by Mary Calvi
“Love at first sight,” a Harvard College student writes in his private journals. “I have never… gone to sleep or waked up without thinking of her; and I doubt if an hour has passed that I have not thought of her.” The words could have been written by any lover in any age. But they were written 150 years ago during the Gilded Age. And it was a young man named Theodore Roosevelt who had fallen in love.
Her name was Alice Hathaway Lee, a Boston Brahmin, a beauty, and a woman who was beginning to do things differently than other women in the 1800s. An avid athlete who competed in tennis, an attendee at Roosevelt’s boxing matches, a lady who crashed the Harvard gender barrier by entering the all-male elite Porcellian Club to have lunch with Teddy, and a guest at the college commencement activities when he gave what would become his first public address. History books have listed it as a senior thesis, instead, it was a speech that Roosevelt delivered on equal rights for women: “Especially as regards the laws relating to marriage there should be the most absolute equality preserved between the two sexes. I do not think the woman should assume the man’s name. The man should have no more right over the person or property of his wife than she has over the person or property of her husband… I would have the word “obey” used no more by the wife than by the husband. The woman, too, should have at least as much voice as the man in everything regarding the children; indeed, I should say, more.”
Although Alice married Theodore Roosevelt—and presumably did not become his “property”—she never became the first lady to the future 26th President of the United States either. The 1979 Pulitzer-prize-winning biography by Edmund Morris makes that appear to be a good thing. Morris writes that “Alice… would have driven Roosevelt to suicide from sheer boredom.” Morris calls her “a creature so bland and uncomplicated as to be incapable of spiritual growth,” and writes that “all love-letters between himself and Alice—with four trivial exceptions—were destroyed.” The assertions about Alice in Morris’ otherwise impressive biography of our 26th president appear to have put a cap on any further research or question about Alice Lee’s influence on Theodore Roosevelt.
Upon examination of Roosevelt’s journal entries which mention Alice’s name more than one hundred times—this researcher had a hunch that the supposed insignificance of Alice may have been overstated. And so began a years-long study into the life of Miss Lee, which revealed that the love letters not only existed, but were eye-opening. Housed in the Hollis Archives of Harvard University are 23 letters written by Alice, and 23 written by Teddy, all in pristine readable condition. She writes in one of them, “You dear old Teddy I shall have you here Saturday night. I shall not let any one look at you as I shall want you all to my self.” He adds, “Darling, how can you be so perfectly bewitching? I can really almost see as I write your slender, graceful figure, the pretty poise of your head, and your pure, innocent little face. Sweetest, I love you with my whole heart.” Meticulously transcribing these letters could be described as an intrusion: they were deeply intimate and passionate with phrasing like, “I worship you so that it seems almost desecration to touch you; and yet when I am with you I can hardly let you a moment out of my arms,” and “…you will have two weeks complete rest at Oyster Bay, and then you shall do just as you please in every thing.”
Besides the letters to each other, dozens of other correspondences, including Alice’s to Roosevelt’s mother and sisters, as well as photographs and ephemera in the collection prove a love for the ages and one that shows a distinct impact on Theodore’s life and political future. At the start of his college career, his desire to follow the field of science is clear in his writings before meeting Alice, but as their courtship deepens, he begins to shift his focus to government and political reform. His speech on equal rights for women fell in the same year as the fight for women to enter Harvard College was at its peak, and Alice Lee’s influence on his forming opinions is difficult to doubt.
Now that the transcriptions of their writings have been donated to the library that houses them for future research, my hope is that study might continue into a relationship between a man on the cusp of greatness and a woman who Roosevelt himself later described as having the “strength of a true woman.”
The correspondence between Theodore Roosevelt and Alice Hathaway Lee (1878-1884) are held at Houghton Library at Harvard University under the Alice Roosevelt Longworth family papers, MS Am 1541.9.
Mary Calvi is a 12-time New York Emmy award-winning journalist and national anchor. Her in-depth research for her debut book, DEAR GEORGE, DEAR MARY: A Novel of George Washington’s First Love, is the basis of a Smithsonian Channel documentary. Calvi lives in Yonkers, New York.