Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen
E-Mail: bergen.anthony@gmail.com



Theodore Roosevelt was a shooting star — 5’8” of barely controlled frenzy.  An energetic workaholic, familyaholic, and lifeaholic who lived every day of his relatively short life to its fullest and savored each and every battle throughout 60 busy years on Earth.  As Thomas Riley Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s Vice President, said, “Death had to take Roosevelt while he was sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.” 

Every milestone in Roosevelt’s life was reached at a younger age than almost anyone else in American history.  Elected to the New York State Assembly at 23; a delegate to the Republican National Convention at 25; a deputy sheriff in the Dakota Territory at 26; an unsuccessful candidate for Mayor of New York City at 28; appointed to the U.S. Civil Service Commission by President Benjamin Harrison at 31; elected president of the New York City Police Board to clean up corruption in the police force at the age of 37; and appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President McKinley before resigning to volunteer for the Spanish-American War and then returning from Cuba as a war hero to launch a successful campaign for Governor of New York, all before his 40th birthday in October 1898.

Initially supported by New York’s Republican party boss, Thomas Platt, Governor Roosevelt quickly distanced himself from Boss Platt by ignoring his advice and pushing through an agenda aimed at reform in government, and laws protecting worker’s rights.  After the Governor signed a new law implementing a state tax on New York’s corporations, Boss Platt worked hard to get Roosevelt nominated as Vice President on President McKinley’s ticket in 1900, mostly to get Roosevelt out of New York state politics and into an office where he couldn’t do any damage — the weak Vice Presidency of the late-19th/early-20th century.  Roosevelt was not interested in leaving Albany to take the boring job of Vice President, but changed his mind after the encouragement of his friend, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, who felt that it would expand Roosevelt’s profile nationally and help set up a future bid for the Presidency.  McKinley and Roosevelt easily won the 1900 election, and Roosevelt kept himself occupied during the campaign by speaking in 567 cities and towns throughout 24 of the 45 states.

Less than a year later, 42-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, was President of the United States (and is still the youngest President in American history), thrust into the Presidency when an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz assassinated President McKinley in Buffalo.  At his side as he moved into the White House was his wife, Edith, and his six children.  Roosevelt leaped into the role of President and had fun with the job while continuing to live what he called “the strenuous life”.  For the rest of that “strenuous life” — including a “retirement” which was a retirement in name only — Roosevelt continued to practice politics, hunt, look for new challenges, write, and fight.  But there was one battle that Theodore Roosevelt could not fight and would not face — and it started on the saddest Valentine’s Day of all-time.

•••

Valentine’s Day wasn’t always a tragic day for Theodore Roosevelt.  On February 14, 1880, Roosevelt announced his engagement to Alice Hathaway Lee, a beautiful girl from Massachusetts three years younger than he was.  Theodore and Alice had met on October 18, 1878 when Theodore, a student at Harvard, encountered her at the home of Richard Saltonstall — Alice’s neighbor and Roosevelt’s classmate and friend.  Roosevelt was immediately taken by Alice’s beauty and intelligence, writing that “As long as I live, I shall never forget how sweetly she looked and how prettily she greeted me.”  A month later, he was convinced that he wanted to marry her, but it took him much longer to convince her.  He proposed in June 1879 and Alice finally said yes at the beginning of 1880.  On February 13, 1880, Roosevelt spent the day and night with Alice’s family before returning home to Cambridge, Massachusetts to announce their engagement.  That night, as he often did, Roosevelt wrote in his pocket diary about his feelings for Alice:

She is so marvelously sweet, and pure and loveable and pretty that I seem to love her more and more every time I see her, though I love her so much now that I really can not love her more.  I do not think ever a man loved a woman more than I love her; for a year and a quarter now I have never (even when hunting) gone to sleep or waked up without thinking of her; and I doubt if an hour has passed that I have not thought of her.  And now I can scarcely realize that I can hold her in my arms and kiss her and caress her and love her as much as I choose.”


Theodore and Alice married on his 22nd birthday, October 27, 1880 at the home of Alice’s parents in Brookline, Massachusetts.  Among the guests in attendance was Edith Kermit Carow, who later became Roosevelt’s second wife and the nation’s First Lady.  The newly married couple spent their wedding night in Springfield, Massachusetts and a two-week honeymoon at the Roosevelt home in Oyster Bay, New York before Theodore plunged right back into his work.  Despite his busy, frenetic lifestyle, Theodore’s love for Alice never wavered.  He wrote her long, loving letters and spent as much time as possible doting on his young wife.  As his political career took off and he served in the New York State Assembly, politicians who called at his home in New York City were charmed by Alice, and Theodore’s feelings for her were as strong as they were during their courtship in Cambridge.  As the Roosevelts celebrated their third wedding anniversary in October 1883, Alice was pregnant with their first child and Roosevelt was preparing a run for Speaker of the New York State Assembly.

Running for the speakership was tough work for a 25-year-old that had spent barely two years in the Assembly, but Roosevelt and some of his supporters felt that he had the votes necessary to win the vote.  This campaign required Roosevelt to spend even more time in Albany lining up votes, and he would rush home whenever possible to visit his pregnant wife.  Alice felt lonely at times, but understood Theodore’s drive and ambition.  She only saw her husband on weekends and Roosevelt tried to help Alice out by having her stay with his mother, Martha “Mittie” Bulloch Roosevelt, and his sisters, Corinne Roosevelt Robinson (who had recently had a baby herself) and Anna “Bamie” Roosevelt Cowles, at the family home in New York City on West 57th Street.  It was difficult at times for Alice, but she loved her husband’s family and supported her husband’s ambitions, and tried to bear the separation cheerfully. 

The separation wasn’t easy for Roosevelt, either.  On February 6, 1884, he wrote to Alice, “How did I hate to leave my bright, sunny little love yesterday afternoon!  I love you and long for you all the time, and oh so tenderly; doubly tenderly now, my sweetest little wife.  I just long for Friday evening when I shall be with you again.”  Roosevelt had lost the race for Speaker, but immediately threw himself into an investigation of corruption within the government of New York City.  In Albany on February 11, Roosevelt adjourned his committee’s investigation for a week and headed home to New York City for the birth of his first child.  Arriving there on February 12th, it appeared as if Alice was still a few days away from having the baby.  Roosevelt left her in the care of Bamie since his mother, Mittie, seemed to be suffering from a heavy cold, and then rushed back to Albany to work on a bill which proposed to give more executive power to the Mayor of New York City.  At the capitol the next morning, Roosevelt received a telegram notifying him that Alice had given birthday to a baby girl the previous night.  The telegram noted that Alice was doing “only fairly well”, but Roosevelt chalked that up to the difficulties of a young mother’s first delivery in the rough 1880’s.  Roosevelt continued to try to get some work done for a few more hours before he planned to catch a train back to New York City to greet his loving wife and his new daughter.

•••

Just a few hours later, Theodore Roosevelt was on a train heading to New York City, but the joyous visage of the brand-new father had been replaced by a worrisome and “worn” look cemented upon his face after receiving a second telegram in Albany.  The contents of this telegram are lost to history, but they caused Roosevelt to rush home to his 22-year-old wife and their newborn daughter.  In perfect weather, the train ride from Albany-to-New York City took five hours in 1884, and the weather on February 13th was not perfect.  It was foggy and cold and Roosevelt finally arrived at Grand Central Station at about 10:30 PM, rushing home through the foggy New York City streets and finding the home at 6 West 57th Street dark other than a gaslight on the third floor.

Upstairs, Theodore’s young wife and the mother of his newborn daughter, was gravely ill.  The childbirth was rough, but Alice Roosevelt was also suffering from undiagnosed Bright’s Disease, a terminal illness during the time period, and an illness which was rapidly causing Alice’s kidneys to fail.  Theodore held his  love in his arms, barely noticing the new life that she brought into the world at the risk of losing her own.  Alice fell in-and-out of consciousness, only sometimes recognizing the man at her bedside.  As a child, Theodore Roosevelt was sickly, pale, and asthmatic and through sheer willpower and, yes, “strenuous” exercise, he built his body into a strong, robust, athletic man as solid as the bust that pays tribute to him today on Mount Rushmore.  As February 14th — the fourth anniversary of his engagement to Alice — began, Theodore tried to summon that ability to conquer poor health in order to save the love of his life.

Downstairs, Theodore’s 48-year-old mother, Mittie, did not have a bad cold.  She had typhoid fever, and in his rush to attempt to help nurse his wife back to health — if only with the ineffective tools of hope — Roosevelt had hardly noticed that his mother was also near-death.  At 3:00 AM on February 14, 1884, the sadness in the Roosevelt home at 6 West 57th Street turned to devastation, when Mittie died shortly after Theodore kissed her goodbye.  Before Theodore had arrived home from Albany, his brother Elliott left their mother’s home after telling Corinne, “There is a curse on this house.  Mother is dying, and Alice is dying too.”  As Theodore walked back upstairs to attend to Alice, he agreed with his brother’s statement:  “There IS a curse on this house.”

Alice tried to fight, but her kidneys had failed her, childbirth had weakened her, and the melancholy mood in the house couldn’t help to strengthen anybody’s spirits.  Theodore continued holding Alice in his arms and that’s where she was when she died at 2:00 PM on the fourth anniversary of their engagement announcement, less than two days after the birth of their still-unnamed daughter.  Since he first cast his eyes upon Alice’s face in 1878, Theodore Roosevelt had filled pages of his diary by writing about her nearly as often as he thought about her.  He noted the simplest expressions, the smallest acts of recognition, the quietest smiles, the loudest silences, and every action that resulted in a memory that they could replay again-and-again in the future that they had planned together.  In his ever-present pocket diary on February 14, 1884, Theodore Roosevelt simply wrote an “X” above one striking sentence:  “The light has gone out of my life.”

•••

Two days later, the dazed widower sat expressionless in his pew at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City as the two identical rosewood caskets of his mother and wife stood side-by-side at the altar.  The day after the deaths, the New York State Assembly paid tribute by adjourning in sympathy after speakers eulogized the women and expressed support for their stricken colleague.  In the days that followed, Theodore Roosevelt withdrew, unable to process the heavy pain he was feeling and showing no interest in his newborn baby, christened Alice Lee after her late mother.  Friends worried about Roosevelt’s mindframe and newspapers predicted that he would never recover from the blow he had suffered. 

We know now that he did recover.  Just 27 years old when he lost his wife and his mother on the same day in the same house, Roosevelt couldn’t even bear to say the name of his new daughter because it reminded him of her mother.  Instead of “Alice Lee”, he called her “Baby Lee” in her infancy and turned her care over to Bamie so that he could lose himself in the Dakota Territory.  There he remained for two years, working as a cattle rancher and deputy sheriff, writing and recovering from his sudden, tremendously heartbreaking loss.  He returned to New York in October 1886 and launched his political career, not stopping until he handed the Presidency over to hand-picked successor William Howard Taft in 1908.  Even then, he was still involved, challenging Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912, bolting the party when Taft was nominated and running as a third-party candidate that fall, hunting, writing books, and preparing for another run for the Presidency when he died suddenly in January 1919.

Theodore Roosevelt recovered and made history, but the pain that he felt probably never dissipated.  It was also never again mentioned.  Two days after the funeral, he wrote a short biography of Alice in his diary, ending “For joy or sorrow, my life has now been lived out.”  Roosevelt’s biographer, Edmund Morris, wrote that “Like a lion obsessively trying to drag a spear from its flank, Roosevelt set about dislodging Alice Lee from his soul.  Nostalgia, a weakness to which he was abnormally vulnerable, could be indulged if it was pleasant, but if painful it must be suppressed, “until the memory is too dead to throb.”  Alice Hathaway Lee’s existence may have crossed his mind or remained in his heart, but her name never again passed through his lips.  Their daughter — Alice’s namesake — entered adulthood without ever hearing her father speak of her mother.  It was simply too painful for this, probably the bravest of Presidents.  Following his Presidency, Roosevelt wrote his Autobiography, which was detailed and thorough, but he didn’t mention his first wife even once.  Letters were destroyed, photographs were were burned, and Roosevelt’s only method of coping with her absence was pretending that she was never there in the first place.  He once wrote of Alice that “I did not think I could win her, and I went nearly crazy at the mere thought of losing her.”  Once he did lose her, he certainly lost a part of himself. 

Immediately following Alice’s death, Theodore told a friend that he was “beyond healing and time will never change me in that respect”.  Roosevelt remarried in 1886 and had five more children, but his silence about Alice’s impact on his life is just as striking as the words he wrote about her while she was alive.  In August 1974, President Richard Nixon — one of Roosevelt’s successors and biggest admirers — resigned from the Presidency and in his final speech as President, to White House staff gathered in the East Room, quoted from one of only two references that Roosevelt made to Alice following her death:

"She was beautiful in face and form, and lovelier still in spirit; As a flower she grew, and as a fair young flower she died. Her life had been always in the sunshine; there had never come to her a single sorrow; and none ever knew her who did not love and revere her for the bright, sunny temper and her saintly unselfishness. Fair, pure, and joyous as a maiden; loving , tender, and happy. As a young wife; when she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be just begun, and when the years seemed so bright before her—then, by a strange and terrible fate, death came to her. And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever."


Theodore Roosevelt went on to achieve his ambitions and realize great success, but his tribute to Alice bears witness to his pain and gives extra symbolism to the lion’s last words before his heart gave out in 1919:  “Please put out the light.”

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