Picks and Pans Review: Alice Roosevelt Longworth

updated 03/28/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/28/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Carol Felsenthal

This biography of the eldest child of President Theodore Roosevelt is the first major account of the complex and fascinating woman who for more than 70 years reigned as Washington, D.C.'s grandest of social grandes dames. She was the sort of woman you might want at your dinner party, but never in your family. Beautiful, witty and wild, she was pathologically mean and as funny as she was nasty. She once dismissed her distant cousin Franklin Roosevelt as "a good little mother's boy" and so despised FDR's wife, Eleanor, her first cousin, that she developed a ruthless imitation, thrusting out her upper lip and pulling in her lower one while affecting Mrs. Roosevelt's high-pitched voice. Felsenthal, author of a biography of Phyllis Schlafly, is an unexceptional writer and occasionally lapses into lazy omissions; she mentions the Longworths' first marital fight, for instance, without explaining what it was about. But she provides plenty of colorful details about how Longworth became a Washington institution whose social approval was sought by every President up to Jimmy Carter. There is poetic justice in this, since it was a President who first rejected Alice—her father. Longworth's mother, Alice Hathaway Lee, had died shortly after giving birth to her in 1884. Roosevelt was inconsolable. He went West for two years, leaving the infant with his sister Bamie and offering later to give the baby to her permanently. When he married Edith Carow in 1886, his new wife made him take back Alice, but she proved an unloving, if dutiful, stepmother. Alice later admitted that her Aunt Bamie was "the only one I really cared about when I was a child. She was the single most important influence on my childhood." Both her father and stepmother were traumatized by Alice's rebellious stunts: she shot at telegraph poles from a train, jumped fully clothed into a ship's pool and smoked in public. At 22, Alice married Nicholas Longworth III, a 36-year-old, alcoholic, womanizing Congressman from Ohio who went on to become a popular Speaker of the House. Though wounded by his flamboyant affairs, Alice had a couple of her own, reportedly conceiving daughter Paulina with Sen. Bill Borah of Idaho. Alice proved a worse parent than her father, steamrolling her shy, insecure daughter's personality into oblivion, constantly criticizing and bullying her. Longworth also damaged whatever memories Paulina had of her doting "father" Nick by denigrating him after he died in 1931 from pneumonia. It was only after Paulina committed suicide in 1957 that Longworth faced up to what a monster she had been. At 73 Alice became a born-again mother, devoting herself to her 10-year-old orphaned granddaughter, Joanna, whose father Alex Sturm had died in 1951. Felsenthal effectively demonstrates the counterpoint that Longworth's sharp wit played to the events that shaped her life. When she had her second mastectomy at 86, Alice quipped, "Well, isn't it lucky it's me and not Brigitte Bardot." After she died in 1980 at 96, President Carter eulogized this American original: "She had style, she had grace and she had a sense of humor that kept generations of political newcomers to Washington wondering which was worse—to be skewered by her wit or to be ignored by her." (Putnam's, $19.95)

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