'Alice' was anything but old hat

Historian Stacy Cordery takes on the life of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, 'an early-model bad girl.'

Almost as much as her witty barbs, Alice Roosevelt Longworth was known for her wide-brimmed, colorful hats. They were so big that Lyndon Johnson complained they got in the way whenever he tried to kiss her. "That, Mr. Johnson, is why I wear them," replied the most famous daughter of a chief executive in history.

Longworth, known by her first name and her last bon mot, wasn't demure about much other than presidential smooches. Lively, independent, and deeply intelligent, she parlayed her fame into decades of life as perhaps the most quotable American of her time. As historian Stacy A. Cordery puts it in Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker, her new biography, Alice was "an early-model bad girl who snarled instead of smiled, who spoke up rather than shut up, and who surrounded herself with men and women of ideas rather than a house full of children."

As Cordery points out, Longworth grew up in an era when women didn't smoke or drive those new-fangled automobiles. Or, at least they didn't until Alice came along.

Her beauty, grace, and caution allowed her to be famous but not infamous, unlike today's tabloid celebrities. Americans seemed to enjoy her transgressions, as did foreign countries that vied for her attention during diplomatic trips on behalf of her father, President Theodore Roosevelt. (For his part, he once famously said he could run the country or manage Alice, but not both.)

As she moved into middle age, "Princess Alice" found a career of sorts as Washington D.C.'s dowager queen., Known as "Mrs. L," courted by politicians and journalists, and loved by the public, she became a unique American icon, Mark Twain in a stunning gown.

Like most quotable people, she didn't actually say everything attributed to her. But the real quotes came fast and made people furious as she skewered friends and foes alike, including other Roosevelts. As her needlepoint pillow said, "If you haven't got anything good to say about anybody, come sit next to me."

On the other hand, she could be a loyal friend to those she liked, from her beloved Republican Party to the feminists and gays who found her an ally in later life.

A reader could happily enjoy a book full of her witticisms, excerpts from her memoirs, and tales of her escapades. But Cordery writes that underneath there was a troubled, vulnerable human being," a girl who grew up without her mother and with little understanding from either her hard-charging father or her prim-and-proper stepmother.

She "became bigger than life – no matter how hollow or lonely she may have been – as a self-defense mechanism," Cordery writes.

Longworth's life was filled with tragedy. Her parents and several siblings died early, as did others close to her, including her husband, a congressman turned House speaker who found comfort in alcohol and women. Despite the losses, Longworth's personality, both generous and no-nonsense, remained at full strength. Heaven help those who failed to get with her program, especially a few hapless first ladies.

Cordery has created a voluminous work, full of detail and sharp-minded analysis. But the book lacks Longworth's wit and verve, taking the "other Washington monument," as some called her, more seriously than she took herself.

Like her distant and oft-estranged relative Eleanor Roosevelt, Longworth lived in a time when women in the nation's capital mostly made waves "behind the throne," as Cordery puts it. Some turned to do-gooding while Longworth (called the "anti-Eleanor" by one wag) politicked in the newspaper, the parlor, and – perhaps – the bedroom. (In private, she carried on a passionate affair with an Idaho senator who pulled out of a presidential race, apparently out of fear that the relationship would become public. Ah, those were the days.)

Despite Cordery's efforts, it's a bit of a stretch to call Longworth a "power broker." She was more observer than major player, and her tart tongue and "supreme indifference to public opinion," as one acquaintance put it, would have snuffed any bid for public office.

But she certainly did garner influence and respect, two valuable commodities that she never squandered.

As Cordery notes, there was some mildly serious talk of Longworth being a Republican vice presidential candidate way back in 1928. Many considered the prospect to be a joke.

But she stuck around in Washington for 52 more years, managing to have the last laugh – and many more besides.

[Editor's note: The original version misspelled Ms. Cordery's name.]

Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.

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