When Theodore Roosevelt became President in 1901, he brought his wife and six kids – the largest group of youngsters in the White House.
The Young Roosevelts
At 42, Theodore Roosevelt was our youngest president, and not surprisingly, his family was filled with youngsters. Alice, at seventeen, would become an immediate hit: pretty, and totally outrageous. Ted, at fourteen and Kermit, at twelve, were away at prep school most of the time. Ethel, at ten, was in a local school in Washington.
That left Archie and Quentin, seven and three respectively, when their father came to the White House. Smart, impish and full of the rambunctious exuberance associated with Rooseveltian activity, once they started school, they became the leaders of a select group of local boys whose antics in and out of the White House actually made the newspapers – sometimes. They were dubbed “The White House Gang.”
If Archie and Quentin were the gang-leaders, the Supreme Commander, albeit honorary, was the President of the United States himself, who, as his wife Edith frequently remarked, “was her seventh, and oldest, child.” Edith Roosevelt, while technically not a member of the gang, was more like a participating den mother. She was so enthusiastic and involved, that little Archie once remarked, “When Mother was a little girl she must have been a little boy.”
The activities of the White House Gang ran the gamut of sublime to ridiculous – and always noisy. They plotted obstacle courses in the corridors, played hide-and-seek wherever they wanted, created a baseball diamond on the grounds (without permission!) and even threw spitballs at some of the presidential portraits. They “borrowed” trays from the kitchen, and sledded down the backstairs. Nothing was sacred. When Quentin was sick measles, Archie smuggled Algonquin, his pony, upstairs in the White House elevator to cheer up his ailing brother.
The gang teased White House staff, visitors and diplomats, and was even said to throw snowballs from the White House roof – until forbidden by the Supreme Commander.
Time, visitors, and even the august stature of their father’s position was meaningless to the pint-sized purveyors of mayhem. In fact, TR was almost as enthusiastic a participant as the rest of the gang.
Once, when the POTUS was in his office discussing matters of state with an important visitor, Quentin appeared and announced, “It’s four o’clock, Father.” TR checked his watch and said, “So it is.” Then he promptly terminated his meeting saying, “I promised the boys I would play with them at four o’clock…and you know you must not keep a small boy waiting.”
The Later Gang
Theodore Roosevelt was President for seven and a half years, and kids, as kids do, got older, went to school and began to mature, at least somewhat. The “Gang” however, continued, albeit sporadically once schooling got underway, and time was needed for study. Some gangsters moved away, others were added, like Charlie Taft, when his father, William Howard Taft became TR’s Secretary of War. Charlie and Quentin were the same age, and became boon companions.
One “gangster” who remained throughout was Earle Looker, a Washingtonian who became a well-known journalist and wrote a book called The White House Gang, recalling his youthful glimpse into an extraordinary opportunity. His memories added to the overall perspective of all the Roosevelts from the eyes of a child – eyes that seldom deceive. What is particularly refreshing is his observations about the closeness of parent-to-child, and in this case, parents-to-children. Theodore and Edith were always active and engaged parents. The family always came first.
The “gangsters” stayed in touch, some more closely than others, as they grew up to follow their individual paths.
Quentin Roosevelt, who most resembled his father in looks, build, exuberance, leadership qualities, varied interests and general intellect, had a talent all his own: mechanics. Growing up in the Age of the Airplane, he wanted to be an aerospace engineer. World War I interfered.
All four Roosevelt sons, including Quentin, volunteered well before the U.S. became involved. Kermit joined the British Army in the Middle East. Ted and Archie were severely wounded, and their recoveries would take months before they were up and around. “Q”, as his gang called him, joined a French squadron, looping-the-loop in little more than a box kite with a motor. He was shot down and killed. He was only twenty.
Quentin’s death devastated the family, particularly the former President and the Gang’s Supreme Commander. TR died at sixty, only a few months after learning that his youngest son had been killed.
There was a natural outpouring of sympathy when the news of Quentin’s death was made public, to include the now-adult members of the White House Gang. Edith Roosevelt cherished the letters she received from some of the young men who had been little guys, racing through the White House hallways, waylaying the most important people in the country.
According to Earle Looker, some of the Gang stayed in touch with their den mother for the rest of her long life. She lived to be eighty-seven.
Bishop, Chip – Quentin & Flora: A Roosevelt and a Vanderbilt in Love during the Great War – CreateSpace, April, 2014
Hagedorn, Hermann – The Roosevelt Family of Sagamore Hill – Macmillan, 1954
Looker, Earle – The White House Gang – Amereon Ltd., 1940