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.

July Night