The Roosevelts: An American Saga

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9780671652258: The Roosevelts: An American Saga

The co-authors of The Kennedys and The Rockefellers reunite for an encompassing portrait of the dreams, triumphs, vanities, and achievements of the Roosevelt family, from Teddy to Eleanor and Franklin. 100,000 first printing. BOMC.

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About the Author:

Peter Collier is the author, along with David Horowitz, of The Rockefellers: An American Dynasty, The Kennedys: An American Dream, The Fords: An American Epic, and Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties. He also wrote Downriver: A Novel and The Fondas: A Hollywood Dynasty. He lives in Nevada City, California.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

A remarkable photograph in the Theodore Roosevelt collection at Harvard's Houghton Library shows Abraham Lincoln's funeral procession passing through New York on the way to the train that would complete the long journey home to Illinois. The shot, taken as the procession moved through the Union Square area, captures both the formal solemnity of the occasion and the life of the street. The caisson carrying the coffin has not yet come into view, but an honor guard of infantry in blocky formation follows a straggling line of riders up ahead. People dressed in black line both sides of the street four or five deep. A few of the spectators, hoping to secure a better vantage, have climbed up onto ledges beneath the recessed windows of a commercial building.

There were probably other shots of this scene taken at about the same moment. But in this one the anonymous photographer also captured an arresting accidental detail: two tiny heads poking out of the second-story window of an elegant brownstone. They are six-year-old Theodore Roosevelt and his younger brother, Elliott, four, looking down at the scene below. Their faces are framed by the shutters of the window in a way that suggests a depth of field, thus inviting the eye to enter the dark room behind them, the private world of the Roosevelts.

The brownstone belonged to the boys' grandfather, Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt, a great-grandson of Johannes, one of the two founding brothers of the Roosevelt clan, and at the time of Lincoln's death the most prominent member of the family. He was a short man with reddish hair and a large head. (One acquaintance had said of him, "His appearance suggested to me a Hindoo idol roughly carved in red porphyry.") His eyes magnified by thick spectacles, C.V.S., as he was known, was a man of few words whose face wore the stern and inquiring look of a bookkeeper with power. The look was one that had settled on him as a result of a life devoted to the art of the bottom line, but it was probably also congenital. The one moment of frivolity anyone recalled from his childhood occurred one Sunday in his youth when C.V.S. was going home after attending his second church service of the day. He came upon a party of pigs, which ran free in the streets of New York in those days, and on a whim he mounted a huge boar that promptly turned and bolted, carrying him back at full tilt directly into the outraged members of the congregation gathered outside the Dutch Reformed Church he had just left. Those who did not move quickly were bowled over.

Afterward, C.V.S. moved steadily through life establishing a record as a conservative man, thrifty and enterprising. As far as anyone knew, his only other unusual act was becoming the first Roosevelt of his line to marry a non-Dutch woman, a Quaker named Margaret Barnhill. When they were first engaged, he wrote her, "Economy is my doctrine at all times, at all events till I become, if it is to be so, a man of fortune." It was couched as a caveat emptor, but it became a prophecy, the underlined words indicating the emphatic nature of the wish. C.V.S. took the family investment firm, Roosevelt and Son, which had been founded by his grandfather, into new areas of enterprise, making it the largest importer of plate glass in the city. He also bought up land all over Manhattan during the Panic of 1837. Five years later he was worth $250,000, and three years after that his net worth had doubled. In 1868 when a newspaper listed the names of Manhattan's handful of millionaires, the name Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt was among them.

Although a man of the new age, C.V.S. tried to maintain the old ways where his family was concerned, bringing his five boys into his business and reminding them of their heritage. (When TR, nearly fifty, visited Africa in 1909 and recited a Dutch rhyme for a contingent of Boers he met there, it was a fragment he had retained from Sunday afternoons with his grandfather.) He was, in a sense, the last Dutch Roosevelt.

The sons of C.V.S. were such energetic youngsters that family and friends began referring to their mother as "that lovely Mrs. Roosevelt with those five horrid boys." They spoke a language all their own. As Silas, the oldest of the boys, said later on, "A Stranger must be somewhat scandalized by the sudden fits we take of irony, cordiality...sense and nonsense, which succeed each other without apparent connection or warning approach."

All of the sons of C.V.S. had acquired their father's gravity by the time they went forth into the world. All had significant achievements as lawyers and businessmen, directors of banks and railroads. One of them, Robert Barnwell Roosevelt, was a writer, newspaper editor, and politician, who changed his middle name from Barnhill to escape jokes about manure when he ran for and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He fought Boss Tweed and became a pioneering conservationist. But it was Theodore, youngest of the boys (and later called the first Theodore Roosevelt to distinguish him from his more famous son), who strayed furthest from his father's expectations.

Like his brothers, Theodore stopped off to see his mother every morning on his way to work and joined his father for dinner every Saturday evening. If he was different from the others, it was because he was less adept at making money and less interested in extending the reach of the family business. As the youngest, he had more latitude to explore personal values. He traveled widely at home and abroad. Unwilling to look at the world through plate glass, he began while still young to do volunteer work in New York charities, which provided him with a clear view of the social disorganization caused by the sudden glut of immigrants and the pell-mell urbanization remaking the city. Without knowing it at the time, he had stumbled on what became his life's calling.

Perhaps influenced by the "inner light" of his mother's Quaker background, Theodore had a "troublesome conscience" of his own that not only drew him to social problems but also made him more anxious to give money away than make it. Made wealthy by the hard work of C.V.S., Theodore made the transition from business to philanthropy while still in his thirties, becoming one of a small group of men who founded the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and other cultural institutions. But his primary interest was in relieving human misery. He helped begin the Newsboys' Lodging House to benefit thousands of urchins who survived by selling papers, and was deeply involved in such organizations as Miss Sattery's Night School for Little Italians.

He wanted to do good, but he was also drawn to the compelling human interest of the netherworld of human suffering he discovered, a world that, if not for his "social work," would have remained as invisible to him as it was to most in his class. "My boys at the Lodging Home were very interesting tonight," he once wrote his son Elliott after spending an evening with the newsboys. "One little fellow eight years old was particularly so, as he had neither father nor mother and felt perfectly able to care for himself. He described how a policeman had 'bringed' him to the Station House once but seemed not quite sure which particular crime it was for."

He was a handsome man, powerfully built with a big head and shaggy beard inevitably described as "leonine." (When still a boy, his son and namesake Teddy, punning on the metaphor, called the first Theodore "a handsome and good natured lion.") He was filled with such charismatic energy that one contemporary referred to him as "a force of nature." There was such an obsessive quality to his philanthropy that a family friend called it a "maniacal benevolence."

The first Theodore would never know the extent to which he had altered individual lives, but almost a quarter century after his death, when his son, then governor of New York, joined some of his colleagues at a conference, Joseph Brady, the governor of Alaska Territory, made a point of seeking him out. While others might greet him as the head of a great state, Brady said, he wanted to shake TR's hand because he was the son of the first Theodore Roosevelt. He went on to describe how as a boy he had been picked up off the streets of New York by TR's father, who placed him in a home in the West, paying for his travel there and periodically checking on his progress as he grew up. The first Theodore Roosevelt, Governor Brady said, had made him who he was.

All the five boys of C.V.S. relied on the women they married for emotional subtlety. Theodore's brother and next-door neighbor Robert (C.V.S. had bought them connected houses at 20th Street and Broadway to keep the family together) had a wife who was a full-fledged eccentric. Elizabeth, or Aunt Lizzy, as the first Theodore's children knew her, kept a menagerie of animals in her enclosed yard, including a cow that had to be carried there in a sling through her living room. There was also a monkey named Topsy that she dressed in brocaded shirts, gold studs, and trousers. Theodore's oldest child, Anna, would remember Topsy as having a "violent temperament," and indeed she once suffered an attack by the monkey while carrying a message through the passageway linking the two houses. Hearing her screams, Aunt Lizzy came running, but was less worried by the teeth marks on the girl's arm than by the emotional trauma possibly suffered by her pet. "Poor Topsy," she cooed, as the monkey stood on top of a dresser chittering angrily and tearing off all the miniature clothes except for the pants, which caught on his tail, thus driving him to even greater rage.

The woman Theodore married would, in time, become almost as peculiar as Aunt Lizzy. She was Martha Bulloch, a Southern belle from Roswell, Georgia. Called Mittie, she was a captivating beauty whose bisque skin nested in thick dark hair. ("Sweet little Dresden China Mother," her son Elliott would call her.) The Bulloch heritage exhaled the antebellum scent of Southern gentility and was exemplified by a Greek Revival plantation home, Bulloch Hall, which some claimed was one of the models for Tara in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind.

Mittie's forebears on her father's side included a representative to the Continental Congress as well as an assortment of duelists and desperate men. On her mother's side one particularly notable figure was Archibald Stobo, a minister who had migrated to Panama late in the seventeenth century with other Scottish religious dissidents to found the utopian community they intended to call New Caledonia. Eventually the colonists were driven out by the Spanish. Trying to get back to Scotland, they anchored outside Charleston, South Carolina, to take on supplies. Because he was an ordained minister, Stobo was asked to come ashore to perform a marriage. While he was there a violent storm arose, sinking his ship and drowning the other colonists and leaving him beached in a different part of the New World than the one he had set out for. His daughter married one James Bulloch, another Scot newly arrived in America, and they went off to Savannah to live, establishing a family that had, by Mittie's time, become prominent in Georgia's civic life.
ard

In 1850, the first Theodore, then nineteen, traveled to the South and met the Bullochs through an introduction provided by an in-law of his elder brother Silas. Mittie, then fifteen, thought him stuffy; and for his part, Theodore was bothered by the fact that the first face he saw at Bulloch Hall was that of "Toy," the slave about Mittie's age who had slept at the foot of her bed since she was a little girl. After this cool introduction, he saw Mittie again three years later when she was touring the North. In a more hospitable environment, Theodore wooed and won her. When they were married at Bulloch Hall in 1855, Mittie's mother sold four slaves to pay for the wedding.

Returning to New York with her husband, Mittie brought with her a feel for the mythic and grandiose, an imaginative dimension that was not otherwise part of the Roosevelt mentality. It was expressed in the stories she told her children, tales filled with sentimentality and Southern gothic, as well as the derring-do of high adventure.

Her moods oscillated between deep melancholy and febrile gaiety, yet her Roosevelt in-laws quickly learned that it did Mittie an injustice to regard her merely as a vaporish daughter of the South. On one well-remembered occasion the horses pulling her carriage were spooked and bolted, unseating the driver. As the vehicle careened wildly through the streets of New York, bystanders stepped up to try to stop the team but were thrown back. Finally, after a terrifying ride, the horses reached the Roosevelt home, dashed into their stable and ran into a wall in a crash that killed one of the team. By the time servants caught up, Mittie was out of the carriage dusting herself off. "Will you hand me my card case, James?" she coolly asked one of them, as if she had just arrived by plan.

She and Theodore had four children in quick succession, each with nicknames serving almost as clan designations. Anna, who was not only "Bye" but "Bamie" (from bambina), was born in 1855 with the physical deformity of a curved spine but what everyone agreed was a "large soul" that would eventually make her one of the most respected women of the age. Three years later came the future President, Theodore, who was called "Teedie" and sometimes "Thee." Elliott, whom everyone agreed was the sweetest one in the family and who would move through his life with his brother in an odd and tragic pas de deux that defined them both, was "Ellie." In 1861, a year after his birth, came Corinne, or "Conie," the baby of the family, who was both the most sensitive of the Roosevelt children and also the most sentimental.

Friends remarked on how the first Theodore had to baby Mittie almost as much as his children. His uxoriousness, which might otherwise have been just an amusing eccentricity, took on a tragic aspect with the coming of the Civil War. He was caught in the tension between Mittie and his own abolitionist-minded parents. (Mittie's eldest child, Bamie, later said of her mother: "I shudder to think of what she must have suffered...[because] the Roosevelts think they are just but they are hard.") The pleasurable Sunday dinners at the home of C.V.S. became ordeals of silence. On many evenings when Mittie was expected to help entertain her husband's friends and associates, she instead stayed upstairs and ate with the children in the nursery to avoid having to defend once again her Southern sympathies.

Mittie did not simply pine, however. She had brought her mother and sister to live with her in New York, where circumstances forced on them the identity of conspirators. When Theodore was gone, the Bulloch women rolled bandages and packed supplies under a surreptitiously unfurled Confederate flag while whispering about the real and imagined victories of The Cause.

Hoping to head off the conflict inside his family, Theodore had joined other prominent New Yorkers in petitioning Congress against the war at its onset. He did not enlist because of what he referred to as his "peculiar circumstances": Mittie had brothers fighting for the Confederacy and it was a remote but terrifying possibility that Theodore might kill or be killed by one of them if he went into battle. Instead, he hired a substitute to serve in the army in his place. Others of his class did the same thing, but this act, although necessary, was deeply at odds with Theodore's sense of principle. As his daughter Bamie said later, "He always afterward felt that he had done a very...

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