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Alice Roosevelt Longworth -- America's brush with royalty

One unintended consequence of the assassination of President William McKinley in Buffalo a century ago was the creation of a national phenomenon called Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

The first daughter of Theodore Roosevelt was a child of the 19th century who lived at least 50 years ahead of her time right into the 1980s. Alice was the American Princess Di, the closest thing to royalty this nation has produced since George Washington.

Strong-willed and earthy throughout her life, Alice spent 1,616 days in the White House as first daughter and then most of the next 80 years as the honored guest of whoever happened to be inhabiting 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Alice, whose mother died in childbirth, had an adoring father in the future president, but from somewhere deep in the complex emotions of this unusual man sprung the notion of never again uttering a word of this child's mother. Alice was brought up by her Aunt Bye, another strong-willed Roosevelt, and then by Teddy Roosevelt's first love and second wife, Edith -- a complex start for the future princess.

Handling the press and remaining the center of attention was in Alice's genetic makeup. This famously wealthy and privileged young woman was the first to have her debutante ball in the White House. Her every move was scrutinized, her every word was recorded, and she seemed to love every second of it.

Her image was on popular sheet music, French chocolate cards and postcards of Washington, and the color of her eyes became the most popular dress color of Washington society. During her trip to China, Japan and the Philippines, the eyes of the world were on her and she never let her public down.

In love, Alice chose father figures. She married Nick Longworth, a man 15 years her senior, a philanderer and drinker whom she would lift to the position of Speaker of the House.

The father of her only child, William Borah, was a leading member of the Senate and was 19 years her senior.

Although there was a time when both men were being considered for the GOP presidential nomination, the biggest failure of this fiercely political woman was that neither of the men she chose could carry her back to her cherished White House. If only Alice could have run herself.

Worse yet, that distant cousin Franklin and cold-fish cousin Eleanor made it to her White House. It is difficult to determine whether it was jealousy or ideology that stoked her constant public attacks on the Hyde Park Roosevelts. But this was another age, and Alice was family, and thus invited to state events throughout the FDR years, although FDR was heard to refer to Alice as Eleanor's cousin, not his.

Alice remained politically active throughout her long life and most Washington notables continued to come to her drawing room right into the 1980s.

When the Republicans finally returned to the White House under the leadership of Dwight Eisenhower, sure enough, Alice had backed the wrong horse, Robert Taft. She liked the Kennedys, especially Robert, but the Johnsons weren't her type. She was a supporter of Richard Nixon but could never quite accept all that fuss about Watergate.

Author Stacy A. Cordery earns praise for getting her arms around the many facets of this complex giant of a woman. Theodore Roosevelt never could. He was once heard to say that he could be either president of the United States or Alice's father, but not both.

Cordery, a history professor, relies heavily on letters and famous persons' diaries, and has the advantage of recorded interviews, and mountains of newspaper and magazine articles, not only on Alice, but also on her friends. It is heartening to know that even the rich and famous write pretty mundane things in letters to their husbands and lovers.

It is curious the heightened attention being given the Roosevelts by authors over the past few years. It is becoming apparent less than 50 years after the Kennedy presidency that it is the Roosevelts -- of Oyster Bay and of Hyde Park -- not the Kennedys, who are filling the position of 20th century American aristocracy which the nation seems to crave. And with this new biography, Alice is the person who transcends the two branches of the Roosevelt family, always appearing just above the fray, always her very own person.

Stacy Cordery's talk on Alice Roosevelt Longworth and her colorful life will be at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, co-sponsored by the Historical Society and the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site. For admission information, call 873-9644, Ext. 301.

Edward Cuddihy is a former News managing editor.

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Alice

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

By Stacy A. Cordery

Viking

590 pages, $32.95

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