From the time I started one of my favorite Christmas presents, Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker by Stacy A. Cordery (which I mentioned in this post), I kept wondering why there haven’t been any proper children’s biographies of this fascinating girl who grew up into a fascinating, and powerful, woman. Especially after all the blather last year about daring girls and girls needing their own books.
And now thanks to Roger Sutton, editor in chief of The Horn Book Magazine, who blogs at Read Roger, I see that a new children’s bio of Alice will be a starred title in the March/April issue of HB*, What To Do about Alice?: How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy, by Barbara Kerley, with illustrations by Edwin Fotheringham (Scholastic, publication date March 1, 2008).
I have high hopes for this because Ms. Kerley has written some books we’ve enjoyed mightily — The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins: An Illuminating History of Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins, Artist and Lecturer, and Walt Whitman: Words For America, both illustrated by Brian Selznick.
Young Alice Roosevelt was quite a girl. Her birth was overshadowed by a double tragedy; within 48 hours of her arrival into the world, Alice’s 23-year-old mother died of an undiagnosed kidney ailment; and, in another bedroom in the house, her maternal grandmother succumbed to typhoid. In her biography, Stacy Cordery writes,
Ten weeks after [his wife] died, [Teddy Roosevelt] wrote bleakly in a “sketch” of his life: “I married Miss Alice Lee of Boson on leaving college in 1880. My father died in 1878; my wife and mother died in February 1884. I have a little daughter living.” Alice Lee Roosevelt does not appear again in his published autobiography. Theodore did not speak of her again. His own daughter clearly did not substitute for his “heart’s dearest.” Even when [his sister] Bye reminded her brother, “You have a child to live for,” Theodore stayed out West. …
When Theodore Roosevelt returned to reclaim his daughter, he did so at the insistence of his new wife, Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt, already pregnant with their first child. Theodore felt guilty about his first wife’s death, ambivalent about his remarriage, and irresolute about his daughter. Alice longed for Theodore’s time — what three-year-old doesn’t crave her father’s undivided attention? — but she never got enough of it. Edith freely admitted that she was not the best kind of mother for a spirited child like Alice. Relinquished by her beloved aunt, Alice grew up a virtual orphan in a clannish family. She was plagued by self-doubt and a haunting sense that she hever compared favorably to her siblings or her girlfriends. This would be the theme of her childhood — and the reason for her rebelliousness — which was part self-protective armor and part desperation caused by feeling she had little to lose. The strong-willed young woman who ultimately evolved delighted onlookers as much as she exasperated her parents.
Alice’s adolescent rebellion coincided with her father’s sudden and unexpected ascension to the presidency in 1901, upon the assassination of William McKinley, and with the beginning of a new century. In fact, by virtue of her age, position, and high spirits, she became one of the century’s first celebrities. In the summer of 1902, Alice and a girlfriend created a small scandal by driving unchaperoned from Newport, RI, to Boston in the friend’s “big red automobile”. Two years later, Alice bought her own new “red devil” automobile, which she delighted in driving fast. She played poker and bought a little pocket pistol, reporting that she “had great fun” with the latter. She smuggled tiny bottles of whiskey into her white opera gloves to gentlemen dinner partners at dry parties. And, writes Ms. Cordery,
When Roosevelt said that no daughter of his would smoke under his roof, Alice climbed on top of the White House roof and smoked.
In between all the high jinks, Alice made herself politically useful to her father, charming Kaiser Bill’s brother at the White House (the German navy would go on to name a ship after her), and Cubans and former Rough Riders in Havana. On one occasion, her father remarked, “I can be President of the United States — or I can attend to Alice. I cannot possibly do both!”
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* Of the month’s other starred titles, Roger writes,
If you’re in need of a sign of spring, go with Pale Male[: Citizen Hawk of New York City, by Janet Schulman, illustrated by Meilo So], one of my favorite books thus far this year. It makes you want to take a walk in the park with Janet Schulman (who I never thought of as a walk-in-the-park kind of gal) and Meilo So’s watercolors have never been so rich.