillfully, in brisk and readable prose with some memorable turns of phrase. In the end, though, this is a biography of a woman of great charm, fascination, and wit, but one whose self-centered life was expended primarily in going to receptions or throwing dinner parties of her own.

Finally, as fascinating as Alice was, it’s not all that easy to like her. Any admirer of the accomplishments of her “fifth cousin, about to be removed” Franklin Delano Roosevelt might find her political views hard to swallow. What’s excellent about Cordery’s treatment of those views is that she makes them understandable from within their own contexts and reminds us that not everyone was a New Dealer or thought ill of Richard Nixon. Biographers have to have some affinity for their subjects, if only to survive the years it takes to reconstruct someone else’s life “from the inside.” Cordery not only has that affinity but expresses it honestly and well. Her voluminous notes and rich bibliography should make any reader confident in the book’s veracity. In sum, the book is wonderful: I’m just not all that confident that Alice was.