Thanks to the glossy magazines and gossip websites of today, you might be forgiven for thinking that the cult of celebrity is a modern phenomenon. But more than a century ago, Alice Roosevelt was an icon of her era. And at a time when women were expected to be well-mannered and reserved, President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter was anything but.
Known as the most unruly first daughter in White House history, Alice followed her father Teddy Roosevelt into the spotlight after his 1901 inauguration. Just 17 years old, she was soon making headlines as much for her daring behavior as for her beauty and style. So, what was the real story behind the woman who drove the 26th president to despair?
Over the course of her father’s presidency – and, indeed, for the rest of her long life – Alice’s sharp tongue and unconventional habits won her many admirers. But this was a time when women were meant to be seen and not heard. Cigarette in hand, she kept America entertained with her scandalous antics, even getting banned from the White House on more than one occasion.
Teddy Roosevelt himself once remarked, “I can do one of two things. I can be President of the United States or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both.” So, what exactly was it that made her such a force to be reckoned with? And how did she remain America’s darling, long after even her father had left Washington for good?
Like many future first daughters, Alice had politics in her blood from the very beginning. Born on February 12, 1884, she was the only child of Theodore Roosevelt – then a member of the New York State Assembly – and the heiress Alice Lee Hathaway. But sadly, just a few days after her arrival, tragedy struck.
After giving birth to their daughter, Roosevelt’s wife fell ill and passed away. And in a cruel twist of fate, the future president lost his own mother on the same day. Overcome with grief, he fled Manhattan and traveled northwest to Dakota Territory, leaving baby Alice to be looked after by his own sister Anna.
In fact, it’s said that Roosevelt was so traumatized by the death of his wife that he could no longer bear to hear her name spoken aloud. So, he started to refer to his daughter by the nickname Baby Lee. Alice herself, meanwhile, thrived under the guardianship of Anna, who she called Auntie Bye.
Alice once said of her aunt, “If Auntie Bye had been a man, she would have been president.” So, did this influential woman sow the seeds for her niece’s own fierce independence later in life? Certainly, the first daughter went on to credit Anna as the person responsible for holding their fractured family together.
In December 1886 Roosevelt remarried, tying the knot with Edith Kermit Carow, who’d lived next door to him as a child. And when the couple set up home on Long Island, Alice returned to live with the family once more. There, over time, she grew into a renowned beauty, while her father continued to rise through the political ranks.
After his time in Dakota Territory, Roosevelt had grown sympathetic to the plight of American citizens living out in the West. While he might’ve been dismissed as an intellectual before, this real-world experience lent him a much broader political appeal. And on his return to New York, he accepted a nomination to serve as the city’s mayor.
Although Roosevelt didn’t win, his political career was far from over. After serving as a New York city police commissioner and governor of New York, he was elected vice president in the administration of William McKinley. But on September 6, 1901, something happened that would send his career in a dramatic new direction.
While attending an exposition in Buffalo, New York, President McKinley was shot by an assassin. At first it seemed as if he was going to make a full recovery, so Roosevelt wasn’t too concerned. But on September 14 the president passed away, leaving his second-in-command to step into the coveted role.
Later that same day, Roosevelt was inaugurated as president of the United States. At just 42 years old, he became the youngest man in history to hold the position. But even though his term hadn’t been planned, he rose admirably to the challenge. Today, he’s widely remembered as a trailblazer who brought a renewed sense of vigor to the White House.
Throughout his presidency, Roosevelt pursued a number of policies that might be thought of as quite progressive. He championed national parks and the protection of natural resources. And later, he became a proponent of the welfare state. But even as he won admirers in Washington and beyond, his daughter was wreaking havoc behind the scenes.
By the time that he became president, Roosevelt had fathered five more children with his second wife. It was Alice, though, that quickly became the darling of American society. Just 17 years old when her family was thrust into the spotlight, her beauty alone would no doubt have made her the talk of the town.
But Alice wasn’t just beautiful; she was headstrong and independent as well. And in some ways, she was the perfect first daughter. When acting as an official hostess, for instance, she charmed and delighted her guests, so much so that Roosevelt came to depend on her to attend diplomatic occasions.
In early 20th century American society, though, Alice was an anomaly. After all, this was almost two decades before women would gain the vote. And while the tide was slowly beginning to turn in favor of more equal rights, those born female were still largely seen as wives and child-rearers above all else.
In fact, just a few years before Roosevelt arrived in Washington, the White House had fostered some very different views on female empowerment. As first lady to the 22nd and 24th president, Frances Cleveland actively opposed the suffragettes’ cause, claiming that women weren’t intelligent enough to vote. And while her daughter Esther was a little more liberal, their attitudes were worlds away from Alice’s free-spirited ways.
Traditionally, the role of the first daughter wasn’t exactly hands on. In fact, many of Alice’s predecessors left the family home and married at an early age. And even though many of these relationships resulted in misery and trauma, Roosevelt may well have expected his eldest child to follow a similar path.
Alice, though, wasn’t the type to settle down easily. On January 3, 1902, she made her official society debut with an elaborate party inside the White House itself. But before long, it had become clear that she was no ordinary socialite – and that she had no intention of toeing the party line.
From her debut onward, the first daughter was rarely out of the nation’s headlines. And as young women scrambled to dress themselves in her signature color – which was known as Alice Blue – she inspired everything from music to fashion trends. However, she also refused to conform to the outdated standards that confined young women at the time.
Inside the White House itself, historians claim, Alice ran wild, joining her brothers and sisters as they played games and created chaos. And when important guests came calling, she had a rather startling surprise up her sleeve. Stashed in her purse was a green snake lovingly dubbed Emily Spinach, after the vegetable and a maiden aunt.
Shockingly for the time, Alice also enjoyed cigarettes. According to the White House Historical Association, when Roosevelt tried to forbid the unladylike practice, he told her that it would never be allowed “under his roof.” So, she climbed to the top of the building, where she was presumably allowed to indulge her habit in peace.
But Alice’s eccentricities were by no means limited to the White House. Away from her father’s home she attended society events, partied into the early hours and stepped out in public with a long line of eligible men. In fact, an article in the French newspaper Journal des Debats announced that, in one 15-month period, she’d appeared at more than 400 dinners and 350 balls.
Perhaps it was around this time, then, that Roosevelt delivered his famous line about having to choose between running the country and managing his errant daughter. But while Alice’s wild child personality must certainly have caused him some consternation over the years, he wasn’t above utilizing her charm for political gain.
After Alice excelled on a diplomatic trip to Puerto Rico in 1903, Roosevelt decided to send her to Asia as part of a delegation promoting peace. This official position, though, did little to quell her more outrageous habits. Reportedly, she leapt fully clothed into a swimming pool while en route to Japan aboard a cruise ship.
Up until this point, Alice had kept the newspapers guessing when it came to her personal relationships. But by the time that she came back from Asia, she was engaged to Nicholas Longworth, a congressman who was older than her by 14 years. And on February 17 the following year, the couple married in a wedding heavily reported by the national press.
Never one to play the demure, blushing bride, Alice chose a wedding dress in her signature shade of blue. And when the time came to cut the cake, she borrowed a sword to do the honors. After a honeymoon in Cuba, the couple returned to America and settled in Washington. Now married, the first daughter could have succumbed to a quiet life of children and homemaking – but that was never her style.
Three years after the wedding, Roosevelt’s time in the White House came to an end. But his mischievous daughter wasn’t about to leave without putting up a fight. According to a 1999 article on the news website Salon, Alice made a voodoo doll in the shape of Nellie Taft, the new first lady. She then buried it under the property’s front yard.
Ultimately, Alice’s torment of her father’s successors would lead to a ban from the White House – and that wasn’t the only time. Years later, in 1916, an inappropriate joke would cause President Woodrow Wilson to issue the same punishment. But these chastisements did little to suppress the spirits of the former first daughter.
In fact, even Alice’s marriage to Longworth didn’t prevent her from courting scandal. After they supported different candidates in the election of 1912, their relationship cooled. And over the years, it became something of an open secret in Washington that Roosevelt’s daughter was engaging in a number of illicit affairs.
Perhaps the most high profile of these was Alice’s relationship with William Borah, a Republican senator. According to her diaries, it was he who was the father of her daughter Paulina – and not Longworth. But despite their difficulties, she remained married to her husband until his death from pneumonia in 1931.
While many women of the time simply faded into obscurity after their husband’s deaths, Alice remained a prominent figure in Washington society. What’s more, she continued to take no prisoners as far as expressing her opinion was concerned. When her distant relative Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned for office, for example, she made no secret of her distaste.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Alice performed a presumably unflattering impression of Franklin’s wife Eleanor that was a hit with her fellow Republicans. And in her 1988 biography of the former first daughter, Carol Felsenthal quoted her as saying she “would rather vote for Hitler” than give the then-president a third term.
Even today, Alice is remembered for her sharp tongue and quick wit, with many famous quotes attributed to her over the years. Reportedly, she kept a pillow in her home emblazoned with the legend, “If you can’t say anything good about someone, sit right here by me.” And when the senator Joseph McCarthy called her by her first name, she delivered a scathing retort.
According to the publisher Katherine Graham, the response came, “Senator McCarthy, you are not going to call me Alice. The truckman, the trashman and the policeman on my block may call me Alice, but you may not.” On another occasion, she is said to have told President Lyndon B. Johnson that her large hat was a ruse to prevent him from kissing her.
Sadly, despite her dazzling personality, Alice’s life was tinged by tragedy. In 1957 her daughter Paulina took a fatal overdose, leaving Alice to raise Paulina’s own young daughter Joanna. But like most things in her life, the former first daughter rose to the challenge, developing a close bond with her orphaned grandchild.
Although Alice eventually took a step back from Washington society, she returned during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. Despite her advanced years, it seems, she had lost none of her shrewd humor or love of gossip. And by the end of her life, she had become affectionately known as “Washington’s other monument.”
In the end, Alice would outlive her famous father by more than 60 years, dying in Washington at the ripe old age of 96. In his 1990 memoir, former president Richard Nixon called her, “the most interesting [conversationalist of the age].” Later, he added, “No one, no matter how famous, could ever outshine her.”
According to reports, Alice never actually met Jimmy Carter, the last president to serve during her lifetime, believing him to be too uncouth for the role. But that didn’t stop him from delivering an official statement honoring her after her death. It read, “She had style, she had grace, and she had a sense of humor that kept generations of political newcomers to Washington wondering which was worse – to be skewered by her wit or to be ignored by her.”
And so Alice Roosevelt went down in history as the most unruly First Daughter to ever grace the White House. But that’s not to say the building hasn’t hosted some other notorious residents. Take First Lady Julia Tyler, for example. Although she grew up in polite society, it didn’t stop her from creating an infamous reputation for herself. And Julia’s notoriety even preceded her time in the White House; it lasted, moreover, until she and her husband, President John Tyler, retired to their Virginia estate.
The title of First Lady originated in the United States – although, for many years, there was no single term to refer to the wife of the president. For instance, when George Washington served as the nation’s first president, most people called his wife, Martha, simply “Lady Washington.”
And a 1838 article in the St. Johnsbury Caledonian described how Martha Washington still kept some of the same rituals in which she had engaged before her husband had become president. The author – an individual going under the name of “Mrs. Sigourney” – wrote, “The first lady of the nation still preserved the habits of early life. Indulging in no indolence, she left the pillow at dawn.” By 1877, meanwhile, the term “first lady” had gained national attention, leading it to become more commonly used as a manner in which to refer to presidents’ wives.
But, of course, wives haven’t been the only ones to have served as presidents’ first ladies; in other cases, daughters, nieces or sisters have stepped into the role instead. And that worked well in the past, when a First Lady’s responsibilities were more ceremonial than political.
In the 20th century, though, first ladies began to establish themselves as more than just their husbands’ helpers. In particular, using their considerable influence, they began to take on good causes. Jackie Kennedy championed the arts and served as a traveling ambassador during her time in the White House, for instance.
But long before these well-known women, Julia Tyler had her term as the nation’s First Lady – although she would make her mark in other ways than through her advocacy. On May 4, 1820, she was born Julia Gardiner on her family’s own island in East Hampton, New York. And as that location suggests, her parents were well-to-do. Julia’s father, David Gardiner, worked as a lawyer and would become a state senator; her mother’s family, meanwhile, had a thriving real-estate business.
Young Julia’s lavish lifestyle saw her attend New York City’s Chegary Institute, a well-established finishing school for women. Then, after she had completed her schooling, she became one of the city’s most prominent socialites. Julia’s fame came back to bite her at 19, though, when she made a questionable decision. And this resolution became the first of many that would build her scandalous reputation.
At that time, Julia appeared in a newspaper advertisement for a clothing emporium. There, she featured alongside an anonymous man, with the ad’s caption calling her “The Rose of Long Island.” And thanks to her feature in the lithograph, she became the first New York City woman to ever star in a commercial endorsement.
Yet while today’s famous families may rejoice over such publicity, Julia’s parents felt shock and embarrassment after seeing their daughter’s ad. So, they decided to take her to Europe until the scandal wore off. The trio visited nine countries over the course of 11 months before they went home to New York in 1841.
But that was only one of Julia’s known indiscretions. And her return to the United States didn’t come with an improved reputation, as her parents had hoped. Instead, Julia became known as a flirt, and her charm and beauty duly earned her the affection of several young men. Some of them even popped the question – requests that she presumably went on to decline.
Supposedly, Julia did what was considered unthinkable in the 19th century: namely, showing her male suitors that she had taken a liking to them. And while her actions mortified her parents, she nevertheless drew many men in – among them a German baron and a Belgian count.
To that end, Julia had caught the eye of several prominent American men, too. For one, she is said to have had a romance with James Buchanan, who would go on to become president in 1857 and who famously stayed a bachelor until his death in 1868. She was also linked to the 13th president, Millard Fillmore, who was married at the time of their flirtation.
And another politically linked man caught the young Julia’s eye: John Tyler Jr., the son of then-President John Tyler. Julia’s family had spent the winter of late 1841 and early 1842 in Washington, D.C.; and while there, they had rubbed shoulders with some of the capital’s most important people.
Tyler Jr. made his affection for Julia clear, too, writing her poetry and flirting with her. Even so, the pair had one big problem: he was married, although Tyler Jr. promised the socialite that he intended to obtain a divorce. Soon enough, though, Julia enraptured another man – and he was someone very close to Tyler Jr.
Yes, that man was, of course, President John Tyler. When he met Julia in 1842, he had been married to Letitia Christian Tyler for nearly three decades. By the end of that year, though, he would be a widower, as Letitia had died in the White House from a stroke the previous September. In that way, the 51-year-old became the first wife of a U.S. leader to pass away in the residence.
And once Tyler’s wife had died, he only had eyes for only one woman: Julia Gardiner. By contrast, the socialite from New York City had no interest in the reserved commander-in-chief, who was three decades older than her. Yet that didn’t deter the president, as he proposed to Julia in early 1843 during a masquerade ball at the White House.
Julia turned down Tyler’s proposal, too, although she continued to spend time with him afterwards. Then, later that year, a horrific incident brought her even closer to the leader of the United States. The socialite, her sister and her father had joined Tyler and others on an excursion on a steam-powered warship, the USS Princeton, when the tragedy occurred.
On board the Princeton that day, several passengers lost their lives when their steamboat passed a testing ground for a new naval gun called the Peacemaker, and the weapon exploded. Julia’s beloved father became one of the seven victims, and President Tyler stepped up to support her during such a heart-wrenching time.
With that, Julia’s opinion of her suitor changed completely. So, in 1844 President Tyler proposed a secret engagement to her at the George Washington Ball – and she agreed. The pair then said “I do” at The Church of the Ascension in New York in June that year.
But the public didn’t particularly embrace President Tyler and Julia. First of all, they latched onto the couple’s age difference. She was three decades younger than her new husband, while her mother was only nine years younger than her new son-in-law. Not only that, but the new First Lady was also five years younger than her oldest stepdaughter, Mary.
And the pair’s wedding also proved to be out of the ordinary; President Tyler and Julia had eloped to New York and married in front of only a dozen guests. The couple justified their actions, however, by saying that they had only secretly wed because they were in the midst of mourning the death of Julia’s father.
Aside from the age difference or even the way in which they had tied the knot, President Tyler and Julia made waves because they had such different personalities. The commander-in-chief had all of the traits of a dyed-in-the-wool Southern gentleman; his new wife, on the other hand, had boundless energy and loved stirring the pot.
Julia hardly endeared herself to President Tyler’s seven children, either, with his oldest daughters especially disliking her. Tyler had once vowed to his offspring that he would never remarry in the wake of their mother’s death. When he wed a much younger woman so soon after they lost their mother, then, his children saw Julia’s presence as an insult.
Eventually, though, two of President Tyler’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, did build a bond with their new stepmother. They acted in marked contrast to the third-oldest girl, Letitia, who didn’t appreciate the fact that Julia had taken over her duties as White House hostess. The new First Lady had become very close to Letitia’s ex-husband, too.
In spite of all the behind-the-scenes drama, though, Julia brought plenty of pep and glamour to her new role as First Lady. This was important, given how fatigued President Tyler appeared to be after he and his new wife finished up their wedding celebrations and honeymoon at his Sherwood Forest estate.
Furthermore, while Julia’s trip through Europe with her parents had done little to reduce her notoriety, it did nonetheless show her the ways in which overseas royalty lived. As a result, then, the First Lady adopted a number of regal traditions in the White House. For one thing, she had her own staff of ladies-in-waiting, who all dressed the same and surrounded Julia at presidential parties.
The First Lady also began wearing ornate gowns and elaborate headpieces – much in the manner of a European queen. And as the White House’s de facto hostess, she began throwing over-the-top parties and receptions. The month before her husband left office, for instance, Julia arranged a ball for a staggering 3,000 guests.
And Julia pulled out all of the stops for her public appearances, too. The First Lady would travel through the nation’s capital city in style in a carriage pulled by eight white horses. She also imported an Italian greyhound from Naples to trot beside her before she went on her first public walk as a president’s spouse. Then there was the time that Julia arrived late to a naval ship christening – simply because she wanted to make a grand entrance.
Clearly, then, the First Lady had little issue making a fuss of herself. It’s worth noting, though, that she also hired some help to ensure the public knew all about her fabulousness. Supposedly, Julia came to an agreement with New York Herald reporter F.W. Thompson: he could have a free pass to all of her events as long as he published sparkling reviews of her style, her parties and her beauty.
In the end, however, Julia served as First Lady for less than a year – from June 26, 1844, until March 4, 1845. And yet during that time, she was able to forge one change that has more or less become a tradition for those presidents who have served since her husband.
You see, as a lover of grandeur, Julia came up with several rituals meant to honor the office of the president. She noted, for one, that the song “Hail to the Chief” sometimes heralded the presence of President Tyler; consequently, she began to insist that the music be played on every occasion that her husband arrived somewhere. The next First Lady, Sarah Childress Polk, then continued this tradition, with “Hail to the Chief” still serving the same purpose today.
But, of course, President Tyler and Julia’s time in the White House ultimately drew to a close. And after that, the couple returned to the leader’s estate, where they had spent their honeymoon. The Virginia plantation also provided a serene setting in which the pair could raise their seven children: sons David, John, Lachlan, Lyon and Robert and daughters Julia and Pearl.
Unfortunately, though, the Tylers’ tranquil life in the South would eventually be marred as a result of the Civil War. Although the former First Lady had grown up in the north, she quickly got caught up in the southern plantation lifestyle – meaning, in turn, that she defended slavery. The war would end that practice, of course, and Julia’s chosen way of life – as the owner of 60 slaves herself – with it.
And in the midst of the Civil War, a personal tragedy struck the Tyler family. Their patriarch and the former President of the United States passed away in 1862, three years before the war ended. With her husband gone, Julia then tried to move herself and some of her children to her home state of New York. However, the former First Lady faced some challenges along the way.
You see, although Julia’s request to move had initially received the green light, she was subsequently told that she would have to swear her allegiance to the Union. And although she wouldn’t do so, she nevertheless found her way back to her mother’s house in Staten Island. Cannily, her ship had detoured to Bermuda then turned back to the Empire State.
Of course, scandal continued to follow the over-the-top former First Lady. Once she arrived at her mother’s house, Julia made a point to hoist a Confederate flag at the location. In response, Union soldiers almost burned the place down because they saw their enemies’ banner waving there.
Then, Julia had to figure out how to survive in the wake of the Civil War. As a result, then, given that she had so little money and so many debts, she found herself having to forfeit one of her Virginia properties – 1,100 acres of land in all. And yet she managed to hold onto Sherwood Forest, the estate she shared with her late husband.
In order to boost her financial standing, though, Julia had to take matters into her own hands. She lobbied Congress for a pension, and in 1880 they agreed to fund her with a monthly allowance. And the next year, they extended that benefit to all presidential widows, agreeing to a $5,000 annual sum for each former First Lady whose husband had passed.
Julia’s income allowed her to save Sherwood Forest, the home she shared with her husband until his death. And, ever since she did that, a member of the Tyler family has lived on the plantation since the President bought it in 1842.
But First Lady Julia Tyler will also be remembered for her social prowess, outgoing nature, flirtations and, of course, her extravagance. We continue to play “Hail to the Chief” for today’s presidents, just as she did for her husband. But, perhaps most importantly, her somewhat scandalous reputation allowed today’s version of the First Lady to develop because Julia Tyler, too, made her opinions known to the world – and they listened to her.