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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth biography

Cordery, Stacy A. Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker.

Alice Roosevelt Longworth, often referred to as Princess Alice, was a fascinating Washington icon for decades, but was not a totally likable individual. Cordery certainly admires her, but even she leaves several episodes open, unable to comment in a genuinely positive manner.

What is obviously true about Alice is that she had an intellect to contend with and a sly wit with a tendency toward malevolence. This biography reads in many ways like the biography of Eudora Welty I read a couple of years ago - much of the book is a list of who Alice saw, where she went, what she did in that "date book" manner. Cordery was privy to much private correspondence that had not previously been published, and yet much of this resource material gives little insight into the woman Alice became and of her personal relations.

The facts are all there, her mother's death a few days after her birth, her father's distance until she was a political asset, her friends, her marriage to an older man, her political views and associates. In many ways, the biography is an excellent, if somewhat biased view, of the Republican Party and the political events of the early 20th century. I found it a bit patchwork, however. Situations remarked upon, abandoned, mentioned again and again abandoned, and eventually expanded upon. Especially in the early chapters, there is a patchwork quality.

Writing a biography must be among the most difficult tasks of any writer. Using the abundant source material in a cohesive way (if such is available), filling in gaps without too much speculation (if source material is unavailable); creating a real human being of a legend; controlling one's personal sentiments; interviewing and evaluating the accounts of friends and enemies; avoiding mere lists of names, dates, and activities while still giving a reliable examination of the individual's friends and significantly influential events-- must be a tremendously complex job.

One of the first national (& international) celebrities, Alice received as much or more attention than even her father during his White House years, and she worked at keeping her name at the front of events her entire life. She was not bound by tradition, and dismissed (to the joy of many women) many of the social traditions of the time. She was not afraid of voicing her opinion or using her political clout, and she cultivated politicians and famous people who often adored her even into her 90's. She made many fast friends, charmed almost everyone she met, made devastatingly cutting remarks that were often personally hurtful as well as politically influential.

Her husband, Nick Longworth, was a womanizer and a drinker. When he died, one of his mistresses, Laura Curtis, was present (Laura was later a close friend of Alice's). Alice herself had a child by Senator William Borah, and it is not clear whether Nick knew and chose not to acknowledge it - after all, he had for decades carried on widely with his women friends - or simply didn't realize that Paulina was not his child. At any rate, Nick adored "his daughter," and Alice seems to have managed quite easily with the arrangement.

Interesting that all of her romantic interests were with much older men, especially given her desire for her father's attention and affection.

Alice Roosevelt Longworth was a force to be reckoned with for over 80 years and despite some of the less pleasant public aspects of her personality, she was both powerful and popular, admired for her courage and commitment and feared for her waspish tongue. She was intelligent and extremely well-read, sometimes jealous, sometimes petty, yet stylish and charming, and had most people eating out of her hand at will.

Earlier, I mentioned the difficulty of writing biography and just want to add that two of the best biographies I've read in the last couple of years are Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father and Voltaire Almighty . I also enjoyed Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee . All of these have been reviewed here on my blog, along with other biographies and memoirs that I've enjoyed, but weren't quite as good.

Nonfiction. Biography. 2007. 483 pages + extensive bibliography & notes with additional detail.


  1. this sounds very interesting! thanks!

  2. Jena - Since I knew so little about Teddy Roosevelt's daughter, I found it interesting to see how easily she broke with tradition and pursued her own interests.

  3. Excellent review, Jenclair. I know next to nothing about Alice. You've helped me double that knowledge.

  4. cheya - :) Alice was quite a character, but like you, I knew little about her until reading the biography!

  5. I've really been into biographies lately--I'll have to keep my eye out for this one.

  6. Danielle - I'm always looking for good biographies! I want one on L.M. Montgomery - always want to know more about Anne and her creator.

  7. Looks like I'm gonna have to put this one on "the list" :-)

  8. SuzieQ - For T.R. fans, I think this one is a nice continuation of the legacy.