Thursday, December 14, 2006

A CHRISTMAS AT THE WHITE HOUSE 1901



Sometimes episodes from American History can make delightful Christmas tales. Presidents of the United States make very loving fathers as was the case with John Kennedy in the 1960's. But if we take a trip in our "Way Back When" machine this 14th day of December, let us stop at the year 1901. In this cartoon, from the magazine Harper's Bazzar Santa Claus is about to deliver Christmas presents to the six children of President Theodore Roosevelt: Alice (17 years old), Theodore Jr. (14), Kermit (12), Ethel (10), Archibald (7), and Quentin (4). Santa’s expression of pleasant surprise upon learning that so many children were at the White House reflects the fact that the children of past presidents had usually been adult or fewer in number when their fathers occupied the White House. The three babies of Grover Cleveland had charmed the American public during his second administration (1893-1897), but here in 1901 was a bevy of boisterous children who could really enjoy the holiday season. It was the first Christmas at the White House for the nation’s youngest president (43) and his family.
President Roosevelt brought the same dynamism that he displayed in politics and sports to his role as father. He loved his children dearly and spent as much time with them as possible, even with the weighty demands of the presidency. “I love all these children and have great fun with them, and I am touched by the way in which they feel I am their special friend, champion and companion,” he wrote to his sister-in-law. He played games and sports with them, took them hiking and picnicking, read them bedtime stories, joyfully indulged their many household pets, and joined them in pillow fights. As his friend Cecil Spring Rice aptly characterized Roosevelt, “You must always remember that the President is about six.” Roosevelt had grown up in a close and affectionate family, and enthusiastically followed that example with his own children. He revealed to his sister, Bamie, that he had “the happiest home life of any man whom I have ever known.”
Tragedy, though, had struck the optimistic Roosevelt in his early adulthood. On February 12, 1884, a telegram reached Roosevelt in Albany, New York, where he was a Republican
assemblyman, bringing him the good news of the birth of his first child, Alice Lee. A few hours later, a second telegram informed him that his wife, Alice, and mother, Mittie, were both dying, so he took the next train for Manhattan. His mother succumbed to typhoid fever early the next morning, but he was able to hold his wife during her last hours before she died of Bright’s Disease the following afternoon. He was devastated by the loss, and entrusted the care of “Baby Lee” to his sister. In 1886, he married Edith Carow, and they had five children.
The Roosevelts unsuccessfully tried to shield their children from the press, but Alice loved the limelight. During the White House years, she was a beautiful young lady who captivated the American public. After she christened a ship in Philadelphia for the German royal family, the press nicknamed her “Princess Alice,” and the blue-gray color of her dress inspired the clothing industry to manufacture “Alice Blue” dresses and Tin Pan Alley to publish a popular tune called “Alice Blue Gown.” In 1902, her formal debut at the White House was attended by 600 guests. Alice’s strong, independent will prompted considerable commentary, but when the president was asked why he did not try to control her behavior, he explained, “I can be president of the United States, or I can attend to Alice.” In truth, he was quite pleased with his eldest daughter. His confidence in her was such that he dispatched her as his personal representative to Puerto Rico in 1903 and the Far East in 1905.
On February 17, 1906, Alice married Congressman Nicholas Longworth (later speaker of the house) in a spectacular wedding at the White House. In adulthood, Alice became a fixture in Washington society where she was called “Washington’s other monument.” Delighting and offending numerous people with her lively and caustic wit—“If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me”—she famously described Republican president nominee Thomas Dewey (1944, 1948) as the little plastic man on the wedding cake. Alice Roosevelt Longworth was the longest-lived of Theodore Roosevelt’s six children, dying in 1980 at the age of 96. But is nice to know a grand Christmas tale from American History! Maybe somebody should make a movie about that-- six kids at the White House in the year 1901! Well, that's it for today! Except to express sadness at the passing of Peter Boyle of "Everybody Loves Raymond" fame. His famous line "Holy Crap! makes me chuckle--especially from a guy who spent at least three years as a Christian Brothers monk in what he described as "living in the Middle Ages!

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