Theodore Roosevelt was arguably the first celebrity president. There were so many rich details, so many outlandish chapters in his life story. After a rich kid’s upbringing, he suffered a double loss when both his mother and his first wife died on the same day. Undone by grief, he exiled himself to the South Dakota badlands, where he became a rancher and a bad-guy buster. Then it was back to the East Coast and a wild run as an anti-corruption politician. Then U.S. government service in the Navy, then his Rough Riders’ charge up San Juan Hill, then the presidency. When the Roosevelts, kids, pets and wild animals in tow, moved into the White House, his entourage’s exploits captured and held the nation’s attention.
He passed on the flamboyance gene to Alice Lee, his one daughter by his first marriage. Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth was a brilliant, alluring woman, but she carried a heavy burden — a bottomless longing for her busy father’s attention. She was Washington’s premier party girl. Married to a politician, she became pregnant by another politician (also married). A lifelong Republican with a mouth in perpetual overdrive, she once compared her cousin Franklin to Adolf Hitler.
Two new novels resurrect the Sagamore Hill branch of the Roosevelt family tree. Jerome Charyn’s “The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King” (Liveright, 283 pp., $26.95) follows the story of Theodore Roosevelt from his childhood to the first days of his presidency. Stephanie Marie Thornton’s “American Princess” (Berkley, 432 pp., $16 paper) focuses on Alice Lee.
Charyn’s is the better book. He takes a risk by having Roosevelt tell his story in the first person, upping the believability stakes, but he largely pulls it off. Known as a literary ventriloquist of sorts, Charyn captures Roosevelt’s doubts, aspirations and ebullient spirit.
The story begins in the early 1860s, as Roosevelt battles a bout of childhood illness. The tale takes wing when Teddy (I can’t resist calling him Teddy) returns to New York and gets his education as a politician. The city is a malevolent presence in these chapters, from the tenement sweatshops of the lower East Side to Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island, institutional home of the unfortunate, the criminal and the insane. The young Teddy Roosevelt is a showboating pain in the ass, pointing out inconvenient truths every step of the way, and he gets his comeuppance from some 19th century political bosses who could run rings around Donald Trump.
Charyn’s imagination occasionally overwhelms his storytelling, and sometimes his prose comes so thick and fast, you long for one of Teddy’s Cuban machetes to slash your way through the sentences (safety tip — don’t read the dramatis personae first, there are a lot of spoilers in it). But in the main, this portrait of Roosevelt’s early life is a lively, warts-and-all portrait of an irrepressible man. “I was glad, glad, that I had been born,” Teddy testifies, and the reader can only agree.
Stephanie Marie Thornton attempts a similar fictional transformation with her novel of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, but “American Princess” is an unfinished portrait.
The source material is there. Alice lived to be noticed, and she was, from the moment she moved into the White House to her later years as one of Washington’s foremost gadflies. Thornton, who also tells the story in her subject’s voice, does a credible job of portraying Alice’s shaky confidence in herself and her determination to live large to make up for it.
The problem is one of political context. She interprets the life of a president’s daughter and Washington insider as an emotional melodrama. Alice’s attacks on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt are portrayed as weapons in a family feud — there’s scant background to explain why Alice, a die-hard anti-New Deal Republican, was so opposed to Franklin’s agenda. There’s little suggestion of Alice as a thinking political animal — her conflicts are personal, with multiple costume changes: “Eleanor invited me to a White House reception shortly after her mollycoddle husband abandoned sound economic principles by moving the entire country off the gold standard,” Thornton writes. “I accepted her invitation and came to the reception in a blue velvet gown, draped in every karat of gold I owned: a green-gold Chiriqui Indian frog pendant, white-gold bracelet watch, amber-golden hair combs, and huge gold eardrops shaped like horns of plenty.”
This is a novel about politicians, but crucially light on politics. The reader is left with insufficient reason to care about the life story of a tough, smart and long-lived Washington survivor.