On October 18, 1878, a nineteen-year-old Theodore Roosevelt met Alice Hathaway Lee, a sixteen-year-old girl from Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts who is described in all accounts as charming, feminine, and impossibly beautiful. Roosevelt, writing in his pocket diary, reflected that, “As long as I live, I shall never forget how sweetly she looked, and how prettily she greeted me.” By Thanksgiving of that year, the impetuous boy from New York City had decided he would marry her; by June of 1879, he had proposed.
But Alice did not acquiesce to Theodore’s invitation to marriage. The reason for her refusal is unknown, but a school friend of Alice’s claimed that Teddy was “studious, ambitious, eccentric – not the sort to appeal at first.” Yet he was also dogged, and he recruited his well-liked mother and sisters, with whom he was very close, to help court Alice.
Eight months later, on February 14th, 1880, she said yes. Teddy spent the day and night with Alice’s family before returning home to announce the engagement to his relatives and friends. That night, as he did throughout his life, he set down his thoughts in his pocket diary.
“She is so marvelously sweet, and pure and lovable 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.”
The couple was married on October 27, 1880, Teddy’s twenty-second birthday.
The first three and a half years of the marriage were blissful. By February 1884, Teddy was mounting an ambitious campaign for Speaker of the New York State Assembly, and Alice was nine months pregnant with the couple’s first child.
On February 6th, he wrote to her:
“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 now, my wife. I just long for Friday evening when I shall be with you again.”
On February 11th, Roosevelt adjourned his committee investigation into government corruption and boarded the train to Manhattan, teeming with anticipation to see the birth of his first child. As he arrived the following morning, Teddy was told that the baby may still be a few days away, and he returned to Albany to continue work.
At the capitol the next morning, he received a telegram: Alice was “doing only fairly well.” Then a second telegram sent Teddy rushing back to the station and onto the next train to New York City.
The streets were frigid and layered with fog as Teddy ran down the cobbled alleyways to his house on West 57th street. He arrived to find his wife gravely ill upstairs, weakened by a protracted childbirth and succumbing to an undiagnosed case of kidney failure. Downstairs, his forty-eight-year-old mother, Mittie, had caught typhoid fever. It was the fourth anniversary of his engagement.
On the morning of February 14th, 1884, Teddy Roosevelt’s mother and wife each passed away in his Manhattan home.
In that day’s entry to his ever-present pocket diary, Teddy scrawled an “X” above a single devastating sentence: “The light has gone out of my life.”
My summary of a passage from Theodore Rex, the capacious second volume of Edmund Morris’s Theodore Roosevelt trilogy. (A thanks to my friend G. who relayed this story to me several months ago as we were discussing resilience in our ‘Political Leadership’ course.)
Following the joint funeral service of Alice and Mittie, those closest to Theodore feared he had permanently lost his sanity. A state assemblyman in Albany remarked, “Never in my many years here have I stood in the presence of such a sorrow as this”; Teddy’s ex-tutor, Arthur Cutler, observed that, “Theodore is in a dazed, stunned state. He does not know what he does or says.”
Edmund Morris delves deeper into Theodore’s psyche, surmising that,
“Like a lion obsessively trying to drag a spear from its flank, Roosevelt set about dislodging Alice 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.'”
Driven by this enormous deprivation, the twenty-seven-year-old Roosevelt packed his belongings, left his young daughter in the care of a relative, and moved to the Badlands of the then barely-settled Dakota territory, where he would learn to ride Western style, rope steer, and hunt bison. He also built a ranch, “Elk Horn,” thirty-five miles north of the boomtown of Medora, North Dakota. There he hunted, read the classics of world literature (most notably Tolstoy), wrote three books on life in the wilderness, and acted as Deputy Sheriff for three years.
He would return to New York, remarry, and restart his political career with a vengeance, eventually settling into the Oval Office for two terms. But never again would the name “Alice” pass his lips.
Morris writes in Theodore Rex:
“With the exception of two brief, written valedictories to Alice – one private, one for limited circulation among family and friends – there is no record of Roosevelt ever mentioning her name again…
When, as ex-President, he came to write his Autobiography, he wrote movingly of the joys of family life, the ardor of youth, and the love of men and women; but he would not acknowledge that Alice ever existed.”
The daughter of Alice, Alice Lee, is pictured along with Teddy and his second wife and family. She is the teenage girl in the center of the frame.