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Friday, October 15, 2010

GO ASK ALICE

I wonder how Alice felt when they called her “The Other Washington Monument.” The best nicknames are half jokes and half true, and the truer they are the funnier they are. Her first nickname had been “Princess Alice”, and her second had been bestowed by the press, who dubbed her “Alice in Plunder Land”. And to her credit Alice always got the joke, and always cackled in public. She was tough. When she was a little girl Alice contracted polio, leaving one leg shorter than the other. Her stepmother mercilessly forced the screaming child to painfully exercise her legs, day after day. So dutiful about this was her stepmother, that into her eighties Alice could touch her nose with her toe. Alice was proud of that, but it never earned her a nickname.
“One pill makes you larger, And one pill makes you small. And the ones that mother gives you, Don't do anything at all. Go ask Alice, When she’s ten feet tall.”
(Grace Slick – 1966)
Alice was born into the world with a silver spoon in her mouth, the first child of Alice Hathaway Lee and Teddy Roosevelt. Her inheritance turned to tin just two days her brith when her mother and her paternal grandmother both died on the same day. Father Teddy was so shattered that he never spoke his dear wife’s name again. That also meant he never spoke Alice’s name again, either. Teddy loved his child, and showered her with gifts, but he called her “Baby Lee” and he called her “Mousiekins”, but he never called her Alice. So deep was that scarring that Alice never referred to herself by her first name, either. And Alice was always talking about herself.
Teddy mended his grief by hunting grizzlies in the Black Hills, and Alice was left with her aunt, Anna Bamie Roosevelt. In her autobiography Alice noted, “There is always someone in every family who keeps it together. In ours, it was Auntie Bye.” But she also said that “If auntie Bye had been a man, she would have been president.” And Alice should know. Her father was President. When Alice was two her father remarried, to an English woman named Edith Carow, and Alice was sent to live with them. Edith and Teddy would have five children together. As Alice saw things, her father loved her “one-sixth as much as he loved his other children.”
“And if you go chasing rabbits, And you know you're going to fall, Tell them a hookah smoking caterpillar has given you the call. Call Alice, When she was just small”.
Alice grew into the physical embodiment of a John Singer Sargent painting, with a striking beauty, a vicious sense of humor and a first rate brain, allowing her to view the world with what she called a “"detached malevolence”
Her entire life Alice kept one gift, a pillow embroidered with the phrase, “If you can’t say something nice about anyone, come sit by me.” She had a simple philosophy; “Fill what's empty. Empty what's full. Scratch where it itches.” “The secret of eternal youth,” she said, “is arrested development.” And Alice should know.
“When the men on the chess board, Get up and tell you where to go. And you just had some kind of mushroom, And your mind is moving slow. Go ask Alice. I think she'll know.”
To Alice, all politics was personal, and everything personal was political. On the day that William Howard Taft was to replace her father in the White House, Alice lay a voodoo curse on Mrs. Taft by burning her effigy and burying it on the White House grounds. She said of Calvin Coolidge, “He looks like he was weaned on a pickle.” And Warren G. Harding’s White House simply appalled her; “…the study was filled with cronies, the air heavy with tobacco smoke, trays with bottles containing every imaginable brand of whiskey stood about, cards and poker chips ready at hand--a general atmosphere of waist-coat unbuttoned, feet on the desk, and the spittoon alongside.” Teddy’s White House was clearly superior in every way, in Princess Alice’s eyes.
Not that she made life easy for her father. When he was President, Alice constantly burst into the Oval Office with advice, until Teddy threatened to throw her out a window. Teddy explained to a visitor, “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.” And Alice had no illusions about her father. “He wants to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the baby at every christening, ” she said. It could have been used as the sketch of every successful politician, before and since.
Alice disliked Eisenhower, admired the Kennedys, tolerated Johnson, felt warm affection toward Nixon, and refused to even meet Jimmy Carter. But the President she disliked the most was her cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, noting that his branch of the family were “one step ahead of the bailiff from an island in the Zuider Zee.” She explained, “I am a Republican.... I am going to vote for Hoover.... If I were not a Republican, I would still vote for Mr. Hoover this time.” Later, she insisted, “I'd rather vote for Hitler than to vote for (F.D.R.)”, thus becoming the first Republican to use a Hitler analogy against a Democrat.
“When logic and proportion, Have fallen sloppy dead. And the white knight is talking backwards, And the Red Queen's “Off with her head!” Remember what the dormouse said.”
It took me a long time to understand why Alice married Ohio Congressman Nicholas Longworth. Her 1906 nuptials set the standard for White House weddings. But he was fourteen years her elder, a dedicated alcoholic and a prodigious Lothario. He was also socially skilled and very wealthy.
Still, it was difficult to imagine her enthralled with him, until I came across the story told of a fellow congressman who ran his hand over Nicholas’s bald head, saying, “It feels as smooth as my wife’s bottom.” Whereupon Nicholas ran his own hand over his head, and announced, “Yes, so it does.” A sense of humor can make almost any sin bearable.
It was not marital infidelity that separated the couple, it was political infidelity In 1912, Nicholas supported Taft’s re-election, while Alice, of course, supported Teddy’s run under the Bull Moose banner. Teddy lost. But so did Nicholas, by a mere 100 votes. It was also during this period that Alice conceived her only child, Paulina. Nicholas lost that election, too. He never let on that he knew Paulina was not his, and he loved his daughter for the rest of his life. He was  re-elected in the next cycle, and would eventually become Speaker of the House. So Alice was lucky, there.
 Nicholas died in 1932. And at his funeral someone asked Alice if she also intended on being buried in Cincinnati. Alice replied that would be a fate worse than death itself. When she died in 1980, Alice’s remains were buried in Washington, D.C.
“Feed your head. Feed your head.”
In her autobiography, Alice wrote of her stepmother Edith’s “fairness and charm and intelligence, which she has to a greater degree than almost any one else I know.” It was almost, but not quite, an acknowledgement of what a pain Alice had been to her stepmother . And it was certainly not an anpology. As far as I can tell, Alice never apologized to anyone.
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1 comment:

  1. This is a remarkable blog! Why aren't you advertising more so that you get readers? Really great stuff. And funny!

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