All Theodore Roosevelt’s children had some of his qualities, but Ethel was more like her mother than any of them.
Ethel Carow Roosevelt, The Second Daughter
Ethel Roosevelt (1891-1977) was seven years younger than her half-sister Alice, and surrounded by brothers: two older and two younger.
Chubby as a child, with little of the sparkle that enveloped her older sister, Ethel developed a take-charge attitude from her earliest age. “Bossy,” as her brothers remembered. Nevertheless, it was to Ethel that most of them turned for support, comfort and good sense.
She was, of course, a tomboy. She had little choice in the matter. All Roosevelt children were expected to run and climb and play hard. The strenuous life was a given. But her mother’s natural reserve was also a part of Ethel’s nature. Edith Carow Roosevelt was a cool woman, some said cold. That coolness was be a blessing within the family, since it was she who applied the gentle brake to her husband’s lead-footed acceleration speed. Ethel was not cold, but she was a measured woman. The dependable one in the family.
Ethel in the White House
Poor Ethel. She was not quite ten when Theodore Roosevelt became President of the United States. Somehow her childhood was completely overlooked and overshadowed in the White House.
Alice, the older daughter, stunning and outrageous at seventeen, received more attention than anyone except Theodore – and sometimes that was questionable. Ted and Kermit, both still in prep school, were Theodores-in-waiting. Ethel’s younger brothers, Archie and Quentin, six and four, captivated everyone with their antics and “fun.” Ethel, not particularly cute, pudgy, and without visible talents, was lost in the shuffle.
In 1905, when Alice married Congressman Nicholas Longworth and became the most exciting young matron and hostess in Washington, public eyes began to turn toward her younger sister, now around fourteen. If the press thought they might find another Alice-in-situ, they were sadly mistaken. Ethel was the solid one. Like her mother, she was the one who shunned the spotlight, much happier in the background. And since Ethel had neither the beauty nor the personality of Alice, the press learned quickly enough to leave her alone. Even her traditional “coming out” debutante part was bland.
Ethel Roosevelt: Mrs. Richard Derby
In 1913, when Ethel was twenty-two, she married Dr. Richard Derby, and moved to Oyster Bay, on Long Island, near the family home at Sagamore Hill. They had four children.
When World War I began in Europe, Ethel began to “come into her own.” Dick had volunteered his medical and surgical expertise overseas in France, and Ethel, leaving their baby with her parents, joined him, working as a volunteer nurse in the American Ambulance Hospital. (While the four sons of Theodore Roosevelt always get credit for joining the army long before the US entered World War I, it was actually Ethel who enlisted first.) It is also where she began her close and lifelong association with the American Red Cross.
The experience of nursing stood her in excellent stead. There would be many tragedies in her family where her steadfastness and quiet strength were needed. Her oldest son died of blood poisoning when he was only eight. That trauma plunged Dick Derby into a deep depression that lasted for several years. It fell to Ethel to maintain the household, the finances and the rest of the family.
Ethel Roosevelt Derby, the “Family Glue”
Ethel was always close to her siblings, as well as to her mother. In 1918, her youngest brother Quentin died, followed shortly afterward by Theodore. It was to Ethel that the family again turned for quiet advice, for comfort and for the balance that every family needs. She was closest to her brother Kermit, the most sensitive of all Theodore’s cubs, with a lifelong tendency toward melancholy – and liquor.
It was Ethel to whom her mother Edith turned in her advancing years. She had lost a son in the First World War, and she would lose two more (Ted and Kermit) in the Second War. When Edith Roosevelt died at 87 in 1948, Ethel and Alice (who had never been particularly close) vowed to remain in better touch. Her other remaining sibling, Archie Roosevelt, ultra-conservative in his politics, was always more estranged from the family fold. Ethel loved her brother dearly, but found herself making “the family excuses” for his shrill tone.
Ethel Derby: The Queen of Oyster Bay
Ethel Roosevelt Derby never strayed far from where she was born and raised at Sagamore Hill. She lived in Oyster Bay till her death at 86.
Once her mother died, it was Ethel who oversaw the re-creation of their home at Sagamore Hill as a national historic site. She was on its board of directors until her death.
She was also an active participant in the American Civil Rights Movement, and while she preferred to keep a low profile, and keep her politics “at home,” she hosted meetings in her own home to help to secure low-cost housing for minority families in the Oyster Bay area.
Her one small foray into a national scene was in 1960, where she made a brief seconding speech for Richard Nixon.
True to her character and quiet style, Ethel Roosevelt Derby had her formal portrait painted wearing her Red Cross uniform rather than evening clothes. She was an active member for more than sixty years.
All Theodore’s children carried some of his genes and some of his personality and character traits. Ethel had his take-charge attitude (when she wanted to), but she also had her mother’s balanced temperament. And in her own way, she was also a national treasure.
Caroli, Betty Boyd – The Roosevelt Women – Basic Books, 1998
Renehan, Edward J., Jr. – The Lion’s Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War – Oxford University Press, 1998