Few people know it, but Theodore Roosevelt was married twice. He was married at twenty-two. Three years later, his wife died in childbirth.
Theodore Roosevelt: Suitor
Theodore Roosevelt was home-schooled or privately tutored for most of his youth, partly because of his family wealth and position, and partly because of his delicate health. But his mind was always keen, sharp, and insatiably curious. An easy fit for Harvard. His New York Knickerbocker social status matched easily with the Boston Brahmans. Another easy fit.
When he was twenty, he met a slim, pretty teenager, considered tall, at 5’6″. Alice Hathaway Lee (1861-1884) was a cousin to Dick Saltonstall, one of TR’s close friends. He was immediately attracted, despite his long-time friendship with Edith Carow, his younger sister’s best friend.
Alice enchanted the young man barely out of his teens. He proceeded to lay siege to her heart, but Alice was only sixteen, full of joi de vivre, eager to explore whatever social opportunities fell in her lap – and there were many. And many suitors as well. Part of TR’s siege efforts focused on winning over her parents. The wealthy Lees couldn’t help but like Theodore. His exuberance was always infectious, and his pedigree and intelligence were never questioned. He was always a welcome visitor. If there was any objection, it was to their obvious youth. But people do get older.
Alice liked Theodore, but she was not head-over-heels in love. He was. And he was enough in love to pursue with his usual ardor and his unusual patience. She finally agreed to marry him. She was nineteen. He had just turned twenty-two.
Alice: The Sweet Wife
Alice Lee was a very wealthy young woman, trained from birth to be lovely, mildly intelligent, and possessed of all the qualities for social acceptance on a high scale of society.
The Boston Brahman slipped effortlessly into the New York Knickerbocker lifestyle. Her pleasant and accommodating personality was a delight to her new mother-in-law, the former Martha Bullock and TR’s discerning sister Anna, always called “Bamie.” They loved her. She loved them. TR loved her. She loved him. Everybody was happy.
For a while they lived with TR’s mother and sister in their West 57th Street townhouse. TR found interesting uses for his time by becoming active in New York City politics, mixing-it-up with assorted riffs and raffs, and getting himself elected to the NY Assembly.
When Albany was in session, TR and Alice took rooms in the capital, but riffs, raffs and mixing-it-up was not an easy adaptation for Mrs. TR. These were new types of people for her, and she was somewhat out of her comfort zone. When she became pregnant, it was an easy excuse for her to return to New York City and the company of her in-laws.
Years later, the former Edith Carow, the childhood friend and second Mrs. TR, remarked that had she lived, she believed that Alice would have bored Theodore to death. It is easy to consider the comment an offhand snipe, which Edith was known to have done on occasion. But in this case, there is a fair amount of truth. Alice was not suited to the rough-and-tumble. She may well have discouraged the husband who loved her dearly to forego active politics.
The Horrible February
All was going well with Alice’s pregnancy – at least on the surface. TR was thrilled at the prospect of becoming a father, and expecting to have a large family, the
young couple had started to build a house on Long Island Sound.
Theodore was in Albany when the telegram came that Alice had begun labor. He was handing out the customary new-father cigars when a second telegram came telling him to come at once – there was trouble. TR took the next train to Manhattan, and was met at the door of the West 57th Street house by his brother Elliott, who sobbed, “This house is cursed. Alice is dying upstairs, and Mother is dying downstairs.”
Alice’s pregnancy had disguised a condition she likely had for some time: Bright’s Disease, a serious kidney ailment, then always fatal. Childbirth shocked her kidneys into acute trauma, and she was dying in a room upstairs.
To compound matters, Theodore’s mother was downstairs in the final throes of typhoid fever. She would succumb in hours.
Theodore Roosevelt barely had time to kiss his wife and hold her hand for a few minutes before he was summoned to his mother’s final moments. She died on February 13.
On February 14, a day after baby Alice was born and named for her mother, Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt died. She was only twenty-three. In his diary entry for that date, he wrote simply that “the light had gone out of his life.”
Later, Later and Much Later
Theodore was devastated by the double loss, and went through the motions of funeral arrangements in an understandable daze. He asked his sister Bamie to care for the baby. Then he resigned his Assembly seat, went to the Dakotas, bought a ranch and became a cowboy.
A few weeks after Alice’s death, TR wrote a brief eulogy for his dead young wife, and had it circulated among close family and friends.
He locked Alice’s memory away in a secret compartment of his heart. He never called his daughter “Alice.” Instead, she was “Baby Lee” until she was three or four. Then, after TR remarried and had five more children, she would be forever be called “Sister,” despite the fact that she bore a remarkable resemblance to her natural mother.
He never spoke of Alice Lee again. Not even to his daughter – their daughter. Even when she was grown and asked about the “mother” she never knew, TR refused to comply. It was his memory, and his alone.
Brands, H.W. – TR: The Last Romantic – Basic Books, 1997
Caroli, Betty Boyd – The Roosevelt Women – Basic Books, 1999
Dalton, Kathleen – Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life – Borzoi-Knopf, 2002
McCullough, David – Mornings on Horseback – Simon & Schuster, 1981