New Biography of Roosevelt Daughter

Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the eldest daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, was famous in her own right. She earned the nickname "the other Washington monument" because of her lifelong involvement in political affairs. Stacy Cordery, author of Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker, talks with Liane Hansen.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The Republican Party in the early 20th century was well represented in the Senate and House galleries here in the nation's capital. The debates and speeches on the floors of Congress became the equivalent of town hall meetings in the District of Columbia.

But for many decades, a house at 2009 Massachusetts Avenue was the real hub of Washington politics. That's because Alice Roosevelt Longworth lived there.

The four-story house is still in DuPont Circle. Mrs. Longworth lived here through the demonstrations in the 1960s and '70s. She said that teargas cleared her sinuses. She died peacefully here in 1980, a few days after her 96th birthday. In front of her house now, there is a bus stop.

(Soundbite of moving vehicle)

HANSEN: Do you know who lived there?

Unidentified Woman #1: Yes, I do. And I have even seen her in person.

HANSEN: Who lived there?

Unidentified Woman #1: Roosevelt.

HANSEN: Alice Roosevelt Longworth. What do you know about her?

Unidentified Woman #1: I saw her a long time ago in a bookstore in Georgetown, very elegantly dressed.

HANSEN: How long ago was that?

Unidentified Woman #1: A long time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Do you know who used to live in this house?

Unidentified Woman #2: No.

HANSEN: Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

Unidentified Woman #2: Oh.

HANSEN: Is that a name that means something to you?

Unidentified Woman #2: Well, the Roosevelt…

Unidentified Woman #3: Is that…

Unidentified Woman #2: …or I don't know.

Unidentified Woman #3: …is that FDR's wife?

HANSEN: No. It's Theodore Roosevelt's daughter.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Alice Roosevelt Longworth was born in 1884. She was a teenager when her father, Theodore Roosevelt, was elected president. Alice lived in the White House and smoked cigarettes on the roof. She attended social events unescorted with a boa of constrictor around her neck. Songs were written for her, and Alice blue became a fashionable color. Newspapers dubbed her Princess Alice. She was a global celebrity.

In her 20s, Alice Roosevelt married Ohio Congressman Nicolas Longworth in a gala ceremony at the White House. Mrs. Longworth later became the lover of Idaho Senator William Borah, the father of her only child Paulina.

During her adult life, Alice was a powerful political gadfly. The country's top thinkers and players would walk through the door to her house to eat creme brulee, converse and hear what Alice had to say.

Ms. ALICE ROOSEVELT LONGWORTH (Daughter of Former President Theodore Roosevelt): My father had a way, you see, they say, how do you feel this (unintelligible) months(ph). This is as strong as a bull moves. They continued to be a ball moves party. And they elected Oscar Straus and they had a (unintelligible) at the run(ph), which was those crazy ball musicians. They must have headed to South. They played Arnold Christian(ph) (unintelligible) while nominating Straus. And that now will be considered miserably racist. But then, nobody had bothered to tell a racist (unintelligible) on his head, not a bit.

HANSEN: Alice's sharp tongue disguised a vulnerable and troubled soul, according to biographer Stacy Cordery. The historian had access to love letters, diaries and a trove of other documents for her book, "Alice Roosevelt Longworth: From White House Princess to Washington Power Broker."

Cordery said Alice Roosevelt's insecurities were a result of her relationship with her father, Theodore.

Ms. STACY CORDERY (Author, "Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, From White House Princess to Washington Power Broker"): It was a distant relationship physically for the first three years of her life because for large chunks of her first three years, Theodore Roosevelt was out West, grieving the double loss of his wife and his mother.

And then when Alice was about three-and-a-half, Theodore Roosevelt remarried and then Alice joined that family, and she always felt like the outsider in the nursery, but she idolized her father. It's very clear that she wanted his attention, sought his attention. And when she could not get his attention, she used the adulation of the public when she became first daughter as a sort of a stand-in for what she couldn't get from her father.

HANSEN: She was known have viewed the world with - and I'm going to put in quotations - "detached malevolence." Was she a mean person?

Ms. CORDERY: You know, I think that is the general perception of Alice Longworth, particularly in her last several decades. But I had an epiphany about this. If she was that mean, if she was truly cruel, why would she have so many friends, why would her home be the most sought-after ticket in Washington, D.C. from the 1920s to the 1960s?

So she could see into those who obsequious, those she thought were disingenuous, and she took straight aim at people like that. She saw straight through Senator McCarthy, and he was saying that he was just going to call her Alice, and she looked at him and said, the truck man, the trash man and the policeman on the block may call me Alice but you, Senator McCarthy, will call me Mrs. Longworth.

HANSEN: She was a political activist. Her suite in a Chicago hotel was - during the political conventions was the smoke-filled room…

Ms. CORDERY: That's right.

HANSEN: …where the deals were made. Why didn't she run for office?

Ms. CORDERY: She was shy.

HANSEN: No?

Ms. CORDERY: Yes. Alice was brilliant one-on-one. Everyone told me about how scintillating, how erudite she was in conversation. But when she was in front of a large crowd, people she didn't know, that was something very different. Alice was not the sort who could slap backs and kiss babies then go to pancake suppers. That was no her style.

HANSEN: Why did you take on this subject?

Ms. CORDERY: This project grew out of a class I had in graduate school where I studied with a brilliant historian named Louise Gold(ph) and I was going to work on Eleanor, and he said, you know lots of people would said Eleanor but why don't you look at Alice? And I said, who?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CORDERY: So once I started looking and I realized she was a fascinating woman. Her first-daughter years were amazing. The way young Americans copied Alice Roosevelt - copied her dress, copied her habits, copied the way she carried herself - I thought, wow, this was something really different.

HANSEN: Why is it important that we know who she is?

Ms. CORDERY: I think Alice Longworth has an inherently interesting life. She was able to widen the sphere of possibilities for women in America at that time. And I think that becoming a celebrity at a very young age and then being a celebrity for all of her 96 years and the way she dealt with her celebrityhood, the way she used her fame is a wonderful story.

HANSEN: Is there a question that you would have like to have asked Alice when you were writing the book?

Ms. CORDERY: I will tell you. The part of the puzzle of her life that did not make sense to me until very late was the one to which you responded most strongly and that is about her being shy. And, I guess, one question I would ask her is how did the shyness really work out? Because you are right, what we know with Mrs. Longworth is - are the witticisms, the, you know, she called herself a withered twiggy in her last decades because she was very thin and it reminded her of twiggy the model. And, you know, she called herself Washington's only topless octogenarian after she had a double mastectomy.

How these witticisms are built on the things that she read and the movement she studied, I understand, but the shyness at the center of a (unintelligible) that was famous around the world that surprises me and I might have asked her that.

I might, also, ask her if I could play what is history(ph) with Mrs. Longworth. If she had lived at another time in history would she sought political office? Many people considered Alice Longworth the smartest of all the Roosevelt children, the one with the most political savvy, and I wondered during this book, whether had she lived 20 years later, 50 years later, would she have run for political office. I that'll - I think I would ask her those two questions.

HANSEN: Stacy Cordery is the author of "Alice," a new biography of Alice Roosevelt Longworth published by Viking, and she joined us from the studios of WBUR in Boston.

Thank you so much.

Ms. CORDERY: Thank you very much.

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