I’m writing this on Valentine's Day, which makes me think of Teddy Roosevelt.
Here’s why. Teddy Roosevelt and his fiancé, Alice Lee, announced their engagement February 14, 1880. Their only child, also named Alice, was born on February 12, four years later. Two days after her birth, also on Valentine’s Day, both Teddy’s wife AND his mother died, his wife of Bright’s Disease and his mother of typhus.
Teddy wrote in his journal, “The light has gone out of my life.” He never spoke of his wife again, tore out the pages of his diary that referred to her and burned the letters they’d written to each other. Then he handed the baby off to his older sister and moved to a ranch he owned near Medora, North Dakota. He stayed for two years, grieving and rebuilding his body and soul. In letters to his sister asking about the baby, he referred to her as “Baby Lee.” When Roosevelt was twenty-eight, he returned to New York, married his next-door neighbor, had five more children and started a career that led him to the White House and beyond.
It’s a fascinating story, even seen as romantic. But when I hear it, what I think is, what about the baby?
I realize Teddy Roosevelt lived in a different world than I. A different world and a different time. He and everyone he knew or was related to was rich beyond anything I can imagine. Not only rich, but powerful, with influence and political power going back two hundred years, to a time before the United States was a country. So maybe it wasn’t considered unusual to hand a newborn baby over to a relative, to be raised in a house full of servants. After all, Teddy’s second wife was considered remarkable because she would often spend as much as two or three hours a day with her children, before sending them back to others to feed, bathe, and put to bed. Children in that level of society were often sent to boarding schools, sometimes as young as six or seven.
But I just can’t stop thinking about the little girl. Only a few days old, her mother dead and her father off to North Dakota for two years to play cowboy and get over his heartbreak.
Baby Alice’s life didn’t turn out too well, at least not by my placid Midwestern standards. She was a rowdy young woman, to the point where Teddy, now president, told a friend, “Look, I can run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.” Alice famously had a pillow embroidered with, “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”
She married young, to a Washington big shot, but the marriage was a little shaky. She had a long string of affairs, and her only child was the product of one of those affairs. The girl had an unhappy life and died of an overdose when she was about thirty.
It can be hard to remember that people are complicated, that we live a world with very little black and white and lots of shades of gray. Teddy Roosevelt was a great man, who did great things. He backed the little guy against big business, founded the national park system, helped bring the United States onto the world scene. But at one point, he was also a weak and broken man who recovered from a tragedy by abandoning the one person on earth who needed him above all else. Both descriptions are true statements, and unless you can hold them both in your mind, you’re not ready to see the world as it really is.
That’s what I was thinking about today.
Copyright 2022 Brent Olson