Elliott Roosevelt is a sad footnote in history. His brother and his daughter are immortal.
TR’s Younger Brother
Elliott Roosevelt (1860-1894) was less than two years younger than his brother Theodore, sandwiched between two sisters in a prominent and well-to-do New York family. Elliott adored his elder brother but was quickly overshadowed.
Theodore was a sickly, asthmatic boy, whose father spared no effort trying to bring him to health. Meanwhile Elliott grew strong and decidedly loveable. For a time, he was considered the better intellect. But as Theodore became stronger and his obvious intellectual prowess and talents came to the fore, Elliott would rely more and more on his innate sweetness and ability to make friends easily.
When Elliott was only seventeen, an age when paternal guidance is essential, their father died suddenly. He not only mourned, but he floundered, at a loss about what to do with his life. He had no real vocation.
Young Elliott Roosevelt
It is suggested by some modern historians, that Elliott’s health may have not been all it seemed. Even in his youth he had complained periodically of headaches and other problems that might suggest a brain tumor, but it does not appear that any medical treatment was sought, and even if it had been, in the 1870s, there was no means of diagnosis or treatment anyway. Nevertheless, Elliott possessed the same competitive disposition that marked Theodore. He loved the outdoors, and was perhaps the better sportsman. He had also discovered a taste for hard liquor, and took unnecessary risks. It caused concern within the family.
Then there was a freak accident. On a hunting trip in Texas, Elliott’s horse shied and he was thrown and injured badly. His leg was fractured in multiple places, requiring a long and painful convalescence. In the nineteenth century, the medication of the day was laudanum, a morphine-based opiate. Elliott became addicted. Coupled with his increasing alcoholism, it evolved into a serious and chronic problem.
Mr. and Mrs. Elliott Roosevelt
Despite his failings, Elliott fell in love with and married Miss Anna Hall, a beautiful young New Yorker in the Roosevelt social set. They immediately embraced the fast lane where champagne flowed freely and the dancing continued far into the night.
On February 13, 1884, Elliott Roosevelt wired his brother, then a New York Assemblyman in Albany. It was good news. Theodore’s wife Alice was about to give birth to their first child. Only hours later he sent a second wire: to come at once. Alice was dying – and so was their mother.
“This house is cursed,” Elliott was known to have said when Theodore hastily arrived from Albany. Theodore barely had time to close his mother’s eyes and kiss his wife and infant daughter before twenty-three year old Alice died from the kidney disease that had been complicated by childbirth.
Elliott’s own grief likely was assuaged in Anna Hall’s arms; their daughter Eleanor made an appearance nine months later.
Elliott Roosevelt’s Tumultuous Years
Addiction was not unknown in the 1880s, but it was usually kept a secret, particularly among the upper classes. Elliott’s problem had begun to cause his brother and sisters alarm, but Theodore was not around to help. With his own grief to soothe, he departed for the Dakotas where he bought a ranch and became a cowboy, hardening into the man that would emerge. He kept in close touch with his family however, and his letters during those years periodically concerned “poor Elliott,” couched in vague terms. Addiction was such a delicate issue that even the family could not bring itself to name it.
Anna Hall Roosevelt did not seem to be much help either. According to the Roosevelt family, she was too frivolous herself, neglecting domestic responsibilities for the high life of society. Theodore would write, “Anna, sweet though she is, is an impossible person to deal with. Her utterly frivolous life has, as was inevitable, eaten into her charade, like an acid. She does not realize and feel as other women would in her place.” She had evidently turned a blind eye to what had become very obvious.
The “cure” in those years was similar to today: a drying out spell in an isolated private sanitarium. With family funds available, Elliott went to several during the next few years. But each time he returned to New York, he promptly fell into old habits.
Despite the fact that he dearly loved his children (Eleanor would cherish his memory for the rest of her life), he was unfit to live with the family. His erratic and often self-destructive behavior was obvious and detrimental to those closest to him.
Elliott Roosevelt’s Tragic Years
Perhaps a small part of Elliott’s problem was his lack of vocation. He had no real job. His inheritance provided a substantial income. He did not need to work, and did not seem to have much interest in anything other than his pleasures.
Knowing that Elliott again needed to be apart from the family (Elliott Jr. was born three years after Eleanor), his wealthy brother-in-law suggested he might look after some of his holdings in Abingdon, Virginia, in the western part of the state. It was a fairly isolated place, where the addicted man might rest and recuperate.
According to several Abingdon residents, Elliott Roosevelt was a delightful and generous neighbor. His natural charm and pleasant disposition never deserted him. But when three-year-old Elliott, Jr. died, not long after the birth of baby Hall, followed by the unexpected death of Anna, Elliott seemed to fall apart and never recovered. His visits home were less frequent and more erratic and irresponsible. His siblings were distraught, but powerless to help.
In his final year, Elliott eloped with a woman of the lower classes, who would bear his son. By this time he was desperate and tormented beyond all redemption. He attempted suicide by leaping from a window. He survived, but only for a few weeks.
Elliott Roosevelt was only thirty four.
- Morris, Edmund – The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt – Random House, 2010