Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Love Stories of Theodore Roosevelt

Front page of the New York Times, January 7, 1919

For several decades in American politics, all roads led to Oyster Bay, N.Y.   There stood the home of Theodore Roosevelt, a sprawling wooden house with deep porches named Sagamore Hill.   

He presided over it for 33 years, even while he was off being Civil Service Commissioner, New York City Police Commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a Rough Rider, Governor of New York State, Vice President, and – of course –a larger-than-life President. 

Just before he died, he turned to his wife and said, “I wonder if you will ever know how much I love Sagamore Hill.”

Postcard, 1890s

Theodore had purchased the land in 1880, 155 acres overlooking Oyster Bay, the same year he graduated from Harvard and married “my own sweet, pretty darling” on his 22nd birthday.  He intended to build a home for a large family.  

He hired architects to design a 22-room Queen Anne-style house, to be called Leeholm after his doll-like bride, Alice Lee Roosevelt.  But Alice died in childbirth in February 1884, after delivering a daughter whom Theodore named for her mother.  Coincidentally, Theodore’s own mother, Martha, died the same day. 

Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt

Grief-stricken, he left the baby in the care of his sister, Bamie, and stormed off to the Dakota Territory believing that happiness had fled his life forever. 

Before the harrowing departure, TR, as he would be known, ordered construction of the house to proceed.  But now it was to be called Sagamore Hill instead of Leeholm. 

During the next year, TR spent most of his time out west at his ranch on the Little Missouri River.  He did not wish to see the beautiful child who reminded him of the wife he had lost. He could not bear to live in the house he had promised Alice Lee.  His political future – he had been a fledgling state assemblyman – was uncertain.  

Theodore Roosevelt, Dakota Territory, mid-1880s

And yet, by late 1885, everything changed.  Incapable of living outside the arena, Theodore had moved back east, taken up residence at Sagamore Hill, and become acquainted with his precocious daughter. 

Perhaps most significantly, he and his childhood sweetheart, Edith Carow, had started to meet in secret and made plans to marry.  This caused TR equal parts of exhilaration and agony.  Notwithstanding his generally progressive outlook, he was a Victorian at heart.  In the pages of his diary, he accused himself of inconstancy. 

But he and Edith were passionately in love.  “You know all about me darling,” Edith told Theodore.  “I never could have loved anyone else.”

Edith Carow, newly engaged to TR, exuded
confidence even while dressed in an unflattering hat.

They married in London in 1886.  When they returned from Europe, Edith insisted that little Alice join their family.   Five more children would follow.  They all grew up together at Sagamore Hill, when they weren’t living in Albany or Washington, D.C.

Wherever “Father” went, excitement followed: riding horses, hiking, swimming, tennis; entertaining visitors, debating, reading aloud, and mischief.   It was always “Edie,” however, at the center of his life.

The Roosevelt family, without Alice, around 1900

Many years later Alice Roosevelt reported that Edith, who could be very catty, once told her that TR would have been bored to death if his first wife, Alice, had lived.

Most likely Edith spoke the truth.  After all, she had proof.    

While Edith destroyed every love letter that passed between herself and Theodore, evidently there was one that she could not bear to burn.  It emerged from hiding during the late 1970s when the writer Sylvia Jukes Morris was researching the first scholarly biography of Edith Roosevelt.  Theodore had sent it to his wife in 1914. 

The story goes that TR, deeply disappointed by his failed Bull Moose bid for the presidency in 1912, asked his son, Kermit, to join him on an ill-considered expedition down the 950-mile River of Doubt in Brazil.  They embarked on the disastrous trip in 1913.  Battling malaria, dysentery and infection in the Amazon wilderness, Theodore at one point begged to be left behind to drink the poisonous contents of a vial he had brought along.

He wrote to Edith:

Oh, sweetest of all sweet girls, last night I dreamt that I was with you, and that our separation was but a dream; and when I waked up it was almost too hard to bear.  Well, one must pay for everything; you have made the real happiness of my life; and so it is natural and right that I should [be] constantly more and more lonely without you . . .  Darling, I love you so. . . .  How very happy we have been for these 23 years!

TR did not drink the poison, but he returned to the U.S. with his body wrecked.  While he continued his interest in politics and wrote prolifically, his life quieted.  And then, in July 1918, the Roosevelts’ youngest son, Quentin, was killed in aerial combat over France.

“How am I going to break it to Mrs. Roosevelt?” TR asked the reporter who had brought the news to Sagamore Hill. 

Less than six months later, “the old lion,” as one of his sons described him, died at the age of 60.  Now nearly 100 years have passed, and the anniversary of TR’s death falls on January 6, 2019.   It will be interesting to see how the centennial is recognized.

He lived a life of intellect, sorrow, and error . . . inquiry, imagination, and more.  There is much to admire and much to criticize.  Today, some historians believe that he showed symptoms of hypomania, which explains his restlessness, recklessness, and productiveness.  

Having studied him informally for many years, I find his intense love of people and places more and more compelling.  Time and again, those deep attachments helped Theodore Roosevelt to right his own world.  Unironically they failed him -- one of the great warmongers of his age -- only with the senseless loss of his beloved son.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Puzzling Out the Klan at Smith College

Smith College yearbook, 1907

The women of Smith College, class of 1907, enlisted in all kinds of activities.  Sororities, sports clubs, literary and drama societies . . .   

Also that year – just that one year – 17 of them belonged to a campus chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

The group designed its own yearbook page with an illustration by one of the members, Elizabeth Bishop Ballard.  Like the other women, Elizabeth was born in 1885.  She liked to write poems and had contributed several to the famous children’s monthly, the St. Nicholas Magazine, when she was a little girl.

Located in Northampton, Mass., amidst the Berkshire Mountains, Smith College was founded in 1871 by a young woman named Sophia Smith who had inherited a fortune from her brother.  After much deliberation, she decided to create a women’s college that would have the distinction of not being modeled after a seminary.*

With its faculty of eminent scholars who taught the classics, the Bible, sciences, philosophy, languages, history, and economics, Smith was an unlikely place for the Klan.  Led by a progressive theologian, L. Clark Seelye, the college drew the daughters of privilege from the East Coast, Upper Midwest and Mountain States.  None of the members of Smith’s Klan chapter came from the South.  So what explains the group’s presence?

Smith College entrance, 1907

In the course of American history, the Klan was most active during three periods: during Reconstruction, which ended in 1877; during the 1920s when the organization’s resurgence was largely a reaction to immigration and urbanization; and during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.

One might argue that the Klan became less active between 1900 and 1918, as reflected in an overarching decline in the number of lynchings of Southern black men during those years.  Any numerical decrease, however, would hardly indicate real change.

That is because Jim Crow – the racial apartheid laws which ensured the disenfranchisement, dehumanization and segregation of Southern blacks – was flourishing.  In the South, daily life remained brutal and fraught with terror for nonwhite citizens. 

In the North, racial prejudice was expressed less openly although it permeated daily life.  Many stereotypes originated with the educated white upper class, which popularized the degradation of black people.  Throughout the Progressive Era, books, music, film, and theater ridiculed blacks, on one hand, and romanticized the Old South, on the other.

Mass culture, starting to rear its head during the first decade of the twentieth century, perpetuated racism.

For example, during this time, fashionable reading included a trilogy that sentimentalized the Klan, written by Thomas Dixon, Jr., a North Carolinian novelist.  The third volume, The Traitor, A Story of the Fall of the Invisible Empire, appeared in 1907.  It followed The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905).  The latter would be turned into a popular film, Birth of a Nation, directed by D. W. Griffith.**

Also between 1901 and 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt and his wife arranged White House performances of “coon songs.”  The German diplomat Baron Speck von Sternburg and TR’s Secretary of State, John Hay (once President Lincoln’s private secretary) were among the guests who applauded “You’se Just a Little Nigger, Still Youse Mine, All Mine,” and the like. 

Still, could the lives of the women who joined Smith’s Klan chapter contain clues to its existence on campus?

The group’s president, and probably its founder, was a New Yorker named Millicent Vaughan Lewis.  After graduating from college, she became one of the “Ladies of Grecourt,” the original Smith College Relief Unit that volunteered in the Somme during the summer of 1916.  After returning from Europe, Millicent became active in The Robin’s Nest, a home for convalescing children in suburban New York City.  She died in 1963.  

Millicent Vaughan Lewis, 1907

Ethel Mildred Baine and her husband, Charles, ran a cattle ranch in a small Arizona town called Willcox, which was established in 1880 by the Southern Pacific Railroad.   

Carmen Crittenden Mabie married an engineer, a graduate of West Point who worked for the Federal Government.  The couple died young in 1928, victims of a car accident on Highway 60 outside Encino, N.M.   
Lulu Morley Sanborn married a mining engineer, the president of his class at West Point, who had established himself as a reckless though reliable entrepreneur in Argentina, Colombia, and Ecuador.  He died in Brazil in 1958, but Lulu’s trail is cold.  It’s not even clear whether she moved to Latin America with her husband.

Nothing in particular points to why these women embraced the Klan.  I conclude that the brief existence of this campus organization reflected both frivolity and the type of rationalized prejudice toward black Americans that extended to all minority groups, and persists today.

Illustration from Thomas Dixon's
1905 novel, The Clansman

*Before 1871, all women’s colleges in the U.S. had started as female seminaries. 
**In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson screened the film at the White House.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Runaway

He ran away from this house in a suburb of New York City. 

The boy took off just after the school year ended, leaving a prim village in the New York City suburbs and heading west.  It was 1925, the crash was four years off, and in his pocket was the not insignificant sum of $40.

Kenneth left a note of explanation for his parents.  He had been up to some mischief, trespassing at the pool of a wealthy neighbor, and he didn’t want to face the humiliation of apology and punishment.  Please leave me alone, he added.

Kenneth’s father, advertising manager for the American Tobacco Company, offered a $5,000 reward.  His mother was said to be prostrated and in serious condition. 

Stylized portrait of Kenneth's father

Just outside Pittsburgh, an executive with the Hillman Coal and Coke Company picked up the 15-year old hitchhiker, bought him dinner at the local YMCA, and dropped him at the Salvation Army Home nearby.  Later he realized that the boy was Kenneth Penrod, the object of a nationwide search.  The following day, he wrote matter-of-factly to the father on Hillman company letterhead:

“Thursday your son was to leave for Columbus, and on to Chicago.  I did not get the impression that he had informed his parents of the proposed trip.  However, I am sure that you need not worry, as he is able to take of himself and was in good spirits.”

As Kenneth continued his journey, he spent a few days working on a farm in Ohio.  “Yes I can do farm work, chores, and I know how to take care of horses, harrow corn, and do other things about a place.  I got up at sunrise and quit work at dark.  I was to get $3.50 a day,” he would tell a reporter, triumphantly.

Original Lincoln Highway marker
Kenneth had hoped to stick to the Lincoln Highway from Philly to Pittsburgh to Chicago and onward.  But he strayed to the small city of Kenton, Ohio, where he got a lift from a truck driver named Carter, who recognized the boy from a newspaper photo and took him to the police in Cleveland, three hours away.  The next night, Kenneth’s father arrived by train to bring his son back to New York. 

There, much would be hashed out. 

When Kenneth was born in Omaha in 1909, his parents had been married a scant year and his father had already launched a career in advertising.  This profession was a very good choice.  As mass culture developed, radio, cars, film, music, and fashion – not to mention the Book-of-the-Month Club – drove modern entertainment and consumption. 

Billboards proliferated along with automobiles during
the first decade of the twentieth century 

In Omaha, the father made his name working for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, where he helped create the market for roadside billboards.  Then he jumped to the tobacco industry, which took the family away from his wife’s Nebraska clan, first to Chicago and then New York.  By that time a daughter, Helen, had come along.  She was six and Kenneth was nine when they arrived in the affluent one square-mile village located a half-hour from Grand Central Terminal.

But Kenneth became deeply unhappy.  He remembered halcyon days in Omaha with aunts, uncles, and cousins all around.  He missed the easy Nebraska summers spent at the family’s country estate at Papillion, a small city with unpaved streets whose name derived from the French word for butterfly, papillon.  French fur traders were among its early settlers. Through it ran the Papio Creek, a tributary of the Missouri River; full of fish and prone to flood.

Unsurprisingly, after the swimming pool incident, Kenneth made his plan to go to Nebraska.

Kenneth in Papillion,
Nebraska (summer 1925)

But now he found himself in New York again, negotiating with his parents.  Finally, the father agreed to let Kenneth and Helen visit his wife’s family for a few weeks.  But something would have to be done about Kenneth’s schooling, he warned, for it seemed that more problems would ensue.

In Papillion, Warner smiled for a local photographer and sat for a newspaper interview.  “It’s great to be out here again – it’s just like coming home,” he said.  “I may even go to high school here in the fall.”

“When a fellow feels like that about a place, you can hardly blame him for making a run for it – now can you?” the reporter wrote.  He noted Kenneth’s blond hair and athletic ability.

Meanwhile, Kenneth’s father made plans for him to attend a boys’ boarding school in New Jersey.  In late August he drove Kenneth to Blairstown.  They talked with the headmaster and walked around the grounds.  After a few hours the father said goodbye to his son.   

One month later, Kenneth developed acute gangrenous appendicitis.  The local surgeon operated on him but he died five days later.

Part of this sad tale took place in a house where we once lived.  I keep wondering which room was Kenneth’s; where he stared out the window toward Nebraska.   

"It's just like coming home"

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Armistice Turns 100

We took these photographs on a cold rainy day at the Somme Battlefields, in June 2016. 

That year marked the centennial of the Battle of the Somme, which actually comprised a series of bloody trench-warfare battles between the British and French armies, and the armies of the German Empire.  

Across nearly five months, three million soldiers fought and more than one million were killed or wounded.  On the first day of the battle, the British suffered 57,470 casualties, of which 19,240 were fatalities.  Most historians agree that neither side won.

As is the case in many World War I cemeteries, more than one thousand of the headstones bear the inscription, A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God

Here are two quotations that I like.

Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected.  Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends. 

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.**

*Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975).
**Last verse of MCMXIV, by British poet laureate Philip Larkin (1964).

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The First Lady is upstairs today

Now that the White House has celebrated Halloween, Melania Trump will retreat once more to the second-floor family residence.  Apart from the turkey pardon and Christmas parties, she probably will appear infrequently in public until 2019. 

From the start, this First Lady has been unusually remote; socially and emotionally unavailable to the American people.  She does not wish to conform to the modern conventions associated with the First Lady, which emerged around 1902 during the Theodore Roosevelt administration.

Edith Roosevelt became the first president’s wife to grant routine press coverage of herself and her children.  Such access increased over time.  During the past three decades, as the media grew and the realm of First Ladies scholarship intensified, historians have drawn ever greater attention to the role of the president’s wife, raising expectations that the women will engage fully with the public.
But now, nearly 20 months into the Trump presidency, we must conclude that the First Lady is most interested in engaging with a very small circle of friends and family.  

Historically, she is not alone. For antecedents, look to the dark, rainy first half of the nineteenth century.  One might not recognize the names outright, for the women are obscure. Just like Melania Trump, they were reluctant to leave the second floor of the White House.
The women were Margaret Taylor, Abigail Fillmore, and Jane Pierce, three ladies who never wanted their husbands to run for president and definitely didn’t care to move to the capital city that was flourishing at the edge of a swamp.

Margaret Taylor
Not everyone regarded the city with dread.  By 1850, notwithstanding the summertime mosquitoes and damp winter chill in the president’s house, Washington, D.C. captivated many a visitor. None other than the vivacious Dolley Madison (wife of the fourth president) made things sparkle. She hosted brilliant salons and encouraged the White House ladies who followed her to step lively.
Dolley died in 1849, the year before Margaret Taylor arrived at the executive mansion.  But it mattered not to Margaret, Abigail and Jane, who brushed off society and politics and participated in few White House events.
To be sure, they had reasons.
Margaret grieved for her daughter, the first wife of Jefferson Davis, who died of malaria while visiting Louisiana during “fever season.”

Jane Pierce
Jane mourned the loss of her 11-year old son who died before her eyes in a train accident less than two months before her husband was sworn in as president.
Abigail’s health was poor.

In turn, the three women stayed upstairs, read the Bible, and welcomed a few friends to the parlor.  They sent their daughters and nieces downstairs to receive visitors and preside over dinners.
The wives of presidents Taylor, Fillmore and Pierce were cast from the antebellum feminine ideal that historians refer to as “the cult of true womanhood,” which was fostered by a patriarchal system. The ideal virtues were piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.

Abigail Fillmore
Melania Trump conforms, in part, to the type. Her adventures in modeling took her where no First Lady has gone before, so one might cross off purity. Her manner is largely compliant, however, and she prefers to be at home.
And so there exists an odd affinity on the second floor of the White House. 

On one hand, here is a woman who owes her rise to the twenty-first century’s lack of inhibitions.  On the other hand, there are three Victorian ladies dressed in black gowns with stiff lace bodices, bent over their embroidery and asking for smelling salts.   

Antebellum White House

Melania montage by Claudia Keenan

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Wonderful World of Waldemar Kaempffert

An ambitious writer, Waldemar Kaempffert 

Think fearlessly of Waldemar Kaempffert, one of America’s first and most prolific science writers, striding onto the scene.  His blue eyes are brilliant and his hair prematurely gray. 

In 1919 he scolded the New York Times about the proper usage of the word “blimp”:

The R-34 is a rigid dirigible of the Zeppelin type. It has very little in common with the “blimp.”

Really, how could he help but correct the mistakes that assaulted him at every turn?  Not only was he bright and analytical.  He also held strong opinions about nearly everything:

The existence of canals on Mars,

Psychopathic laboratories in prisons,

the patent rights of inventors who worked for large corporations . . .

Waldemar Bernhard Kaempffert was born ambitious in New York City in 1877, the son of a German immigrant father and a Russian-German mother.  He received honors and awards all through his years in public school on the Upper West Side.

Soon after graduating from City College in 1897, Waldemar joined Scientific American as an assistant editor.  This gave him quite a perch, not to mention prestige.  He went on to earn an LL.B. from NYU while continuing at the magazine.  In 1905 he published his first major article, “The Protective Mimicry of Insects,” in Booklovers Magazine.   

Illustration from Kaempffert's
article about insects

Then he was off and running, covering carbon and Tungsten light, weather forecasting, alternative uses for pneumatic tubes – everything new that emerged through the scientific method or from someone’s crazy imagination.

For Waldemar had arrived at his profession at just at the right moment.  Radioactivity was revealed in 1895.  That led to the discovery of atomic particles.  The microscope lit up ever more infinitesimal lifeforms.  And the First World War would spur major advances in technology and medicine.  Waldemar was among the first Americans to grasp the extent to which German scientists had outpaced the United States and England. 

During the war, Waldemar left Scientific American to become editor of Popular Science Monthly, where he stayed until the mid-twenties when he joined the New York Times.  On the beat, he covered the invention of television and the radiotelephone, and the first transatlantic call between London and New York. 

Waldemar would write thousands of articles on scientific topics as well as several books.

He did have a break from journalism.  In 1928 he was called to Chicago where the businessman and philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald, planned to create a science museum inside the last remaining building of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition.  During a trip to Munich in 1911, the multimillionaire had been deeply impressed by the Deutsches Museum, which was -- still is -- the world's largest museum devoted to science and technology.

 Museum of Science and Industry, 1930s

In need of major repairs, the exposition building was located in Jackson Park in the Hyde Park neighborhood along Lake Michigan.  Ultimately it would be recast in limestone, thus keeping its Beaux Arts exterior. 

Rosenwald charged Waldemar with designing exhibitions and assembling the curatorial staff.  The mission of the new museum – like the one in Munich – would be to demonstrate how science and technology transform culture and society.  

By 1930, Waldemar’s wife Carolyn, a concert pianist, had joined him in Chicago and the couple moved into an apartment hotel just a few blocks from the museum.  But something went wrong; not quite a scandal but certain irregularities that led the board of directors to push Waldemar out.  In 1931 he headed back east to ask the Times editors to give him back his job, and they agreed. 

Carolyn died a few years later.  

 In his later years
Until his own death in 1956, Waldemar remained busy writing several stories each week. In his obituary, the Times quoted Waldemar himself, who often said that his function was “to make science so clear that the scientists could understand it.”

A childless widower, Waldemar bequeathed more than $25,000 to Memorial Hospital for cancer research.*  He left $5,000 to Dr. Elizabeth Baker, a social scientist at Columbia University who studied the effect of technology on jobs.  He left $2,500 to Marie Mossoba Berlinghoff, his assistant of nearly 25 years. 

The remainder went to a stage actress named Sophie Wilds, who seems to have pursued a Bohemian life from her little brick house in Greenwich Village.

*Now Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

The Little Time Traveler

  Last fall, my adorable grandson, halfway between two and three years, was finally tall enough to look at the family pictures arranged on a...