Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt

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9780743217385: Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt
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The National Book Award–winning biography that tells the story of how young Teddy Roosevelt transformed himself from a sickly boy into the vigorous man who would become a war hero and ultimately president of the United States, told by master historian David McCullough.

Mornings on Horseback is the brilliant biography of the young Theodore Roosevelt. Hailed as “a masterpiece” (John A. Gable, Newsday), it is the winner of the Los Angeles Times 1981 Book Prize for Biography and the National Book Award for Biography. Written by David McCullough, the author of Truman, this is the story of a remarkable little boy, seriously handicapped by recurrent and almost fatal asthma attacks, and his struggle to manhood: an amazing metamorphosis seen in the context of the very uncommon household in which he was raised.

The father is the first Theodore Roosevelt, a figure of unbounded energy, enormously attractive and selfless, a god in the eyes of his small, frail namesake. The mother, Mittie Bulloch Roosevelt, is a Southerner and a celebrated beauty, but also considerably more, which the book makes clear as never before. There are sisters Anna and Corinne, brother Elliott (who becomes the father of Eleanor Roosevelt), and the lovely, tragic Alice Lee, TR’s first love. All are brought to life to make “a beautifully told story, filled with fresh detail” (The New York Times Book Review).

A book to be read on many levels, it is at once an enthralling story, a brilliant social history and a work of important scholarship which does away with several old myths and breaks entirely new ground. It is a book about life intensely lived, about family love and loyalty, about grief and courage, about “blessed” mornings on horseback beneath the wide blue skies of the Badlands.

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About the Author:

David McCullough has twice received the Pulitzer Prize, for Truman and John Adams, and twice received the National Book Award, for The Path Between the Seas and Mornings on Horseback. His other acclaimed books include The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, Brave Companions, 1776, The Greater Journey, and The Wright Brothers. He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. Visit

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

Greatheart's Circle

In the year 1869, when the population of New York City had reached nearly a million, the occupants of 28 East 20th Street, a five-story brownstone, numbered six, exclusive of the servants.

The head of the household was Theodore Roosevelt (no middle name or initial), who was thirty-seven years of age, an importer and philanthropist, and the son of old Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt, one of the richest men in the city. Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt -- Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, or Mittie, as she was called -- was thirty-three, a southerner and a beauty. The children, two girls and two boys, all conceived by the same father and mother, and born in the same front bedroom, over the parlor, ranged in age from fourteen to seven. The oldest, Anna, was known as Bamie (from bambina, and pronounced to rhyme with Sammy). Next came ten-year-old Theodore, Jr., who was called Teedie (pronounced to rhyme with T.D.). Elliott, aged nine, was Ellie or Nell, and the youngest, Corinne, was called Conie.

Of the servants little is known, except for Dora Watkins, an Irish nursemaid who had been employed since before the Civil War. Another Irish girl named Mary Ann was also much in evidence, beloved by the children and well regarded by the parents -- it was she they picked to go with the family on the Grand Tour that May -- but in family papers dating from the time, nobody bothered to give Mary Ann a last name. Concerning the others, the various cooks, valets, coachmen, and housemaids who seem to have come and gone with regularity, the record is no help. But to judge by the size of the house and the accepted standards for families of comparable means and station, there were probably never less than four or five "below stairs" at any given time, and the degree to which they figured in the overall atmosphere was considerable.

The house stood in the block between Broadway and Fourth Avenue, on the south side of the street, and it looked like any other New York brownstone, a narrow-fronted, sober building wholly devoid of those architectural niceties (marble sills, fanlights) that enlivened the red-brick houses of an earlier era downtown. The standard high stoop with cast-iron railings approached a tall front door at the second-floor level, the ground floor being the standard English basement, with its servants' entrance. A formal parlor (cut-glass chandelier, round-arched marble fireplace, piano) opened onto a long, narrow hall, as did a parlor or "library," this a windowless room remembered for its stale air and look of "gloomy respectability." The dining room was at the rear, again according to the standard floor plan. Upstairs were the master bedroom and nursery, then three more bedrooms on the floor above, with the servants' quarters on the top floor.

Only one thing about the house was thought to be out of the ordinary, a deep porch, or piazza, at the rear on the third-floor level. Enclosed with a nine-foot wooden railing, it had been a bedroom before the Roosevelts tore out the back wall and converted it to an open-air playroom. It overlooked not only their own and neighboring yards, but the garden of the Goelet mansion on 19th Street, one of the largest private gardens in the city, within which roamed numbers of exotic birds with their wings clipped. Daily, in their "piazza clothes," the children were put out to play or, in Bamie's case, in early childhood, to lie on a sofa.

The house had been a wedding present from Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt -- CVS to the family -- whose own red-brick mansion on Union Square, six blocks south, was the figurative center of the Roosevelt tribal circle. The father of five sons, CVS had presented them all with houses as they married and the one given Theodore, youngest of his five, adjoined that of Robert B. Roosevelt, the fourth son, who was a lawyer.

With their full beards and eyeglasses, these two neighboring brothers bore a certain physical resemblance. The difference in age was only two years. Beyond appearances, however, they were not the least alike. Robert was the conspicuous, unconventional Roosevelt, the one for whom the family had often to do some explaining. Robert wrote books; Robert was bursting with ideas. He was a gifted raconteur, a sportsman, yachtsman, New York's pioneer conservationist (fish were his pet concern), an enthusiastic cook, an authority on family origins. He was loud and witty and cherished the limelight, seeking it inexplicably in the tumult of Tammany politics. Until the Civil War, the Roosevelts had all been Democrats. As late as 1863, Theodore had still been an avowed War Democrat -- one who supported the war and thus the Republican Administration -- but when he and the rest of CVS's line at last turned Republican, Robert alone remained in the Democratic fold and was never to be anything but proud of the fact. ("Our party is the party of the people!")

Robert's middle name was his mother's maiden name, Barnhill, but in anticipation of what his political foes might make of this ("manure pile" or variations to that effect), he had changed it to Barnwell and it was as Uncle Barnwell that he was sometimes known to the small nieces and nephews in the house beside his.

Robert's wife, Elizabeth Ellis Roosevelt, was called Aunt Lizzie Ellis to distinguish her from still another Aunt Lizzie in the family, and she too was considered "unorthodox." At the back of her third floor -- the floor corresponding to the piazza next door -- she maintained a marvelous and odorous menagerie of guinea pigs, chickens, pigeons, a parrot, a monkey, "everything under the sun that ought not be kept in a house." The monkey, her favorite, was a violent little creature that bit. She dressed it like a fashionable child, complete with ruffled shirts and gold studs. Once Aunt Lizzie Ellis aroused the neighborhood with the purchase of a cow that had to be led from East 20th Street into her back yard by the only available route, through the house, an event that, for excitement, was surpassed only by the removal of the cow, once Aunt Lizzie Ellis was threatened with legal action. On the return trip through the house the animal became so terrified it had to be dragged bodily, its legs tied, its eyes blindfolded.

To the children next door such occasions naturally figured very large, as did Uncle Barnwell with his talk of fishing and hunting, his yacht, and his flashy political friends. So it is somewhat puzzling that so little was to be said of him in later years. His immediate proximity would be passed over rather quickly, his influence barely touched on. He is the Roosevelt everybody chose to forget about. Politics undoubtedly had much to do with this, but more important, it would appear, was his private life. For in addition to all else, brother Rob was a bit lax in his morals. He was what polite society referred to as a Bohemian, the kind of man who kept company with "actresses and such." An admiring later-day kinsman would describe him as an Elizabethan in the Victorian era and a story has come down the generations of the ladies' gloves Robert purchased in bulk at A. T. Stewart's department store, these in a violent shade of green. The gloves had been on sale, according to the story, and he distributed them liberally among his "lady friends," with the result that for years those who knew him well knew also to watch for the gloves while strolling Fifth Avenue or driving in the park.

ardOrdinarily, such stories might prompt some question as to whether Robert only seemed scandalous -- so very straitlaced was the family, so quick was "the best society" to leap on the least deviation from the prescribed code and call it, if not immoral, then indecent. But in truth Robert was something more than a mere rake or charming boulevardier. He was a man living a remarkable double life, keeping another woman and ultimately an entire second family in a house only a block or so distant on the same street, an arrangement that would come to light only long afterward as a result of genealogical research sponsored by some of his descendants. Her name was Minnie O'Shea, or Mrs. Robert F. Fortescue, as he had decided she should be called, and in 1869 she was already pregnant with their first child.

How much of this Theodore knew, how strenuously he disapproved, if at all, is impossible to say. But the contrast between the two could hardly have been more striking.

Theodore was invariably upright, conservative, the very model of self-control. He cared nothing for public acclaim, "never put himself forward," as friends would remember. Theodore was the model duty-bound husband and father, a junior partner at Roosevelt and Son. He was a faithful communicant at the Madison Square Presbyterian Church, who often attended two services on the same Sunday. He belonged to the Union League Club and the Century Association. He served on charitable boards, raised money for museums. Not in seven generations on the island of Manhattan had the Roosevelts produced so sturdy or so winsome an example of upper-class probity, or so fine a figure of a man -- physically imposing, athletic, with china-blue eyes, chestnut hair and beard, and a good, square Dutch jaw. In his formal photographs, the eyeglasses removed, he is someone who will do what he has to, direct, sure of himself. Only the eyes raise questions, with their unmistakable hint of severity, which seems odd in a man remembered mainly for the "sunshine of his affection."

Clothes concerned him. The choice of a suit, the right hat for the occasion, were issues of consequence. His suits were of the best quality and beautifully tailored. Appearances mattered. Indeed, it may be said that appearances figured quite as much in the life at 28 East 20th Street as everywhere else within the circumscribed world of New York's "good old families." "Did I tell you that he took the other end of the table at the dinner I gave to Captain Cook and behaved admirably?" Theodore writes of brother Rob to Mittie. "He was dressed perfectly, except for a colored cravat with his dress suit."

Together at dinners and balls, he and the exquisite Mittie made a picture people did not forget. It was in the Roosevelt tradition to be solicitous to women. While their mother was alive, the five brothers stopped regularly every morning en route to work to pay her their respects. But Theodore seems to have genuinely preferred the company of women -- he had an eye for feminine beauty, his children all remembered -- and the attention he showered on Mittie was exceptional even for that day and those circles. An employee at one of his charities remarked that he had never understood the meaning of the word "gentleman" until the evening he watched Theodore Roosevelt escort his wife about the premises.

In all Theodore was a seemingly uncomplicated person. He had no particular gifts. He was not musical as Mittie was. He shared little of her love of art. He was not creative; he did not write or charm after-dinner audiences as Robert could. He dabbled in nothing. He was perfectly intelligent, to be sure; he enjoyed books, enjoyed the talk of lawyers, editors, and others who traded in words and abstract ideas, but he was unintellectual. In matters of taste he habitually deferred to his wife, refusing even to buy a bottle of wine unless she had passed on it. If he regarded himself as an authority on anything, it was horses.

But greatest of all was his interest in and feeling for children. He responded immediately to them, and they to him. "My personal impression," a nephew would recall, " that he was a large, broad, bright, cheerful man with an intense sympathy with everything you brought to him. He loved children especially."

From childhood he had been called Thee and as the youngest son, the Benjamin of the family, he had been doted on. He was Mama's darling and did nothing but shine in her eyes until her dying day. In turn, he adored her and would credit any good qualities he had to her and her "settled notions." She had been an event in the Roosevelt line, the first non-Dutch entry on the family tree. She was Margaret Barnhill of Philadelphia. Her background was English-Irish-Quaker. She was gentle but dominating and the first of the Roosevelts to espouse the spirit of noblesse oblige. Great wealth imposed obligations, she preached; the opportunities bestowed by private fortunes must be put to "some good purpose." Bamie, as the oldest of her father's children, could remember going as a very small child to call on her at the house on Union Square. There was a cavernous front hall with a floor of polished black-and-white marble and great mahogany doors with silver knobs and hinges that opened to the dining room. "In the dining room, where a bright soft-coal fire was always burning in the fireplace, between two south windows, we invariably found my grandmother sitting in her corner with her work basket on a table near her, and some books, always apparently delighted to see us, and with a most lovely smile."

Through Theodore's youth, dinner conversation in that same room, at his father's end of the table, had been in Dutch. Short, homely, pink-faced, invariably punctual, CVS Roosevelt regarded his brood with rather quizzical large, round eyes that were made to look even larger by his small, square gold-framed spectacles. He was the essence of old-fashioned New York. "Economy is my doctrine at all times," he had once informed Margaret Barnhill in the midst of their courtship, "at all events till I become, if it is to be so, a man of fortune." And though Roosevelt and Son had been founded by his own father and grandfather, it was he, CVS, who had become the family's initial man of fortune, the first Roosevelt millionaire. It was he who switched the family business from hardware to importing plate glass. And still more fortuitously, in the Panic of 1837, when Theodore was a child of six, he bought up building lots, "hither and yon," on the island of Manhattan, all at a good price.

Theodore's formal education had been limited and erratic, as his spelling gave evidence. There had been a private tutor through boyhood and never a lack of books at hand, but college was ruled out because CVS thought it would ruin him. (Weir Roosevelt, the oldest brother, had gone to Columbia College, but to study law, which apparently made it tolerable in the father's eyes; Robert, in his turn, had become a lawyer without going to college, as was still possible then.)

In 1851, however, at age nineteen, Theodore was sent off on a Grand Tour, something his brothers had been denied and that Robert for one greatly envied. It was the year of the London Exhibition and the opening of the Crystal Palace, an event of obvious importance to a family in the glass business. He saw the Exhibition, traveled the Continent, even went on to Russia, which was unheard of. He improved his French, acquired a little German and Italian, and sent home dutiful, descriptive letters that were his mother's joy and to Robert a large annoyance.

"I'm afraid, Theodore, you have mistaken the object of traveling," Robert lectured. "It is not to see scenery, you can see finer at home. It is not to see places where great people lived and died, that is a stupidity. But it is to see men. To enlarge your mind, which will never be enlarged by looking at a large hill, but by conversing with, and seeing the bent of the minds of other people."

A month later, after still more from Theodore on the churches and monuments he was seeing, Robert could barely contain himself.

I have it in mind to go to all the big stores in Broadway and write you an account. So look out as sure as you describe to me any more big buildings, you may know what to expect. N...

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McCullough, David
Published by Simon & Schuster (2001)
ISBN 10: 0743217381 ISBN 13: 9780743217385
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