Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, From White House Princess to Washington Power Broker

by Stacy A. Cordery, Viking, 590 pp., $32.95

Larger than life is an oft- and sometimes over-used phrase employed to describe colorful and engaging people. Sometimes the words are appropriate, as in the case of Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

Though Longworth was perhaps best known as a quick-witted Washington hostess, there were many other layers to her. In Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, From White House Princess to Washington Power Broker, Stacy A. Cordery peels away at these layers and presents a detailed (sometimes too much so) picture of this remarkable and colorful woman.

In addition to being President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter and one of the 20th century’s first celebrities, she was a diplomatic envoy, the wife of U.S. House Speaker Nicholas Longworth, a columnist and political confidante, the par – amour of Idaho’s Republican Sen. William E. Borah, and mother of his child. During her spare time, she presided over one of Washington’s best-known salons.

Cordery, a history professor at Monmouth College in Illinois, had access to many previously unreleased Longworth papers and she makes judicious use of them and has produced an interesting, and sometimes entertaining, biography.

Also, Cordery has a strong interest in psychohistory and is not afraid to put her subject on the couch, with uneven results. Had she cut some of those references, the narrative would have flowed better and the book would have been shorter. Its 450 pages will make sure that only hard-core history buffs will read it.

The author contends that Longworth’s sharp tongue and blue blood propelled her to great heights but could not compensate for having often been ignored by her father as a child and for having to compete with alcohol and other women for her husband’s attention.

We also learn that some stories of Longworth’s wit are a bit apocryphal. The line attributed to her about 1944 and 1948 GOP presidential nominee Thomas Dewey looking like “the little man on the wedding cake,” was actually coined by two Democratic activists who attributed it to Longworth because they felt it would gain more credibility if people thought it came from her.

Cordery concludes that while Long – worth was in many ways a product of her time and social class, she was not afraid to do as she pleased. She was an early supporter of women’s voting, an active behind-the-scenes political player and someone not afraid to be seen in public smoking, wearing pants or being one of the few women attending boxing matches.

“Alice did not take the world on its own terms. It wasn’t all under her control, nor did everything work out as she would have liked, but she made of it what she wanted,” Cordery writes.

Not a bad epitaph. One wonders, however, if times had been different whether Longworth, who died in 1980 at age 96, and her father might have been the first father and daughter to sit in the Oval Office.


Originally published in the June 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here