Edith Carow Roosevelt was a mother of six when she became First Lady in 1901.
The “Other” Mrs. Roosevelt
Over the past seventy-five years or more, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt has eclipsed the name of the “other” Mrs Roosevelt, her aunt-by-marriage: Uncle Theodore’s wife Edith. In her own time, however, Edith Roosevelt (1861-1948) was considered perfect; the First Lady who never made a mistake. It could not have been easy for a polar opposite of always-exuberant Theodore.
Edith: Wife and Mother
Edith and Theodore Roosevelt had six children when they arrived at the White House in September, 1901 following the tragic assassination of popular William McKinley. Alice was seventeen, and Theodore’s daughter by his first wife who had died in childbirth. Ted was fourteen, and Kermit, about to turn twelve. Both spent the better part of their White House years in boarding school/college. Ethel was ten, Archie seven, and Quentin not quite four.
From the start of their marriage, Edith was the quiet ruler of the household. She managed their Long Island home at Sagamore Hill, bore, raised, supervised and disciplined their children, handled the finances, and even managed her “seventh” child, Theodore, himself. Nevertheless, with all her behind-the-scenes responsibilities, she still found time to romp, play, ride, swim and inspect the myriad treasures that find their way into a little boy’s pocket, and enjoy family life thoroughly.
Her participation in “fun” once led little Archie to say, “When Mother was a little girl, she must have been a little boy.”
Edith Roosevelt seldom gets sufficient credit for being a “single mother” for a huge portion of their lives. TR, man of a zillion interests and three distinct “careers” (politics, writing and natural history) was frequently away tending to said “careers.” Each year, he spent at least a month hunting, camping or exploring. It would fall to Edith to shuttle the family back and forth between Washington and Sagamore Hill, along with their pets and hundreds of books.
They were permissive parents, in the sense that all their children were given a free hand to be creative, to explore, to try, to achieve (or flop), to make their own friends, choose their own interests and build their own lives. If Edith Roosevelt had qualms or fears for her children, she summed it up in her always-cool way. “I raised my children to be eagles, not sparrows.”
White House Eagle-Raising
Despite Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential demands, he was a devoted father, and part-time playmate. He terminated important appointments in order to keep a promised play-date with Archie and Quentin. He was indulgent with boy-stuff, although he periodically needed to step in and pull POTUS rank. Wipe off the mustaches they drew on famous paintings. No throwing snowballs from the White House roof. But it was Edith, the full-time mother, whose frown, or “now, boys” would have the same effect on the children as it did on their father: They would immediately stop whatever they were doing that gave her pause.
Schoolwork was expected to be completed on time. Grades were expected to be up to their individual snuffs. Their behavior in the company of anyone – from menial staff to foreign ambassadors – would be impeccable, no exceptions.
But their annual summer vacations at Sagamore Hill was where they all romped and explored, jumped out of the barn window and whatever else they devised.
At home, Father and Mother were just that: Father and Mother. One time an aide assigned to the First Family at Sagamore Hill was searching for the President who could not be found. Finding six-year-old Quentin, he asked if he knew where the President was. Quentin is said to have replied, “I don’t know about the President, but Father is taking a bath.”
The Eagles Leave the Nest
TR had become President at only 42; when he retired he was just 50. Too young. He was born to be active, and not stay put.
When World War I erupted in Europe in 1914, TR was eager to participate. He was an ardent internationalist, and had always promoted his vision of the US as a world power. He preached preparedness as a means of strength – and a deterrent to war. In 1914, most Americans did not want to be a world power, and had no desire to fight with anybody.
But TR’s idealism was genetic. The Eagles itched to prove themselves and their “eagleness.”
In 1915, Ted and Archie had enlisted in a pre-ROTC-style military program in Plattsburgh, NY, and excelled. They both signed on with the American Expeditionary Force, Kermit volunteered with the British Army in what is today Iran, and Quentin, only nineteen, volunteered with the US Army Air Service.
Kermit was their only son who escaped serious injury, although his internal demons were lifelong. Both Ted and Archie were severely wounded, leaving permanent infirmities. Quentin lost his life at twenty.
All were decorated for valor.
Theodore Roosevelt died at only 60, Edith at 87, outlived him by nearly thirty years.
Quentin had died decades earlier.
Ted Jr. became a Brigadier General in the Army Reserves, and won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor on D-Day. He died shortly after of a heart attack. He was 57.
Kermit pursued various international business and literary interests, but never overcame the alcoholism and depression that he battled throughout his adulthood. He joined the Army during World War II, and was stationed in Alaska when he took his own life. Edith was told it was a heart attack. He was 55.
Archie, despite WWI injuries that were considered permanently disabling, re-enlisted, and served in Australia, where he was injured again. He came home.
The Mother Eagle had outlived three of her eaglets.
Hagedorn, Hermann – The Roosevelt Family of Sagamore Hill – Macmillan, 1954
Morris, Sylvia Jukes – Edith Kermit Roosevelt – Coward McCann, 1980