The Magazine

The First Mrs. R

And the first First Lady in the modern manner.

Jul 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 42 • By CLAUDE R. MARX
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When most people think of a first lady named Roosevelt, it is Eleanor they have in mind. The life and work of the first member of the family to hold that position has received much less attention. That is, in part, because Edith Roosevelt was a private person, and she lived in a time when media coverage of the presidency was far less comprehensive. But Lewis L. Gould’s account of her life and influence is as insightful as it is compact, combining distinguished scholarship with engaging storytelling.

Edith Roosevelt, Helen Taft

Edith Roosevelt, Helen Taft

Theodore Roosevelt’s first love and second wife was from a prominent Brahmin family that had seen some of its fortune wane. Although she wasn’t especially political and found the nature of campaigning beneath someone of her station, Edith had strong views on certain subjects, and she wasn’t afraid to express those views to her husband. 

In a letter to one of her sons, for example, she describes some of the people who greeted her during a visit to the Panama Canal Zone as “poor little scraps of humanity born of Jamaican negroes’’ and “chocolate drops.’’ Gould argues that her use of this kind of language was one of many factors that shaped Theodore Roosevelt’s views on race—and what the author sees as his less-than-enlightened treatment of blacks. Since there isn’t extensive correspondence between the Roosevelts during this time, many of Gould’s conclusions are based, in large part, on speculation and reading between the lines. My reading about the era leads me to conclude that Gould is probably correct; and, given his expertise, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Though Theodore Roosevelt was an effective president, and an extraordinarily intelligent man, he wasn’t always the best judge of his fellow human. By contrast, Edith Roosevelt seems to have had a sixth sense about people, and she used that skill to influence her husband. (He once declared, “Whenever I go against her judgment, I regret it.’’) Henry Stimson, himself a shrewd judge of humanity, wrote that Edith’s “judgment of men was nearly always better than [her husband’s]. Her poise as to events in which they were both concerned was nearly always better than his.’’ Gould notes that, in previous studies, “precise evidence of her influence has been elusive.’’ But he documents incidents that spell out her importance to the Roosevelt administration: “Many of Theodore’s friends relied on his wife as a back channel to get information to him without going through the White House bureaucracy. .  .  . The British diplomat Cecil Spring Rice used his private letters to her to communicate with the president outside the accepted avenues of foreign policy.’’

Her influential role, which was more the exception than the rule at the time, isn’t surprising, given what Gould describes as Edith Roosevelt’s “inner toughness.’’ She wasn’t reluctant to remind people that TR had first proposed marriage to her, and that after she refused him, he had married Alice Lee, who died after giving birth to their daughter, Alice. Two years later, Roosevelt would propose to Edith again. Gould describes her (mostly successful) efforts “to first blur and then almost expunge the memory of her dead rival for the affection of her husband,’’ including having young Alice called “Sister” by family members so that the name would never be mentioned in their household. Edith’s armor was tough to pierce—and she looked down upon those of lesser means and those she deemed arrivistes.

Among those who felt her disdain were her husband’s friend and ally (and subsequent rival) William Howard Taft and his wife, Helen. The Tafts were prominent citizens of upper-middle-class stock—Taft’s father had served in the cabinet of President Grant, and Mrs. Taft’s father was a lawyer—but Edith Roosevelt never regarded them as social equals. Their personalities clashed, and the dislike was mutual. “The tension between the two women,” writes Gould, “well hidden from their husbands, accumulated. Neither Edith Roosevelt nor Helen Taft had a high opinion of the other’s marital partner.’’ That personal frostiness was no doubt a factor in the irreparable rift that developed between Roosevelt and Taft during the Taft presidency (which, of course, led Roosevelt to challenge his handpicked successor in 1912).

The author of an earlier study of Mrs. Taft, Helen Taft: Our Musical First Lady (2010), Lewis Gould performs an invaluable service in drawing attention to two prominent women, neglected by history, who not only supported their husbands’ careers but successfully carved out their own niches in political Washington as well.

Claude R. Marx is writing a biography of William Howard Taft.