Every thing about Theodore Roosevelt was larger than life. He had an enormous amount of energy and approached everything with exuberance and enthusiasm, whether it was physical exercise, hunting, reading, charging up San Juan Hill, or continuing a speech while bleeding after an assassination attempt. He wasn’t particularly self-aware and often talked too much. In many ways he needed an anchor, someone who could bring him back to reality and be a grounding influence. Edith Carow was that person. They had an immensely satisfying marriage and she was the perfect counterpoint to Theodore’s outgoing, almost overwhelming personality. Edith also was a superb and well-liked First Lady of the United States.
Edith Kermit Carow was born in Norwich Connecticut on August 6, 1861 to Charles Carow and Gertrude Elizabeth Tyler Carow. Edith had impeccable social credentials; she could count an American Civil War general, two British Prime Ministers, and the famous preacher Jonathan Edwards as her ancestors. Her father worked in the family shipping company, but was not as successful as many of his colleagues; however, at the time Charles and Gertrude married, he was still relatively well off and they settled in Manhattan just a few blocks from his childhood friend Theodore Roosevelt, Sr.
Edith was born within a few weeks of Corinne Roosevelt, Theodore’s younger sister, and was friends with the children in the Roosevelt family almost from birth. She and Corinne considered themselves the best of friends as children, although the relationship became strained by the time Theodore became president. The Roosevelt children were taught at home by their Aunt Anna Bullard and Edith was included in the lessons. She was a quiet, serious, somewhat introverted child who loved to read. At 10, she attended Miss Comstock’s finishing school re-enforcing her strong moral sense and her love of literature. Although math and science were not part of her formal education, she loved nature and learned to identify many different varieties of flowers. Charles taught Edith and her sister Emily, her only sibling to survive infancy, sports and the local flora and fauna.
Whether from inability or lack of inclination, Edith’s father couldn’t seem to overcome the bad times that inevitably occurred in the shipping industry in the 19th century. He also struggled more and more with alcoholism as he got into his 30s, around the time he married and his children were born. In spite of his problems, Edith was very close to him and they shared interests in learning, literature, and the theater. As their financial circumstances worsened, the family had to depend on relatives more and more for money and sometimes a place to live. When Charles died in 1883, he left the family in reduced circumstances that eventually required a move to Europe where they could live more cheaply.
Although Edith was friends with all of the Roosevelt children, by her early teens she had developed a special friendship with Theodore, Teedie to the family, and they were often together during family outings on Oyster Bay during the summer. Even though she was 3 years younger, when Theodore went to Harvard she appeared often in his diary and visited him at school. During the summer between his first two years, however, there was a disagreement between the two of them that neither explained with the exception of a reference that Theodore made to the fact that they both had tempers. Whatever happened, the end result was that Edith disappeared from Theodore’s diary and at sometime in his junior year, he met and instantly fell in love with Alice Hathaway Lee. He and Alice were married in 1880, a few months after his graduation from Harvard.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, Edith’s home life, she had developed into a determined and confident young woman, although somewhat reticent and hard to get to know. If anyone thought that she would avoid Theodore and his new bride, they were mistaken. She went to the wedding and encountered them in other social situations without hesitation. She even gave Theodore a party when he was elected to the State Assembly in 1882. The situation was different however, when Alice died, on Valentine’s Day 1884 only two days after giving birth to their daughter, also named Alice. Both Theodore and Edith took pains to avoid each other. He was heartbroken and took off to the Badlands.
Although Theodore had a strong aversion to second marriages and saw them as being disloyal to the first wife, a chance encounter brought him and Edith back together in the fall of 1885. Within a few months, they had rekindled their relationship and become secretly engaged. Edith’s family financial situation was such that they had decided to move to Europe and she felt that she had to get them settled prior to getting married, so after the move Theodore joined her in London and they were wed on December 2, 1886. The newlyweds took their honeymoon in France and then returned to the home which Theodore had built for his first wife at Oyster Bay, although he did change the name from Leeholm to Sagamore Hill.
Baby Alice was being raised by Theodore’s sister Anna, Bamie to the family, and they had become very attached. He really didn’t have much to do with the baby, and usually referred to her as Baby Lee rather than by the name Alice. Although Theodore had offered to leave the baby with Bamie, Edith wanted her to come live with them. Five more children were born within the next ten years, giving Edith a large brood of children to manage, plus Theodore. Edith seemed to take it all in stride.
Unlike some First Ladies, Edith wasn’t interested in politics, but she knew that it was the life that Theodore had chosen. At the Republican National Convention in 1900, she was hoping that someone else would be nominated for Vice President other than Theodore. She knew that he would be bored simply presiding over the Senate, but it was a good move for him. He had served as Civil Service Commissioner, Police Commissioner in New York City, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, the Rough Rider war hero “Colonel Roosevelt”, Governor of New York and Vice President was a logical next step. What neither of them could have known was that the job would be short-lived and he would find himself the President within a few months.
Edith was extremely organized in managing her household and handling the family finances. She carried these same skills into the White House and in many ways made it her own. She was the first First Lady to add a social secretary to the payroll; she oversaw the renovation of the White House, the building of the West Wing, and separating the private quarters from public offices. When the family moved into the White House in 1901 the children ranged in age from 4 to 17 and Edith wanted to make their lives as normal as possible. This included numerous pets from dogs and cats to Alice’s pet snake, horseback riding, lessons, debuts for Alice and Ethel, and Alice’s wedding in 1906. She handled all of it with a grace that impressed the staff and even the media. White House aide W. H. Crook said that she handled all of her duties “without losing health, strength, or the youthful, vivacious, charming presence that made her personality as remarkable as that of her husband.”
Even though Edith was known for her efficiency, she was a warm and caring person attuned to the feelings of others. During one social event at the White House, she noticed a young woman, whose family had met with financial problems requiring her to take a job as a sales clerk, being ignored. As the woman was about to leave, Edith caught her and led her to a sofa to engage her in conversation. But she was no doormat either. When writing to Ted, his oldest son, just before his marriage, Theodore said that “when necessary [Edith] pointed out where I was thoughtless and therefore inconsiderate and selfish, instead of submitting to it. Had she not done this it would in the end have made her life very much harder, and mine very much less happy.” Even Alice, who was not an easy child to raise, when writing about Edith in her autobiography Crowded Hours, wrote, “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.”
Edith lived a long life. After Theodore died in 1919, she traveled extensively and enjoyed her children and grandchildren. She never was completely free of politics. In 1936, she supported Alfred Landon against her husband’s “distant cousin” Franklin Delano Roosevelt, vehemently objecting when anyone tried to compare FDR to Theodore. Unfortunately, she also had to endure the sorrow of seeing three of her children die; one of whom suffered with alcoholism as her father had, ultimately committing suicide. When Edith died on September 30, 1948 at the age of 87, Life magazine called her “one of the strongest-minded and strongest-willed presidential wives who ever lived in the White House.”
The Roosevelt Women by Betty Boyd Caroli
Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History by Paul F. Boller, Jr.
TR: The Last Romantic by H. W. Brands