Biographies & Memoirs


Strange and Terrible Fate


HE FELT FINE. He felt better, in fact—about his work, about himself, his future—than he had in a long while.

At his worst, he got what he called his “caged wolf feeling.” To be confined, hemmed in, to have nothing to do, was unbearable. Boredom was something he had had to deal with so rarely in life that when he had to he hardly knew how to respond. The hotel at Richfield Springs the summer before had been torture. He complained of it more than the asthma that sent him there. “I have a bad headache, a general feeling of lassitude, and am bored out of my life by having nothing whatever to do,” he told Corinne, “and being placed in that quintessence of abomination, a large summer hotel at a watering place for underbred and overdressed girls, fat old female scandal mongers, and a select collection of assorted cripples and consumptives.”

Of late in Albany he had even begun boxing again, taking sparring lessons for the first time in five years. “I felt much better for it,” he wrote Alice January 22,1884, “but am awfully out of training. I feel much more at ease in my mind and better able to enjoy things since we have gotten under way; I feel now as though I had the reins in my hand.”

The winter of his first term she had come with him to “that dear, dull, old Dutch city,” but the year after, for his second term, she remained behind in New York, in the brownstone on West 45th Street, and more recently, because of her advancing pregnancy, she had moved back with Mittie once more. So now with the hearings in session at the Metropolitan Hotel, he was staying on at 57th Street three or four nights a week.

In all regards the personal, domestic side of his life was wholly satisfactory. Uncle James Alfred worried that he was spendthrift, but appears also to have been the only one who did. His income was substantial, not quite $14,000 a year, or nearly twice what it had been before he was married. James Alfred had been looking after his “affairs” exceedingly well. The income from Roosevelt and Son alone had been nearly $8,000 the previous year. In addition there were returns from a variety of railroads in which James Alfred was himself actively involved (the Mobile and Ohio, the Rochester and Pittsburgh, the Shenango and Allegheny). There were dividends from Uncle Jimmie Gracie’s J. K. Gracie Company, from the Union Trust, and from his own Wyoming cattle investment. His salary as an assemblyman, his only earned income, was $1,200 a year.

What Alice contributed, from money or investments of her own, was never spoken of, but considering her background it was probably a respectable sum; and in any event, they knew there was a great deal to fall back on, if need be, in both families. By the way he was spending—buying the 45th Street house, buying property at Oyster Bay, sinking no small amounts in this and that—he obviously felt there was plenty to spend, plenty more where that came from. At the time he decided to buy in as a partner with George Haven Putnam he handed Putnam a check for $20,000, which, as he did not seem to understand, was approximately twice what he had in his account. But the difficulty was smoothed over at once by James Alfred, who borrowed the difference out of Theodore’s “expectations.”

To return from the political battlefields to his “own sunny darling” was all he had dreamed marital bliss might be. He knew no greater happiness than to be with her in his own sitting room at 45th Street, playing backgammon “before a bright fire of soft coal, my books all around me.” The house, since rented to Elliott and his bride, had been the first and only home of their own, and for the benefit of the two maids who ran it, Aunt Anna Gracie had drawn up a detailed program for cleaning, cooking, and so forth, a manuscript of several pages that included one directive Theodore thought memorable. “’Every morning the cook should meet the ashman with a pail of boiling water,’” he would read aloud to friends, then question what the ashman might have done to deserve a scalding.

Seeing old friends on the street, he would insist they come home with him to see Alice. He was sure she was a great asset to him in his political career and told her so. Now, when the hearings broke up at week’s end, he would bring two or three others from the committee home to 57th Street. “All of the men were perfectly enchanted with their visit to our house . . .” he wrote her from Albany January 28, after one such occasion. “They could hardly believe that Mother was really our mother; and above all they praised my sweet little wife.” One man, Tom Welch, a Niagara Falls Democrat whom he liked particularly, told him he had never seen anyone look prettier than Alice, a remark Theodore thought she would enjoy since she was then a little more than eight months pregnant.

Her confinement precluded any social life of the kind that had once occupied so much of their time, and this suited him perfectly. Such a life led to nothing, he had decided.

He had shaved off his side-whiskers, given up keeping a diary. The Newsboys’ Lodging House and the other good works of his father’s no longer interested him and he gradually gave them up also. He had gone into such activities, he would explain, in the same spirit as the Sunday-school classes at Harvard, because of his father, but it had not worked. He had no patience with simple, unsung altruism. “I tried faithfully to do what Father had done,” he later told the author Jacob Riis, “but I did it poorly . . . in the end I found out that we have each to work in his own way to do our best; and when I struck mine, though it differed from his, yet I was able to follow the same lines and do what he would have had me do.”

He had also abandoned the law. It was not just that his political life was growing larger, crowding out other things, but that other things seemed to be falling away as in some very natural process. Part of the previous summer had been spent in Uncle Robert’s office, but Theodore was not to return there again and he had not been back to the Columbia Law School in more than a year. He had become, he later said, sadly disillusioned by the law. In the careers of the corporation lawyers one was supposed to admire and emulate he saw little that was “compatible” with his own ideals. Lawyers, it appeared to him, were trained to serve clients, not justice. “The caveat emptor side of the law, like the caveat emptor side of business, seemed to me repellent; it did not make for social fair dealings,” he wrote long afterward in his memoirs.

There is the possibility, of course, that he simply found the law dull and had too much else he would rather be doing. The philosophical conclusions may have been those of the older man, a career’s-end distillation of accumulative disrespect for certain kinds of legal giants, and thus as open to question as his subsequent views on the teaching of natural history at Harvard. The few specific references he made to his law work at the time are actually quite positive. Still, the thesis offered by the old family friend at lunch, the unnamed member of the prominent law firm who appeared in the midst of the Westbrook Scandal, was more than just “incompatible” with his idealism; it revolted him. And if that were not sufficient, the spectacle soon after of the vaunted William Evarts mouthing nonsense about the sanctity of the home as cause for perpetuating the cigar sweatshops must have made very clear the priority of client over “social fair dealing.” Theodore then, as later, equated a law career with moneymaking, not with social service, and as he also said then, as later, his inheritance had liberated him from moneymaking.

Oddly, for all his quick success in politics, the passion and energy he exuded, he was still unable, or unwilling, to accept politics as his life-work. He never spoke of it as a career or calling. To have announced he was a professional politician, or openly aspired to that, would have been awkward, to be sure, since “professional” was considered synonymous with “corrupt.” It was only as a gentleman doing his part in the public interest—as a temporary volunteer, so to speak—that he could maintain a reputation for independence and integrity. A degree of disinterest in a political future had obvious political value; it was part of what made him “different,” less vulnerable to the ways by which the obviously ambitious are bought or held in check. But even among the few with whom he was most candid, he admitted to no clear vision of a lifework. In the parlance of later-day psychologists he had still to find an occupational identity, and it troubled him. His plight was nothing like that of his brother, but, by the same token, he was by no means as resolved and focused as implied by his soaring performance.

It was only within the last six months, for example, that he and Alice resolved to build on the land he had bought at Oyster Bay. At one point, earlier, he thought seriously of settling upstate at Herkimer, in the Mohawk Valley, where Douglas Robinson’s family had a large estate. “I hardly know what to do about taking a place up here,” he wrote Bamie in the fall of 1882, she being the one to whom he still invariably turned for serious counsel on serious questions; “it would be lovely to have a farm, and fortunately Alice seemed enchanted with the country. The only, or at least the chief, drawback, is the distance from New York. Still, if I were perfectly certain that I would go on in politics and literature I should buy the farm without hesitation; but I consider the chances to be strongly favorable to my getting out of both . . .”

The Oyster Bay house, once decided on, was his first commitment to the future. And certainly there was nothing equivocal or tentative about the plans that evolved—once he, Alice, Mittie, Bamie, Aunt Anna Gracie, and architects Lamb and Rich had hiked over the site, savored the view, and picked the spot. He knew too little of architecture, he said, to say what ought to be done on the outside, but on “inside matters” he was “perfectly definite.” As he later told an editor for the magazine Country Life in America, “I wished a big piazza . . . where we could sit in rocking chairs and look at the sunset; a library with a shallow bay window looking south, the parlor or drawing room occupying all the western end of the lower floor . . . big fireplaces for logs . . . I had to live inside and not outside . . .”

The house was to be enormous, suggesting a future for Alice, at least, of unending pregnancies. Along with his other wishes, the plans called for ten bedrooms, excluding maids’ rooms.

Everything bespoke solidity, permanence, comfort, security, family. The foundations were to be nearly two feet thick. There were eight fireplaces, four on the first floor, four above, twenty-two rooms in all. The materials, interestingly, were to be of the most ordinary kind. No fine paneling or costly plasterwork was called for. Doors, windows, doorframes, and the like were all of the common, inexpensive variety. Frills were dispensed with. Size, command of the hill, were what seemed to matter. It was the way he liked his food, simple but plentiful, heavy on the plate.

The “outside cover” supplied by the architects was Queen Anne—brick on the ground floor, then shingles and a slate roof. The final cost was to be something just under $17,000.

It should be called Leeholm, he decided. From the front piazza they would be able to see a whole, long sweep of Long Island Sound and, on clear days, Connecticut beyond. Now, in winter, the trees bare, the water dominated the panorama and was a deep vivid blue, different from summer. In summer, after dark, they would be able to see the lights of the Fall River steamers as they passed in the distance.

Albany, February 6, 1884


How I did hate to leave my bright, sunny little love yesterday afternoon! I love you and long for you all the time, and oh so tenderly; doubly tenderly now, my sweetest little wife. I just long for Friday evening when I shall be with you again.

Today I sparred as usual; my teacher is a small man and in the set-to today I bloodied his nose by an uppercut, and knocked him out of time.

In the House we had a most exciting debate on my Reform Charter Bill, and I won a victory, having it ordered to a third reading. Tomorrow evening I am to dine at the Rathbones’, at half past seven; it was very kind to ask me, but I do not anticipate much fun.

Goodbye, sweetheart.

Her pregnancy appears to have been without incident. Mittie had once remarked how “very large” she looked, but no one seems to have been concerned about her, and with the baby expected any time, he apparently had no misgivings about being away from her. Albany was five hours by train.

In another letter also written February 6, he told her he had given one of his “best speeches” the day before, and if she was looking in the papers that day, she saw that others agreed. “Mr. Roosevelt’s argument... was conclusive and unanswerable,” said theTimes.“Mr. Roosevelt,” according to the Evening Post, had made “a speech admirable both in clearness and force.” A headline in the Herald spoke of “MR. ROOSEVELT’S BRILLIANT ASSAULT ON CORRUPTION.”

“I propose to put the power in the hands of the men the people elect,” he had said. “At present the power is in the hands of one or two men whom the people did not elect.” It was being called the Roosevelt Bill now. A rally in its support was to be held at Cooper Union the next week.


On Friday, when he returned to 57th Street, he found that Mittie was “quite sick” with what appeared to be a cold, and that Corinne and Douglas had left their infant son in Bamie’s charge while they went off to Baltimore for a long weekend.

The weather was miserable, chill and damp. There had been no sign of the sun for days. Monday, Mrs. Lee arrived on a morning train. Theodore put in another day at the hearings downtown, then left for Albany first thing Tuesday morning.

Later that day, Tuesday, the twelfth, Alice went into labor and some time that night a baby girl was born. Telegrams went off the next morning announcing the news that mother and child were doing well. Ike Hunt would remember Theodore, “full of life and happiness,” accepting the congratulations of his friends. But then a few hours later a second telegram arrived and Theodore, looking suddenly “worn,” rushed for the next train.

The Times that morning called it suicide weather. It covered most of the Northeast—rain, unending fog, rivers over their banks. In New York, traffic barely moved on the rivers, so thick was the fog. Trains were hours behind schedule. Corinne and Douglas, who had received a telegram at Baltimore and started for New York, would remember crossing through thick fog by ferry from New Jersey, then taking the elevated train uptown, everything moving at a crawl.

They were the first to reach the house. Corinne would remember walking from the elevated station to 57th Street and seeing a single light through the fog in a third-story window. She went up the front steps a little ahead of Douglas. The door was thrown open and Elliott stood in the doorway, the light from the hall behind him, a terrible look on his face. If she wished to see her baby, he said, she should do so before coming in. The baby was at Aunt Annie’s. “There is a curse on this house! Mother is dying, and Alice is dying too.”

The time was approximately 10:30. Mittie, the doctor said, was dying of typhoid fever; Alice, of Bright’s disease. Theodore did not arrive for another hour.

By the time he reached her bedside and took her in his arms, Alice barely knew who he was. He stayed there, holding her, until some time just before three in the morning when he was told that if he wished to see his mother again, he must come at once.

Mittie died at three o’clock the morning of February 14, her four children at her bedside. Alice lingered on another eleven hours. Alice died at two that afternoon, Theodore still holding her.

The first man to rise when the Assembly convened the next day said he had never in his years at Albany stood in the presence of such sorrow. Six others spoke, including three of Theodore’s most hostile opponents, all visibly shaken. In an unprecedented gesture of respect, the Assembly voted to adjourn until the following Monday.

Saturday in New York, the morning of the double funeral service, skies were clear, the temperature back down in the twenties. Theodore, his face a mask, sat in the front pew with Elliott, Bamie, Corinne, and Alice’s father. Again, as six years before, the enormous church was full; except that now two rosewood coffins stood at the altar. The familiar faces scattered among the more than two thousand who had gathered included Astors, Vanderbilts, Harrimans, but also Speaker Titus Sheard, Johnny O’Brien, and Mayor Seth Low. They sang “Rock of Ages”; Dr. John Hall prayed for the bereaved and for the four-day-old baby, weeping openly as he spoke. Then two hearses clattered off down Fifth Avenue, followed by carriages carrying the immediate family. Burial was at Greenwood, beside Grandmamma Bulloch and Theodore.

Again disease had struck and destroyed and changed everything. The life of the family had seemed an unending, tragic struggle against one cursed disease after another—Pott’s disease, asthma, cancer, whatever nameless disorder plagued Elliott—and now came typhoid and nephritis, or Bright’s disease, chronic inflammation of the kidneys. Mittie, whose precautions against dirt and contamination had seemed silly and obsessive, died of contaminated food or water, of the acutely infectious bacteria Salmonella typhosa.Typhoid fever, an ordeal of usually several weeks, had killed her in five days. It had appeared at first as though she had only a cold, because that is how typhoid begins. Little that mattered was done for her, because there was little anyone could do, given what was known, what was available. And it had been the same for Alice. Two summers before, the country had learned about Bright’s disease when the Associated Press carried a story saying President Arthur was ill with it. The story was denied, on authority of the President, but the feeling remained that Arthur was a dying man, since Bright’s disease in adults was almost inevitably fatal. That it had gone undiagnosed in Alice all that winter seems odd. Plainly neither she nor any of the family had any idea there was something the matter with her. And though none of the family was to challenge or investigate the part played by her doctor, some of her friends would later contend that the doctor had been guilty of criminal negligence.

No one knew how possibly to justify or explain such tragedy. There were no answers save “God’s will” or fate, “strange and terrible fate,” Theodore said. The sole, overwhelming lesson was the awful brevity of life, the sense that the precipice awaited not just somewhere off down the road, but at any moment. An asthmatic childhood had shown that life could be stifled, cut off, unless one fought back, and all Papa’s admonitions to get action, to seize the moment, had the implicit message that there was not much time after all. Father had died at forty-six; Mittie had been only forty-eight; Alice, all of twenty-two, her life barely begun. Nothing lasts. Winter waits.


He does not know what he does or says,” wrote his old tutor, Arthur Cutler, the day of the funeral. Yet three days later Theodore was back in Albany, and the day following, at ten in the morning, he was in his seat as usual and that afternoon he took up where he had left off, arguing for his Reform Charter Bill. In one of the speeches given in sympathy the week before, an old Republican named Lucas Van Allen, a man who had opposed Theodore time and again, prayed Theodore be given the strength “to work bravely in the darkness.”

Now week after week, on into March and April, he did little but work, shunting back and forth from Albany to his hearings by night trains. He reported a flood of bills out of his City Affairs Committee—seven, nine, fourteen a day. His outpouring of work, of words printed and spoken, of speeches delivered, of witnesses grilled, of interviews, of inspection tours (of conditions at New York’s infamous Ludlow Street jail), of headlong, concentrated energy was utterly phenomenal, surpassing anything he had ever done before and causing those close at hand to wonder how much longer he could maintain a hold on himself. One day in March he reported fifteen bills out of committee, then six more at a night session; and even then his work for the day had only begun. Dissatisfied with a report on his hearings that had been drafted by counsel for the committee, he wrote an entirely new version at a single sitting, working through until morning.

He didn’t want to [Ike Hunt recalled], but he did it. He started in at night and he wrote all night long and he got his breakfast and still continued to write. The House opened and he came up to the House and he wrote that report, and as soon as he got a sheet of foolscap written in long hand the page was right there to take it down to the printer because the committee had got to report that morning. But Teddy would get up and say, “Mr. Speaker, that bill so-and-so with reference to so-and-so is all right,” and then he would sit down and commence to write again. Finally, he said, “There it is, I am finished.” I sat right in front of him. I said, “There won’t be any continuity to that report, I don’t believe.” He said, “Don’t you worry.” In a little while the printer came up with the report all printed and Teddy went out and read it to the committee and they signed it and that was the report that was handed in.

Of his personal tragedy, he would say nothing. “You could not talk to him about it,” Hunt remembered. “. . . He did not want anybody to sympathize with him.”

I have taken up my work again; indeed, I think I should go mad if I were not employed,” he wrote in answer to a sympathy note from Carl Schurz, who a number of years before had survived the death of his own wife by pouring himself into his work in just such manic fashion.

“Teddy was as sweet and gentle as ever on Sunday,” wrote Corinne after one of his weekends in the city, “but he feels the awful loneliness more and more, and I fear he sleeps little for he walks a great deal in the night and his eyes have that strained red look.”

Within days after the funeral, it had been decided to sell 6 West 57th Street. It was put on the market and snapped up at once by an immensely wealthy old friend of the elder Theodore’s, a fellow director of the Museum of Natural History, John S. Kennedy, who, with his banking firm, J. S. Kennedy & Company, was closely involved with James Alfred in the financing of the Great Northern Railroad. The family had until May to be out of the house. Theodore left it to Bamie to handle the details and to sell his own place on West 45th Street. “That year seems a perfect nightmare,” she would recall, “parting with all the places we had cared for, dividing everything that had always meant home and deciding how to recommence life.”

Several hundred condolence letters had to be answered, and again it was Bamie who bore the major burden. There were letters from Bullochs in Savannah, recalling “the beautiful, angelic and active girl I knew and loved so well”; from friends made abroad (”It seems such a short time ago when we were together on the Nile ...”); and from people like Aunt Lucy Elliott, who must be answered at length. “If baby is living who will take it?” wrote a cousin from Charleston.

In the interval between her mother’s death and the hour when Alice died, Bamie had sent off a wire to Liverpool and in a strong, clear hand Uncle Jimmie Bulloch had written in reply, “The cable has never carried through the depths of the sea a sadder message than it has brought us today. . . . Our anxiety about dear Alice adds to our unhappiness, but we will doubtless learn how it fares with her.”

I always believe in showing affection by doing what will please the one we love, not by talking, her father had drummed into her. Faced with the decision of whether to proceed as planned with the house at Oyster Bay, whether to sign with the contractor, Theodore decided to go ahead with it, but wanted Bamie to supervise the job, to tend to all details. He wished no part of the project, only to have it finished.

Nor was he interested in his baby, Alice, as she had been christened the Sunday after the funeral, and so she too was entrusted to Bamie, who now bought a house of her own on Madison Avenue, “furnishing it with my share of the 57th Street things.” Theodore, for the house at Oyster Bay, was to have the furniture from the master bedroom.

“It seems,” wrote Conie, remembering her mother, “as if there were so few that one really cared for.” She longed for Mittie. Even her joy in her own child seemed changed somehow, depreciated with Mittie gone.

Baby is lying on the bed taking his lunch by me [she wrote Elliott]. Though he is my greatest comfort and delight, still so much of my pleasure in him is changed, for I never was so happy as when I saw her with him. She loved him so extravagantly . . .

On the day Alice died, Theodore had made a large X on the page for February 14 in an otherwise empty diary for the year 1884, and beneath he wrote only, “The light has gone out of my life.”

Later in the year, working at a small table in a cabin in the Dakota Bad Lands, he wrote a memorial for private publication.

She was born at Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, on July 29,1861; I first saw her on October 18, 1878, and loved her as soon as I saw her sweet, fair young face; we were betrothed on January 25, 1880, and married on October 27th, of the same year; we spent three years of happiness such as rarely comes to man or woman; on February 12, 1884, her baby girl was born; she kissed it, and seemed perfectly well; some hours afterward she, not knowing that she was in the slightest danger, but thinking only that she was falling into a sleep, became insensible, and died at two o’clock on Thursday afternoon, February 14, 1884, at 6 West 57th Street, in New York; she was buried two days afterward, in Greenwood Cemetery.

She was beautiful in face and form, and lovelier still in spirit; as a flower she grew, and as a fair young flower she died. Her life had been always in the sunshine; and there had never come to her a single great sorrow; and none ever knew her who did not love and revere her for her bright, sunny temper and her saintly unselfishness. Fair, pure, and joyous as a maiden; loving, tender, and happy as a young wife; when she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be but just begun, and when the years seemed so bright before her—then, by a strange and terrible fate, death came to her.

And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went out from my life for ever.

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