Edith Carow Roosevelt
Calm among the Turmoil
By Anne Adams
Perhaps the young mother sighed with relief as she settled down in the wisteria arbor to read her book there at her home, in an area she had named, “The Nest.” And as she did so, she would also get some much-needed relief from the shenanigans of her children and their father. For hers was indeed an active family, and would remain so for a several more years though there would be one change of location – from Oyster Bay, New York to Washington D.C. And it occurred when that exuberant father and husband would become President of the United States.
Born in August, 1861, Edith Kermit Carow came to know Theodore Roosevelt as a neighbor as well as a childhood sweetheart, and his sisters Corinne and Anna as close friends at their home in New York City. They were both shared many common pastimes like reading but they also possessed different temperaments for Edith was often undemonstrative and quiet – a great contrast to the exuberant talkative Theodore. Yet despite their affection for each other they drifted apart when it came time to go to school. At fifteen, Edith attended a local girls’ school while Theodore was already enrolled at Harvard. However, there was also an indication that there was some sort of unresolved disagreement between them that meant they remained apart. Finally there came word that Theodore had become smitten with a lovely young woman named Alice Lee and Edith was with the other Roosevelt family members at his wedding in October, 1880.
When Theodore and Alice returned to New York to live Edith distanced herself from them. She continued to remain remote from Theodore, even after Alice died three years later in 1884, within hours of giving birth to their daughter (also named Alice) and on the same day as Theodore’s mother. Edith continued her friendship with Theodore’s sisters but asked them to keep her informed as to his presence in their homes so she could avoid him. Actually he was out of town a good deal at that time, at his South Dakota ranch, serving in the New York state legislature or at Oyster Bay on Long Island supervising the building of his new home. However, one day they unexpectedly met in the home of Anna and they renewed their feelings for each other.
As they began to make serious plans, they decided to keep their engagement private, mostly because Alice’s death had been so recent. Yet a European trip for Edith provided the opportunity to finalize their commitment. Her father’s recent death had reduced the family finances so they decided to move to the continent to live more frugally. In the fall of 1885, Edith, still silent about her engagement to Theodore, accompanied her mother and sister to Europe, and a year later he joined her and they were married in London in December 1886. They returned to New York the next spring.
Theodore’s sister Anna had been caring for little Alice Lee, now three years old, and the child joined the new household. Edith would raise the child with the same love and devotion as her own children but there was one restriction imposed by Theodore. He asked Edith never to mention her deceased mother to the child, as he never did. This may have eventually proved puzzling to little Alice she regularly visited her maternal grandparents.
In May, 1887 Theodore, Edith and little Alice moved to the new Oyster Bay home on Long Island, a residence named Sagamore Hill. It was a massive house of wide verandas, and a view of Long Island Sound but with twelve bedrooms, as well as an assortment of mounted animal heads from Theodore’s western hunting trips. It was distinctively a Roosevelt home. That first summer was leisurely time for them and in September Edith gave birth to their first child, Theodore Junior.
During these next few years Theodore served in various public offices, such as New York City Police Commissioner, member of the U.S. Civil Service Commission, and even Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He had just arrived in Washington in one point before he had to immediately return to be with Edith at the birth of their second son Kermit in October 1889. There would be three more children: Ethel in August, 1891, Archie in April, 1894 and Quentin, in November, 1897. The family would eventually spend part of their time in Washington as Theodore served in those national positions and the rest of the time at Sagamore Hill.
Theodore was an exuberant father, regularly writing friends and relatives about the antics of his children. Their home was an active place, as described by Presidential/First Lady biographer Margaret Bassett: “There was no room in which they might not romp or bring their various pets, though they much preferred their outdoor adventures and games their father thought up, such as the famous snap-the-whip run, roll and slide down Cooper’s Bluff to the beach or the point-to-point hikes in which all obstacles such as fences and sheds had to be clambered over and bodies of water waded or swum. Edith, as the serious and responsible parent, was the first-aid station on everyone’s return…” (Profiles and Portraits of American Presidents and Their Wives, p. 249). It was indeed a lively household, and Theodore had early learned to appreciate his wife’s calm presence and tolerant understanding of all he was and wanted to do.
In Washington the family survived in a more confined atmosphere, but Edith and Theodore attracted a wide circle of friends in government and diplomacy. Edith declined to discuss politics out of respect for Theodore’s opinions but she was an avid listener.
When Theodore returned home after service in the Spanish American War in Cuba in 1898, neither Edith nor Theodore could foretell was how this would alter his future. For his previously unremarkable political career would now greatly expand as the media played him up as the “hero of San Juan Hill.”
He was elected New York governor in 1899 and served two years, as Edith learned to spend winters in Albany and summers at Sagamore Hill. Nevertheless, while she would have preferred a slower political advance, he was nominated as vice president and elected to the position in 1900. She knew he would not be content with the inactivity of the position and by the time of the inauguration in March, Theodore came to agree with her. Yet he would not be inactive for long.
In September, 1901 Theodore was in the Lake Champlain area making a speech, when President McKinley was shot and wounded in Buffalo. Theodore received word but was told that the president was expected to survive. He then joined Edith and the children for a vacation at the mountain camp resort, and later when he mountain climbing a camp messenger brought a telegram saying the President was near death. That evening he left the camp to cover 35 miles of rutted mountain roads to reach the train for Buffalo. He wired Edith from the train that McKinley had died and he would soon take the oath of office. The next morning Edith set out for Sagamore Hill, traveling by train to Albany where she and the children and their governess boarded a boat for New York and despite Archie’s tonsillitis and Quentin’s earache she avoided reporters and arrived home safely and quietly
Edith and Ted Jr. set off for Washington for the McKinley funeral, and a few weeks they had all moved into the White House, where the eight of them found the family quarters cramped. Yet Edith set to work redecorating, and banishing the old furniture to the attic.
For the first time in several years the White House was the home of a young, and high-spirited family. Ted Jr. at 14 was off at school a great deal of the time but the other children soon made the Executive Mansion their playground. Photos and news stories of the time tracked their activities and regularly described the antics of the Roosevelt children. There were stories of the various escapades –such as when Archie had the measles and Quentin led his pony Algonquin into the White House elevator and from there into the sick room. The “White House Gang” was what the press called Quentin’s school friends who visited the mansion, though their pranks were minor, such as making faces at passersby from behind the White House fence. Another time one of the boys introduced a newly acquired pet snake to his father’s cabinet meeting.
Alice and her antics also attracted press notice when she became known as “Princess Alice.” In an era when most 18-year-old young ladies were supposed to be sedate and proper, Alice smoked in public, jumped fully clothed into the pool of a passenger ship on the way to Europe, and made a pet of a small green snake she called Emily Spinach. Reportedly when someone suggested the President should control his daughter he is said to have responded: “I can run the country, or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both.”
Alice’s 1906 White House wedding to an Ohio congressman was a spectacular affair attracting not just great press coverage but also gifts from heads of state to the average American.
Besides coping with the antics of her children, Edith also had to be sure her husband got his rest. As Basset described it: “It is said that if the President was working evenings in his study, promptly at 10:30 Edith in her sitting room, the second floor Oval Room next to the study, tapped her foot on the floor and called ‘Theodore!’ Whereon the President would reply, ‘Yes, Edie!’ and put up his work to go to bed.” (P.253).
As his second term came to an end Theodore had already made plans for his next jaunt. Accompanied by Kermit, he set out on a trip of exploration and hunting to Africa, and returned after nearly a year, and ready to take a European tour with Edith. In 1912 Theodore ran for the presidency again on a third party ticket but after he was defeated at the polls he and Kermit set out for an expedition to South America. They returned in April, 1914 with Theodore sick with jungle fever and suffering from a leg injury. Reportedly it had been Kermit’s courage and determination that enabled them to survive and return..
Back at Sagamore Hill Theodore recovered under Edith’s attention, and just in time to make speeches in favor of American war preparedness. The Roosevelt sons were also quick to enlist when America entered the war. “We boys thought it was up to us to practice what Father preached,” said Quentin as he entered the air service. However, it was he, who was shot down and killed in July, 1918. Edith was deeply affected but recovered, though Theodore was the one who took it harder. His depression paired with increasing health problems took their toll. That December he spent some time in the hospital and came home in a wheelchair at Christmas. Within a few weeks into the New Year he died in his sleep.
Edith remained at Sagamore Hill, where she remained an important citizen of the Oyster Bay Community. She died in 1948 at age 87.
A man of drive and vision with a sense of exuberant enthusiasm toward life, Theodore Roosevelt indeed made his mark on his era. And to contain, guide and inspire this unique American president was the privileged responsibility of Edith Carow Roosevelt.
A native of Kansas City , Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College , Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State University , Warrensburg , Missouri (1968)
A freelance writer since the early 1970s, she has published in Christian and secular publications, has taught history on the junior college level, and has spoken at national and local writers’ conferences. Her book “Brittany, Child of Joy”, an account of her severely retarded daughter, was issued by Broadman Press in 1987. She also publishes an encouragement newsletter “Rainbows Along the Way.”