When Alice Roosevelt, eldest daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, married Congressman Nicholas Longworth on February 17, 1906, the atmosphere in the country’s capital was so festive that the Washington Times likened it to “celebrating a national holiday.” On this “heaven-made” sunny winter day, as the Washington Post put it, well-wishers lined the streets hoping for a glimpse of the couple; those lucky or elite enough to witness the wedding in the White House’s East Room during this “most auspicious moment” appeared “scarcely able to breathe.”
The most effusive words were reserved for the bride: “Miss Roosevelt looked as pretty as she ever did in her life, and that is saying a good deal,” the New York Times gushed. “The best pictures that have been printed of her do not do justice to her face.”
The woman dubbed “Princess Alice” by the press received ornate gifts befitting royalty from around the world, including a pearl necklace from Cuba, a gold box from England’s Edward VII, a diamond bracelet from Germany’s Wilhelm II and jewelry from the dowager empress of China. These gifts testified to her popularity not only at home but also on the global stage. Next to Roosevelt himself, it was his daughter whose star shined the brightest in the White House during his presidency.
White House weddings have always been a source of fascination. President Grover Cleveland married while in office in 1886. The daughters of Ulysses S. Grant, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon also wed at the historic estate. This Saturday, when Naomi Biden, granddaughter of President Joe Biden, celebrates her marriage to Peter Neal, it will mark the 19th time the presidential home has served as a wedding venue. Still, Alice’s wedding stands apart because of her then-unrivaled fame.
When Roosevelt took office following the assassination of William McKinley in September 1901, he brought with him a wife and children whose antics—from keeping a menagerie of pets to roller skating in the East Room—charmed a country long unaccustomed to a young, vivacious first family. “He is bringing six rambunctious children with him to the White House, lots of animals—it really is a spectacle,” says Lina Mann, a historian with the White House Historical Association. “People have a lot of interest in Roosevelt and his family.”
But it was the lively Alice who quickly became the focus of the press’ adoration—and scrutiny. Glowing reports about her society debut at the White House in 1902, at age 17, presaged her wedding four years later. Soon, the color “Alice blue” was a sought-after fashion staple. Songs were named after the first daughter. She was invited to christen Wilhelm II’s yacht in New York, where crowds cheered wildly for her. (Her father’s presence garnered less attention.)
Alice had to decline an invitation to Edward VII’s August 1902 coronation because of concerns about royalist overtones but traveled to Cuba instead, where she reveled in the warm welcome that flowed from her father’s popularity after the Spanish-American War. She was feted at Mardi Gras in New Orleans, welcomed by fireworks during a visit to Puerto Rico and greeted by a crush of fans at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
As Alice became a household name, the public consumed her rebellious antics as fast as she could serve them up. Forbidden from smoking in the White House by her parents, she smoked on the rooftop; carried around a pet green snake; attended horse races (where she was “as much an attraction as the thoroughbreds,” according to the New York Times); drove a car sans chaperone; danced; snuck whiskey into dry parties (her popular appeal did not extend to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union); and cavorted with fun-loving peers.
“I was the daughter of an enormously popular president and the first girl in the White House since Nellie Grant, and I looked upon the world as my oyster,” Alice recalled in her 1933 autobiography, Crowded Hours.
Even in acknowledging her mischief, most fans saw only the best in “the premiere American girl,” as the Spokane Press described her. These acolytes were quick to defend the first daughter as “a little self-willed … but with a high regard for the real proprieties.”
Alice was independent enough to charm and intrigue the American public but adept enough not to cross over into notoriety. “She was extremely smart and scrupulously raised,” says Stacy Cordery, a historian at Iowa State University and the author of Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, From White House Princess to Washington Power Broker. “I don’t think that for one second Alice failed to know where the line between appropriate and inappropriate was.”
Still, her rebellious streak exasperated the president. In an oft-quoted exchange shared by writer Owen Wister, after many interruptions during an Oval Office meeting, Roosevelt said, “I can be president of the United States—or—I can attend to Alice.”
Alice was both fiercely competitive with and loyal to her father. Adding to this familial ambivalence was her fraught relationship with her stepmother, Edith. Roosevelt’s first wife, also named Alice, died shortly after giving birth to their daughter in 1884. The grieving father sent his child to live with an aunt. When Roosevelt remarried in 1886, young Alice rejoined the fold, but by both circumstance and choice, she was set apart from her siblings.
“Being the offspring of a very conspicuous parent, I wasn’t going to let him get the better of me,” Alice told author Michael Teague in the 1981 memoir Mrs. L. Roosevelt chided Alice for waving to the crowds during his 1905 inauguration; she was known to point out her gregarious father’s reputation for being “the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.”
Despite their ongoing battle of wills, the president was savvy enough to capitalize on his daughter’s popularity. In 1905, he sent her on her highest-visibility trip yet: a monthslong sojourn to Asia with then-Secretary of War William Taft, which included stops in Japan, China, Korea and the Philippines. The stakes were high, with the Treaty of Portsmouth, Japan’s growing domination over Korea and the United States’ interests in the Philippines all under negotiation.
Alice was met by cheering crowds and welcomed into the highest courts by the likes of Emperor Meiji of Japan and Empress Dowager Cixi of China—a testament to her role as symbolic emissary for her father. She didn’t abandon her hijinks entirely, making news by jumping into a pool fully clothed, but she was shrewd enough to avoid diplomatic gaffes when it counted.
“The fact that [Roosevelt] allowed his unmarried daughter to go was also probably perceived as a sign of great trust in these nations,” says Cordery.
When Alice returned, she put the prolific speculation about her personal life to rest by announcing her engagement to one of her traveling companions: Longworth, who’d arrived in Washington a few years prior as a congressman from Ohio. After Alice’s society debut in 1902, rumors had flourished at the mere hint of a connection to an eligible man, but they were fleeting. Longworth’s background and aspirations dovetailed with Alice’s own social milieu, and months of travel in Asia cemented their budding relationship.
News of Alice’s impending marriage to the rising politician, who was a decade and a half older than his bride, unleashed a frenzy. When she shopped for wedding accoutrements in New York, gawking crowds choked off traffic, and the police had to intervene. It was worthy of reality television before the medium even existed. As Alice later told Teague, “There was no Hollywood, and there were no movie stars in those days. They liked my father, and there was I having a good time and not really giving a damn.”
“There was no one else like her,” says Cordery of Alice’s rise to prominence when America was on the cusp of a blossoming celebrity culture. At a time when women rarely made headlines, “she was newsworthy. She was fun.”
That fame drew the public to gather outside the White House on February 17, 1906, in hopes of glimpsing a union that served as both a fairytale and a political pairing. Inside, Washington luminaries and foreign emissaries listened to the Marine Band and watched the bride slice her wedding cake with a sword. After a decoy car distracted the crowd, the couple snuck out to start their honeymoon. It was, the city’s Evening Star reported, “the culminating scene in a love story, each chapter of which has entertained two continents and which in our own happy land has become a familiar fireside tale.” (Of the marriage that followed, Alice admitted, albeit at age 90: “I hardly reveled in it.”)
Though she moved out of the White House after her marriage, Alice seemed to never fully accept that it was no longer her home. She buried a voodoo doll in the garden, later telling Teague, “Nobody likes to leave the White House, whatever they say.”
Mann adds, “She’s growing up and spending some of her most formative years in that building. It also probably held a lot of good memories for her.”
Her wedding day was perhaps the pinnacle of her celebrity status, but Alice continued to parlay that fame into a lifetime of influence in Washington circles. She remained a fixture long after her father’s death in 1919 and her husband’s in 1931. She was a formidable friend—or foe—of every president who followed her father up until her own death in 1980.
In 1906, Alice was already forming a prominent, if unofficial, political persona. When she campaigned for her new husband in Ohio, 14 years before the passage of the 19th Amendment, a correspondent wrote, “Ah, if once, and once only, Ohio could vote for Mrs. Nicholas Longworth, instead of her husband, what a landslide there would be!” (Her husband’s response to this glowing endorsement went unrecorded.)
The first daughter’s loyalty to her father often translated into disdain for his political rivals. The election of 1912 put her husband in the awkward political position of backing fellow Ohioan Taft, whose once-close friendship with Roosevelt had morphed into a rivalry after Taft took office in 1909. Amid that rift, Roosevelt was gunning for another term in the White House under the auspices of the newly formed Progressive Party.
After Woodrow Wilson emerged victorious over both her father and Taft, Alice began “intensifying the dislike and resentment” she felt toward the new president. She boosted the vocal opposition in Congress to the League of Nations at the end of World War I, which she characterized as a threat to national sovereignty. When Wilson returned from negotiations in Paris, Alice went to see how many crowds would greet him—and cast a “murrain” (or plague) on him as he passed by.
Relatives were not spared, as her fifth cousin Franklin and first cousin Eleanor experienced in spades. Alice was a harsh, outspoken critic of Franklin’s New Deal policies during the Great Depression, comparing his running of the country to his physical disabilities. Of Eleanor, Alice declared herself “bored with her type of piety.”
Alice’s opinions about White House occupants didn’t dim with age. “There were certainly no sparks there” when it came to Dwight D. Eisenhower; dullness seemed to offend her worse than antagonism. She was charmed by the Kennedys, whom she deemed “fascinating” in her recollections to Teague, and she indulged in good-natured verbal sparring with Robert F. Kennedy. Alice similarly enjoyed Johnson, whom she described fondly as “an engaging rogue elephant of a man.” She got along famously with Nixon; he attended her 90th birthday in 1974, during the height of the Watergate scandal, and proclaimed it “a great party.”
Her social sphere wasn’t limited to presidents and lawmakers. She was always quick to appear when foreign dignitaries were in town: The nonagenarian Alice met Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1976, during America’s bicentennial celebrations.
Alice frequently brought power brokers together in her home in the heart of Washington, D.C. Despite being known as a raconteur, she shared more than idle gossip. By mixing the right people at the right time, she could aid or hinder candidates and bills. She denied influencing votes, but the steady stream of lawmakers and her regular visits to congressional hearings suggested otherwise.
In a town where conversation was its own currency, Alice’s clout stemmed from her ability to stay current. She “was not somebody who lived in the past,” says Cordery. “[Otherwise,] people would not have continued to seek her out, and to beat a path to her door, and do everything they could to get an invitation to her tea and parties.”
While Alice was the queen of barbs in the political arena, her personal life was not without sharp points. Longworth was known to have numerous affairs, even if such things were kept out of the press. Alice’s daughter, Paulina, was born 18 years into their marriage, likely fathered by Alice’s lover, Senator William Borah of Idaho—a lineage that could not be acknowledged publicly. Paulina died of an overdose in 1957; Alice raised her granddaughter, Joanna Sturm. She was famous for her one-liners but spoke little of her personal trials.
Politics was integral to who she was, but Alice never ran for office herself. She saw herself as shy and disliked public speaking. The minutiae of holding office were also less than interesting to her. Of one tariff debate, she said in Crowded Hours, “I enjoy [it] principally for the passions it arouses.” She wrote a relatively short-lived newspaper column in the 1930s before returning to the parlor and party circuit.
“I can hardly recollect a time when I was not aware of the existence of politics and politicians,” Alice wrote. Her obligatory stints in Cincinnati with her in-laws never excited her; of living in Washington, she reflected, “I would have found anything else rather dull in comparison.”
Alice met President Benjamin Harrison as a young girl in the late 19th century. When she died in 1980 at the age of 96, Jimmy Carter was president. Despite her firsthand experience with an extensive period of American political history, an elderly Alice matter-of-factly reflected upon the pomp and circumstance of her life, distilling her goal to the same one she had professed as an adventure-seeking teenager living in the White House: “All I’ve really done is to have a good time. I’ve covered a lot of territory. I’m amused and, I hope, amusing.”