Alice Lee Roosevelt was born in the Roosevelt family home at 6 West 57th St. in New York City. Her mother, Alice, was a Boston banking heiress. Her father, Theodore, was then a New York State Assemblyman. Two days after her birth, in the same house, her mother died of undiagnosed kidney failure. Eleven hours earlier that day, Theodore's mother Martha Stewart "Mittie" Bulloch died of typhoid fever.
Theodore was rendered so distraught by his wife's death that he could not bear to think about her. He almost never spoke of her again, would not allow her to be mentioned in his presence, and even omitted her name from his autobiography. Therefore, his daughter Alice was called "Baby Lee" instead of her name. She continued this practice late in life, often preferring to be called "Mrs. L" rather than "Alice".
Seeking solace, Theodore retreated from his life in New York and headed west where he spent two years traveling and living on his ranch in North Dakota. He left his infant daughter in the care of his sister Anna, known as "Bamie" or "Bye". There are letters to Bamie that reveal Theodore's concern for his daughter. In one 1884 letter, he wrote, "I hope Mousiekins will be very cunning, I shall dearly love her."
Bamie had a significant influence on young Alice, who would later speak of her admiringly: "If auntie Bye had been a man, she would have been president." Bamie took her into her watchful care, moving Alice into her book-filled Manhattan house, until Theodore married again.
After Theodore's marriage to Edith Kermit Carow, Alice was raised by her father and stepmother. Theodore and Edith's five children were Theodore III (Ted), Kermit, Ethel, Archibald (Archie), and Quentin. They remained married until his death in January 1919. During much of Alice's childhood, Bamie was a remote figure who eventually married and moved to London for a time. But later, as Alice became more independent and came into conflict with her father and stepmother, Aunt "Bye" provided needed structure and stability. Late in life, it was said of her Aunt Bye: "There is always someone in every family who keeps it together. In ours, it was Auntie Bye."
Alice often visited Bamie when Theodore and Edith could not handle her. She also frequently spent summers and holidays with maternal grandparents George Cabot Lee and Caroline Watts Haskell in Boston.
Edith would outlive both her husband and his famous cousin Franklin, dying in late September 1948. There were strains in the relationship between Theodore and his daughter, and he had very little interaction with her during her earliest years, leaving the work to other people, such as his sister Bamie and Alice's maternal grandparents. Alice was frequently shuffled about from one house to another, even as a teenager.
There were also tensions in the relationship between young Alice and her stepmother, who had known her husband's previous wife and made it clear that she regarded her predecessor as a beautiful but insipid, childlike fool. Edith once angrily told her that if Alice Hathaway Lee had lived, she would have bored Theodore to death. Despite these strains, it would be Edith, the demanding stepmother, who would save Alice from a life possibly in a wheelchair or on crutches when she came down with a mild form of polio in one leg, causing its muscles to grow shorter than in the other leg. By Edith's uncompromising regimen of nightly forced wearing of torturous leg braces and shoes, even over Alice's sobs, Edith ensured that Alice would grow up with almost no trace of the disability. Alice was able to run up stairs and touch her nose with her toe well into her 80s.
Alice, frequently spoiled with gifts, matured into young womanhood and, in the course, became known as a great beauty like her mother. However, continuing tension with her stepmother and prolonged separation and limited attention from her father created a young woman who was as independent and outgoing as she was self-confident and calculating. When her father was governor of New York, he and his wife proposed that Alice attend a conservative school for girls in New York City. Pulling out all the stops, Alice wrote, "If you send me I will humiliate you. I will do something that will shame you. I tell you I will."
In later years, Alice expressed admiration for her stepmother's sense of humor and stated that they had shared similar literary tastes. In her autobiography Crowded Hours, Alice wrote of Edith Carow, stating "That I was the child of another marriage was a simple fact and made a situation that had to be coped with, and Mother coped with it with a fairness and charm and intelligence which she has to a greater degree than almost any one else I know."
When her father took office in 1901 following the assassination of President William McKinley, Jr. in Buffalo (an event that she greeted with "sheer rapture"), Alice became an instant celebrity and fashion icon at age 17, and at her social debut in 1902 she wore a gown of what was to become known forever afterwards as "Alice blue", sparking a color trend in women's clothing. While proud of her father's accomplishments, Alice also was painfully aware that his new duties would give her significantly less of his time even as she longed for more of his attention. Alice was known as a rule-breaker in an era when women were under great pressure to conform. The American public noticed many of her exploits. She smoked cigarettes in public, rode in cars with men, stayed out late partying, kept a pet snake named Emily Spinach (Emily as in her spinster aunt and Spinach for its green color) in the White House, and was seen placing bets with a bookie.
In 1905, Alice, along with her father's Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, led the American delegation to Japan, Hawaii, China, the Philippines, and Korea. It was the largest such diplomatic mission thus far, composed of 23 congressmen (including her future husband Nicholas Longworth), seven senators, and other diplomats and officials. Alice made headlines wherever she went, meeting with the Emperor Meiji of Japan and the Empress Dowager Cixi of China, as well as attending sumo wrestling matches.
During the cruise to Japan, Alice jumped into the ship's pool fully clothed, and coaxed Congressman Longworth to join her in the water. (Years later Bobby Kennedy would chide her about the incident, saying it was outrageous for the time, to which the by-then-octogenarian Alice replied that it would only have been outrageous had she removed her clothes. In her autobiography, Crowded Hours, Alice made note of the event, pointing out that there was little difference between the linen skirt and blouse she had been wearing and a lady's swimsuit of the period.) The press dubbed her part in this government-sponsored trip to Asia "Alice in Plunder Land". She brought back enough silk from China for a lifetime of beautiful dresses and would wear a beautiful strand of costly pearls given to her by the Cuban government for the rest of her life.
Once, a White House visitor commented on Alice's frequent interruptions to the Oval Office, often because of her political advice. The exhausted president commented to his friend, author Owen Wister, after her third interruption to their conversation and threatening to throw her 'out the window', "I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both."
Alice was the center of attention in the social context of her father's presidency, and she thrived on the attention, even as she chafed on some of the restrictions such attention placed on her. In this, Alice resembled her father. She later said of Theodore, "He wants to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the baby at every christening."
Alice was a medal awarder at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis.
In December 1905, after returning to Washington from their diplomatic travels, Alice became engaged to Nicholas Longworth III, a Republican U.S. House of Representatives member from Cincinnati, Ohio, who ultimately would rise to become Speaker of the House. The two had travelled in the same social circles for several years, but their relationship solidified during the Imperial Cruise. A scion of a socially prominent Ohio family, Longworth was 14 years her senior and had a reputation as a Washington D.C. playboy. Their wedding took place the following February and was the social event of the season. It was attended by more than a thousand guests with many thousands gathered outside hoping for a glimpse of the bride. She was dressed in a blue wedding dress and dramatically cut the wedding cake with a sword (borrowed from a military aide attending the reception). Immediately after the wedding, the couple left for a honeymoon that included a voyage to Cuba and a visit to the Longworths in Cincinnati. This was followed by travels to England and the Continent which included having dinners with many notables of the day: King Edward, Kaiser Wilhelm, Clemenceau, Whitelaw Reid, Lord Curzon, and William Jennings Bryan. They bought a house at 2009 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., in Washington, D.C., now the headquarters of the Washington Legal Foundation.
Alice publicly supported her father's 1912 Bull Moose presidential candidacy, while her husband stayed loyal to his mentor, President Taft. During that election cycle, she appeared on stage with her father's vice presidential candidate, Hiram Johnson, in Longworth's own district. Longworth later lost by about 105 votes and she joked that she was worth at least 100 votes (meaning she was the reason he lost). However, he was elected again in 1914 and stayed in the House for the rest of his life.
Alice's campaign against her husband caused a permanent chill in her marriage. During their marriage, she carried on numerous affairs. As reported in Carol Felsenthal's biography of Alice, and in Betty Boyd Caroli's The Roosevelt Women, as well by Time journalist Rebecca Winters Keegan, it was generally accepted knowledge in D.C. that she also had a long, ongoing affair with Senator William Borah, and the opening of Alice's diaries to historical researchers indicates that Borah was the father of her daughter, Paulina Longworth (1925–1957).
Alice was renowned for her "brilliantly malicious" humor, even in this sensitive situation, since she had originally wanted to name her daughter "Deborah," as in "de Borah." And according to one family friend, "everybody called her [Paulina] 'Aurora Borah Alice.'"
On May 11, 1908, Alice similarly amused herself in the Capitol's gallery at the House of Representatives by placing a tack on the chair of an unknown but "middle-aged" and "dignified" gentleman. Upon encountering the tack, "like the burst of a bubble on the fountain, like the bolt from the blue, like the ball from the cannon," the unfortunate fellow leapt up in pain and surprise while she looked away.
When it came time for the Roosevelt family to move out of the White House, Alice buried a Voodoo doll of the new First Lady, Nellie Taft, in the front yard. At many White House social activities such as dinners, Alice frequently mocked the First Lady, rendering Mrs. Taft rather uncomfortable in her presence, though Alice was some twenty years her junior. Mrs. Taft offended Alice by offering her an invitation to the White House; upon receiving the invitation, Alice asked, "Me—who walked the halls of the White House for so many years?" Later, the Taft White House banned her from her former residence—the first but not the last administration to do so. During Woodrow Wilson's administration (from which she was banned in 1916 for a bawdy joke at Wilson's expense), Alice worked against the entry of the United States into the League of Nations.
Alice did not like Warren G. Harding any more than she had Taft or Wilson. She felt that Harding was crass, barely educated, and ill-suited for the job. Alice preferred his vice president, Calvin Coolidge. Her feelings toward First Lady Florence Harding grew more strained during the Hardings' years in Washington. Alice felt that she had lost her best friend, Evalyn Walsh McLean, to Florence, and the relationship between her—the Speaker's wife—and the President's wife grew bitter.
Following the death of her husband in 1931, Alice and her daughter continued to live near Dupont Circle on Massachusetts Avenue, Washington's Embassy Row. When asked if she would run for her late husband's seat, she declined. Alice Lee did not like public speaking, so she seldom spoke at public receptions. Alice abhorred physical contact with the public and the "press of the flesh" that came so easily to her father. In short, campaigning did not suit her. Alice's visits to Cincinnati were in order to fulfill obligations, not for pleasure. One such trip was made for the burial of her husband, another for the social debut of her daughter. When asked if she would be buried in Cincinnati, Alice said that to do so "would be a fate worse than death itself."
During the Great Depression, when she, like many other Americans, found her fortunes reversed, Alice appeared in tobacco advertisements to raise money. She also published an autobiography, Crowded Hours. The book sold well and received rave reviews. TIME Magazine praised its "insouciant vitality." Her library was filled with autographed works from Tennyson, Yeats, and Ezra Pound.
Alice maintained her stature in the community, socially and politically, garnering her the nickname "the other Washington Monument". She served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention on more than one occasion, declining to address the convention.
Alice's wit was legendary in Washington, D.C., and that wit could have a deadly political effect on friend and foe alike. When columnist and cousin Joseph Wright Alsop V claimed that there was grass-roots support for Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, the Republican hope to defeat F.D.R. in 1940, she said yes, "the grass roots of 10,000 country clubs." During the 1940 Presidential campaign, she publicly proclaimed that she'd "rather vote for Hitler than vote for Franklin for a third term." Alice demolished Thomas Dewey, the 1944 opponent of her cousin Franklin, by comparing the pencil-mustached Republican to "the bridegroom on the wedding cake." The image stuck and helped Governor Dewey lose two consecutive presidential elections.
Paulina Longworth married Alexander McCormick Sturm, with whom she had a daughter, Joanna (b. July 1946). Alexander died in 1951. Following the death of Paulina in 1957 by an overdose of sleeping pills, Alice fought for and won the custody of her granddaughter, Joanna Sturm, whom she raised. Not very long before Paulina's death, she and Alice had discussed the care of Joanna in case of such an event. In an article in American Heritage in 1969, Joanna was described as a "highly attractive and intellectual twenty-two-year-old" and was called "a notable contributor to Mrs. Longworth’s youthfulness.... The bonds between them are twin cables of devotion and a healthy respect for each other's tongue. 'Mrs. L.,' says a friend, 'has been a wonderful father and mother to Joanna: mostly father.' "
In contrast to her relationship with her daughter, Alice doted on her granddaughter, and the two were very close. Upon Paulina's death, her cousin Eleanor Roosevelt sent condolences and the two mended their broken relationship despite their continued political differences.
From an early age, Alice was interested in politics. When advancing age and illness incapacitated her Aunt Bamie, Alice stepped into her place as an unofficial political adviser to her father. She warned her father against challenging the renomination of William Howard Taft in 1912. Alice took a hard-line view of the Democrats and in her youth sympathized with the conservative wing of the Republican Party. She supported her half-brother Ted when he ran for governor of New York in 1924. When Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for president in 1932, Alice publicly opposed his candidacy. Writing in the Ladies' Home Journal in October 1932, she said of FDR, "Politically, his branch of the family and ours have always been in different camps, and the same surname is about all we have in common..... I am a Republican..... I am going to vote for Hoover..... If I were not a Republican, I would still vote for Mr. Hoover this time."
Although Alice did not support John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election, she became very enamored of the Kennedy family and "learned how amusing and attractive Democrats could be." She developed an affectionate, although sometimes strained, friendship with Bobby Kennedy, perhaps because of his relatively thin skin. When Alice privately made fun of his scaling the newly named Mount Kennedy in Canada, he was not amused. She even admitted to voting for President Lyndon Johnson over Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964 because she believed Goldwater was too mean.
Alice developed a genuine friendship with Richard Nixon when he was vice president, and when he returned to California after Eisenhower's second term, she kept in touch and did not consider his political career to be over. Alice encouraged Nixon to reenter politics and continued to invite him to her famous dinners. Nixon returned these favors by inviting her to his first formal White House dinner and to the 1971 wedding of his daughter Tricia Nixon.
By the 1950s, Alice's health began to fail her, although she lived until 1980. In 1955, she fell and suffered a broken hip. In 1956, Alice was found to be suffering from breast cancer, and though she successfully underwent a mastectomy at the time, Alice was found to have cancer in the other breast in 1970, requiring a second mastectomy. Taking the medical procedures in stride, she referred to herself as the only "topless octogenarian" in Washington. After these surgeries, Alice's health was not as good as it once had been, but she continued a rigorous schedule and maintained her social rounds. By 1960, at age 76, after a noticeable loss of weight and frail appearance and with a continued cough and shortness of breath, Alice was advised by family and friends to see a physician. She was diagnosed with emphysema as a result of many years of heavy smoking.
Alice was a lifelong member of the Republican party. Yet her political sympathies began to change when she became close to the Kennedy family and Lyndon Johnson. She voted Democratic in 1964 and was known to be supporting Bobby Kennedy in the 1968 Democratic primary.
It is possible her change in political leanings was the result of the social upheavals occurring in American society at the same time. Beginning in the late 1950s and continuing into the 1970s, the struggle of African-Americans for social and legal equality could not have escaped the notice of a woman always known for approaching everyone she first met with respect, without regard for station in life. As an example of her attitudes on race, in 1965 her black chauffeur and one of her best friends, Turner, was driving Alice to an appointment. During the trip, he pulled out in front of a taxi, and the driver got out and demanded to know of him, "What do you think you're doing, you black bastard?" Turner took the insult calmly, but Alice did not and told the taxi driver, "He's taking me to my destination, you white son of a bitch!"
After RFK was murdered in 1968, Alice again supported her friend Richard Nixon, just as she had done in his 1960 campaign against JFK. Her long friendship with Nixon ended at the conclusion of the Watergate Scandal, specifically when Nixon quoted her father's diary at his resignation, saying, "Only if you've been to the lowest valley can you know how great it is to be on the highest mountain top." This infuriated Alice, who spat curse words at her television screen as she watched him compare his early departure from the White House (in the face of probable impeachment and possible criminal prosecution) to her idealistic young father's loss of his wife and mother on the same day due to illness. Nixon, however, called her "the most interesting [conversationalist of the age]" and said, "No one, no matter how famous, could ever outshine her."
She remained cordial with Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, but a perceived lack of social grace on the part of Jimmy Carter caused her to decline to ever meet him, the last sitting president in her lifetime. In the official statement marking her death, President Carter wrote "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."
Alice's last public appearance, televised nationwide on PBS, was on the 1976 bicentennial of the United States, attended by Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. Joseph Alsop and other friends were taken aback when Alice came on the screen, escorted to the head of the receiving line by her granddaughter's friend Robert Hellman. She had her own reception line later, greeting old friends of many years for the last time—including some old-timers from the White House kitchen staff, most of whom were African-Americans.
After many years of ill health, Alice died in her Embassy Row house on February 20, 1980 at age 96 of emphysema and pneumonia, with contributory effects of a number of other chronic illnesses. She is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.
Of her quotable comments, Alice's most famous found its way to a pillow on her settee: "If you haven't got anything good to say about anybody, come sit next to me." To Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had jokingly remarked at a party "Here's my blind date. I am going to call you Alice", she sarcastically said "Senator McCarthy, you are not going to call me Alice. The trashman and the policeman on my block call me Alice, but you may not." She informed President Lyndon B. Johnson that she wore wide-brimmed hats so he couldn't kiss her. On another occasion, asked by a Ku Klux Klansman in full regalia to take his word for something, Alice refused, saying, "I never trust a man under sheets." And when a well-known Washington senator was discovered to have been having an affair with a young woman less than half his age, she quipped, "You can't make a souffle rise twice."