Since overthrowing the brutal and corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 with his ragtag band of guerrilla warriors from Cuba’s Sierra Maestra, Fidel Castro has been a thorn in the side of U.S. Presidents and an inspiration to others throughout Latin America. Despite giving up power in 2006 due to failing health, Castro’s impact on the world is unquestionable and long-lasting, but whether he should be celebrated or despised will always be debated and determined by whoever it is that you might ask. For half a century, however, he has stood up against the superpower 90 miles from the shores of his little island and survived the Administrations of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and, so far, Barack Obama. Most of those Presidents have sought to end Castro’s Revolution; all of them have sanctioned his country; some of them actively sought to kill him.
But Fidel Castro’s first interaction with an American President (albeit one-sided) was much different than his later experiences — it was innocent and childlike. Perhaps that was due to the fact that it took place when he was 14 years old.
Thanks to the work of our National Archives and the Franklin D. Roosevelt President Library in preserving the papers of our Presidents, we have a remarkable letter. On November 6, 1940, the 14-year-old (claiming to be only 12) who would lead the Cuban Revolution less than 20 years later sat in his room at the Colegio De Dolores, a prep school run by the Jesuits in Santiago, Cuba, and penned a letter (in broken English, but fine handwriting) to President Roosevelt, who had won re-election to an unprecedented third term just a day earlier.
This is what Fidel Castro wrote to Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Spelling mistakes are Fidel’s.)
Santiago de Cuba.
Nov 6 1940.
Mr. Franklin Roosvelt,
President of the United States.
My good Roosvelt
I don’t know very English, but I know as much as write to you.
I like to hear the radio, and I am very happy, because I heard in it, that you will be President a new (periodo)
I am twelve years old.
I am a boy but I think very much, but I do not think that I am writting to the President of the United States.
If you like, give me a ten dollars bill green american, in the letter, because never, I have not seen a ten dollars bill green american and I would like to have one of them.
My address is:
Sr. Fidel Castro
Colegio de Dolores
Santiago de Cuba
I don’t know very English but I know very much Spanish and I suppose you don’t know very Spanish but you know very English because you are American but I am not American.
(Thank you very much)
Good by. Your friend,
If you want iron to make your
sheapsships I will show to you the bigest (minar) of iron of the land. They are in Mayarí. Oriente Cuba.
Fidel didn’t get his “ten dollars bill green american”. Perhaps that’s why he nationalized so many American-owned industries in Cuba in August 1960. FDR likely never saw the letter (a time stamp notes that it was received by the State Department on November 27, 1940), and Roosevelt died long before Castro became somebody that an American President would know anything about. The same could not be said for Roosevelt’s successors in the White House.
As March 1945 drew to a close, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was exhausted. At the beginning of February, Roosevelt had attended the Yalta Conference with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin and his appearance had shocked the foreign leaders and their aides. In his last meeting with Churchill, on February 18, 1945, FDR was seen as a dead man walking. Churchill’s personal doctor, Lord Moran, told a friend that Roosevelt had “only a few months to live”.
Being President of the United States for just one term is taxing enough on a young man or a healthy man. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been President for twelve years. He had campaigned for the Presidency and been victorious in four national elections. His Administration featured one of the greatest domestic crises in American History — the Great Depression — and the greatest crisis and bloodiest conflict in world history — World War II. FDR had attacked these problems (and other issues that arose during his terms) with energy, creativity, and a relentless pursuit of victory.
A healthy and athletic man, who stood nearly 6’2” and weighed about 200 lbs as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt had been stricken by polio in 1921. The disease robbed him of his ability to walk and, at the time, looked as if had robbed him of a political future. He rebounded politically, but physically, he was never the same. Confined to a wheelchair, the muscles in his legs withered like the branches of a tree in winter. Although he could not walk under his own power, FDR taught himself to stand while wearing heavy steel braces around his shins. He needed the assistance of a muscular partner — sometimes one of his sons, sometimes a military aide — in order to feign the appearance of walking. Through sheer will, however, Roosevelt learned to take a few steps without anyone’s help — a handy skill that he would show off at important campaign rallies. But FDR no longer had the energy to show off.
Roosevelt was as gravely ill as Lord Moran suggested. The successful 1944 Presidential campaign had severely drained his already tapped-out reservoirs of energy and stamina. His fourth inauguration was low-key, partly because it took place in the midst of war and partly due to the President’s failing health. Instead of at the Capitol, Roosevelt took the Oath of Office at the White House and gave his brief Inaugural Address from a balcony at the Executive Mansion. The famously verbose Roosevelt gave the second-shortest Inaugural Address in American History. By the time the crowd realized that he was talking, he had already finished. Only George Washington’s four-sentence-long speech in 1793 was shorter than the address given by FDR on January 20, 1945.
FDR looked entirely different than the man who had told the nation that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” in 1933. Dark circles surrounded his eyes, which seemed sunken into his skull. Since his first Inauguration, Roosevelt had lost 40-50 pounds. His hands shook so violently at times that some observers wondered how he was able to eat. He smoked constantly, but rarely finished his cigarettes. Most shocking of all, FDR no longer went to great lengths to conceal his disability. Frail and tired, he found it almost impossible to wear the heavy braces that he long wore on his crippled legs. On March 1, 1945, Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress on the results of his Yalta Conference with Churchill and Stalin. In an unprecedented move, the President sat in a chair on the floor of the House of Representatives and apologized to Congress, beginning his speech by saying, “I hope that you will pardon me for this unusual posture of sitting down during the presentation of what I want to say, but I know that you will realize it makes it a lot easier for me not to have to carry about ten pounds of steel around on the bottom of my legs.” It was the first time that President Roosevelt had ever publicly acknowledged his physical disability.
Twelve years of the Presidency, economic depression, and war had strained Roosevelt’s health but the 14,000-mile trip to the Yalta Conference on the Black Sea had pushed FDR to the limit. On March 30, 1945, Roosevelt arrived in Warm Springs, Georgia for a few weeks of relaxation and, hopefully, recuperation. Roosevelt loved Warm Springs. He had started visiting the small town in western Georgia in the 1920’s, hoping that the warm waters from the natural mineral springs nearby would help him regain the use of his legs. When he was Governor of New York, FDR purchased a small house that he used when he visited Warm Springs. As President, the home was called the “Little White House” and although FDR only visited it sixteen times during his Presidency, many of those trips were for 2-3 weeks each. When his train pulled into Warm Springs at about 1:30 PM on March 30, 1945, many longtime residents said that things seemed different. Roosevelt looked terrible and while he waved to onlookers, it was with noticeable weakness.
The first few days in Georgia were tough. FDR was obviously ill and seemed to struggle making it through a church service on Easter Sunday. Roosevelt also avoided his beloved Warm Springs pools, instead the President rested, caught up on sleep, and visited with guests. The goal was for FDR to regain enough of his health to make a trip to San Francisco for the charter meeting of what would become the United Nations. At the Little White House with Roosevelt were some personal aides, military attaches, and cousins Daisy Suckley and Polly Delano. During his first week at Warm Springs, Roosevelt did very little work, dictating a few letters and reading briefings, stronger and more animated in the mornings and evenings but completely drained in the afternoon. One goal for Roosevelt was to gain weight — by the time he left Warm Springs, he hoped to be up to 170 lbs.
Still, there was no noticeable improvement in FDR’s health or spirits. Then, on April 9th, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd arrived. As President Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt had become involved in a passionate love affair with his wife’s social secretary, Lucy Mercer. It was 1918 when Eleanor Roosevelt discovered the affair between Franklin and Lucy and threatened to divorce him unless he promised never to see or speak to Lucy again. FDR agreed to the ultimatum — an ultimatum that was backed up by his mother’s threat to cut off his inheritance if he and Eleanor were divorced as well as the fact that Franklin’s budding political career would be crushed if the affair were revealed. The relationship between FDR and Eleanor was never again passionate or loving after the discover of the affair, but Eleanor kept her word and remained married to Franklin. Franklin, however, didn’t keep his word to Eleanor.
The Franklin-Lucy affair probably resumed shortly after Roosevelt’s first Inauguration in 1933. FDR and Eleanor had more of a professional relationship than personal one. He respected the First Lady’s political viewpoints, used her as a sounding board, and tried to act on many of her suggestions. Personally, however, there was no passion or tenderness or intimacy between the First Couple. It was FDR and Eleanor’s eldest daughter, Anna, who rekindled Franklin’s relationship with Lucy. She arranged for Lucy to visit the President in the White House when Eleanor was out of town. And on April 9, 1945, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd was in Warm Springs, Georgia visiting President Roosevelt due to Anna Roosevelt’s invitation.
FDR was so excited to see Lucy that he didn’t wait for Lucy to make the drive all the way from Aiken, South Carolina to Warm Springs. The President and his cousin Daisy decided to meet Lucy’s car en route. At Manchester, Georgia, 85 miles away from Warm Springs, the highway rendezvous took place. FDR looked happier than he had in months as Lucy got into FDR’s car along with her friend, painter Elizabeth Shoumatoff. Lucy had brought Shoumatoff along to paint a portrait of the President — a portrait that she hoped would be an improvement on the recent photographs that had made Roosevelt look “ghastly”.
For the next two days, Roosevelt and Lucy enjoyed their time together, going on small drives, eating happy meals, and sitting together while Shoumatoff prepared to paint the President’s portrait, studying photographs and making preliminary drawings. Daisy Suckley had the opportunity to observe the unique relationship between FDR and Lucy Mercer and also had some private conversations with the President’s longtime mistress. In her diary, Daisy recorded her thoughts about the two after she accompanied them on an automobile drive that they took: “Lucy is so sweet with F(ranklin) — No wonder he loves to have her around — Toward the end of of the drive, it began to be chilly and she put her sweater over his knees — I can imagine just how she took care of her husband — She would think of little things which make so much difference to a semi-invalid, or even a person who is just tired, like F(ranklin).”
On April 12th, President Roosevelt woke up and ate a light breakfast. He had a slight chill despite the warm, humid weather that day and wore his cape draped over his shoudlers throughout the early afternoon. Roosevelt did a little bit of work, reading the Atlanta newspapers and dictating some correspondence. Elizabeth Shoumatoff had set up her easel in the living room where the President worked behind a card table that served as his makeshift desk. As Shoumatoff painted, FDR continued reading, and at about 1:00 PM, Roosevelt said, “We have got just about fifteen minutes more to work.”
In the quiet of the room, Daisy Suckley thought that the President had dropped his cigarette and was searching for it because his head slumped forward suddenly. Roosevelt could barely lift his head when Daisy asked what was wrong. He placed his left hand gently against the back of his head and, in a barely audible voice, told Daisy, “I have a terrific pain in the back of my head!”
Roosevelt quickly slipped into unconsciousness as the women in the room summoned help. They called for a doctor who was staying in a cottage close to the Little White House and they helped two of FDR’s valets carry the President into the bedroom. Roosevelt’s hands and feet were ice cold, but he was still breathing. Smelling salts were administered but FDR was unresponsive. As the doctor and aides tried to help the President, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd and Elizabeth Shoumatoff recognized the hopelessness of the situation. They also recognized the potential scandal that was possible if it was learned that the President collapsed in the presence of his longtime mistress.
Shoumatoff packed up all of her paints and the unfinished portrait she had been working on. Lucy Mercer grabbed her belongings and took one last look at her beloved Franklin. He was still alive when they left, but he was breathing laboriously and his eyes no longer recognized Lucy. Lucy and Elizabeth Shoumatoff had been on the highway back to Aiken, South Carolina for an hour when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in Warm Springs at 3:35 PM. The official cause of death was a cerebral hemorrhage. FDR was 63 years old.
Eleanor Roosevelt was notified of her husband’s death a few minutes after 4 PM. She summoned Vice President Harry Truman to the White House while he was having a drink at the U.S. Capitol with House Speaker Sam Rayburn. Truman wasn’t told why he needed to hastily come to the White House, but he knew it sounded urgent. As Truman left the Capitol, he ran into a young Congressman who questioned the Vice President about his speedy exit — that Congressman was Lyndon Johnson.
At the White House at 5:30 PM, Eleanor Roosevelt broke the news to the Vice President simply and directly: “Harry, the President is dead.” Truman was stunned and asked what he could do for the widowed First Lady. Eleanor smiled sadly and asked, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.” At 7:00 PM, Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone administered the Oath of Office to Truman as the 33rd President of the United States.
By that time, Eleanor was on her way to Warm Springs to claim her husband’s body. At about midnight, she arrived at the Little White House in Georgia where she asked about her husband’s last hours. It was then that she learned news almost as shocking as the President’s death. Eleanor found out that FDR had been with his former mistress Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd when he was stricken. She spent 45 minutes alone with his body, picked out the clothing for his burial, but never lost her composure despite the shocks that she experienced that day.
A funeral train returned FDR’s body to Washington, D.C. the next day. Roosevelt was embalmed by morticians who found that the President’s arteries were so hardened that they could barely inject the embalming fluid into his body. FDR’s body laid in state in the East Room of the White House almost 80 years to the day that Abraham Lincoln’s body rested in the very same place following his assassination. On the 80th anniversary of Lincoln’s death — April 15, 1945 — Franklin Delano Roosevelt was buried in the garden of his beloved estate Hyde Park on the Hudson River in New York.
Upon his death, the New York Times wrote of the deceased President, “Men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House. It was his hand, more than that of any other single man, that built the great coalition of the United Nations. It was his leadership which inspired free men in every part of the world to fight with greater hope and courage. Gone is the fresh and spontaneous interest which this man took, as naturally as he breathed air, in the troubles and the hardships and the disappointments and the hopes of little men and humble people.” Elizabeth Shoumatoff’s Unfinished Portrait of President Roosevelt — which she was working on when he died — now hangs in the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia.
With millions of Americans fighting overseas during World War II, most newspapers across the United States printed daily lists of American soldiers who had died in battle. After 12 years as President through the Great Depression and World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt died at his post on April 12, 1945 in Warm Springs, Georgia. In one of the most fitting tributes to a Commander-in-Chief, the following day’s list of war casualties in many American newspapers included FDR’s name next to his soldiers.
Senator Mark Hanna, close aide to President William McKinley, on his objections over nominating Theodore Roosevelt as McKinley’s running mate in 1900.
Six months into McKinley’s second term, he was assassinated and succeeded by Roosevelt (“that damned cowboy”).
Senator Mark Hanna, close aide to President William McKinley, as Republicans considered nominating Theodore Roosevelt as McKinley’s running mate in 1900.
President McKinley was assassinated a year later and succeeded by Roosevelt.
Probably nothing out of the ordinary. I mean, it’s not like FDR was going to pimp slap him, or Hitler was going to dump FDR out of his wheelchair. There are diplomatic niceties that are followed even amongst belligerent nations. Hitler was pure evil, but he was capable of having meetings with people like Neville Chamberlain, Edward VIII (as Duke of Windsor after the abdication) and Wallis Simpson, Herbert Hoover, and others.
There always been a story that former President Hoover told Hitler, who was Chancellor by then, to “Sit down and shut up!” because Hitler was just babbling some anti-Semitic crap, but Hoover never confirmed or denied that it was true. He did write that Hitler “was forceful, highly intelligent, had a remarkable and accurate memory, a wide range of information and a capacity for lucid exposition”, which was the opposite of what Hoover had expected as he had been briefed that Hitler was “a dummy front man for some group of Nazis”. Hoover wrote, “He was unquestionably the boss.” He noted that discussions of Communism and Democracy “set him off like a man in furious anger”, but nothing about Hitler’s views on Jews. He simply noted that those incidents “convinced me that [Hitler] was also a dangerous fanatic”. But they didn’t drop gloves or anything.
The first meeting in what would become a lengthy, lucrative, and often complicated relationship between the United States of America and Saudi Arabia took place on February 14, 1945, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with King Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy in the waters of Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake during a transit of the Suez Canal.
Roosevelt was returning home to the United States following the Yalta Conference in the Crimea where FDR had met with fellow Allied leaders Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin to discuss plans for peace as World War II was finally drawing to a close. The conference and the lengthy travel required to get to the summit and arrive back home safely had taken its toll on the already-exhausted Roosevelt, who had been sworn in for his unprecedented fourth term as President less than a month earlier. Although FDR was tired and ailing — in fact, the President was dying; the 63-year-old had less than two months to live — he and King Ibn Saud instantly liked each other and enjoyed their discussions, which were translated by a remarkably fascinating man named Bill Eddy. Eddy, fluent in Arabic, was a Marine Colonel who was serving as the U.S. Minister to Saudi Arabia and would later help build and shape the CIA. Ibn Saud, who had never left Saudi Arabia in his life, was close to Colonel Eddy and personally requested that Eddy serve as the interpreter during the summit with the President.
The meeting between Roosevelt and Ibn Saud was very successful and it helped set a tone which would be continued by their successors for decades to come in which personal relationships between the Presidents of the United States and the Kings of Saudi Arabia (all of whom, including current King Abdullah, have been sons of Ibn Saud, who fathered at least 68 children) would help solidify diplomatic ties between their two very different countries. Perhaps more critically to the interests of the United States, the meeting helped to forge an advantageous economic partnership with the oil-rich desert kingdom.
As President Roosevelt and the King prepared to part ways, they exchanged gifts. The King gave the President a solid gold dagger along with four luxurious, traditional Arab robes. Roosevelt gave the King a gold medal and informed Ibn Saud that the biggest part of his gift would be awaiting him upon his return to Saudi Arabia. FDR had arranged for Ibn Saud to receive a customized Douglas DC-3 airplane which was stocked with American crew members and featured a throne on board that was capable of swiveling in any direction in order to permit the King to face Mecca during prayers, as all Muslims are required to do. When Saudi Arabian Airlines was formed in September 1946, the aircraft that the King had been given by the President became its flagship plane.
The best is actually a trilogy — the three volumes written by Edmund Morris: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (focuses on TR from birth until McKinley’s assassination), Theodore Rex (focuses on TR as President), and Colonel Roosevelt (focuses on TR from the day he left the White House until the morning his wife Edith found him dead in January 1919). If you have the time and money to commit to the trilogy, that’s what I would recommend. Not only are the books what I would consider a definitive history of TR, but Morris is responsible for some beautiful writing.
If not (and I don’t blame you — three books that each clock in at north of 700 pages is indeed a commitment) and would rather read something in one volume, I’d suggest either David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback or TR: The Last Romantic by H.W. Brands. You can’t go wrong with those two authors — as historians or writers — either.
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 Speaker’s chair. 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 birth 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 re-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.”