A remarkable photograph in the Theodore Roosevelt collection at Harvard's Houghton Library shows Abraham Lincoln's funeral procession passing through New York on the way to the train that would complete the long journey home to Illinois. The shot, taken as the procession moved through the Union Square area, captures both the formal solemnity of the occasion and the life of the street. The caisson carrying the coffin has not yet come into view, but an honor guard of infantry in blocky formation follows a straggling line of riders up ahead. People dressed in black line both sides of the street four or five deep. A few of the spectators, hoping to secure a better vantage, have climbed up onto ledges beneath the recessed windows of a commercial building.
There were probably other shots of this scene taken at about the same moment. But in this one the anonymous photographer also captured an arresting accidental detail: two tiny heads poking out of the second-story window of an elegant brownstone. They are six-year-old Theodore Roosevelt and his younger brother, Elliott, four, looking down at the scene below. Their faces are framed by the shutters of the window in a way that suggests a depth of field, thus inviting the eye to enter the dark room behind them, the private world of the Roosevelts.
The brownstone belonged to the boys' grandfather, Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt, a great-grandson of Johannes, one of the two founding brothers of the Roosevelt clan, and at the time of Lincoln's death the most prominent member of the family. He was a short man with reddish hair and a large head. (One acquaintance had said of him, "His appearance suggested to me a Hindoo idol roughly carved in red porphyry.") His eyes magnified by thick spectacles, C.V.S., as he was known, was a man of few words whose face wore the stern and inquiring look of a bookkeeper with power. The look was one that had settled on him as a result of a life devoted to the art of the bottom line, but it was probably also congenital. The one moment of frivolity anyone recalled from his childhood occurred one Sunday in his youth when C.V.S. was going home after attending his second church service of the day. He came upon a party of pigs, which ran free in the streets of New York in those days, and on a whim he mounted a huge boar that promptly turned and bolted, carrying him back at full tilt directly into the outraged members of the congregation gathered outside the Dutch Reformed Church he had just left. Those who did not move quickly were bowled over.
Afterward, C.V.S. moved steadily through life establishing a record as a conservative man, thrifty and enterprising. As far as anyone knew, his only other unusual act was becoming the first Roosevelt of his line to marry a non-Dutch woman, a Quaker named Margaret Barnhill. When they were first engaged, he wrote her, "Economy is my doctrine at all times, at all events till I become, if it is to be so, a man of fortune." It was couched as a caveat emptor, but it became a prophecy, the underlined words indicating the emphatic nature of the wish. C.V.S. took the family investment firm, Roosevelt and Son, which had been founded by his grandfather, into new areas of enterprise, making it the largest importer of plate glass in the city. He also bought up land all over Manhattan during the Panic of 1837. Five years later he was worth $250,000, and three years after that his net worth had doubled. In 1868 when a newspaper listed the names of Manhattan's handful of millionaires, the name Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt was among them.
Although a man of the new age, C.V.S. tried to maintain the old ways where his family was concerned, bringing his five boys into his business and reminding them of their heritage. (When TR, nearly fifty, visited Africa in 1909 and recited a Dutch rhyme for a contingent of Boers he met there, it was a fragment he had retained from Sunday afternoons with his grandfather.) He was, in a sense, the last Dutch Roosevelt.
The sons of C.V.S. were such energetic youngsters that family and friends began referring to their mother as "that lovely Mrs. Roosevelt with those five horrid boys." They spoke a language all their own. As Silas, the oldest of the boys, said later on, "A Stranger must be somewhat scandalized by the sudden fits we take of irony, cordiality...sense and nonsense, which succeed each other without apparent connection or warning approach."
All of the sons of C.V.S. had acquired their father's gravity by the time they went forth into the world. All had significant achievements as lawyers and businessmen, directors of banks and railroads. One of them, Robert Barnwell Roosevelt, was a writer, newspaper editor, and politician, who changed his middle name from Barnhill to escape jokes about manure when he ran for and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He fought Boss Tweed and became a pioneering conservationist. But it was Theodore, youngest of the boys (and later called the first Theodore Roosevelt to distinguish him from his more famous son), who strayed furthest from his father's expectations.
Like his brothers, Theodore stopped off to see his mother every morning on his way to work and joined his father for dinner every Saturday evening. If he was different from the others, it was because he was less adept at making money and less interested in extending the reach of the family business. As the youngest, he had more latitude to explore personal values. He traveled widely at home and abroad. Unwilling to look at the world through plate glass, he began while still young to do volunteer work in New York charities, which provided him with a clear view of the social disorganization caused by the sudden glut of immigrants and the pell-mell urbanization remaking the city. Without knowing it at the time, he had stumbled on what became his life's calling.
Perhaps influenced by the "inner light" of his mother's Quaker background, Theodore had a "troublesome conscience" of his own that not only drew him to social problems but also made him more anxious to give money away than make it. Made wealthy by the hard work of C.V.S., Theodore made the transition from business to philanthropy while still in his thirties, becoming one of a small group of men who founded the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and other cultural institutions. But his primary interest was in relieving human misery. He helped begin the Newsboys' Lodging House to benefit thousands of urchins who survived by selling papers, and was deeply involved in such organizations as Miss Sattery's Night School for Little Italians.
He wanted to do good, but he was also drawn to the compelling human interest of the netherworld of human suffering he discovered, a world that, if not for his "social work," would have remained as invisible to him as it was to most in his class. "My boys at the Lodging Home were very interesting tonight," he once wrote his son Elliott after spending an evening with the newsboys. "One little fellow eight years old was particularly so, as he had neither father nor mother and felt perfectly able to care for himself. He described how a policeman had 'bringed' him to the Station House once but seemed not quite sure which particular crime it was for."
He was a handsome man, powerfully built with a big head and shaggy beard inevitably described as "leonine." (When still a boy, his son and namesake Teddy, punning on the metaphor, called the first Theodore "a handsome and good natured lion.") He was filled with such charismatic energy that one contemporary referred to him as "a force of nature." There was such an obsessive quality to his philanthropy that a family friend called it a "maniacal benevolence."
The first Theodore would never know the extent to which he had altered individual lives, but almost a quarter century after his death, when his son, then governor of New York, joined some of his colleagues at a conference, Joseph Brady, the governor of Alaska Territory, made a point of seeking him out. While others might greet him as the head of a great state, Brady said, he wanted to shake TR's hand because he was the son of the first Theodore Roosevelt. He went on to describe how as a boy he had been picked up off the streets of New York by TR's father, who placed him in a home in the West, paying for his travel there and periodically checking on his progress as he grew up. The first Theodore Roosevelt, Governor Brady said, had made him who he was.
All the five boys of C.V.S. relied on the women they married for emotional subtlety. Theodore's brother and next-door neighbor Robert (C.V.S. had bought them connected houses at 20th Street and Broadway to keep the family together) had a wife who was a full-fledged eccentric. Elizabeth, or Aunt Lizzy, as the first Theodore's children knew her, kept a menagerie of animals in her enclosed yard, including a cow that had to be carried there in a sling through her living room. There was also a monkey named Topsy that she dressed in brocaded shirts, gold studs, and trousers. Theodore's oldest child, Anna, would remember Topsy as having a "violent temperament," and indeed she once suffered an attack by the monkey while carrying a message through the passageway linking the two houses. Hearing her screams, Aunt Lizzy came running, but was less worried by the teeth marks on the girl's arm than by the emotional trauma possibly suffered by her pet. "Poor Topsy," she cooed, as the monkey stood on top of a dresser chittering angrily and tearing off all the miniature clothes except for the pants, which caught on his tail, thus driving him to even greater rage.
The woman Theodore married would, in time, become almost as peculiar as Aunt Lizzy. She was Martha Bulloch, a Southern belle from Roswell, Georgia. Called Mittie, she was a captivating beauty whose bisque skin nested in thick dark hair. ("Sweet little Dresden China Mother," her son Elliott would call her.) The Bulloch heritage exhaled the antebellum scent of Southern gentility and was exemplified by a Greek Revival plantation home, Bulloch Hall, which some claimed was one of the models for Tara in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind.
Mittie's forebears on her father's side included a representative to the Continental Congress as well as an assortment of duelists and desperate men. On her mother's side one particularly notable figure was Archibald Stobo, a minister who had migrated to Panama late in the seventeenth century with other Scottish religious dissidents to found the utopian community they intended to call New Caledonia. Eventually the colonists were driven out by the Spanish. Trying to get back to Scotland, they anchored outside Charleston, South Carolina, to take on supplies. Because he was an ordained minister, Stobo was asked to come ashore to perform a marriage. While he was there a violent storm arose, sinking his ship and drowning the other colonists and leaving him beached in a different part of the New World than the one he had set out for. His daughter married one James Bulloch, another Scot newly arrived in America, and they went off to Savannah to live, establishing a family that had, by Mittie's time, become prominent in Georgia's civic life.
In 1850, the first Theodore, then nineteen, traveled to the South and met the Bullochs through an introduction provided by an in-law of his elder brother Silas. Mittie, then fifteen, thought him stuffy; and for his part, Theodore was bothered by the fact that the first face he saw at Bulloch Hall was that of "Toy," the slave about Mittie's age who had slept at the foot of her bed since she was a little girl. After this cool introduction, he saw Mittie again three years later when she was touring the North. In a more hospitable environment, Theodore wooed and won her. When they were married at Bulloch Hall in 1855, Mittie's mother sold four slaves to pay for the wedding.
Returning to New York with her husband, Mittie brought with her a feel for the mythic and grandiose, an imaginative dimension that was not otherwise part of the Roosevelt mentality. It was expressed in the stories she told her children, tales filled with sentimentality and Southern gothic, as well as the derring-do of high adventure.
Her moods oscillated between deep melancholy and febrile gaiety, yet her Roosevelt in-laws quickly learned that it did Mittie an injustice to regard her merely as a vaporish daughter of the South. On one well-remembered occasion the horses pulling her carriage were spooked and bolted, unseating the driver. As the vehicle careened wildly through the streets of New York, bystanders stepped up to try to stop the team but were thrown back. Finally, after a terrifying ride, the horses reached the Roosevelt home, dashed into their stable and ran into a wall in a crash that killed one of the team. By the time servants caught up, Mittie was out of the carriage dusting herself off. "Will you hand me my card case, James?" she coolly asked one of them, as if she had just arrived by plan.
She and Theodore had four children in quick succession, each with nicknames serving almost as clan designations. Anna, who was not only "Bye" but "Bamie" (from bambina), was born in 1855 with the physical deformity of a curved spine but what everyone agreed was a "large soul" that would eventually make her one of the most respected women of the age. Three years later came the future President, Theodore, who was called "Teedie" and sometimes "Thee." Elliott, whom everyone agreed was the sweetest one in the family and who would move through his life with his brother in an odd and tragic pas de deux that defined them both, was "Ellie." In 1861, a year after his birth, came Corinne, or "Conie," the baby of the family, who was both the most sensitive of the Roosevelt children and also the most sentimental.
Friends remarked on how the first Theodore had to baby Mittie almost as much as his children. His uxoriousness, which might otherwise have been just an amusing eccentricity, took on a tragic aspect with the coming of the Civil War. He was caught in the tension between Mittie and his own abolitionist-minded parents. (Mittie's eldest child, Bamie, later said of her mother: "I shudder to think of what she must have suffered...[because] the Roosevelts think they are just but they are hard.") The pleasurable Sunday dinners at the home of C.V.S. became ordeals of silence. On many evenings when Mittie was expected to help entertain her husband's friends and associates, she instead stayed upstairs and ate with the children in the nursery to avoid having to defend once again her Southern sympathies.
Mittie did not simply pine, however. She had brought her mother and sister to live with her in New York, where circumstances forced on them the identity of conspirators. When Theodore was gone, the Bulloch women rolled bandages and packed supplies under a surreptitiously unfurled Confederate flag while whispering about the real and imagined victories of The Cause.
Hoping to head off the conflict inside his family, Theodore had joined other prominent New Yorkers in petitioning Congress against the war at its onset. He did not enlist because of what he referred to as his "peculiar circumstances": Mittie had brothers fighting for the Confederacy and it was a remote but terrifying possibility that Theodore might kill or be killed by one of them if he went into battle. Instead, he hired a substitute to serve in the army in his place. Others of his class did the same thing, but this act, although necessary, was deeply at odds with Theodore's sense of principle. As his daughter Bamie said later, "He always afterward felt that he had done a very great wrong in not having put every other feeling aside and joined the fighting forces."
Theodore tried to serve the Union by bringing his philanthropic concerns to the war. Designing a program that would encourage soldiers to send their pay home and thus ease the privations of their families, he spent months in Washington, frequently meeting with Lincoln himself. (Although much shorter, he was, in fact, more than once mistaken for the President in walking down the street with White House secretary John Hay.) Theodore became such a favorite of the peculiar Mrs. Lincoln that she sometimes wrote him a note (spelling his name "Rosevalt") asking him to escort her when she went to town to buy bonnets.
"I know you will not regret having me do what is right," Theodore wrote Mittie in one rather plaintive letter, "and I don't believe you will love me any the less for it." But back home there was tense ambiguity. The war that had divided the nation was dividing the consciousness of his family. The consequences were especially apparent in little Teedie, who seemed to have caught faint echoes of his father's dilemma. Once during the war the women in the household dressed him in a miniature Zouave outfit for a photographer and while posing the precocious four-year-old asked, "Are me a soldier laddie, too?" His mother's sister, Aunt Anna, told him that he was indeed a little soldier and he promptly saluted her. But he wasn't sure which army he served in. He collaborated in the hushed melodrama of provisioning the Confederates that took place during his father's absences. Yet when he and his brother and sisters went to Central Park to play "Blockade Runner," a game he made up, Teedie insisted always on being the government captain who intercepted the rebels. Later, when he watched the funeral cortege of his hero Lincoln, it was probably not the Great Emancipator that he mourned, but the Commander in Chief of the Armies of the Republic.
As the war ended, it was clear that the wounds the Roosevelts suffered, while perhaps invisible, were deep. Mittie's mother died just as Sherman's men were nearing Bulloch Hall. Mittie herself was still gay and charming, but her behavior was often odd. Increasingly obsessive about cleanliness, she now bathed twice a day and insisted that each bath have two washes and rinses. It was almost as if a part of her was washed away by all this water, for she now drifted off into periods of remoteness. It was now that her children began to use diminutives to refer to her in their letters: "Darling Little Mother" or "Motherkins."
For his part, the first Theodore was left with a guilt for not having fought that would become part of the psychological heritage he passed on to his eldest son, in whom it would become the irritant that eventually produced a pearl.
No mere paper saint, the first Theodore Roosevelt was a man of power as well as compassion. Moving easily in the upper echelons of Knickerbocker society as part of his birthright, he used his charities to join the emerging elite that would define the culture of New York and eventually the entire country in the postwar period. He was a man who gave generously, but also took for granted fine things and good living. When he moved the family from the place at 4th Street and Broadway where Teedie and the others were born to a new house he had built on West 57th Street, it was at immense cost. Yet, there was more than enough money for such indulgences. The first Theodore would spend a fortune on homes and horses, cutting a dandy figure on the bridal paths of Central Park, and yet also have enough left of the inheritance he received from C.V.S. when the old man died in 1871 that he himself would be able to will each of his own children the equivalent of more than $1 million in contemporary dollars upon his own death.
As his children got older, much of that intensity contemporaries noted in Theodore's personality focused on them. He held a daily Bible reading at which they scrambled to get the prized seat on the sofa beside him, the "cubbyhole," as they called it. One of the enduring images of the Roosevelt family was of Theodore's four children lined up on their stomachs on the raised deck of the summer house he rented each year on Long Island as he came by and slipped peach slices into their mouths so adroitly that no juice dripped on their chins. Each one of them looked forward to their birthdays because their father "gave" himself completely for an entire afternoon, doing whatever the child wished.
The Roosevelt children grew up as a little tribe that got all it needed from within. But instead of making them insular and obtuse, this intensity made them appealing for members of the outer world, who envied their charmed circle. In time people who knew them individually would regard each of the first Theodore's children as the most extraordinary person they had ever met. Together they possessed something almost undefinable that seemed from the onset to set them aside from others -- a divine fire.
The leader was Bamie. Large-headed and heavy-lidded, misshaped in body and with what one acquaintance regarded as a curiously dark complexion, she had none of Mittie's fragile beauty, but had a power that transcended her defects. She believed that the spinal deformity that her father tried to remedy with torturous back braces and manipulation resulted from having been dropped by some servant in her bath as a baby, but it was probably caused by tuberculosis of the spine. Less because of her disability than because of her courageous response to it, she became her father's favorite. Because of her, he helped found the New York Orthopedic Hospital. One of the few times Teedie could remember being punished by his father was at the age of four when he bit Bamie on the arm and then hid under the kitchen table in an attempt to escape Theodore's wrath. She had a special status with her parents. The other children sometimes called themselves "We Three."
Bamie inserted herself into the vacuum created by Mittie's emotional withdrawal and became the strong feminine figure in the Roosevelt family. Her brother Teedie would later compare Bamie to "a little feminine Atlas" taking the world's problems on her deformed shoulders. She herself was more matter-of-fact, saying simply that she was the family's "odd job man." (In time she would help raise two of the family's semi-orphans -- Teddy's first child, Alice, and Elliott's daughter Eleanor.)
But if she inherited her father's "capacity for compassion," she also had an incisive mind that was developed when she went abroad in 1870 to board at a school outside of Paris run by a famous educator named Madame Souvestre who would give her a thought just before each day's rest period and return after two hours to examine her on the different ways she had translated this thought into French. As the other side of her nature, Bamie developed what one family member called a "caustic disapproval" that made people careful with her.
Corinne was less "granitic" than her sister, more volatile and with the youngest child's desire to please. The author of a large body of sentimental poetry that she began as a youngster, Conie was particularly alive to nuance and soon became the most purely social of the children. Later on the family would joke gently about how at dinner parties whoever was sitting next to her got the "elbow in the soup" treatment as she appeared to hang on their every word. One such moment occurred late in her life at Buckingham Palace where she had been invited for dinner. Queen Mary was telling about a recent camping expedition in India and had gotten to the point in her story where she was describing a strange noise she'd heard outside the royal tent. "What was it, ma'am?" Conie blurted out. Annoyed at having her denouement anticipated, the Queen stood up and said huffily, "It could have been a wolf," and then swept out of the room.
Bamie and Conie would eventually rank among the most accomplished women of their time. Yet from childhood, they would accept a position in the shadows of their brothers, Theodore and Elliott, fretting over them, urging them on, basking in the reflected glory of their accomplishments, and suffering with them in their defeats. It was clear to them and to everyone else that the Roosevelt boys would write the next chapter in the family story.
Mittie said that Teedie looked like a "terrapin" when he was born. Ellie, on the other hand, she pronounced "decidedly pretty" as a baby. While Theodore was off on his travels during the Civil War, Mittie wrote to say that Teedie had become "miserably jealous" to find her in bed with his little brother stroking his ears. Teedie had insisted on getting in bed with them. When the baby allowed him to stroke his ears too, four-year-old Teedie said haughtily, "Oh, do look, Mama, how he do obey me." The question of power would always lurk just below the surface of their relationship.
If Teedie was the most imaginative, Ellie was the most lovable of all the children, learning early on that there was power in his charm, a quality he would rely on too heavily later in life. He inherited his mother's high spirits and his father's compassion for the less fortunate. One of the stories the family always told about Ellie -- an epiphany of his character when it was still innocent -- was how at the age of seven he had gone off in an overcoat on a cold morning and returned later on bare-shouldered, having given the coat to a shivering urchin he saw during his walk.
Elliot was lithe and active, exploring his world with a confidence that sometimes made him seem older than his older brother. He felt protective of Teedie and when he was six wrote their father in alarm that he had just watched his brother have "a small attack of __ (I don't know how to spell it)." The word was "asthma," and throughout his boyhood it threatened to close up Teedie's lungs and suffocate him. The attacks came on without warning and terrorized the family, although the boy himself settled into them with resignation. Each recovery left him frail and battered. Each new attack brought new intimations of his mortality. Never voiced, the thought was always there in the minds of his parents: Teedie might die.
What the worried family -- and the sufferer himself -- did not see were the subtle compensations. Young Theodore's acceptance of his plight allowed him to show his brave endurance; his recoveries allowed him to show his resourcefulness. His illness became the play within their play with Teedie taking on the role of director as well as star. It was he who made his mother stay up all night beside his bed telling him stories with chivalry and adventure. It was he who caused his father to order up the carriage in the middle of the night and command the driver to speed through the darkened streets of New York in an effort to force air into his failing lungs.
Ellie assaulted the outer world, becoming for Teedie the exemplar of physical daring. He was the "captain of games," his small dark face alive to what was happening and what it took to succeed. Teedie watched him carefully as he was forced to retreat to the world within, temporarily finding himself in thought rather than action.
Reading became his prowess. He also developed a maguslike ability as a storyteller, using this talent to draw his brothers and sisters and any other children who happened to be around from their robust outdoor play into his secondary realm inside the house.
He was curious about how things worked. He captured insects, rodents, and other specimens and took them apart on makeshift dissecting tables, almost as if by opening them up for examination he might better understand what was wrong with his own machinery. He drew, catalogued, and described what he saw. At the age of eight, when his mother threw out the corpses of two mice he had stored in the icebox for future autopsy, he accused her, in a tiny indignant voice, of "defeating the ends of science."
While Ellie was outside with handmade swords and spears, Teedie often played with his sister Conie and her dolls. One of Conie's friends who often joined them was their neighbor Edith Carow, a composed and bookish girl who went to Miss Comstock's School. Edith Carow's own family had gone into a slow decline when her father's business losses sent him into genteel alcoholism and her mother into hypochondria. Yet she had a spirited intelligence that kept her on even footing with the Roosevelt children. The only friend who penetrated their tight circle, she became something like a member of the family. At the age of three, in fact, she had stood for a moment with Ellie and Teedie at the window as Lincoln's funeral procession passed by below, but then the melancholy of the occasion (and the grotesquerie of veterans with all sorts of amputations and deformities) made her cry, and Teedie locked her in a closet so that he and Ellie could concentrate on the mournful spectacle.
When young, the children were tutored by Mittie's sister Anna. In 1869, Theodore decided to give their education another dimension by taking the family to Europe for a year's Grand Tour. They docked in Liverpool and were met by Mittie's brother James, a former Confederate officer still living in proud exile. Ten-year-old Teedie wrote home to Edith: "Conie and I want you very much to play with. The day after we landed we saw our cousins....I do not think you would like them so much because they kiss so much."
Theodore had hoped that a new environment would help Teedie's health. But the asthma flared up suddenly when the family least expected it, causing hurried trips to spas and ascents high into the mountains in search of easier air. The doctors of the Continent were as authoritative as their American counterparts and equally ineffective. In addition to asthma, Teedie continued to suffer from grim bouts of dysentery, a malady referred to within the family by the coded term, "cholera morbus."
Mittie worried to see Teedie sitting alone reading while the other children played. But the journal he kept of his trip showed how rich an experience play was for him when he felt well enough to join in. While they were in Rome, for instance, his imagination transformed a game with sticks that he and Ellie and a boy named Charles played into an intense experience out of one of the epics he read so avidly: "Ellie was on me with his sword and had me on my knees but I hurled him on Charles. I saw, however, that I would be beaten in another battle and I rushed down a steep hill but when we fought again I defeated them and rushed up to another position and again encountered and beat them."
Also clear from the journal was the tendency to dramatize himself and the desire to be at the center of any spectacle. On another afternoon in Rome, the Roosevelts happened to be in the path of the Pope when he appeared in his sedan chair. Teedie hissed to Conie that he didn't "believe in" the Pope, yet when the procession passed by and the Pontiff reached out his hand, Teedie impulsively grabbed and kissed it.
He recorded odd moments in his journal, events that someone else might have regarded as contradictions in his parents, but which to a child's eye were part of an unquestioned continuity. When they were passing through Italy, for instance, his father, who might have been a philanthropist but was no pacifist, violently attacked a monk whom he believed had roughly elbowed Teedie out of the way on the street. Later on in this trip, the first Theodore bought cakes for hungry Italian peasants and then he and his family "fed them like chickens," in Teedie's words, forcing them to give "three cheers for the USA" before they were allowed to gobble up the bits of food.
The chauvinism was infectious. Nine-year-old Elliott, who, along with Teedie and Conie, stayed with a German family to enhance his education while Theodore and Mittie traveled for a while by themselves, wrote his father: "Don't you think that America is the best country in the world? Please when you write tell me if we have not got as good Musick and Arts as the Germans have at the present time?"
"New York!!! Hip! Horray!" Teedie wrote when the boat carrying them home docked after their year abroad. But he brought home with him what Mittie called "wheezy miserable nights," and over the next year he wore out remedies the doctors prescribed: coffee and cigars, cups and clysters.
The illness was painful and frightening; the physical weakness it caused was a humiliation. One event he remembered for the rest of his life occurred when he was fourteen and traveling home on a stagecoach from the countryside where he had been sent for pure air. Running afoul of two boys about his age who began to tease him, he tried to stand up to them, but each handled him easily, emphasizing the humiliation by not even bothering to hurt him. Teedie knew that his brother, Ellie, would have been able to give a good account of himself in similar circumstances and he wrote his father a shamed account of the incident.
It was clear that a crisis point had been reached. His father sat him down for a formal discussion: "Theodore, you have the mind but you have not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should." He asked Teedie if he would be willing to try to remake himself. The boy promised manfully that he would.
Theodore installed a gymnasium on the second-floor "piazza" of the family home. Because of her disability, Bamie was an observer. But the other three children worked at the swinging bars, weight pulleys, dumbbells, medicine balls. Ellie excelled effortlessly at what became known as the "piazza games." Teedie attacked the exercise equipment with a desperate frenzy. Conie watched with amazement over the months as he slowly transformed his thin chest, broadening it by regular monotonous training.
Slowly he began to change. He was far from robust, but he was no longer pure mind. With his father's approval, he also took boxing lessons from a man named John Long, who saw his natural competitiveness and set up matches with other boys with a pewter mug Teedie coveted as the prize for the championship that he eventually won.
Ellie was his training partner. They rowed and ran; wrestled and boxed. Elliott wrote, "Boxing is one of Teedie's and my favorite amusements; it is such a novelty to see the stars when it is not night." Teedie was still second best but he was becoming competitive. The brothers kept elaborate records of their competitions, referring to themselves in their journals as "Skinny" and "Swelly," names taken from Teedie's thin body and Ellie's easy charm.
After their father introduced them to the outdoors on a trip to the Adirondacks in 1871, they often went tramping together in the woods. Ellie was interested in feats of endurance -- long hikes, difficult climbs. Teedie was interested in observation. He became an accomplished ornithologist, able to identify birds by call as well as sight and maintaining elaborate records in which he dissected birdsong into vowels and consonants just as he was dissecting rodents and insects in his makeshift lab at home.
Nature would always have a Wordsworthian quality for him: a place to recreate (and re-create) his spirit. But it was also Darwinian. From the moment his father bought him his first firearm, a French double-barreled shotgun, Teedie began to kill things in great numbers, especially after he was fitted for glasses, which brought the world into true focus for the first time. In 1872, when the family went on another leg of its Grand Tour, this time to the Holy Land, Teedie kept meticulous account of the death he caused, winding up with a tally of over two hundred birds. The killing was an act of mastery, and perhaps an odd way of celebrating the power of his own life, which until recently had been in doubt. He also became an accomplished taxidermist, and this allowed him to turn death into transfiguration.
For Ellie, the elder Theodore Roosevelt was discipline and direction, a shining example. For Teedie their father was all this and something more. Later on he would say, in effect, that his father had been responsible for a double act of patrimony, not only giving him life but saving his life as well: "My father -- he got me breath. He got me lungs, strength, life." He had in mind all the things that the first Theodore had done for him -- the desperate midnight rides, the hurried visits to doctors all over the world, and construction of the home gymnasium -- but none more than this stern command to remake his body into a life-bearing vessel capable of holding the luminous intelligence. When TR wrote his Autobiography he saw as a completed act the process that unfolded gradually and often with great difficulty throughout his adolescence: "I had to train myself painfully and laboriously, not merely as regards my body but as regards my soul and spirit."
A characteristic letter from teenaged Teedie to Bamie says: "At present I am writing in a rather smelly room, as the fresh skins of six night herons are reposing on the table beside me...." His days were "full of ornithological enjoyment and reptilian rapture." The odor of preserving substances clung to him like an aura. (One well-meaning family maid took a toothbrush with which he applied arsenic to specimens out of his taxidermy kit, rinsed it off, and put it in a drawer for personal use.) He had enough of the absentminded professor about him that Ellie lampooned his unkempt appearance in a limerick:
There was an old fellow named Teedie
Whose clothes at best looked so seedy
That his friends in dismay
Hollered out, "Oh! I say!"
At the dirty old fellow named Teedie.
This thrust hurt less than it might have before because the balance of power between the brothers was shifting. They were still Skinny and Swelly -- the one far from robust, however much his outlook had improved, and the other still characterized by an abundance of good nature. But Teedie was not only remaking his body but also moving ahead quickly intellectually, excelling in the Greek and Latin lessons given by the tutor his father had hired as well as in the informal but equally demanding regimen he had designed for himself in natural history. Almost as if riding on the opposite end of a seesaw from his brother, Ellie fell a little as Teedie rose. Not only was he unable to keep up with his brother's prodigious intellectual accomplishments, but, more disturbing, now it was his health that was declining.
In 1875, when Teedie was beginning to prepare for Harvard, Elliott began to experience fainting spells, "blood rushes to the head," black-outs, and a sudden pain that filled his skull. With odd detachment, he wrote Teedie, "My body is getting so thin I can get a handful of skin right off my stomach, and my arms as well as legs look like I have the strength of a baby. I jump involuntarily at the smallest sound and have a perpetual headache...."
Suspecting that these problems might have something to do with Teedie's new dominance, Theodore decided to send Ellie South to stay awhile with his Bulloch relatives. But even with the boys separated, he continued unconsciously to double-knot the invisible string binding them together. He wrote Elliott to remind him that Teedie was someone worthy of his support, at the same time that he was sending letters to Teedie enjoining him to take care of his younger brother at all costs.
On his fifteenth birthday, Elliott wrote home to his mother feeling lonely and forgotten, although cloaking these emotions with the bravado that was becoming his defense: "Lately I have been feeling rather hurt for I always answer a letter as quickly as received and if you all did this I would get a letter nearly every day....I have received no birthday letter from 6 West 57th Street so I think they must have forgotten me."
He sent his father a letter lightly referring to him as "Governor" and attempting to be jocular while actually revealing the anxiety he felt about the competition with his brother: "Oh father will you ever think me a 'noble boy,' you are right about Tede he is one & no mistake a boy I would give a good deal to be like in many respects...."
As his younger son's problems concentrating and applying himself worsened, Theodore, thinking some individual attention might help, took the boy with him on a business trip to London. But while there he wrote back despairingly to Mittie that Ellie, once so fearless and confident, now could not sleep unless it was in his bed with him.
Because of his deteriorating condition, it was decided that Ellie should not follow Teedie to college. Missing a higher education did not seem to the parents a decisive issue: Theodore himself had not gone to college and was still considered an interesting enough person that Matthew Arnold had gladly accepted a dinner invitation from him while traveling in America. But Elliott saw the question in different terms -- not whether he would get a college degree, but whether he could keep up with Teedie. He pleaded with his father to be allowed to go away to school, and in the fall of 1875, he was enrolled as a boarding student at St. Paul's. Within weeks, he had a rush of blood and headache in the middle of Latin class and became unconscious.
"I can't remember what happened," he wrote home with a forced offhandedness. "I believe I screamed out....It had left me rather nervous, therefore homesick and unhappy....I would not bother you with this but you want to know all about me, don't you?"
Other boys in the Roosevelt social circle suffering from complaints ranging from consumption to neurasthenia had been sent out West for toughening up, and this was the solution Theodore decided on for Elliott. He arranged for the boy to go to Fort McKavett in Texas for several months in 1876.
Elliott's stay at this frontier outpost came as the West was entering the American imagination with particular drama. It was the year that George Armstrong Custer made his last stand; the last year that the great buffalo herds roamed the prairie. The experience in the lone prairies of Texas played to Elliott's strengths -- a zest for adventure, an ability to achieve easy camaraderie with his fellows. Yet he must have wondered why he was always having to leave his home and wrote sentimentally to his father, "Oh dear splendid old pater I wish I could tell you how much I love you but I can't you know, so there's no use wishing."
He soon adapted to life with cowboys and Indian fighters and a bravura tone entered his letters: "I have gone through some regular roughing since I last wrote you at Weatherford. After we left there we came slowly camping at night and shooting all that we wanted to eat...." In another letter, he wrote that he was sleeping out under the stars in a bedroll and using a mongrel dog for a pillow, "partly for warmth and partly to drown out the smell of my bed partner."
Elliott tried to spend time preparing for another try at school, but was too taken with the distracting excitement of frontier life to succeed and wrote home apologetically, "I feel well enough to study and instead here I am spending all your money down here as if I were ill....Altogether I feel like a general fraud...." He also noted, somewhat ominously given what was to follow, that there was a good deal of drinking that took place at the fort and that while he had so far avoided temptation it had not been easy.
Meanwhile, the "noble boy" Teedie was continuing to come into himself. He was not handsome. His face had a dominating square jaw, which, combined with the way his eyes got lost behind the reflective discs of his glasses, sometimes gave him a severe look. His teeth were strikingly regular and white, but sometimes seemed out of control, chopping at his wounds and amputating the ends of his sentences. In a candid self-inventory, he said that his well-formed ears were his only good feature.
He knew from the tone of his brother's letters that Ellie was having success with frontier girls, who were captivated by his urbane charm. He himself was looking with new eyes at Edith Carow, who as usual visited his family when they went to Oyster Bay for the summer. One of her schoolmates at Miss Comstock's had said of her: "I believe you could live in the same house with Edith for 50 years and never really get to know her." But Teedie felt that he knew her as well as his own past. He rowed her across Oyster Bay every day of her stay and she read to him. When he went off to Harvard that fall, it was assumed that they were pledged to each other.
It was a sentimental leave-taking from his father. The two Theodores had grown closer in the time of Elliott's troubles, collaborating in concern over him. They had talked of Ellie's problems and also of young Theodore's own future. If he really wanted to be the next Audubon, as he said he did, then Thee (he had now graduated from "Teedie") must realize that he was in effect taking a vow of poverty, his father said, although there would always be enough money to help support him in this poorly paid occupation.
His departure for Cambridge was seen by the first Theodore as a rite of passage: "As I saw the last of the train bearing you away the other day I realized what a luxury it was to have a boy in whom I could place perfect trust and confidence who was leaving me to take his first important position in the world." A few weeks later came a more emotional letter on the occasion of Thee's eighteenth birthday: "I have worked pretty hard all my life and anticipate passing over to you many of my responsibilities as soon as your shoulders are broad enough to bear them."
Teddy wrote back to his father a letter pledging that this trust was not misplaced. While he was out of the cloister of the family for the first time in his life, he was still to be counted on: "I do not think there is a fellow in College who has a family that loves him as much as you all do me, and I am sure that there is no one who has a father who is also his best and most intimate friend, as you are mine. I have kept the first letter you wrote me and shall do my best to deserve your trust."
Meanwhile, he had already begun to establish his own legend at school. Dr. Johnson's definition of the salient feature of metaphysical poetry, picked up by a later Harvard man, T. S. Eliot, could have been made with young Theodore in mind: heterogeneous concepts yoked together with violence. One woman who met him in his freshman year recalled him as "a campus freak with stuffed snakes and lizards in his room, with a peculiar violent vehemence of speech and manner, and an overriding interest in everything." Friends went to his rooms for boxing and wrestling contests, which were followed by recitations of "The Raven" and then long discussions of the metaphysical significance of Tennyson's "In Memoriam." Becoming agitated over some abstruse point in class, he would sometimes jump up and talk so long and intensely that the professor would finally have to remind him he was the student, not the teacher.
He was stepping into a larger social world at Harvard. He wrote home that he had been on a hay ride with a group of friends and said that one of the girls "looked quite like Edith -- only not nearly so pretty as her Ladyship: who when she dresses well and don't frizzle her hair is a very pretty girl." The girls he met found him eccentric. One of them said to his sister Conie, "If I were writing to Theodore I would have to say something of this kind, 'I have enjoyed Plutarch's last essay on the philosophy of Diogenes excessively.' "Yet she added that he had such high spirits and good humor that she feared being seated next to him at dinner parties lest he trigger a laughing fit that would embarrass her in front of the other guests. Unlike Ellie, however, who was already beginning to make amatory conquests, Teddy was obsessed with personal virtue. The moralistic views he was beginning to apply to others he applied with equal stringency to himself. "Thank Heaven I am pure!" he wrote in his journal.
He returned for his second year at Harvard near the top of his class. But something important was happening back home that took precedence over his own success. His father had become involved in politics. It seemed an odd development to some of the first Theodore's friends, but after all his brother Robert had been a congressman and it was actually a short step from trying to mitigate suffering to trying to change the institutions that produced it.
When he went to the 1876 Republican presidential convention as the head of a reform delegation dedicated to blocking the candidacy of New York's egregious Senator Roscoe Conkling, Theodore came to the attention of the party's eventual nominee, Rutherford B. Hayes. After becoming President, Hayes nominated him as collector of the Port of New York, one of the biggest and hitherto most corrupt patronage positions in the country. It was another challenge to the Republican machine controlled by Conkling.
The collectorship was of such potential prestige that it would have vaulted Theodore, just forty-six and apparently full of vigor, into a position of immense political power. But the vindictive Conkling succeeded in blocking the nomination and worked hard to blacken Theodore's reputation. After being the target of unremitting attack for several weeks, Theodore sent a letter to Teddy at Harvard admitting that he had been defeated: "The machine politicians have shown their colors....I fear for your future. We cannot stand so corrupt a government for any length of time."
Soon afterward Theodore began to experience terrible stomach pain. Word of his illness reached Cambridge and Teddy worriedly wrote Bamie shortly before Christmas: "I am very uneasy about Father. Does the Doctor think it anything serious?" But the thought seemed impossible and he dismissed it: "The trouble is the dear old fellow never does think of himself in anything."
Miraculously, Theodore Sr.'s pain abated enough for the family to make it through the holidays. But shortly after the New Year it returned. Having recently come home from Texas, Elliott took charge of the situation, giving his brother censored reports of the seriousness of the illness to keep him from worrying. But soon what had been thought to be a simple inflammation of the bowel was diagnosed as an inoperable cancer.
Over the next few weeks, Elliott showed his strength of character by becoming his father's chief caretaker and the midwife of his death. His sister Corinne watched Ellie at their father's bedside and compared his tenderness to that of a woman, especially in the last stage of the illness, when "his young strength was poured out to help his father's condition." Elliott left his own account of the horror of the first Theodore's last days: "He never said anything but 'Oh! My!' but the agony in his face was awful. Ether and sedatives were of no avail....Pretty soon Father began to vomit after which with face fearful with pain he would clasp me tight in his arms...." Feeling himself failing, Theodore issued an injunction: Elliott must now take care of Mittie.
Finally, on the morning of February 9, 1878, with some of the newsboys and orphans his father had spent much of his life helping huddled together in a death watch on the steps of 6 West 57th Street, Elliott at last heard "the gurgling breathing of death....[Then] his eyelids fluttered, he gave three breaths. It is finished." Mittie cried out, "I expect he is safe in the arms of Jesus now!"
Elliott tried to sleep knowing that he would have to explain to his brother why he had not called him: "I promised if there was danger to have him there. May God forgive me as the old boy did...."
When Teddy got home the next day flags throughout New York City were lowered to half mast. The New York World headline for the next day read: FUNERAL OF HIM WHO WAS EYES TO THE BLIND, FEET TO THE LAME, GOOD TO ALL. Teddy came into the parlor and kissed his dead father's face.
Elliott was devastated. The props had been kicked out from under his future just as he seemed ready to pick up his life again. For Teddy -- he was the only Theodore Roosevelt now -- the death was tragedy but also a call to responsibility. There was a swirling series of imperatives. He was now head of the family. He had to make his own way and yet lead the rest of them too. But he was weighed down with guilt for having failed the man who twice gave him life in his time of need.
He tried to rise to the occasion, writing Bamie soon after the death when he was trying to pick up the pieces back at Harvard: "I really feel badly when I think how much you overrate my abilities; but I shall try my best to reflect credit on father's name." The same day he wrote Conie that his vision of their father was still so real that "it seems as if I could see him and hear his voice." Indeed, the memory was almost like the ghost of Hamlet's father -- steering him in the direction of duty, inspiring him to action. Teddy told Conie that he would always keep his father's letters close by, "if merely as talismans against evil."
Years later TR would say that he never made an important decision as President without asking himself what his father would have thought. He always kept the first Theodore's portrait on the wall of his study so that the beloved face looked down on him at his desk. Whenever asked about his father, TR said simply, "He was the best man I ever knew."
Copyright © 1994 by Peter Collier, Inc.
An American Saga
An American Saga
The Roosevelts is a brilliant and controversial account of twentieth-century American political culture as seen through the lens of its preeminent political dynasty. Peter Collier shows how Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, along with their descendants, scrambled to define the direction that American politics would take. The Oyster Bay clan, influenced by the flamboyant Teddy, was extroverted, eccentric, tradition-bound, and family-oriented. They represented an age of American innocence that would be replaced by Franklin's Hyde Park Roosevelts, who were aloof and cold yet individualistic and progressive.
The Roosevelts is history at its most penetrating, a crucial work that illuminates the foundations of contemporary, American politics.