A Living, Breathing Poem: Mary Calvi on Alice and Teddy Roosevelt
WRITTEN BY ILYSA MAGNUS
Mary Calvi, a multi-Emmy award-winning investigative journalist and weekend host of Inside Edition, does not need another project. Her first historical novel, Dear George, Dear Mary, the story of George Washington and his first love, Mary Philipse, was supported by primary sources which Calvi uncovered in her vast research (HNR 88). In her second novel, now published by St. Martin’s Press (2023), Calvi’s lovers are Teddy Roosevelt, who will ultimately become the 26th President of the United States, and Alice Hathaway Lee, a debutante, a beauty, and a feminist in the making. Again, Calvi’s sources and the catalyst for If A Poem Could Live and Breathe are love letters and journals, most of which have never been published, and photographs now housed in Harvard’s Houghton Library.
Teddy is a figure of epic proportions in American history. Larger than life in many respects, his countenance is memorialized on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. A naturalist, cattle rancher, and great soldier and hero of the “Rough Rider” regiment in the Spanish-American War, Teddy resigned his government position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to lead his troops to victory. Elevated to the U.S. presidency upon the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, Roosevelt became the youngest man to hold that office.
But that is not Alice Hathaway Lee’s Teddy. Nor is the story of his development into a political powerhouse the focus for Calvi here; rather, it is to give Alice a voice long denied her. Calvi’s motivation to remediate Alice’s mainstream historical role in Teddy’s life became laser-focused when she read Edmund Morris’s 1980 Pulitzer Prize winning biography, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Morris’s belittling characterization of Alice culminated in his unsupported statement that it was shocking that Teddy did not commit suicide because Alice was so boring. In that one glaring, misogynistic smackdown, Calvi found her catalyst to revisit what had come to be the accepted history of the relationship and to subject it to the truth.
Calvi’s extensive research (which was far beyond anything previously known to Roosevelt biographers) is breathtaking: the review and transcription of approximately 50 extant letters and Teddy’s journals, cataloguing the photographs maintained at the Houghton Library, and reading and critiquing dozens of secondary sources listed in the book’s lengthy bibliography. Every scrap of paper, every journal entry, every letter between the two lovers, every photo spoke to Calvi. The voices of Teddy and Alice demonstrate, without question, the reality and depth of Alice’s enormous impact on the young Roosevelt. The novel is worth the read just to be able to enjoy their writings, their joyous (and boisterous) family gatherings, their often riotously spontaneous activities (like the toboggan ride down a treacherous slope at Harvard) and the intense glow of idealized love. From their first meeting in October 1878, Teddy was enamored of Alice, and his journal entries, many of which appear in Calvi’s book, reflect that strong connection. Teddy was 19 then, a New Yorker born and raised, a world traveler since a very young age and a student at Harvard. Apart from his obvious brilliance, Teddy had some bizarre interests – taxidermy among them – but he was clearly a charming, well-dressed young man. He was also very innocent and idealistic, often to the point of distraction.
But Alice was no shrinking violet. Despite her fragile health, which often resulted in her being bedridden for weeks, Alice was headstrong, with a quick and energetic mind. She could respond with Shakespeare quotes as quickly as Teddy could fire them at her. Rather than being bored to distraction, bully to Teddy for having been up to the challenge! Calvi’s Alice was a force to be reckoned with.
Throughout the novel, the growing attraction and connection between Alice and Teddy reflected in their letters is mirrored in the fictionalized conversations which naturally flow from their historic correspondence. Both Alice and Teddy evolved in their attitudes and beliefs, in particular Teddy who recognized that women are – or should be – his equals. Putting that belief to the test, Teddy crashed the Harvard gender barrier by waltzing Alice into the all-male elite Porcellian to have dinner. As Calvi related to me, Teddy even gave a public Harvard address on women’s equal status, a fact long-buried by past biographers who incorrectly labeled the speech as a “thesis.” Calvi’s goal here is clearly to have us recognize that Teddy was not a monolithic thinker, and that Alice was often the driver behind that political evolution.
While Alice raised Teddy’s political awareness about such issues as women’s rights, Teddy’s letters and journals reflected the purity of his adoration and idealization of Alice: she was perfection, she was his queen, on a pedestal of Teddy’s creation until Fate intervened, preventing her from ever becoming First Lady. Teddy was crushed, escaping to the badlands territory in North Dakota to deal with his grief.
Lucky for us, almost 150 years after the fact, Calvi has dedicated herself to ensuring that Alice is given proper notice and respect, and that the words of lovers long gone are appreciated and shared. I was fortunate that Calvi gave me the opportunity to review copies of some of these writings: Teddy’s exacting, beautiful script, straight in a line on unlined paper, imparts to us a sense of who he was, what he was like, what his future would hold. Alice’s hand is less controlled, larger script, filled with emotion. Seeing the photos connects us to Alice, her cousin Rose, and Teddy. Having the visual connection to the lovers gives their words even greater resonance.
Calvi’s research should become required reading among Roosevelt scholars. Without their own words, Teddy remains an American shrine carved into Mount Rushmore, and Alice is just a footnote. While humanizing Teddy and making him approachable, Calvi has, perhaps more importantly, ensured that we hear Alice’s voice loud and clear for the first time, and she has much to impart to us.
About the contributor: Ilysa Magnus was a US Reviews Editor for 20 years. She continues to review for HNR while juggling the demands of a busy NYC family law practice.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 103 (February 2023)