Today's interviewee authored the one book I read while I was on my honeymoon--I've been interested in Alice Longworth Roosevelt since, as a little girl, I read about her and her freewheeling life in these old Time Life books my parents have. "Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker" was a fascinating read not just chronicling one legendary woman's life but almost a century of American politics. I highly recommend it. Cordery is also a history professor at and the curator of the Monmouth College Archives and is the bibliographer at the National First Ladies' Library. So I bet she has some thoughts on these sketches, but we didn't get to talk about fashion.
Did you speak to any surviving Roosevelts about their memories of Alice? What did they have to say?
I interviewed many people who knew Alice Longworth, including the granddaughter she raised. The two most important things I learned from the interviews were crucial to my interpretation. First, I heard over and over again about the depth and breath of Alice Roosevelt Longworth's intellect. Everyone commented on the agility of her mind and the fact that she knew backwards and forwards the subjects that interested her the most: politics, certainly, but also astronomy, evolutionary biology, poetry, and history. The second critical thing I learned in an interview resulted in one of those "ah-ha" moments. I had been struggling with the fact that Mrs. L had been remembered chiefly for her witticisms, some of them (like Franklin Delano Roosevelt being "two-thirds mush and one-third Eleanor") very acerbic. If she is reduced to those tart and piercing epigrams, then, I thought at the time, she must have been really just a horrible woman. But then I interviewed someone who knew her very well, and in response to my suggestion, my interviewee urged me to consider how many people--famous, infamous, unknown--came eagerly and often to her home. If she was really a terrible and unpleasant person, no one would have come.
I corresponded once with Kim Roosevelt for a piece I did once on legal thriller writing. Do you keep tabs on what the other living Roosevelts are up to?
Yes and no. Because antecedents and progeny can often suggest a lot about a subject, I did a fair bit of research on the public lives of all the Roosevelts. They are--to a person--a fascinating family, and many of them seem to share certain "Rooseveltian" characteristics. They are driven, energetic, intellectually curious, mnemonically gifted, and they're intrepid explorers.
After finishing your book I tried to see if there was any footage of interviews with Alice Roosevelt on Youtube. Were you able to find much film footage of her, and what did you take away from it?
Alice Roosevelt Longworth was interviewed many times, especially near the end of her 96 years. The BBC did a marvelous television interview with her and it was very helpful to see the way she spoke. Michael Teague, who spent hours taping conversations with her, suggested once that her memoir, Crowded Hours, was never as good as anything she said, because much of what was so screamingly funny came from the arch of the eyebrow, the skillfully displayed canine, the sentence that dangled.
Who today do you think comes closest to resembling Alice Roosevelt in spirit?
There is no one like Alice Roosevelt today--and I don't think there ever will be again. The world is very different now, and she was able to live her life on her own terms, to be a mostly behind-the-scenes player in Washington because of the heady combination of who she was (a born iconoclast, brilliant, witty, beautiful, and charming) and what she was (the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, the wife of the Speaker of the House, the lover of the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the cousin of Eleanor Roosevelt and of Franklin Roosevelt). Even contemporary First Daughters--the Bushes or the Obamas--cannot compare to Alice as First Daughter. Today's intense media coverage of the First Family would never allow someone like Alice to be who they were in that semi-official position.
What do you think Alice think about this election?
Historians are always on shaky ground when we try to imagine what past persons might thing of current activities. In Alice's case, it's particularly tricky. She lived nearly a century, so to suggest what she would have thought about this landmark election, we'd have to take into account that her politics changed as times did. As a young woman rabidly backing her father's third-party attempt in 1912 and again as an elderly woman who referred to herself as "a Bull Moose Republican," I'd say she'd have been thrilled to see Barack Obama win. During the middle of her life, however, Alice Longworth was a staunch and conservative Republican.
Did your opinion on Alice change throughout the process of getting to know her more?
Yes. I was first interested in the phenomenon of her celebrityhood as First Daughter from 1901-1906. Alice Roosevelt grew up in a public crucible--and yet she managed simultaneously to take advantage of all that the White House had to offer and be vehemently her own person. She had so many things going for her and enjoyed herself so much--when she went off to Asia as a goodwill ambassador for President Roosevelt she was treated like royalty and had truly unique experiences. Her White House wedding was the party of the century. She had gifts from young women who modeled themselves and their clothing styles on her, from Americans of all sorts, but also from the Pope, the Dowager Empress of China, from Cuba! I was quite enamored! But then I began to think that Alice Longworth had never really capitalized on all of her talents. I went through a long phase of comparing her unfavorably to Eleanor Roosevelt before I figured out that they really were two absolutely different personalities with two completely different points of entrance to the national scene, and two very different platforms from which to work. Once I factored in Alice's youth, her shyness, and her family dynamics and stopped the unfair comparison, I think I achieved a more balanced and nuanced view of her.
I was fascinated by the Countess Cassini based on what I read about her in your book but was surprised that I wasn't able to find much about her online. Was her autobiography a fun read?
First Daughter Alice Roosevelt, the Russian ambassador's daughter Marguerite Cassini, and the heiress Cissy Patterson were known as the Three Graces, and they scandalized Washington society. Alice taught Maggie and Cissy how to play poker. Maggie taught Alice and Cissy how to smoke. Cissy taught them the latest dances. Cassini's autobiography was a fun read, and it's easy to see why Alice was drawn to her. Cissy Patterson, though, had a far more tempestuous life. Amanda Kennedy Smith is writing Patterson's biography--and it will be mesmerizing. Cissy held a torch for Alice's husband and for Alice's lover!
What was your process for researching and writing this book?
Alice was possible because of the generosity of Alice Roosevelt Longworth's granddaughter, Joanna Sturm, who gave me unfettered access to Alice's papers. These papers contained hundreds upon hundreds of letters to and from prominent politicians, drafts of Alice's syndicated newspaper column, the odd musing, doodles, word games, social calendars, scrapbooks--it was a treasure trove. Of course, I consulted archival sources for Roosevelt family members and for Alice's correspondents such as her diaries and other papers in the Library of Congress and at Harvard University and elsewhere. Because I had such riches, I wrote the first draft of Alice based solely on those primary sources.
What would she think of McCain/Palin invoking her family and its legacy?
Many politicians of both political parties have lionized and quoted TR. At bottom, Alice Roosevelt Longworth loved and admired her father. During her youth, she fought hard to get his attention--and part of the wildness of her First Daughter years can be attributed to that. As a young married woman, she aided him in his attempts to provide a more equal playing ground for Americans of all sorts. By the time she was much older, Mrs. L cared very much about his legacy. She shared TR's views on the necessity of conserving the nation's natural resources. Like her other family members, she believed in the importance of the strenuous life, and despite the brace she had to wear as a girl was a great walker and horseback rider. However, Mrs. L did go through a phase where she publicly shrugged off any sort of romantic view of her father--as a father or as president. She did not believe that the country was best served by turning mortals into gods.
Who are some of your other favorite First Families?
I admire many things about both branches of the Roosevelt family. I admire First Families who have used the opportunities given to them by Americans to do good in the world. For one example, I think that all women have benefited from the courage Betty Ford summoned--in the midst of her own pain--to educate us about breast cancer.
I see that you curate the First Ladies library: in terms of personal history, not politics, who appeals to you more as a historian, Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain (IE whose story fascinates you more, even if you wouldn't necessarily want her in the White House)?
Both women are fascinating. It's the relationship of First Ladies to power that intrigues me. It's what women do in that strange position that's interesting. The first lady is not mentioned in the Constitution. She's not paid a salary; she has no job description; and she can't be fired. Yet she has enormous power, worldwide. She is the only person who has the ear of the president, night and day. Her concerns become our concerns. Her interests become our interests. First ladies have almost always had extraordinary backgrounds--usually powerful men choose equally strong partners. As the opportunities for American women continue to expand, future first ladies--like those in the recent past--will bring to the White House the advantages of their educations, their careers, and their professional expertise. It's very exciting. And consider: how long until we have a First Gentleman?
You've done a lot of research on remarkable women in history. Which of them are your personal heroes, if any?
I have many, many heroes--these are just the few off the top of my head...
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Susan B. Anthony
Teresa of Avila
Julian of Norwich
Fannie Lou Hamer
Juliette Gordon Low
My mother, Agnes Brewer Rozek
My mother-in-law, Mary Burfield Cordery
What are you working on now?
I am working on a biography of Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. It will be published by Viking in early 2012, in time for the one-hundred year anniversary of the founding of the G.S.U.S.A. on 12 March. Juliette Low had a remarkable childhood, and a rather sad life with a husband who was much nastier than Nick Longworth. Low created far and away the most important organization for girls ever--and she did it when she was in her fifties and deaf.
Do you professors check out sites like ratemyprofessors.com?
Hah! It is my suspicion that only professors who are very new to the classroom and those who are insecure about their teaching put any stock in that anonymous feedback mechanism. Anonymous feedback sites like the one you mention tend to encourage bitterness. Most colleges and universities have better student evaluation forms that professors can tailor to their own courses and thus get much more useful assessment information. Monmouth College, where I teach, is such a small school that we pretty much know the student take on us--and on all our colleagues.
How does it feel to be the 221st person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
I am honored and flattered, and I wish you such success that you're well into four digits before I can return to write about Juliette Gordon Low.