Dead Presidents

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

By Anthony Bergen
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On February 28, 1844, Dolley Madison was far removed from her time as First Lady of the United States.  Her husband, James Madison, had left the White House almost 27 years earlier and he had died in 1836, but Dolley – now 75 years old – remained a darling of the Washington social scene.  Though she struggled financially, Dolley Madison continued entertaining guests in the nation’s capital and she helped organize social gatherings around the city, acting as a sort of guest hostess wherever she visited.  Now, as the first auguries of spring began their awakening in-and-around Washington, D.C., Dolley had helped plan a cruise down the Potomac River on the newly-built USS Princeton – a showcase vessel for the United States Navy which happened to be one of the most advanced warships of its time.

Launched just six months earlier, the Princeton was the U.S. Navy’s first propeller-driven warship and its Captain, Robert Field Stockton was proud of his charge.  A cruise to demonstrate the ship’s speed, capabilities, and weaponry to the Washington elite would be advantageous to the Navy’s growth and to Captain Stockton’s ambition.  Besides Dolley Madison and the Princeton’s crew of 178 sailors, the ship welcomed over 350 guests, including dignitaries such as Secretary of State Abel Upshur, Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Gilmer, Secretary of War William Wilkins, Postmaster General Charles A. Wickliffe, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and other diplomats and members of Congress.  The most celebrated guest on the Princeton that day, however, was President John Tyler, who had also invited a young woman he had been romantically interested in, Julia Gardiner, and her father, David Gardiner, an influential New York lawyer and former State Senator.

Everyone on board the Princeton had underlying reasons for taking the cruise down the Potomac.  For some, it was to see the Princeton for themselves.  For others, it was because it was the place to be for politicians and diplomats on that day.  Some took the cruise for the opportunity to observe others, and some took the cruise in order to be noticed.  The big draw, however, was a chance to see the Princeton’s two large guns, the Oregon and the Peacemaker, being fired.  Both guns were impressive, but the Peacemaker was an amazing spectacle – at the time, it was the largest naval gun in the world.  The ship was so new and the Peacemaker was so powerful that on the day of the cruise down the Potomac, it had been fired no more than five times, according to Captain Stockton.

In February 1844, John Tyler was entering the final year of a contentious, controversial, and accidental Presidency.  Elected as Vice President alongside William Henry Harrison in 1840, Tyler spent only a month in the Vice Presidency before President Harrison died in office.  On April 4, 1841, Tyler became the 10th President of the United States, but his succession was not a smooth one.  Harrison had been the first President to die in office and the Constitution was not specifically clear about Presidential succession.  To many, including everyone in President Harrison’s Cabinet, Tyler was still the Vice President and only assumed the duties of the Presidency, not the title or privileges (such as living in the White House).  At his first meeting with the men Harrison had appointed to the Cabinet, the Cabinet all but insisted that they would rule by committee and that Tyler had no more power or influence than, say, the Postmaster General.  Many Americans felt that Tyler was merely “Acting President”, and that he was to defer to the will of the Cabinet on all issues.

Tyler vehemently disagreed and the manner in which he assumed office set a precedent that was followed by all future Vice Presidents and was eventually cemented into the Constitution.  Tyler declared that he was not the Vice President or the “Acting President”, but that Harrison’s death and propelled him directly into the office of President of the United States to serve out the remainder of Harrison’s term with the same powers and duties and privileges that come with the office.  Tyler moved into the White House and when his Cabinet balked at his assumption of power, he accepted the resignation of everyone but his Secretary of State, Daniel Webster (Webster eventually resigned in 1843). 

President Tyler’s troubles did not disappear once Harrison’s Cabinet departed.  The slavery question was tearing the nation further and further apart by the day.  When Tyler won election in 1840 as Harrison’s Vice President, he did so as a member of the Whig Party, but he was all over the political spectrum.  As a younger man, he supported Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans and he supported Andrew Jackson during Jackson’s first term before becoming a Whig.  Upon his Vice Presidential nomination, there were questions about Tyler’s Whig credentials, but the Whigs needed a strong Southern balance on the ticket and accepted Tyler.  Now that he was President, Tyler’s independence frustrated his party.  With Whigs in control of Congress and the White House, the party attempted to establish another Bank of the United States now that Andrew Jackson was out of the picture and retired in Nashville.  Congress pushed through a bill creating a new Bank of the United States, but President Tyler betrayed his party and vetoed the bill twice.  So, just months after assuming the Presidency, Tyler was expelled from the Whigs and remained a President without a party until he left office in 1845.

Now, on a warm day at the end of February 1844, Tyler was thinking about whether or not he would support the annexation of Texas.  The President also thought of romance.  In September 1842, Tyler’s wife, Letitia, died in the White House after suffering a stroke.  Tyler was still grieving when he began courting Julia Gardiner in January 1843.  Tyler had met Julia while his wife was still alive, but he didn’t become smitten with her until after his wife’s death.  Tyler and Julia kept their relationship guarded from the public and the President was even secretive about it to his family.  Part of the reason for his reluctance to be open about his feelings was because Letitia had only been dead for a few months when he started dating Julia.  However, a bigger reason was Julia’s age.  When they began dating, Julia Gardiner was just 22 years old.  The 52-year-old President was wary about how his children (he and Letitia had seven children) would feel about him dating a woman who was five years younger than his oldest daughter. 

The age difference also worried Julia’s family.  Julia Gardiner was the daughter of David Gardiner, a wealthy New York lawyer and former New York State Senator.  She was born in 1820 on an island in the Long Island Sound named after her family, and had everything that she wanted or needed while growing up on Gardiner’s Island.  Julia was beautiful and much in demand by the eligible bachelors of the East Coast.  After meeting President Tyler, Julia first tried to reject his advances, but she was certainly intrigued by the powerful and charming Virginian.  For his part, Tyler was madly in love with Julia and he proposed to her in late-1843.  Julia’s mother did not approve of her daughter marrying a man 30 years older than Julia, so Tyler didn’t get an answer.  By inviting Julia and her father to accompany him on the Princeton, John Tyler hoped to show David Gardiner that he could impress the wealthy New Yorker and demonstrate that he could be a wonderful husband to Julia.


Guests gathered at the Washington Navy Yard as ferries transported them across the Potomac River to Alexandria, Virginia, where the USS Princeton was anchored and ready for the afternoon cruise down the Potomac.  As dignitaries boarded Captain Stockton’s ship, they marveled at the size of the two guns on deck and examined every inch of the 164-foot warship.  Music was provided by the Marine Band — “The President’s Own” – and food was served below deck as the Princeton began its leisurely cruise down the Potomac.  As guests explored the Princeton and watched the historic sites on both shores of the Potomac pass by, the massive Peacemaker was fired to the delight of everyone on the ship.  The rounds fired by the powerful Peacemaker were capable of traveling up to three miles.  As the warship cruised down the river the rounds that were fired were aimed at ice floes in the distance which were breaking apart as the sun warmed the Potomac.   The cruise continued, with men mostly on the deck and pretty much all women below deck where food and drinks flowed freely, conversation was genial, and some of the guests were gleefully singing and clearly enjoying themselves.

When the Princeton reached Mount Vernon and George Washington’s sprawling estate came into view, the ship fired another round from the Peacemaker in tribute to the 1st President and then turned around for the return trip to Washington, D.C.  The Princeton’s passengers had gathered below deck for celebratory toasts and to listen to the impromptu singing concert taking place in the salon.  At around 4:00 PM, some of the men requested to witness the Peacemaker be fired again, but Captain Stockton demurred, telling the men “No more guns tonight.”  However, one of the men who wished to see the Peacemaker fired once again was Thomas W. Gilmer, the man who had become Secretary of the Navy just 10 days earlier – a man who just happened to be Captain Stockton’s superior.  Gilmer’s wish was something akin to an order to Captain Stockton, so Stockton headed to the deck and had the gun prepared to be fired once more.

Men began heading upstairs to witness the firing of the Peacemaker while the women remained below deck and continued with their songs and conversations.  President Tyler was heading up the gangway plank towards the deck when he was told that his son-in-law, William Waller, wife of his daughter Elizabeth, was about to sing one of Tyler’s favorite songs.  Instead of heading to the deck, the President headed back into the salon and was handed a drink.  Upstairs, men crowded around the giant Peacemaker for one last firing.

On the deck, Secretary of War William Wilkins jokingly told the spectators, “Though I am Secretary of War, I do not like this firing, and believe I shall run!” before moving to the far side of the Princeton.  The remainder of the guests were close to the Peacemaker and the big gun was ready to be fired.  The Princeton was about 15 miles downriver from Washington, D.C. and two sailors took the final steps for firing the gun.

Instantly, a massive explosion rocked the Princeton and the deck was obscured by white smoke and an eerie silence.  President Tyler rushed up to the deck to investigate what had happened, but what he found was a horrific scene.  The Peacemaker – the largest naval gun in the world – had exploded at the breech.  The powerful explosion tore part of the ship’s deck and the Peacemaker broke into red-hot pieces of iron that flew into the crowd of spectators.  Nobody downstairs was injured, but the deck of the Princeton was a place of horror.  Eight people had been killed and 17 were seriously injured, including Captain Stockton and Senator Thomas Hart Benton.  As President Tyler reached the deck, the silence turned to anguished screams and confusion. 

The President fought through the smoke and found that the toll was high.  Secretary of State Abel Upshur was dead – literally disemboweled by the blast.  Navy Secretary Gilmer was dead.  The Princeton’s Commander Beverly Kennon and two Princeton sailors were dead.  American diplomat Virgil Maxcy was dead.  President Tyler’s slave, Armistead, who had requested and been granted permission from Tyler to view the gun as it was being fired was dead.  And, finally, David Gardiner – the father of the woman that the President hoped to marry – was also killed by the blast, his arms and legs severed from his body by the force of the explosion.  A tearful President was devastated by the loss of two of his Cabinet members, and he headed back down below deck to notify the women about what had happened.  Screaming and crying hysterically, the surviving men kept them off of the deck so that they didn’t see the gruesome scene.

The smoke-filled deck was covered with blood, dismembered limbs, dead bodies, and stunned survivors.  Below decks, the women who had accompanied the Princeton awaited news from above, which quickly trickled downstairs.  Someone yelled, “The Secretary of State is dead!” and the news did not improve.  When Julia Gardiner found out that her father was among those who had been killed in the blast, she fainted – directly into the arms of President Tyler.  Dolley Madison, who had seen much in her 75 years was certainly stunned by the tragedy, but she quickly did her best to comfort the Princeton’s passengers who were shaken and distressed. 

As the USS Princeton limped back to Washington, D.C., John Tyler comforted Julia Gardiner as best as he could.  For the President, his pleasure cruise with the woman he hoped to marry and her father could not have gone worse.  Now, David Gardiner lay in pieces on the deck of the Princeton as Tyler – who was also returning to Washington without a Secretary of State and Secretary of the Navy – tried to console Gardiner’s young daughter, but she remained unconscious until the ship arrived back in Alexandria, Virginia.  

When the Princeton arrived at Alexandria, President Tyler literally carried Julia Gardiner from the wounded warship.  On the gangplank, Julia finally awakened in the President’s arms, and as she later said, “I struggled so that I almost knocked both of us off the gangplank.  I did not know at the time, but I learned later it was the President whose life I almost consigned to the water.”  President Tyler had Julia taken directly to the White House where she spent the next few days recuperating under the watchful eyes of the President and his large family.

The bodies of Julia’s father, the two Cabinet members (Upshur and Gilmer), the Princeton’s Commander Kennon, and the diplomat Maxcy remained on board the Princeton on the night of the 28th.  The injured went to hospitals and homes around the capital city.  The next day, Washington was in official mourning as the word of the tragedy spread and the signs of mourning – black crepe hanging on the White House and other public buildings – were displayed.  As Washington mourned, the bodies of Gardiner, Upshur, Gilmer, Kennon, and Maxcy were transported to the White House, where their flag-draped caskets rested in honor in the East Room.  (It’s safe to assume that President Tyler’s slave wasn’t awarded the same honors – when the bodies were removed from the Princeton, they were all placed in magnificent mahogany caskets, except for Armistead, who was placed in one made from cherry.)

After two days of lying in state in the East Room, Gardiner, Upshur, Gilmer, and Kennon were transferred to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where all of official Washington showed up to pay their respects at their joint funeral (Maxcy’s family took his remains for a private funeral and burial shortly after his body arrived at the Executive Mansion).  It was a solemn occasion – one of the biggest tragedies to strike the United States up to that point, and a significant loss to President Tyler, both professionally and personally.  Tyler was mourning two important members of his Cabinet, and the woman he hoped to marry was burying her father after he had been killed in the most gruesome manner imaginable on a cruise that Tyler had invited him to take.

The funeral started with an ominous and unfortunate signal:  the firing of loud artillery across from the Executive Mansion could not have been a pleasant reminder to those who had survived the tragedy on board the Princeton a few days earlier.  The bodies of Upshur, Gilmer, Kennon, and Gardiner were taken to Congressional Cemetery following the funeral and buried there, although Gardiner was later exhumed and reburied on Gardiner’s Island in New York.  After narrowly escaping death or serious injury on the Princeton a few days earlier, President Tyler found himself in danger once again as he left the funeral.  Traveling through the busy streets of Washington in his horse-drawn carriage, the President’s horses were startled by the crowds and bolted – leaving Tyler helpless in a runaway carriage until a man bravely rushed out from a hotel entrance and helped stop the carriage.


The comfort of President Tyler in the aftermath of her father’s death changed Julia Gardiner’s mind about marrying the much older President.  Tyler had done everything possible to console her and make her feel safe in the days after the Princeton explosion.  Later, Julia would write that, “After I lost my father, I felt differently towards the President.  He seemed to fill the place and to be more agreeable in every way than any younger man was or could be.” While the loss of her father was certainly tragic, John Tyler happened to be in the right place at the right time, and, in a way, David Gardiner’s death may have helped the romance between the President and Gardiner’s daughter.  Several weeks after the Princeton tragedy, Tyler asked Julia’s mother for Julia’s hand in marriage and Mrs. Gardiner approved of the union.

Still, the marriage was not without controversy.  The wedding took place on June 26, 1844, just a few months after the Princeton explosion.  Julia and her family were still in mourning for Mr. Gardiner, so the wedding was solemn and low-key.  Plus, the President’s family – particularly his daughters from his first marriage – were reluctant to accept his new bride.  After all, Tyler’s first wife had died less than two years earlier, and Julia Gardiner was about the same age as Tyler’s daughters; in fact, she was five years younger than Tyler’s oldest daughter.  One more unique aspect of the wedding was that this was the first time an incumbent President of the United States had ever been married while in office.  Normally, it would be blockbuster social news, but the President’s wedding was kept strictly private.

Accompanied only by his son, John Tyler, III, the President and Julia Gardiner were married at the Church of the Ascension in Manhattan (which is still standing today, at Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street in Greenwich Village) on June 26, 1844.  Very few people even knew that the President was in town until after the wedding when they heard the salute from the guns of warships in New York Harbor as he and his new First Lady departed the city (again, maybe firing the guns wasn’t the greatest idea for this particular couple).  According to one of the only eyewitness accounts of the wedding, published in The New York Morning Express the day after the nuptials, the bride was given away by her brother and “robed simply in white, with a gauze veil depending from a circlet of white flowers wreathed in her hair.”  After the ceremony, the wedding party held a dinner at Lafayette Place before the President and Mrs. Tyler departed the city by steamer, staying the night in Philadelphia, before proceeding back to Washington on a special train the next day.

When President Tyler left office in 1845, he and his wife retired to Tyler’s plantation in Virginia, Sherwood Forest.  They had seven children (in addition to the seven surviving children from Tyler’s first marriage) and remained happily married, despite the 30-year age difference between the husband and wife.  In January 1862, the Tylers headed to Richmond for Tyler’s inauguration as a member of the Confederate House of Representatives.  Tyler was the only former President who did not remain loyal to the Union during the Civil War.  On January 18th, the 71-year-old Tyler died in Richmond’s Exchange Hotel, likely due to complications from a stroke and was buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery with Confederate honors.  Widely considered a traitor in the North, official notice of Tyler’s death wasn’t taken until 1915 when Congress finally erected a monument near his grave.

Julia Gardiner Tyler lived until 1889, but two of President and Mrs. Tyler’s grandsons are still living.  With seven children (the last of which died in 1947 – 157 years after John Tyler’s birth!), the Tylers were blessed with a wealth of grandchildren, and Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Jr. (born in 1924) and Harrison Ruffin Tyler (born in 1928) are still alive today.  Harrison Tyler even continues to maintain President Tyler’s beloved Virginia plantation, Sherwood Forest.


As for the USS Princeton, well, it never truly recovered from the Peacemaker explosion.  Captain Robert Field Stockton was absolved of blame for the tragedy and went on to fame in California during the Mexican War (he has a city named after him near Sacramento), and later was elected United States Senator from New Jersey.  The Princeton participated in engagements in the Gulf of Mexico during the Mexican War, but its hull was found to be rotting after the war ended.  It was broken up for scrap in Boston and the Peacemaker’s twin gun – the Oregon – can be seen today on the grounds of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

During World War II, a new USS Princeton was commissioned.  A 622-foot-long aircraft carrier, the new Princeton engaged in action in the Pacific Ocean.  On October 20, 1944 – 100 year after the explosion of the Peacemaker – the modern Princeton was attacked by a Japanese dive bomber in the Leyte Gulf and 108 sailors were killed.  Even the Princeton’s descendants seem to be cursed.

Asker Anonymous Asks:
what are the benefits to self publishing something on amazon kindle?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Well, first of all, there are no rejection letters!

It helps if you have a platform to push your book since you want have a publishing company’s marketing apparatus behind you if you go the e-book route with Amazon and/or Barnes & Noble.  You’ll have to sell every book yourself, so that’s important to remember.

With that said, it is easy to do.  It’s fast.  You can set your own price (and change that price if need be), and you’ll get a bigger percentage of the profits with the royalty rate than you’d get from a publisher.  You’ll definitely be leaving a lot on the table, but you’ll get your work out there, and if you have a platform or work your ass off at plugging your book, you can make money.  You can make money internationally, too.  I just mentioned the other day on Facebook that I’ve been selling more books lately in the United Kingdom than I have been in the United States.  I’ve also had buyers in India, Spain, the Philippines, France, and Japan, among other countries.

It’s not perfect and it’s not easy to make your book standout among the hundreds of thousands of others on Amazon.  But if you find a way, you can definitely sell books and make some money.

I'm about to start on Robert Caro's LBJ books. I assume you've read them because... well, they're presidential biographies. Just wondered what you think of the series.
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

I might have said all of this before, but I think Caro’s study of LBJ is probably the most remarkable biographical work — ever.  In the history of the written word.  

It’s certainly the definitive biography of an American President (and, after four lengthy volumes, it’s still not finished) and probably one of the best studies ever undertaken about the accumulation and exercise of power.  Caro has spent nearly as much time researching and writing about Lyndon Johnson’s life as Lyndon Johnson spent actually living (the first volume was released in 1981).  I mean, take away the fact that the books are about a President (and my favorite President, at that) and I’d still say that it’s probably the greatest work of biography that I’ve ever read.  And I have read a lot of biographies.

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.”

Asker Anonymous Asks:
can you write more of your "original essays"? seems like you haven't written very much lately
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Believe it or not, it’s not that easy to just constantly churn out completely original pieces of writing on history which not only need to be quality work but also need to be accurate and do justice to the subjects being written about. I’d love to post a new essay every day, but it does require some effort and inspiration to put together pieces that usually average between 3,000-5,000 words in length.

Also, I love sharing my work with my readers here on Tumblr and there are dozens of essays on all sorts of people and events readily available for free here on my site, but I haven’t posted everything that I’ve written — particularly over the last 6 to 10 months — on Dead Presidents. I’ve been working on a collection of my writing for publication and I’ve had to hold back some essays so that my book will feature some exclusive new writing. Publishers (and readers) aren’t usually too excited about paying for something that they can get for free by sifting through a blog.

So, it’s not that I’ve stopped writing new essays — and it doesn’t mean that every new thing that I am writing is being saved for my new book. But understand that if I could produce a brand-new, totally original, longform essay on history every single day I would be doing it. (I’d also probably be a far more successful writer!) Unfortunately, this stuff actually requires hard work.

Asker hewest1937 Asks:
I enjoyed your essay "The Paralyzed Presidency Part 1." When will you write a part 2?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Ideally, I would have written Part II about four or five years ago, after I wrote the first part. I should probably remove the “Part I” from the title of that essay because I have no idea if I’ll ever get around to adding to it.

I don’t want to sound all pretentious and talk about “my process”, but I have a really tough time going back to something I previously wrote and trying to rewrite it or pick up where I left off to try to add to it. When I write the essays that you guys read, you’re always reading the first draft. But you’re also reading the finished product because I don’t write second drafts. If I write an essay, it is something that I start, finish, and post in one sitting. If I get stuck or interrupted and don’t finish an essay for some reason, I can’t come back to it later. I could be 4,000 words deep into something, but if I hit a wall or get interrupted, that essay (and usually the idea behind it) is dead. I just delete it. I would be a way better (and more successful) writer if I had more discipline (and an editor), but the only way I know how to tell stories is the way I do it. So that’s why I throw tens of thousands of words away every month and why the sequel to “A Paralyzed Presidency” has spent five years in my own little version of development hell.

If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.

Benjamin Franklin

"Age is creeping inexorably in. I’m only just now beginning to see the first glimpse of what it truly means to be between two natures. I must admit this had always remained an intellectual notion for me for many years. Now I can really feel it. The incredible weakness of my wish & how it is always swallowed up by this adversary of my imagined self — the picture of who I am. This greedy one, never satisfied, always hungry for something ‘more’, something different, something else, something elsewhere. My inclination always is to do battle with this part of myself — to ‘get rid’ of it; to smother it; cast it out somehow but never to simply ‘see’ it. Very difficult. I don’t find it easy at all to accept. It’s hugely seductive &, in fact, such a major part of me I don’t see how I could live without it. Maybe this is the beginning of understanding ‘sacrifice’. I don’t know. At times I feel I’m right on the cutting edge of a whole new understanding & right in that moment I see I’m unwilling to take the leap. Scared maybe; afraid to lose the very aspect of this false self that keeps me in prison." — Sam Shepard, letter to Johnny Dark, August 17, 1998 (From "2 Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark")

"I actually aspired to a respectable position in society. Thank God that didn’t come true. I mean, I guess a writer is one of the best things you could possibly be because no one has a clue how to characterize you. What is a writer? I have been lucky beyond reason — yet still bewildered."
— Sam Shepard, letter to Johnny Dark, January 15, 2009 (From “2 Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark”)

You would be hard-pressed to find many comparisons between Franklin Pierce, 14th President of the United States, and Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States.  Most historians agree that Lincoln is probably the greatest President in American History; a similar amount of historians usually rank Pierce as one of the worst.  Lincoln guided the country through Civil War and to victory; the policies of Pierce’s Administration helped divide the nation and make Civil War a reality.  Despite being born in the South, Lincoln fought during every minute of his Presidency to keep the Union together;  Pierce, born and raised in New Hampshire, was a “doughface” (a Northerner with Southern sympathies), and close friends with Confederate President Jefferson Davis who served as Secretary of War in Pierce’s Administration.  Lincoln died just days after the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox and was immediately considered a martyr by the American public after his death.  After dispersing a crowd that angrily gathered in front of his home following Lincoln’s assassination, Franklin Pierce went back to doing what he had done since leaving the White House in 1857 — drinking himself to death.

There is one thing that links these two men beyond the fact that they were both Presidents during the most divisive period in American History — tragedy.  In the exclusive fraternity of American Presidents, it’s impossible to find two more melancholy individuals than Franklin Pierce and Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln battled deep depression throughout his life and, as a young man in Illinois, Lincoln admitted that he contemplated suicide at times.  During his career as a lawyer riding the Illinois court circuit, Lincoln’s friend Joshua Speed recalls the future President remarking “If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.  Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode that I shall not.  To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”

What troubled Lincoln is difficult to pinpoint.  Before he married Mary Todd, Lincoln was romantically interested in Ann Rutledge, the daughter of a New Salem, Illinois tavern owner.  Lincoln was a frequent visitor to the Rutledge home and was devastated when Ann died of typhoid fever in 1835.  William H. Herndon — Lincoln’s longtime law partner and one of the first biographers of Lincoln — acknowledged that the future President loved Ann Rutledge and that the grieving Lincoln was suicidal in the days and weeks following Ann’s funeral.  Five years after Ann Rutledge’s death, Lincoln and Mary Todd were engaged, and the couple married in 1842.  Mary had a terrible temper and her mental condition was so tenuous that her son, Robert, finally had her committed to an asylum after President Lincoln’s death.  Mary was a lot of things that Lincoln was not — short, overweight, confrontational, insecure, and temperamental.  The marriage was rocky at times, but Lincoln was passionately defensive about charges against his wife.  When Mary lost control and screamed at Lincoln or charged the President with jealous accusations, Lincoln walked away from the fights and always returned to check on Mary’s condition once she cooled down.  For a President trying to save his country from destruction, these personal domestic crises had to be taxing on Lincoln.

To find a bright spot somewhere, Lincoln turned to his children for solace.  Lincoln’s four sons were all born in Springfield, Illinois with Robert Todd Lincoln leading the way in 1843.  By the time of Lincoln’s Presidency, Robert was an adult attending Harvard and he spent the last months of the Civil War on the staff of General Ulysses S. Grant.  The second son, Edward Baker Lincoln, was another source of sadness for the Lincolns.  Edward died at the age of four; an event that left Mary on the brink of breakdown and pushed Lincoln to cherish the next two children, Willie (born in 1850), and Tad (born in 1853).  As President, Lincoln was horrified by dispatches describing the ongoing Civil War, tried to shut out the distractions caused by his unstable wife, and discovered happiness only in those moments where he could play with Willie and Tad.

Willie Lincoln was dedicated to his love for books, much like his father, and it was no secret to anyone that Willie was the President’s favorite child.  Tad was more rambunctious, always into joking and playing around, and Lincoln took great satisfaction from Tad’s affinity for dressing up like the soldiers who protected Washington and the White House from the rebel forces.  Like the Biblical Job, however, Lincoln had to face adversity while persevering relentlessly towards his goal.  In February 1862, Willie Lincoln took ill after riding his beloved pony in chilly weather.  Doctors ordered bed rest and Willie rallied at first, but on February 20th, he died from what is thought to be typhoid fever.  The Lincolns were devastated, Mary was inconsolable and shut herself off from the world for three weeks.  Lincoln worried about Mary while also nursing his youngest son, Tad, who came down with the same illness that killed Willie and was in critical condition himself.  Tad recovered, but Lincoln was at times overcome by sadness.  Every Thursday for several weeks, Lincoln locked himself in the Green Room of the White House, the room where Willie’s body had been laid out and embalmed after he died, and cried for his lost son.  

Throughout his life, Lincoln had loved few things more than reading Shakespeare out loud to family and friends.  After Willie died, the President’s voice would break with emotion and his eyes would be flooded by tears when he recited these lines from King John:  

And, father cardinal, I have heard you say
That we shall see and know our friends in heaven
If that be true, I shall see my boy again 

Though he never shrank from his responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief in the midst of a brutal Civil War, Lincoln confided to others that Willie’s death “showed me my weakness as I had never felt it before.”  Only once more did he feel a pinch of unrestrained happiness and that was on the day that he truly considered the Civil War to finally be over — April 14, 1865.  That night, John Wilkes Booth ended Abraham Lincoln’s suffering.

It was Willie Lincoln’s death in the White House in 1862 that brought Franklin Pierce and Abraham Lincoln the closest that they would ever be.  Men of different political parties, different backgrounds, and different viewpoints on the biggest issue of the day; they were as far apart politically as they were in physical appearance.  Lincoln was described by even his closest friends as “ugly” and his opponents likened him to a “baboon”.  Lincoln wore the same old suit constantly, he rarely took the time to comb his hair, and he didn’t care what people thought of his “style”.  Franklin Pierce looked like a Roman statue come to life.  Pierce had long, curly, jet-black hair that he combed over the side of his forehead, he dressed impeccably, and one historian calls him “perhaps the most handsome President”.  Even President Harry Truman — a vicious detractor of Pierce’s Presidency — called Pierce “the best-looking President the White House ever had” and suggested that he “looked the way people who make movies think a President should look”.

Behind those looks, however, was a man who was as unsuccessful at fighting depression as he was at fighting alcoholism.  Franklin Pierce was ambitious and rose to the Presidency at a younger age than any of his predecessors.  His ambition, however, strained his marriage with Jane Means Appleton, who hated politics and hated Washington, D.C.  Pierce didn’t help the marriage by not consulting with Jane before undertaking a life-changing experience such as accepting the Democratic nomination for President in 1852.  Jane had heard that Franklin was being considered as a compromise choice by the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, but believed that he had no chance against better-known names such as James Buchanan, Lewis Cass, and Stephen A. Douglas.  While out for a carriage ride in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a rider galloped up to the wagon carrying the Pierces with the news that Franklin had won the Democratic nomination.  Franklin smiled excitedly, but Jane nearly passed out.  Pierce had promised that he was done with politics, that they were done with Washington forever, and now it was a near-certainty that he would be elected President of the United States.

Like the Lincolns, the Pierce family had lost two sons at young age.  The first born, Frank Jr., died as an infant, and their second son, Franklin Robert Pierce, died at the age of four.  Their son Benjamin was their only surviving offspring, and they devoted all of their parental love to Bennie.  In times of the deep depression that both Franklin and Jane suffered from, both parents could turn to Bennie for some joy and to remind themselves that not all was lost.  Like his mother, Bennie was shy and unhappy about a potential move to Washington.  Shortly after Pierce won the Democratic nomination, Bennie wrote his mother: “I hope he won’t be elected for I should not like to be at Washington.  And I know you would not be either.”  The hopes and prayers of his wife and his son were in complete opposition to those of Franklin Pierce.  He wanted, more than anything, to be President.  On Election Day, he was granted his wish as he trounced General Winfield Scott on won the Presidential election.

While Franklin prepared to take the reins of the country, Jane and Bennie prepared for the dreaded move into the White House in Washington.  Jane tried her best to project some happiness for Franklin’s sake, and she found some assistance from her religious devotion.  As 1853 began, the Pierces prepared for the move to Washington, D.C. and left New Hampshire in January, deciding to stop in Massachusetts for visits with family and friends before arriving in Washington for the inauguration scheduled on March 4th.

On January 6, 1853, a train carrying the young President-elect, his wife, and their only surviving son left Andover, Massachusetts.  Just a few minutes after departing Andover, the passenger car detached from the train and rolled down an embankment.  None of the passengers including Franklin Pierce and his wife were injured except for one person.  In front of his horrified parents, 11-year-old Benjamin Pierce was thrown from the train and was nearly decapitated as his head was gruesomely crushed.  Bennie Pierce was killed instantly, and his parents would never be the same.

Less than two months later, Pierce was sworn in as President.  The only President who memorized his inaugural address and recited the speech without notes, Pierce started by telling the crowd in front of the U.S. Capitol, “It is a relief to feel that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself.”  Traumatized by Bennie’s death, Jane refused to continue any further towards Washington than Baltimore.  Pierce had to face the Presidency and the mourning period for their son without his wife.  As he told the American public in his inaugural address, “You have summoned me in my weakness; you must sustain me with your strength.”

When Jane finally arrived at the White House, she still didn’t make much of an impact.  People referred to her as “the shadow of the White House” and she frequently closed herself off in an upstairs bedroom where she wrote letters to her dead children and stuffed them in a fireplace.  Jefferson Davis’s wife, Varina, often substituted as White House hostess.  In a way, Jane indirectly blamed her husband for Bennie’s death, claiming that God took Bennie from them so that Franklin would have nothing distracting him from his goals and accomplishments.  When Jane died in 1863, Pierce’s closest friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, said that she was never interested in “things present”.

Franklin’s “accomplishments” were not much.  He had a difficult time saying “no”, and often agreed to go along with the last person he talked to before making a decision.  Pierce was indeed absent of distractions, but he needed some.  The country was being torn apart by the slavery question and the Kansas-Nebraska Act inflamed tensions; it was no longer a matter of debate — in some places, open warfare was breaking out.  The President found his distraction came in the form of a bottle.  President Pierce was an alcoholic and in 1856, his own party refused to consider him for re-election.  As his term ended at the beginning of 1857, Pierce said, “There’s nothing left to do but to get drunk.”  He lived by that motto until his drinking finally killed him in 1869.

During Franklin Pierce’s retirement, he spoke out against Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War itself.  Some called him a traitor, and even his close friends snubbed him.  When Pierce’s friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, died, he wasn’t even allowed to be a pall bearer as Hawthorne requested.  But despite their many differences, Lincoln found himself in a place that only Franklin Pierce knew — mourning a lost child and worrying about an unstable wife while running a divided country.  A few weeks following Willie’s death, President Lincoln received this letter:

Concord N. H.

March 4 1862

My dear Sir,

The impulse to write you, the moment I heard of your great domestic affliction was very strong, but it brought back the crushing sorrow which befel me just before I went to Washington in 1853, with such power that I felt your grief, to be too sacred for intrusion.

Even in this hour, so full of danger to our Country, and of trial and anxiety to all good men, your thoughts, will be, of your cherished boy, who will nestle at your heart, until you meet him in that new life, when tears and toils and conflict will be unknown.

I realize fully how vain it would be, to suggest sources of consolation.

There can be but one refuge in such an hour, — but one remedy for smitten hearts, which, is to trust in Him “who doeth all things well”, and leave the rest to —

“Time, comforter & only healer
When the heart hath broke”

With Mrs Pierce’s and my own best wishes — and truest sympathy for Mrs Lincoln and yourself

I am, very truly,
Yr. friend
Franklin Pierce

The melancholy Presidents — so far apart in each and every other aspect of their lives — could at the very least find companionship, if not comfort, in the other’s strength through painful weakness.

Sam Shepard
"Should He Head North"
Day Out of Days (Knopf, 2010) 

should he head North
to her
climb into bed
with her
and would that make him soon forget
these morning nightmares
and random walks through woods
where he discovers nothing once again
but more of the same superstitions
traces of empty sagas
that don’t work for luck
or anything else
you can put your finger on

would running up there
to her
straight North on 39
erase all that
or just create a whole new set
of lawless circumstances
he’d soon regret
and set him wondering why he’d ever left
the sweet sweet sunny South

he said to himself
in the voice of a man
in the voice of a man inside his chest
who told him in stern tones
things were already changing
for the worse
and it was far far better
to stay right there
sitting in his faded armchair
than to risk the road again
and all its bitter disappointments

and tough it out
between the cattle and the moon

but what if she goes off
and gives up the ghost
of him
falls off the face of the earth
without even a kiss good-bye
that would have to be worse
than risking the highway
one last time
that would have to be much much worse

and watch the next set of possibilities
and fall away
what have you got to lose
but everything
piece by piece
day by day

Asker Anonymous Asks:
you mentioned that you're reading a sam sheppard book and you've brought him up in the past. i've never read his work and am wondering what the appeal is to you since you don't seem to read much fiction?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Sam Shepard is a national treasure.  I know that there are pockets of the literary world that appreciate him, but I still think he is vastly underappreciated overall.  If we take away his very good acting career, he’s still the greatest living American playwright and, in my opinion, the very best when it comes to crafting a short story that grips you, immediately means something, and leaves you wanting more-and-more.  I don’t know any writer — dead or alive — who creates nameless, faceless characters out of thin air and makes you care about them within a few very short paragraphs before allowing them to vanish (and being okay with it — he is never, ever greedy with his stories and characters, he is restrained almost to the point of stinginess). 

As it might be clear from the type of writing that I specialize in, I don’t spend a whole lot of time reading fiction.  I’m more comfortable with non-fiction (particularly when it comes to my own writing), and the main reason for that is because it is real.  I can relate to it so much better because when something is real, I can feel it.  I have a very difficult time when it comes to being touched by fiction.

And the truth is that I always want to feel something.  Personally, I have a difficult time expressing my feelings and accessing my feelings.  Non-fiction — history — makes it easy because I don’t have to spend a lot of time putting my imagination into gear in hopes of triggering certain emotions.  With history, they are often already on the surface — I know where I’m supposed to be going, and that makes it easier to get there.

But when I read Sam Shepard, his words — often simple, unadorned phrases — provoke instinctive, visceral feelings.  I can’t tell if Shepard’s writing is connecting with something deep inside of me, or if his stark language is scalding the very surface of my skin.  Whatever it is, I feel it.  It doesn’t matter how austere the prose, how alien the setting, how foreign the characters, I always feel what Sam Shepard writes, and I can’t say that about any other writer that I have ever read.  I read to learn, but we also all read to feel.  Sam Shepard’s stories don’t always make me smile, but I feel every single piece and they resonate with me long after I close his books.

Decades from now, when I am old(er) and gray(er) and talking about my favorite writers, I’ll be able to say that I read the collected works of John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway and Ambrose Bierce, or learned the poetry of Pablo Neruda — legendary writers who died before I was even born.  I’ll be able to mention that due to my age I caught the tail-end of the careers of Hunter S. Thompson, Gabriel García Márquez, or Yevgeny Yevtushenko — appreciating them once they were already established as literary giants but appreciating no less than what they rightly deserved.  And all of that will be wonderful.  But then I’ll be able to mention that I bought Sam Shepard’s books as they were released — maybe not Hawk Moon, Motel Chronicles, or Fool For Love because I was too young, but that I went to the bookstore (I’ll probably have to explain what that was) and picked up The Unseen Hand and Other Plays, Cruising Paradise, Great Dream of Heaven, and Day Out of Days (and hopefully a few more collections of stories before all is said and done).  I’ll be able to brag that I bought them on the day of the release and pull out my somewhat worn (but hopefully in good condition) first edition copies of these Sam Shepard collections, and someone will look at them with wonder and awe, just like I’d look at first edition copies of The Sun Also Rises or Tortilla Flat or The Beautiful and Damned if someone pulled them out today.

Sam Shepard is on the same level as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, or HST.  The only difference is that Shepard is more versatile as an artist.  Those who don’t know his work might scoff at the comparisons; those who do know his work don’t need any convincing.  But I know one thing for sure — Sam Shepard takes an art form and somehow uses it to create an emotion.

If she could just see me now, she’d be sure to love me, I’ll bet.  I’ll bet she would.  How could she not?  Look at me.  Look at me now.  How I am.  If she could just see me like this — waiting for her, hours early, way before she’s due; watching for any sign or sound of her.  She’d see how eager I was.  She’d see this desperation in my chest.  If she could just see me now, from a distance, without me knowing she’s watching, she’d see me as I really am.  How could she not have some feeling toward me then?  Some — but maybe not.  Maybe that’s — I mean, maybe there’s some repulsion in something like that.  I don’t know how that works exactly but — maybe there’s a — a revulsion of some kind when someone is too eager — too needful, too needy.  I don’t know.  Some — convulsion.  No.  No, that’s not — That’s not it.  That’s not even a word is it?  ”Convulse.” If she could just remember that one time, when was it — that one time back in Knoxville when we were kissing on the train; that long long kiss we had — saying good-bye — and the train suddenly took off from the station but I wasn’t supposed to be going with her; I mean, that’s why we were saying good-bye, thinking we weren’t going to see each other again for a long, long time and we were locked in this long — just kissing and kissing and suddenly the train was moving and there was no way I could get off.  Trees and houses were flashing by.  So they dumped me at the next station, which was miles down the track, and there I was, waiting for hours for the next train back — I mean, if she could have seen me then, just standing there waiting, she’d — she’d be sure to love me.  I mean, how could she not have some — I don’t know.  I don’t know what causes that to happen — that connection — anymore.  If there ever was one.

Sam Shepard, “Convulsion”, Great Dream of Heaven (Vintage, 2003)