Ken Burns had another solid hit with the recent seven-part PBS series The Roosevelts. The story centers around three people born with the surname Roosevelt – Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor. The story begins in the 19th century and takes us beyond the mid-20th century. And more than simply a biography about three people, this is a series about some of the most monumental events in the history of the world including two World Wars, and The Great Depression. The series features comments and stories by some of the most noted nonfiction writers of our era including Doris Kerns Goodwin, David McCullough, and Jon Meacham.
Theodore Roosevelt was an asthmatic boy who was told by his adored father that he would have to fight to defeat his illness. He did so and became a robust, energetic, and brilliant man who would become president, write 39 books, and leave a legacy of numerous national parks that we still enjoy today.
When he lost his 1912 bid for the White House as the candidate of the so-called Bull Moose Party he was devastated. As he had done at other times when he was fighting the depression that dogged him all his life, he decided to take a trip to South America with a number of other men (including his son Kermit). Their trip down the uncharted River of Doubt (yes, that’s its actual name) in 1914 is chronicled in an excellent book entitled The River of Doubt by Candice Millard. Roosevelt, though a former president, showed himself to be a courageous man who unselfishly helped anyone who needed it, and who insisted on sharing their meager food supply with the least of the men who were with them. My respect for him grew greater and greater as I read about their harrowing experiences and his unselfishness even as he was near death (he wanted to stay behind and commit suicide rather than hinder the men who were nearing starvation). In fact, he never fully recovered his health, and it is probable that his death in 1919 was hastened by the trip.
Franklin Roosevelt, who was born with good health, contracted polio as a young man and was unable to ever stand again without the help of leg braces, and something or someone to hold onto. Yet he became the only man to ever be elected president of the United States four times, and lead the country as it struggled to end the Great Depression. It was an era where the unemployment rate reached 25% and where people starved to death because they had no food to eat and no money with which to buy it. And after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, he lead us through the most destructive war that the world has ever known. Suffering from congestive heart failure and high blood pressure, Franklin Roosevelt died from a stroke shortly before the end of the war.
Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin’s wife, started life as a lonely child who always seemed to have felt that she was unloved. During his presidency Franklin, feeling isolated from the people, asked Eleanor to find out what was really going on in this nation and to tell him, and she did so even though she didn’t enjoy politics. In doing so she found her life’s work: she became Franklin’s social conscience and became a social crusader for the rights of the little people. She chided her husband when he failed to push for legislation that she saw as necessary to create fairness and equality among all our citizens. After his death she became a capable diplomat in dealing forcefully with world leaders as they tackled delicate problems. She earned the respect of many who initially considered her nothing more than a do-gooder who had no understanding of the complex problems that had to be handled with the greatest tact.
You may dislike one or more of these figures, but you can’t deny that they played a major role in shaping the 20th century, so don’t miss the opportunity to see the seven-part series and/or to read its companion book. You get a biographical sketch of three charismatic people, but more importantly, you will better understand what our parents and grandparents endured. And it puts the problems we face today in their proper perspective.
There’s one other charismatic Roosevelt who I think deserves more than the brief mention she received in the series. She is Alice Roosevelt, and she was the only child of Theodore and his beloved first wife Alice Lee. Alice was born on February 12, 1884 and her mother died on Valentine’s Day – a mere two days later. Not only that, but Theodore’s mother died the same day that Alice Lee died. Shattered by Alice Lee’s death, Theodore went away and immersed himself in strenuous activities in order to lessen the pain of his double loss. Alice was left with one of Theodore’s sisters while her father was gone, and Alice and Theodore never formed the father-daughter bond that should have united them following Alice Lee’s tragic death.
Alice turned out to be a hellion. She made no attempts to abide by the rules of propriety that existed when she was a child and, for that matter, never during her long life held her tongue or did what ladies were supposed to do. Nevertheless, she became a cultural icon in Washington (often described as “the other Washington monument”), and entertained – and was entertained – by everybody who was anybody.
When Theodore was president, Alice would roam the White House at will and even interrupted her father’s meetings. One day he was meeting with his friend Owen Wister (author of The Virginian which is considered to be the first Western novel). Alice ran through the room a few times, and in frustration Roosevelt told Wister, “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.” That from a man with boundless energy and an indomitable spirit.
Alice eventually married Nicholas Longworth, a Republican Representative from Ohio who later became Speaker of the House. He was a heavy drinker and a womanizer, so their marriage was not a happy one. But Alice also had her affairs, too. In fact, it is believed that their only child, Paulina, was really fathered by one of Alice’s many paramours, Senator William Borah of Ohio. Alice’s sense of humor was such that she quipped that she wanted to name her daughter Deborah (that is, “de Borah” or “of Borah”). Pauline (who was born on Valentine’s Day in 1925) committed suicide at the age of 31 in 1957. Alice raised Pauline’s daughter, and died shortly after her 96th birthday in 1980.
Carol Felsenthal, who wrote a biography about Alice Roosevelt Longworth back in the late 1980s, recently wrote a Politico article about Alice that also touches on other presidential daughters who have been in the limelight, and Jonathan Yardley, who reviews books for The Washington Post, reviewed Stacy A. Cordery’s 2008 book about Alice. Both articles are interesting because they concentrate on different aspects of Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s long and very eventful life.