restricted access Introduction
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1 } { 1 } { Few first ladies have enjoyed a better reputation among historians than Edith Kermit Roosevelt. Favorable adjectives have accompanied most descriptions of her years in the White House from 1901 to 1909. She was a sure-footed mistress of the mansion who never slipped up in executing her duties as hostess and mother. Aristocratic, scholarly, cultured, tasteful, and discreet are words that people at the time and biographers since have applied to her. The consensus is that she was Theodore Roosevelt’s wisest adviser and he rejected her counsel at his own peril. In short, the model of a modern first lady appeared in the opening decade of the twentieth century, and all of Edith Roosevelt ’s successors have struggled to reach her level of achievement. These judgments have endured because they captured important elements in the life and character of Edith Roosevelt. She did bring strict moral values to Washington. She infused the White House with music and literature at a very high level. She did soften the edges of her charismatic husband and gave him the benefit of her intuitions about people and issues. The sense of a salon in the presidential mansion in the Roosevelt years where the fine arts thrived owed a great deal to the nurturing spirit of Edith Roosevelt. Yet as research for this book proceeded, there were shadings about Edith Roosevelt that complicated the historical picture of her tenure. Often depicted as someone averse to activism, she did more on the INTRODUCTION public stage than scholars have understood. Newspaper coverage of her was much more extensive than the clichés about her reticence and silence have conveyed. She acted as a celebrity sponsor at a New York benefit concert, intervened in what became a high-profile custody dispute, and dabbled in political patronage on behalf of a society friend. What she spent each year on clothes, her gifts to charitable causes, and the expenses of her White House operation all became objects of press attention and controversy. Edith Roosevelt also gets warranted credit for the beginnings of a support structure for presidential wives that continued into the rest of the century. Her reliance on Isabelle “Belle” Hagner as a social secretary started the trend of bureaucratizing the institution of the first lady. To that endeavor, Edith Roosevelt brought the organizing skills she had already shown in the management of the Roosevelt estate at Oyster Bay, New York. The most noteworthy revelation about Edith Roosevelt, however, occurred in the area of race relations. In letters to her son Kermit and in one post-presidential letter to a family friend, she revealed that she had grave doubts about the capacity of African Americans to live on an equal basis with whites. She deplored what she described as the mixing of the races. Sometimes in her private letters she invoked racial slurs to express her feelings of prejudice. She brought entertainers who sang “coon songs” to the White House on two occasions. The impact of Edith Roosevelt’s racism on her husband has never been explored because it has not been revealed until now. Tracking her bigotry as an element in the racial policies of the Theodore Roosevelt administration raises disturbing questions about the larger historical impact of this important first lady. The Edith Roosevelt who inhabits the pages of this book is a more complex and interesting figure than the somewhat secularized saint that she has become in the literature on first ladies. Many people who knew her found her inspiring and gracious. Others in her family recalled a more astringent and sometimes nasty personality. This book attempts to sum up her important role as a presidential wife in a manner that does full justice to the many-sided and sometimes flawed human being who was Edith Kermit Roosevelt. 2 Edith Kermit Roosevelt } { ...


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