Arguably the most well-known and controversial First Daughter with the name Roosevelt, Alice Roosevelt Longworth was a woman before her time. Unbending in the face of scandal (which she frequently was featured in and appeared to relish in) while using her wit and intellect to become the great equalizer at every social gathering, Alice Roosevelt did not shy away from anything. She was born on February 12th, 1884 in the Roosevelt family home at 6 West 57th Street in Manhattan. Her mother, Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt, tragically passed away two days later from what medical historians believe to be undiagnosed Bright’s Disease – the chronic inflammation of the kidneys, the symptoms of which were probably masked by her pregnancy. Utterly distraught without his wife, Alice’s father (then New York State Assemblyman Theodore Roosevelt) could hardly stand to be in the presence of baby Alice. The infant reminded him too much of his wife whom Theodore would hardly ever speak of again and omit entirely from his autobiography, for the pain of losing her was that great. Wanting to escape his sorrow, Theodore left Alice in the care of his sister Anna and departed to his ranch in North Dakota.
Alice would grow close to her Aunt Anna, whom the family playful called “Bamie” or “Bye”. When Theodore remarried in 1886 to Edith Kermit Carow, Alice moved in with her father and step-mother. Certainly, as with any individual, a volley of factors are consequences in the development of one’s personality: for Alice, it was a combination of her step-mother’s coldness towards her and her father’s distance. Edith was aware of the lingering love Theodore had for his dead wife, and thus occasionally shunned Alice as she was a corporeal representation of their love. Theodore viewed Alice the same and as a result, Alice grew to be extremely headstrong, persistent, and independent. During her teenage years, Theodore and Edith proposed to send Alice to a very conservative boarding school – Alice responded by threatening her father by declaring “If you send me I will humiliate you. I will do something that will shame you. I tell you I will”. Alice was seventeen when her father ascended to the Presidency in 1901 following the assassination of William McKinley. Untouched by the somber mourning of the rest of the nation after President McKinley’s death, Alice allegedly treated her father’s sudden movement to the most powerful man in the nation with “sheer rapture”. The following year in 1902 Alice officially debuted and became a sensation almost overnight; the public was enamored with the outspoken, beautiful, and dangerous Alice, so much so that they granted her the nickname “Princess Alice”.
Alice performed at her best when in the spotlight, and the public loved her all the more for it. She hardly ever resigned to follow the strict rules White House officials deemed appropriate for a First Daughter and conducted her life as she wished, the result usually ending up on the front of every tabloid in America and overseas. Alice publicly pronounced herself to be a Pagan, calling Christianity “sheer voodoo”; she raced cars through the streets of Washington which could be forgiven had she not been accompanied by unmarried young men; she smoked cigarettes in public and, on occasion, on the roof of the White House; she stayed out into the early hours of the morning partying; Alice often placed bets on sporting events or horse races, once spotted conducting such an exchange in front of the White House; in 1909 when the Roosevelt family prepared to move out of the White House, Alice buried a voodoo doll of new First Lady Nellie Taft in the front yard, an act that got her banned from the Taft White House; and had a snake named “Emily Spinach” that could often by found on her person. During a fifteen-month stay in Paris, one French newspaper reported Alice was in attendance at 407 dinners, 350 balls, and at least 300 parties. If this was true, that is nearly two events a day without a day off. Her unladylike antics were harshly criticized by many who felt Alice was an embarrassment by refuting the staunch social norms placed on women. Her supporters outweighed her critics, however, and the White House mail room had to hire an additional receptionist dedicated to sorting through just the fan mail Alice received. When asked why her father, President Theodore Roosevelt, did not do more to restrain his blithe daughter, he replied “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both”.
In 1906 after a brief engagement, Alice married Nicholas Longworth III, a Republican House of Representatives member from Ohio. He was fourteen years her senior when they were married in February of 1906. Their wedding was heralded as the social event of the season and was attended by more than a thousand guests. Famously, Alice made the first cut into the wedding cake with a sword she borrowed from a military aide during the reception. Another social convention Alice chose to ignore was monogamy; it was well known that she kept a not-so-secret roster of lovers in Washington. The longest illicit relationship she carried on was with Senator William Borah of Idaho – it was revealed after her death that her daughter Paulina Longworth was actually fathered by Borah. Fully aware of this fact, Alice had planned on naming her daughter “Deborah” as in “de Borah” but chose not to.
Serving first as an advisor to her father, Alice remained within the political sphere for the rest of her life. She would fasten either an amicable or absolutely hateful relationship with sitting presidents and those close to them; she was especially fond of Richard Nixon, befriending him during his tenure as Vice President in the Eisenhower administration, and supporting him from his 1960 Presidential campaign against Kennedy to his 1968 run against Humphrey. She can be heard on the Nixon White House tapes raving about the incompetence of George McGovern. An unwavering, outspoken Republican, Alice treated the Kennedy brothers with the same disdain as she showed her cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt during all four of his presidential campaigns. She did vote for Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and advocated on behalf of Bobby Kennedy in his 1968 run, though they were both Democrats.
Alice is well-remembered for once saying “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me” (a saying she actually had embroidered on a throw pillow in her home). However, Alice was more than the maliciously witty and scandalous First Daughter of a former President. Her deeds and words might have been controversial, but her exponential knowledge of human nature and resiliency earned her the respect and coveted position of presidential advisor for the majority of her life. She refused to bow to what was considered proper in her own life and on the political stage. Alice died on February 20th, 1980 a few days after turning 96. To date, she is the longest-living child of a US president. If you want to be more like Alice Roosevelt Longworth, might we suggest you speak snidely and carry a green snake?
Written by Katie Costanzo, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum.