`My purest queen...' Teddy Roosevelt's love letters to Alice Lee show the Rough Rider's softer side

Theodore Roosevelt met his first wife, Alice Lee, while he was a student at Harvard. He courted her for 15 months, then married her after graduation. About two years later, Alice died, a few days after giving birth to a daughter. After this tragic event, Roosevelt never mentioned her again.

Curiosity that is unsavory in relation to one who is alive is perfectly respectable if the person Belongs to History.

That's what you say to yourself, trying not to breathe on the glass as you squint to decipher a faded Victorian hand. In this case, the Victorian hand is visible in 23 letters from Theodore Roosevelt and 16 from Alice Lee, a recent gift from their great-granddaughter, Joanna Sturm, on display here at Harvard's Pusey Library.

Together with Roosevelt's diaries and some photographs, they shed light on a hitherto unseen Teddy Roosevelt, a romantic, fervent, totally heart-smitten young man.

In his diary, Nov 28, 1878, for instance, he writes: ``As for pretty Alice Lee, I think her one of the sweetest, most ladylike girls I have ever met.'' The next two pages are torn out, and 14 months later we learn why:

``I have been nearly crazy over my wayward willful darling. But I do not think any outsider suspected it; I have not written one word of it in my diary since a year ago Thanksgiving. It was a real case of love at first sight, and my first love to[o].''

``He gathered together materials relating to this incident in his life and saw that they were handed on,'' notes Harvard curator Wallace Dailey, explaining the importance of the new collection. ``The news value of this is that this is material that was thought to be lost,'' he adds, leading the way down the Pusey Library's modern white corridor to three modest glass cases where some letters in faded ink and a number of stiffly posed and properly Victorian photographs are on view.

Roosevelt, referred to in press materials as Theodore Roosevelt, Class of 1880, left his presidential memorabilia to the Library of Congress, but many personal items are here. ``We have all his other diaries: his childhood, Harvard years, out West, several when abroad in Africa and Europe, and the diary he kept during the Spanish-American war,'' Mr. Dailey says.

Young TR does not look like the public Teddy, with the showman's grin under triumphant mustaches, glasses aglitter as he charges up San Juan Hill. Here he is in knee breeches, and with something fairly prominent about the chin; he looks as if he's going to play a part in the chorus in an amateur version of ``Pirates of Penzance.'' In the more conventional class photo, he looks a clean-featured young man who could go to Harvard today, minus the mutton-chop whiskers.

Friends refer to his ``wild spirits'': high jinks include stealing away of a Saturday with Alice and her patient friend, Rose Saltonstall, to have a pair of extremely solemn portraits taken. TR signs a letter planning this gay escapade, ``Your fellow conspirator, Thee.''

``Only the Lee family called him Teddy or Teddykins,'' says Dailey. ``He was `Teedy' as a child, and then `Thee' as a young man. After she [Alice Lee] died, he had a real aversion to that name. I'm sure he got used to seeing himself referred to that way in the papers, but he never allowed anyone to call him that to his face. It's unavoidable to make the connection.''

Courtship included dances at the Hamilton Hall Assembly in Salem, Mass. Rose Lee Gray (Alice's sister) commented to biographer Carleton Putnam: ``He danced just as you'd expect he'd dance if you knew him -- he hopped.''

The more you read of the letters, the more you are drawn into another world. There is, for instance, the correspondence between Alice and her future mother-in-law, in which the latter congratulates Alice on having ``won [Roosevelt's] noble heart.'' To which Alice responds, ``Feeling so unworthy of a noble man's love makes me feel I do not deserve it at all.'' And in a letter, he writes to Alice: ``My purest queen, no man was worthy of your love.''

A charming passage from Teddy: ``I love you so and have such trust in your love for me. I know you love me so that you will like to be married to me -- for you will always be your mistress and mine too.''

```Baby' is a way he refers to her,'' says Dailey, reading aloud a passage from a post-wedding letter: ```Darling pretty pink Baby is sitting beside me with bewitching little bows and laces on, reading Varda' -- a romance novel of the time.'' He points out a note in tiny script, which Roosevelt added after his wife's death: ```She was so young and innocent that I used often to call her my baby wife, but she added to her pretty innocence the sweetness and strength of a true woman.'

``Clearly he felt uncomfortable leaving the record as it was,'' Dailey says.

Alice was certainly sweet ``but not spineless, I would say,'' Dailey adds, going over to a photo of the Roosevelts' New York house, with Gothic carving and tiger rug. He points to a note from Alice to TR's sister: ```Corinne, Teddy's here; come and share him.'

``That's rather poignant, I think.''

After the baby was born, Teddy's aunt recalls telling the child: ``You ought to have been a little boy.''

``I love a little girl,'' Alice replied.

``After she died, he went West and became a cowboy, and had that famous encounter with a bear,'' says Dailey.

The daughter, who became a Washington grande dame under the name of Alice Roosevelt Longworth (``If you can't say anything good about someone, sit right here by me''), characterized her mother as ``charming and frivolous and rather hideously Dickensian -- Little Dora, the child bride, in fact ...''

In another passage, Alice Longworth says: ``...then there was that awful sentimentality about the concept that you loved only once and you never loved again,'' describing her father -- who remarried very quickly, to Edith Kermit Carow -- as having paced the floor, saying to himself: ``I have no constancy, I wish I could be constant.''

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