Columnist Emily Edson Briggs called Julia Dent Grant “the first lady of the land.” Lucy Webb Hayes was the first to be officially called “The First Lady.” But it was Edith Carow Roosevelt who actually was the first modern First Lady, and created much of what the position is today.
Edith was Theodore Roosevelt’s second wife, but may well have been his first choice. Edith grew up in the same Union Square neighborhood where the Roosevelts lived. Corrine, Theodore’s sister, was her best friend. Although Theodore was three years older than Edith, they moved in the same social circles. Edith claimed that, before Theodore went to Harvard, he proposed marriage to her. She refused, agreeing with her parents’ advice that she was too young.
Theodore went to Harvard, and met the beautiful Alice Lee. They married, but she died of kidney disease four years later. After his “cowboy phase” (see my earlier article on Theodore Roosevelt), he returned to New York and he and Edith resumed their acquaintance. They were married on December 2, 1886. In addition to raising Alice, Theodore’s daughter from his first marriage, Theodore and Edith had five children of their own.
Edith received her little formal education at the Comstock School in New York, but her real education came at home. She was raised in an “erudite setting” which provided her a complete education. Theodore admitted that her education was much broader than his own and that he often got credit for her ideas. He once told a friend that Edith was “better read” and that he valued her judgment and came to depend on her advice. “Whenever I go against her judgment, I regret it.”
Managing a large household and then serving as the wife of an assistant Secretary of the Navy and Governor of New York gave Edith a great deal of experience in executive management and social graces. She was ready and very confident when Theodore became President.
In her almost eight years as First Lady, Edith initiated major changes in the way the White House was run. She solved the problem of separating the President’s personal residence from his official home, developed a new model for dealing with the increasing demand for information about the President’s family, removed herself from official decisions about entertaining by hiring professional caterers, and hired a secretary to handle her official correspondence. She institutionalized the role of the First Lady in a way that had never been done before.
Her young, rambunctious family and their antics were already well known, and well reported, from their days in the New York Governor’s Mansion. They continued to attract even more interest from reporters. Edith Roosevelt was determined to handle the publicity more successfully than her predecessors had done. Francis Cleveland had barred reporters from the White House lives of her children, but that had only resulted in wild rumors of deformities and illness. Edith decided that since she could not deny the public’s curiosity about her family, she could satisfy it on her own terms.
Edith provided posed photographs to reporters, which solved most of the problems. McClure’s, Harper’s Bazaar, Harper’s Weekly, and Review of Reviews all ran pictures of her children but gave little information. For Alice Roosevelt’s wedding to Representative Nicholas Longworth and for Ethel Roosevelt’s debut, photographers and reporters were included in the preparations so as to prevent the uncontrolled snooping that had marred the Cleveland wedding.
In the summer of 1902, extensive renovations were made to the White House. Many First Ladies had wanted a greater separation between the residence and official duties of the President. Edith accomplished this. In the future, the family living quarters would be upstairs and off-limits to the public and even the President’s staff. A new office wing was added to house the workings of the administration and the President’s staff. The first floor of the White House would be public areas for receptions and social occasions.
Edith Roosevelt ran the White House as an executive. She hired an assistant to see to the daily details. This assistant, Belle Hagner, exhibited so much executive ability that one of the President’s aides said he was “simply astonished.” All information about the First Lady or the social schedule came from Mrs. Hagner. Even Edith’s children were instructed not to speak with reporters.
Edith took one more unusual step to control the White House. She met weekly with the cabinet wives to discuss the social calendar. This prevented conflicts, set limits and kept expenses down. Even with the White House expense account, she needed to economize and watch social expenses. She could not risk having the President’s parties considered inferior to those of Cabinet members. Edith understood the natural temptation for the Cabinet wives to complete with each other, which would increase expenses for everyone. By setting limits, this was avoided. Rumors said that Edith used these meeting to set ultimatums on social behavior, and on one occasion even warned a Cabinet wife to break off an affair she was having with a foreign diplomat or risk being banned from Washington social affairs.
Edith Roosevelt further institutionalized the job of First Lady by delegating responsibilities to specialists that had previously been carried out by the First Lady herself. Edith hired professional caterers to prepare the food for official dinners. This relieved her from the burden of many small details and much work, and protected her from public criticism if something went wrong.
Edith also continued and improved the China Collection started by Caroline Harrison and initiated a portrait gallery so that all President’s wives could have memorials in the White House. This began the tradition of each First Lady having an official portrait made along with the President, which would remain after the President and First Lady left the White House.
When Edith Roosevelt left the White House in 1909, public opinion was almost unanimously in her favor. Archibald Butt, the President’s aide, said that she left the White House “without making a mistake.” One word of criticism came from a famous woman quoted in a national magazine as saying that Edith Roosevelt “dresses on 300 dollars a year and looks it.” Edith was amused and placed the article in her scrapbook.
Theodore Roosevelt died in 1919. Edith lived quietly until 1948. She saw three of her four sons die in wartime. Her youngest, Quentin, a young pilot, was shot down in World War I. Kermit died on active duty in Alaska in 1943. And Theodore, Jr., died in July 1944 in Normandy, France. He was an assistant division commander, and the highest ranking officer to land in the first wave of D-Day, where he won the Congressional Medal of Honor. Archie won the Croix de Guerre in World War I, and served again in World War II being wounded and discharged as disabled.
Edith Roosevelt did much to change the role of First Lady and the White House. She had a great influence on the politics of her day, and yet is not a popular figure in history. It is easy to see why she was overshadowed by her energetic husband who enjoyed being in the headlines much more than did his wife. But her desire for privacy should not cause us to forget the accomplishments and contributions of this remarkable woman.