Delving into presidential history might typically be something people do more out of necessity than leisure reading, but when you hear about a President’s daughter being banned from the White House for burying a voodoo doll of one of the First Lady’s on the front lawn, you’d be remiss not to dig a little deeper. Here are just some of the reasons Alice Roosevelt captured the attention of the nation in the early 1900’s, and continued to make a name for herself long after her father’s Presidency.
Her life’s story includes a great deal of grief.
Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt was born on February 12th, 1884, and at just two days old, on Valentine’s Day, she would lose both her mother and grandmother. Passing away 11 hours apart, her mother, also named Alice, died of kidney failure, and her grandmother Martha succumbed to typhoid fever. Both deaths were mourned greatly by Theodore Roosevelt, who in just two days’ time had welcomed his first child and lost his wife and mother. Roosevelt struggled to reconcile this, and for a time, could not call his daughter by her first name, and referred to her as “Baby Lee.”
She would spend the first few years of her life being raised by Theodore’s sister, Anna, who she nicknamed “Auntie Bye.” Alice would experience significant loss again in 1957, when her daughter Paulina (born in 1925, on the anniversary of her mother and grandmother’s death) would die of a sleeping pill overdose, at just 32 years old.
Despite rejecting social norms, she was adored by the public.
Nicknamed “Princess Alice” by press and public alike following the Roosevelts’ transition to First Family, the then 17-year-old found little pleasure in subscribing to social norms just for appearance’s sake. From speeding through the streets of D.C. in her car unsupervised (or even worse, accompanied by young men), placing bets with bookies, even publicly identifying as Pagan and denouncing Christianity as “sheer voodoo,” Alice’s antics kept her in the headlines. At one point she started to receive so much fan mail at the White House, the Roosevelts had to hire an additional secretary solely for Alice’s mail.
“I valued my independence from an early age and was always something of an individualist…Well, a show-off anyway.”– Hissing Cousins: The Lifelong Rivalry of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth
She was the poster child for rebellious teens.
After seeing pictures of Alice smoking cigarettes in the paper shortly after taking office, Theodore Roosevelt set out to have a talk with her about acceptable behaviors and public perception of a President’s daughter.
In classic dad form, he struck down a “there will be no smoking under my roof” ordinance. To which Alice, in what is arguably the most impressive passive-aggressive teen move, decided to climb onto the roof of the White House, where she could smoke without technically breaking her father’s rule.
Her intelligence and quick wit did more than just raise eyebrows at parties.
While Alice is largely known for her commitment to the social scene (once attending over 400 dinners, 300 parties, and 350 private balls in just over a year’s time) she would have a notable presence in Washington throughout her life, and until her death in 1981.
It began in 1905 when she became the first First Daughter to serve as a goodwill ambassador for the Roosevelt Administration, during a trip to Asia. She would go on to have public friendships with numerous political figures, most notably Richard Nixon and the Kennedy family. For over 60 years, she would host politicians, scientists, diplomats, and authors of varying beliefs at her home regularly, to exchange ideas and have intellectually charged discourse on virtually every topic.
Being related to Alice didn’t mean you would escape her commentary
Alice had notably strained relationships with many in her family throughout her life. It started with her step-mother and step-siblings, the youngest of whom, Edith once described Alice as “a hellion…capable of doing almost anything to anyone at any time.”
One of her most public family feuds was with her first cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt. The two would disagree often, holding very different views on almost everything. Their feud was well documented in real-time by every major news outlet across the country.
She wasn’t shy about sharing her opinions on Presidential candidates either, even when they were related to her. When FDR was running for president in 1932, Alice wrote in the October issue of Ladies Home Journal, “Politically, his branch of the family and ours have always been in different camps, and the same surname is about all we have in common … I am a Republican, I am going to vote for Hoover. If I were not a Republican, I would still vote for Mr. Hoover.” She even took it a step further, and added shock value during FDR’s reelection campaign, saying she would “rather vote for Hitler!” than for his reelection.
Not even presidents are above being driven crazy by their kids.
Alice had a knack for commanding the attention of every room she walked into. While this was a trait beloved by many, it wasn’t always received as well in certain venues. Quite politically opinionated herself, Alice was known to interrupt her father in the Oval Office during meetings, often to try and involve herself in the process. This became such a frequent occurrence over time that Roosevelt had been asked to comment on it, to which he responded,
“I can do one of two things. I can be President of the United States, or I can attend to Alice. I cannot possibly do both!”
She was banned from the White House…twice.
When the Roosevelts’ time in the White House ended, Alice decided to leave something behind for the new First Lady. A voodoo doll, bearing a resemblance to Nellie Taft, was the reason Alice would be banned from the White House under the Taft administration. She would be subsequently banned from the Wilson administration as well, after publicly making some off-color jokes at his expense.
Even Alice Roosevelt’s pet garnered shock and awe.
Much like her father, Alice enjoyed a wide variety of pets. The Roosevelt family welcomed horses, snakes, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, birds, rabbits, rats, a badger, and a flying squirrel as their pets throughout their time in the White House.
Alice’s dog, Manchu, was spotted with her frequently but wasn’t the animal that turned heads when it accompanied her to social events. That pet was her garter snake, whom she named Emily Spinach. Alice was known to carry the snake around with her in either her purse or dress pocket at all times, and take her out frequently, much to the discomfort of many around her. When asked about the name choice in an interview, Alice simply responded that her snake was “as green as spinach and as thin as my Aunt Emily.”
Being disliked never phased Alice.
While Alice may have liked getting a reaction out of people, she never did or said anything she didn’t believe in. She reveled in being the topic of conversation, regardless of the tone. She used all of the attention she received to her advantage, particularly when she would want to voice more nuanced or important opinions.
The political landscape she had grown accustomed to gave her the thick skin she needed to speak fearlessly and stand by her convictions This was a trait she felt as though she shared with her father and, in a quote attributed to her book Crowded Hours, she described Theodore Roosevelt as someone who “always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening.”
Alice knew she wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and in an interview with the Washington Post in 1974, she said
“I don’t think I am insensitive or cruel. I laugh, I have a sense of humor, I like to tease. I must admit a sense of mischief does get hold of me from time to time … Isn’t it strange how that upsets people? And I don’t mind what I do unless I’m injuring someone in some way.”
She often spoke about her position in life, about her privilege and how she strived to live within her privilege honestly. She is one in a long line of women, pushing against societal norms and being comfortable with being disliked in the process. Alice passed away at 96, leaving behind a unique legacy that continues to inspire the kind of free willed spirit we might all benefit from having a little more of.