Whip smart and witty, eccentric and strikingly beautiful, had she been born in another age, Alice Roosevelt Longworth might have ended up a scientist, a writer or a particularly brutal judge on American Idol. Instead, she is remembered as one of the capital's most successful hostesses, a gifted gossip whose decades of sharing filet of beef and sly one-liners with statesmen and their wives led her to call herself "an ambulatory Washington monument."
Probably the defining moment in Alice's life came when her mother, Alice Lee Roosevelt, died two days after giving birth to her in 1884. Later that same day, in the same house, T.R.'s mother died. A devastated Teddy retreated to the Dakota Territory to grieve. During her first three years, Alice was cared for by Teddy's sister Bamie on Long Island. After T.R. remarried, this time to his childhood sweetheart Edith Carow, Alice went to live with the couple and was eventually joined by five siblings. Teddy never mentioned Alice's deceased mother, a behavior Alice grew to describe as "dreadfully Victorian and mixed-up."
Young Alice, a rambunctious tomboy, considered herself "the outsider in the nursery" and often clashed with her prim stepmother and competed with the rest of the children for her father's attention. "T.R. loved his daughter when he noticed she was there," says Stacy Cordery, a historian at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Ill., who is writing a biography of Alice with the cooperation of Alice's granddaughter Joanna Sturm.
In 1901, while the nation mourned the assassinated President William McKinley, Alice, 17, was "filled with an extreme rapture," she later said. Her father's rise to the presidency brought the attention-hungry teen instant celebrity and fashion-icon status. "Princess Alice," as she was dubbed, embarked on a diplomatic mission to Japan with then Secretary of War William Howard Taft, diving into the ship's pool fully clothed, attending sumo wrestling matches and enchanting the press.
In 1906, in a lavish East Room wedding, Alice married Nicholas Longworth, an Ohio Congressman who shared little with her besides an interest in Republican politics. A drinker and a playboy, Longworth quickly earned his wife's "complete contempt," says Sturm. Alice also grew to resent her do-gooder cousins Franklin and Eleanor, often mocking Eleanor's bucktoothed smile at dinner parties. "Grammy couldn't stand earnestness," Sturm says.
At age 41, Alice gave birth to her only child, Paulina, Sturm's mother. Though officially fathered by Alice's husband, Paulina was in fact the product of Alice's lengthy affair with Idaho Senator William Borah, a long-gossiped-about fact that will be confirmed by letters in Cordery's biography. "Alice had no idea how to be a mother," says Cordery. When her husband died in 1931, Alice was asked if she would run for his seat. But "Alice couldn't slap backs and kiss babies," Cordery says. Instead, she commented from the sidelines, observing that Wendell Wilkie, the Republican hope to defeat F.D.R. in 1940, enjoyed support from "the grass roots of 10,000 country clubs."
Though she may not have intended malice, Alice's sharp tongue did leave wounds, reducing Eleanor to tears. In 1957, Alice's quiet daughter Paulina died of an overdose of sleeping pills. A softened Alice adopted Sturm and reconciled with Eleanor, who sent her an affecting condolence note. "She was a lively grandmother," Sturm says of Alice, who spent two more decades entertaining Nixons and Kennedys in her home, which was covered with old animal skins, books and peeling paint. Alice would stay up late, teaching herself Greek and reading about science, propped beside a throw pillow embroidered with if you can't say something nice, then sit next to me. Until Alice died at 96 in 1980, Washington's elite were more than happy to take her up on that offer.