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Presidential daughters have always been scrutinised by the American press. Some have served as trusted advisors – we see Ivanka Trump in this role. Others have caused embarrassment – the Bush twins immediately come to mind. Cited for underage drinking, using fake ID’s and generally exuding a wild child air, Barbara and Jenna Bush were a secret service nightmare. Their escapades however, seem trivial when compared to those of Alice Roosevelt.
Now there was a first daughter you could write about.
Her father, Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt unexpectedly gained office in 1901 when President William McKinley was assassinated. Beautiful and bold, teenager Alice swept into the White House just as the curtain opened on the twentieth century. She remained the ‘talk of the town’ for over seven decades.
Alice’s early childhood is a typically callous Victorian tale. Her mother, Alice Lee, died two days after giving birth to her in 1884. It was a day that Theodore would never forget. His mother died on the same day and he spent his time running from one death bed to the other. Racked by grief, he took himself off to his ranch in Dakota, leaving Baby Alice in the care of his sister Bye.
Theodore’s method of coping was to never mention his wife’s name again, and for years called his daughter Lee. When Bye had to surrender the little girl to Roosevelt’s second wife Edith, emotional issues surfaced. Edith was the old flame that Theodore had put out years before, in favour of Alice Lee. With little attention from the father she adored and under the frosty eye of a stepmother, Alice felt like an extra in her new family.
Edith insisted that the little girl call her ‘Mother,’ though young Alice believed that her mother was in Heaven. The second Mrs Roosevelt made it clear that she regarded her predecessor as a beautiful but inane air-head. ‘Had your mother lived,’ she once shouted at Alice,‘she would have bored your father to death.’
Alice enchanted the American public. At the inauguration ball, she wore a gown of what was known ever after as Alice blue. She inspired the songs – ‘Alice Where Art Thou’ and ‘Alice Blue Gown’. The latter’s lyrics suggest a sedate young lady, but sedate she was not – she was a hellcat. Fiercely opinionated, she did sensational things at a time when women weren’t allowed do sensational things – like, say, vote.
The songs’ sheet music and Alice postcards sold like hotcakes. Americans copied her dress, named their babies after her and thronged to see her wherever she went. A self-proclaimed pagan, Alice was at constant loggerheads with her stepmother. Staunchly religious, Edith held that a lady’s name should appear in print only to announce her birth, marriage or death. Imagine then her horror to open her morning newspaper and read all about Alice. Caught smoking in the lobby, Alice had been asked to leave Boston’s Copley Plaza Hotel. She drank, chewed gum, wore pants.
When one eccentric suitor persevered in his attempts to woo her, Theodore said, ‘of course he’s insane. He wants to marry Alice.’
At a time when few (of either sex) drove the newly invented automobile, she drove her own (too fast) through Washington’s streets, sometimes with male passengers, unchaperoned. She ran up debts at poker and placed bets on horses. A news photographer snapped her collecting her winnings from a bookie.She was photographed standing on a railroad platform wearing a boa constrictor as a scarf. She carried a pistol which she used to alleviate the boredom of long train journeys – leaning out of windows and shooting at passing telegraph poles. She had many beaus too. When one eccentric suitor persevered in his attempts to woo her, Theodore said, ‘of course he’s insane. He wants to marry Alice.’
The vivid detail of her rebellious romps regularly crowded her father’s presidential achievements off the front pages. Finally, she had his attention. However, Theodore, knowing that the public loved her, swallowed his aggravation. Running for a second term in 1904, he declared: ‘I can be President of the United States or I can attend to Alice. I cannot possibly do both.’
Theodore suggested Alice’s inclusion on a diplomatic trip to Asia in 1905, knowing that the press would follow. He wasn’t wrong. She created headlines when she jumped into the ship’s pool fully clothed, and was gifted so many expensive items, that the press dubbed the junket – ‘Alice in Plunderland.’ Against every advice, she began a relationship with much older fellow delegate – Congressman Nicholas Longworth of Ohio, a connoisseur of whiskey and women. One year later the nation celebrated their storybook White House wedding, in what The Washington Post described as ‘the greatest most spectacular social event…in all of American history.’
Marriage modified neither Longworth. Chronic adulterer, Nick soon resumed his old ways. When advised that he was conducting an affair with a much younger woman, Alice quipped, ‘You can’t make a soufflé rise twice.’ It was, however, his political infidelity that affronted her most. He supported William Howard Taft’s re-election bid over her father’s campaign to regain the presidency in 1912. This caused a chill, but their relationship survived on a little affection and a lot of humour.
When a daughter was born, Nick doted on her, though he must have realised (as did the whole of Washington) that the baby wasn’t his. Alice and father-figure Senator Borah from Idaho were conducting an affair. With her usual sharp wit, Alice suggested calling the baby Deborah – as in De Borah. She finally named the child ‘Paulina.’
The Roosevelts left the White House in 1909. For Alice, none of its subsequent inhabitants could fill her father’s shoes and she knew every president from McKinley to Gerald Ford. When Theodore died in 1919, Alice led the campaign against America’s membership of the League of Nations. So politically savvy was she that the Republican Party briefly considered her for vice-president on Herbert Hoover’s ticket in 1928. It was a lucky escape, she later said, ‘the Hoover vacuum was more exciting than Herbert, who stood around like a bruised waxwork.’ As the first woman vice-president, ‘they would have blamed me for the Great Depression.’
Progressing through middle age, she found a career as most-sought-after hostess, in ‘a town of successful men and the women they married before they were successful.’ Scientists, authors, conservationists and politicians of every stripe vied for invites to her legendary salon. Journalists lapped up her razor-sharp assessments. She opined that President Harding’s brevity of tenure, ‘was a mercy to himself and to the country.’ His successor, President Coolidge looked as if ‘he was weaned on a pickle.’
Her dagger-tongue skewered both foe and family alike. She directed her sharpest jabs at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Referring to the president and first lady as: ‘Cousin Darling and Cousin Dearest,’ she described Franklin as ‘one third mush and two thirds Eleanor.’ Yearning for a reinstatement of the right Roosevelts, she encouraged half-brother Ted’s bid for office. ‘No man is good three times,’ she snapped, when Franklin ran for an unprecedented third term.
Thomas Dewey, a short tidy man with a centre-parting and pencil moustache, was a shoo-in for president in 1944. That was until Alice fixed her eye on him. She doubted that Americans would vote for ‘the little man on the wedding cake.’Then she repeated some of his campaign-speech gaffes. His ‘you cannot have freedom without liberty,’ and ‘the rivers are full of fish,’ sounded hilarious on Alice’s tongue. Best of all was his ‘our future lies ahead of us.’ After that he never did seem presidential and against all odds lost to Harry Truman. In the furore of Truman’s recall of General MacArthur (who had been an usher at Alice’s wedding) from Korea in 1951, Alice publicly reminded the president, ‘I warned you, never trust a man who combs his hair straight from his left armpit.’
Her signature cartwheel hat, she told journalists, ‘was to prevent President Johnson from kissing her.’ When he showed his gallbladder-surgery scar at a press conference, Alice sighed, grateful that it hadn’t been prostate surgery. The press often compared Jacqueline Kennedy to Alice in her prime. On hearing of Jackie’s impending marriage to Aristotle Onassis, Alice asked, ‘Hasn’t anyone warned her of Greeks bearing gifts?’ Describing Bobby Kennedy and Richard Nixon as the trickiest politicians ever, she added, ‘I like tricks.’
However, she publicly fell out with Nixon when he quoted her father in his 1974 resignation speech, incensed that Theodore be mentioned within Nixon’s disgrace. Even she had nothing to say about Gerald Ford.
Unlike Alice, Ivanka Trump’s strategy has been to keep quiet. Though her forthcoming book Women Who Work is due out in May, she refused to comment on last month’s International Women’s Day – as women marched on the White House, demanding economic equality and paid leave. Instead she Instagrammed the insipid, ‘Women’s day is every day!’
When Alice Roosevelt died in 1980, the New York Times described her as ‘Washington’s dowager empress…renowned for her caustic wit and happy iconoclasm.’ She endures because instead of arduous political analysis she gelled what she observed into clever soundbites that today, still pinch.
Will Ivanka so prevail? Only time will tell.