The Original Wild Child

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Alice Roosevelt. First daughter to Teddy Roosevelt.  Step-daughter to first lady Edith Roosevelt.

Teddy Roosevelt said of his teenage daughter:  “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.” …

“First Lady Edith, needed only to open their morning paper to read about Alice—a friend of Edith’s described Alice as “like a young wild animal that had been put into good clothes.” TR, running for a full term in 1904, feared that Alice’s escapades—smoking in public, chewing gum, wearing pants, racing her own car too fast down D.C. streets, sometimes with male passengers and always unchaperoned, placing bets on horses (a news photographer snapped her collecting her winnings from a bookie)—would hurt his reelection chances. As for Edith, she believed that a lady’s name should appear in print only to announce her birth, marriage and death.

Alice, whose own mother died two days after her birth, never felt loved by Edith, who confided to young Alice that her father had tried to give her to his sister to raise. After marrying the widower, Edith would give birth to five children between 1887-97. Alice complained often that she felt like the family’s stepchild; that she longed for attention from her father and, when she didn’t get it, acted out to force him to pay her heed. As for her stepmother, the two had a cold and sometimes ugly relationship. Edith was staunchly religious; Alice, a self-described “pagan” who ridiculed Christian dogma as “sheer voodoo.” Early on, Edith could fix an icy stare at Alice to force her to behave, but the technique stopped working because, as she grew older, Alice recognized that the discipline was not girded with love. So she did the opposite of what Edith wanted her to.

By age 14, Edith had taken to calling her stepdaughter a “guttersnipe” who ran the streets “uncontrolled with every boy in town.” At age 15, Alice refused to be confirmed or to be shipped off, as her parents planned, to Miss Spence’s school in Manhattan. Alice threatened that if they forced her to go, “I should do something disgraceful.” Her younger half-sister Ethel would later observe that the family considered Alice “a hellion, …capable of doing almost anything to anyone at any time.”

Town Topics, a gossip sheet, covered Alice, starting at age 16, as she caroused with the sons and daughters of the Four Hundred at their “cottages” in Newport, Rhode Island, partying on the Vanderbilts’ private railroad car, befriending Mary Harriman, whose father, E.H., was one of the “malefactors of great wealth” whom the young trust-busting president was trying to regulate. While visiting friends in Newport, Alice received a letter from her father, so angry that it “scorched the paper on which it was written.” Her response was to burn the letter.

Daily newspapers reported that Alice stood on a railroad platform with a boa constrictor wrapped around her neck, that she had been asked to leave Boston’s Copley Plaza for smoking in the lobby. Reporters covered Alice as if she, not her father, had just become president; her name—“Princess Alice” she was called—and reputation ran amok over front pages in D.C., New York and around the country. In a cartoon drawn by the Chicago Tribune’s John McCutcheon, Alice is depicted at a “horse show” at which throngs of spectators, judges, and even the horses themselves peer at Alice in her box while the band plays, “Alice, Where Art Thou?”

Often her antics appeared designed to gain attention, perhaps from no one more than her father.”

 

 

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