Lately I’ve been feeling mentally empty, as if someone washed all my thoughts, dried them, put them away and then pulled the plug and drained the sink. I decided that instead of complaining to myself I’d read something. I have dozens of novels and reference books waiting to be read and at least a dozen I keep forgetting to finish. I went downstairs to look over my bookshelves and the first one to caught my eye was a paperback on the bottom shelf, a book of essays by H L Mencken called ‘Prejudices: A Selection’. I randomly opened the book and started reading, ‘Roosevelt: An Autopsy’. I hadn’t been reading long when I started thinking that all I knew about Theodore Roosevelt was that he was a President of the USA and supposedly that the Teddy Bear was named after him…and that’s about it. My curiosity aroused I put the book aside and looked him up on Wikipedia. Reading quickly through the boring early life I was soon at the important part…the section titled First Marriage. You didn’t think I was going to sit here and ruminate on politics and philosophy did you? I’m a romance writer. I want to read about love!
It was just a short blip:
In 1880, Roosevelt married Alice Hathaway Lee (July 29, 1861 – February 14, 1884) of Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. She died young of an undiagnosed case of kidney failure (in those days called Bright’s disease) two days after their infant Alice was born. Her pregnancy had masked the illness. Theodore Roosevelt’s mother Mittie died of typhoid fever on the same day, at 3 am, some eleven hours earlier, in the same house. After the nearly simultaneous deaths of his mother and wife, Roosevelt left his daughter in the care of his sister, Anna “Bamie/Bye” in New York City. In his diary, he wrote a large X on the page and wrote, “the light has gone out of my life.” For the rest of his life, Roosevelt never spoke of his wife Alice publicly or privately and did not write about her in his autobiography.
I read that and wondered what his wife looked like and what happened to the baby girl so I clicked on the wife’s name and found this:
Alice Roosevelt died in New York on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1884, on the fourth anniversary of their engagement, from Bright’s disease, and childbirth complications. She was 22 years old. (On the same day and in the same house, Roosevelt’s mother, Martha “Mittie” Bulloch Roosevelt also died, of typhoid fever.) T.R. was so distraught by Alice’s death that except for a diary entry (“The light has gone out of my life”) he hardly ever spoke of her again. In a short privately published tribute to Alice, Roosevelt wrote:
She was beautiful in face and form, and lovelier still in spirit; As a flower she grew, and as a fair young flower she died. Her life had been always in the sunshine; there had never come to her a single sorrow; and none ever knew her who did not love and revere her for the bright, sunny temper and her saintly unselfishness. Fair, pure, and joyous as a maiden; loving , tender, and happy. As a young wife; when she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be just begun, and when the years seemed so bright before her—then, by a strange and terrible fate, death came to her. And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever.
Theodore left the baby in the care of his sister and traveled into what was then the Wild West, but after a year or so he came back and got engaged to the woman who’d grown up in the next house and had been his childhood friend and playmate. She was the same age as his first wife, and had attended their wedding. Based on her comments about his first wife in anger to her teenage step daughter I suspect she’d had some hope he’d offer for her until he met the beautiful Alice. (Click here to see a picture of Alice) The second wife was no beauty. Standing near Alice she must have looked ugly. So after Theodore married a second time his infant daughter came to live with them (these were wealthy people the children would have spent most of their childhood with servants), but when the girl was old enough to start asking her father about her mother he refused to talk about her. He’d refer her to her Aunt. After reading that I thought, how awful! Imagine wanting to know something about your dead parent and the living parent refusing to even hear their name mentioned. Then I remembered this is what happened to my dad.
My paternal grandmother was a widow with three children and my grandfather was divorced, the children from his first marriage adults (he married first at 19 and was about 45 for the second). My dad and his twin sister were born about a year later and less than a year after that their dad died of a heart attack. My grandmother would never talk about her second husband. Every time my dad tried to learn something, anything, about his father she’d say, “It’s none of your business.” We know she loved him because even though she’d married three times, she wanted her second husband’s name on her tombstone. I can understand someone’s heart being broken at losing their beloved, but to refuse to share that treasured love with their child. I don’t understand how people can do that. I can see how it damaged my dad. I wasn’t surprised to read that Roosevelt’s daughter by his beloved first wife ended up a wild child who felt her father had more time for her younger half-siblings. When she became too much (acting out in an attempt to get his attention) he’d send her away. Sad.
I finished the essay on Theodore Roosevelt. That’s enough H L Mencken for a few years! Now I think I’ll read Robinson Crusoe (the original version as opposed to the Disneyfied version I loved as child) or maybe I’ll return to my book of short stories and essays by Aldous Huxley, an author I discovered a few months ago. On second thought, I think I’ll read a romance novel or better still…finish one.
As Philip Sidney wrote… (in poem no 1 to Stella)
‘…But words came halting forth, wanting invention’s stay:
Invention, nature’s child, fled step-dame study’s blows:
And other’s feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
This great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
‘Fool,’ said my muse to me; ‘look in thy heart, and write.’