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Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt: A Look Behind the Saintly First Lady

You have to wonder what Edith Kermit Carow was feeling at the wedding of Theodore Roosevelt Jr., and Alice Hathaway Lee.

Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt

Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt

Edith, born in Norwich, Conn., on August 6, 1861, grew up next door to the bridegroom in the fashionable Gramercy Park section of New York City. Their childhood friendship blossomed into teen-aged romance, but then Roosevelt went away to college and met Alice Lee.

Fifteen years into her own marriage to Roosevelt, she found herself presiding over the White House as First Lady. For decades, she enjoyed a sterling reputation among historians for her performance in the role. But then in 2018, historian Lewis Gould wrote a biography of Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt that revealed an unflattering side to her.

She could be nasty. And she was definitely a racist.

Edith Kermit Carow

Theodore was the son of socialite Martha Stewart Bulloch and prominent businessman and philanthropist Theodore Roosevelt. Edith was the granddaughter of Daniel Tyler, a Union general during the Civil War and railroad president. Her great-grandfather fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. The family’s ancestral home was in Brooklyn, Conn.

Theodore Roosevelt was three years older than Edith. She was his sister’s best friend and his first playmate outside of the family. As teenaged sweethearts, they spent hours together during the summer at Oyster Bay, Long Island. They were called ‘Teedie’ and ‘Edie.’

Then Teedie went away to Harvard, where he met and fell in love with Alice Lee. They married at the Unitarian Church in Brookline, Mass., on Oct. 27, 1880. Edith was a guest at the wedding.

Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt and FamilyLess than four years later, Alice Roosevelt died suddenly, two days after giving birth to their daughter, Alice. Grief-stricken, Roosevelt put the baby in the care of his sister and took off for the Badlands.

After he returned, he renewed his romance with Edith. Then on Nov. 17, 1885, Theodore Roosevelt proposed, and she accepted.

Mrs. Roosevelt

They married in a small ceremony on Dec. 2, 1886, at St. George’s Church of Hanover Square in London. A fog had settled over the city so thick that it filled the church. The groom wore bright orange gloves. According to one story, the gloves were a fashion choice made by his best man. According to another, he wore them so Edith wouldn’t marry the wrong man by mistake.

Edith insisted Baby Alice live with them, and they had five children of their own. The family lived in Sagamore Hill, Long Island, during her husband’s political rise. He became vice president of the United States in March 1901.

Eighteen months, the vice-presidential family took a vacation in the Adirondacks. Then word came that President McKinley died from an assassin’s bullet. Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt was now First Lady.

First Lady

As First Lady, she brought a steadying influence on her impetuous husband. She also had a head for money, which he didn’t. And she brought order to her rambunctious family and to the White House.

She set precedents followed by every First Lady since. Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt put a social secretary on the federal payroll. She brought fine arts to the White House — including cellist Pablo Casals, who First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy would also host at the White House.

Edith Roosevelt, official White House portrait

The White House living quarters couldn’t contain the large Roosevelt family, which had to share the second floor of the West Wing with staff offices. So Edith hired McKim, Mead & White to separate the living quarters from the offices. Offices moved downstairs to what is now known as the West Wing.

She was described as “always the gentle, high-bred hostess” and “an aristocrat to the tips of her fingers.”

“Edith Roosevelt achieved something as close to secular sainthood within the apparatus of presidential history as anyone could have imagined,” Gould told C-Span in a 2013 interview.

Another Side

She had another side, though. Her children sometimes found her tough to live with. She once told her daughter-in-law, “At no time in my life would I have hesitated to chop all my children into pieces for their father,”

The National First Ladies’ Biography describes another flaw delicately. Her letters “reflected the demeaning terminology of the era’s white, elite class for those who were non-white and working-class.” However, the First Ladies’ Library also notes, “documentation shows that she consistently maintained her private charitable donations to those citizens who, beset by illness or unemployment, were in dire need.”

Gould, however, discovered a letter she’d written that suggested her animus toward black people was more intense than most of her contemporaries.

Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt by Frances Benjamin

He also discovered she used racial slurs in her letters to her son Kermit, away at boarding school.

Gould argued that Edith Roosevelt probably influenced her husband, who fell short of his self appraisal as the heir to Abraham Lincoln.

In one of the most famous incidents of his presidency, Roosevelt summarily dismissed three companies of African-American soldiers framed for the shooting death of a white man in Brownsville, Texas.

“She was not a monster, and the contribution she made to the evolution of presidential spouses were important and lasting,” Gould said. “But she was also a woman with an intellectual flaw that characterized her life in the White House and her effect on her husband.”

Life After the White House

Theodore Roosevelt died of a heart attack in 1919, 10 years after leaving the White House. Edith survived him by nearly three decades, She traveled widely, edited her family papers and co-authored a travel book. In 1927, she bought her great-grandfather’s home in Brooklyn, Conn, as a summer retreat. When Franklin Roosevelt, her distant relative by marriage ran for president, she endorsed Herbert Hoover.

Until her death on Sept. 30, 1948, she stayed involved with the Oyster Bay Needlework Guild, which provided clothing for poor people. In 1932, she told the group,

Nothing would please me more than when I die they put this inscription on my tombstone:
Everything she did was for the happiness of others.

With thanks to Edith Kermit Roosevelt Creating the Modern First Lady by Lewis Gould.

‘Edith Roosevelt’ by Bain News Service. Image available from the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ggbain.04770. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. ‘Theodore Roosevelt and family, 1903’ by unknown photographer. Image available from the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c13665. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. This story was updated in 2021.

 

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