Quentin & Flora: A Roosevelt and a Vanderbilt in Love during the Great War focuses on two years of a love story – but it is a wonderful love story, family story and coming-of-age story, all against the background of the Great War (as WWI was called at the time).
Quentin Roosevelt was the youngest of Theodore Roosevelt’s cubs, and arguably the most like him, with the most promise. He looked like TR, had his father’s happy faculty of turning a phrase, and embodied the old man’s broadness of interest, intelligence, leadership and plain guts. In essence, Quentin’s was a great loss of life cut short.
At four, Quentin was the youngest son of the youngest President, with the White House as his playground and the movers and shakers of the nation as his part-time playmates. He was great copy for the newspapers. Author Chip Bishop delights the reader with Quentin stories, where one can see the seeds of leadership-in-situ. He would be a leader if his name were “Smith” and brought up in Hoboken. He was all-boy, with mischief in his soul, and brains in his head.
Flora Payne Whitney the girl who would love him is much fuzzier, albeit with a huge moneyed pedigree. Like all stories of poor-little-rich-girls, she lacked strong parental influence. Harry Payne Whitney, was a mega-industrialist, sportsman and generally absentee father. Her mother, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was a personage in her own right: talented sculptress and generous patroness of the arts, focused on her artsy circles.
Hovering over the story, is the aura of an aging Theodore Roosevelt, who comes across at his finest: an engaged and affectionate father, which he truly was. Quentin’s mother, Edith, as was her nature, is the steady hand on the wheel, foot on the brake, known mainly for claiming that she raised her sons “to be eagles.”
Quentin also had a gift all his own. Mechanics. All things mechanical and in particular, aeronautics, dominated the teen-aged Quentin much like natural science dominated his father’s early years. It is refreshing that he had it all to himself. Billeted with a French family during the Great War, Quentin fixed their grandfather clock, which had not worked for thirty years – way before he was even born. Nice!
By the time the First World War began in Europe, the four Roosevelt sons, eager to prove their courage and eagleness, couldn’t wait to enlist – and this was years before the US committed itself as a participant. TR was filled with bully pride, having four sons in uniform. He would have gone himself, but a wiser Woodrow Wilson said no.
Also by the time still-teenaged Quentin enlisted in the French air force he had already met and fallen in love with pretty Flora Whitney. That they loved each other deeply and truly is apparent in their letters and in the memories of their friends. That TR was anxious to stir the romantic pot is also apparent. He tried to pull every string he could to get Flora to Paris, wedded and bedded, so the kids could at least have their “white hour” as the upright Theodore called it. Perhaps his was also a distant memory of his pretty and rich first wife who died young. In this case, TR’s efforts were in vain. Quentin’s great love affair was full of love, but remained unconsummated.
So here he was deployed overseas for his great adventure, flying little more than box-kites with motors, and Bishop’s story now belongs to the groom-to-not-be, with Flora assigned to the eternal role of woman-who-waits. To TR’s credit, he became a better father to Flora than her own. Meanwhile Quentin’s nearly eighteen months in Europe are somewhat marred by two incidents, perhaps roiled by historians who like nothing better than muddying waters. Author Bishop is not roiling; he is merely carefully reporting the murk.
The story goes that perhaps in deference to the age, wisdom and experience of his superior officers, nineteen-year-old Quentin, then stationed in Paris, declined a chance to go to the “front.” Some critics, including his brothers, considered him a embusque, or a “slacker.” This is muck-rakey. “Slacker” and “Roosevelt” cannot be used in the same sentence. Edith Roosevelt raised eagles, not chickens.
The second “controversy” concerns Quentin’s death: in the air, shot down in combat. Some say he was inexperienced (true), insufficiently trained (also true), rash, foolhardy and headstrong (probably true), but high in bravado and hot-dogging (no argument here). On the other side of the equation, is “twenty.” All those qualities apply to any twenty-year-old, including belief in their invincibility. Sum it up as (groan) Quent-essential.
Flora was devastated by the loss, and her fuzziness becomes even fuzzier in withdrawal. She doesn’t really become a “person” herself until well into middle age, when she parlays her modest artistic talents, large fortune and maternal legacy into management of the Whitney Museum of Art in New York. Married twice and mother of four, Flora will always have one foot in the art world, and the other in idle-rich. Her romance with Quentin may have become a distant memory in her long life, but more likely, may have become one of those intensely private memories never to be shared. One can only wonder what might have been…
Author Chip Bishop is a fine writer and he tells a good story. Actually it is a great story. In his hands, Quentin Roosevelt comes to life, boy-to-man, and even the fuzzy Flora is still winsome, warm and worthy of Quentin’s love and the Roosevelt family’s sincere affection.
It is an easy and engaging read. You will enjoy it!
It would also make a great movie!
Quentin & Flora: A Roosevelt and a Vanderbilt in Love during the Great War
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, April 2014