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In August 1914, Edith Roosevelt learned from Belle Hagner, who became the social secretary for the president and Mrs. Wilson, of the death of Ellen Axson Wilson from the effects of kidney disease. As she thought about the tragic situation of one of her successors as first lady, she looked back to her own years in the White House. Reacting to the sad news, Edith noted that “it sometimes seems as if the White House means family trouble.” In her case, however, the picture was bright in memory. “I really believe the Clevelands & ourselves were about the only families who were really happy there.”1 Happiness is a relative term and Edith Roosevelt’s memories of her White House tenure, five years after the Roosevelts had departed the executive mansion, may have gained something in retrospective nostalgia even in a short period of time. While the overall picture of her family life was sunny, the demands on Edith Roosevelt during those seven and a half years had been intense, especially as they related to her large family and lively husband. The pressure on her was larger than she realized. As she told Archie Butt in June 1909: “I doubt if even I was entirely happy for there was always the anxiety about the President when he was away from me. I never knew what would happen before he got back. I never realized the strain I was under continuously until it was over.”2 In the public mind at the time, however, the Roosevelts exemplic h a p t e r f o u r WIFE AND MOTHER 68 } { fied the ideal of the American family. For that positive result, the president received most of the credit, but the first lady came in for her share of praise as well. “Mrs. Roosevelt’s cheerful nursery ranges the years when it requires a great deal of maternal companionship with affording a legitimate excuse for neglecting other duties,” concluded an admiring assessment in May 1905.3 Two years later, a writer in the Washington Post passed along the quip that “the President is the highest exemplar of the strenuous life, Mrs. Roosevelt portrays the busy life, and united they make the simple life their creed.”4 Edith Roosevelt’s schedule of cultural interests and White House entertaining would have taxed the energies of any single person. She carried on with her ceremonial duties while at the same time serving as wife and mother to a demanding husband and a boisterous brood of six children ranging in age in 1901 from four (the youngest, Quentin) to seventeen (the oldest, Alice). Each one of these distinct personalities presented emotional and familial challenges to the first lady. Yet she balanced them all with a high degree of insight and skill. Amid sicknesses and scrapes with the law, a lavish White House wedding for one daughter and a debut for another, Edith Roosevelt impressed the public as the epitome of an American wife and mother. In the historical literature on the Roosevelt family, the dominant impression remains of a rollicking, active brood of eight individuals whose spirit reflected the ebullience and spontaneity of the president. One of the great political assets for Theodore Roosevelt was the perception of him as a special father with a harmonious and engaging set of children. While there was much accuracy in this point of view, it left out the darker side of the Roosevelt clan. Among the six children of Theodore and Edith Roosevelt, Kermit became a suicidal alcoholic , Archibald turned to the political right and embraced racism late in life, and even the world-famous Alice had a troubled marriage and an unhappy personal life. Quentin, of course, died in France during World War I. Theodore, Jr., proved his bravery on numerous battlefields but always felt he was in his father’s shadow. Only Ethel achieved the semblance of a normal life. So the sunny view of Edith Roosevelt’s tenure as a mother obscures a more complex reality. The first lady always found ample time in her busy schedule to devote herself to the needs of her offspring. Her letters to her son Kermit , for example, are filled with reports of packages sent to him at Wife and Mother 69 } { Edith Kermit Roosevelt with Quentin, 1902. Quentin Roosevelt was the youngest child in the family and the most charismatic of the four boys. This photograph shows him resting with his mother in 1902 when he was five. Library...


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