On July 16, 1918, a cable arrived at Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill estate in Cove Neck informing him that his son Quentin was missing in France. The next day, Roosevelt learned from press accounts and later from President Woodrow Wilson that Quentin had been killed in action when his plane was shot down by a German aviator.
Theodore Roosevelt had championed American’s involvement in the Great War, as it was called. At age 59, he had even volunteered to fight in Europe himself, but Wilson had rebuffed him. Roosevelt’s four sons did go — one, Archie, had been wounded the previous March — and now on a summer day on Long Island, the former president learned his youngest son had been killed.
As historian Edmund Morris writes in “Colonel Roosevelt,” the third and final volume of his biography of the 26th president published last week, Quentin’s death sent Roosevelt, who suffered from a variety of ailments, into a tailspin. He died in his sleep of a heart attack about six months later, on Jan. 6. Two days later a funeral at Christ Episcopal Church in Oyster Bay drew a huge crowd; thousands more waited in the cold at Youngs Memorial Cemetery in Oyster Bay Cove to pay their last respects, among them former president William Howard Taft. Long Island’s most famous citizen had passed on.
“TR very nearly died in February of 1918 with his old problem of abscesses,” Morris said in an interview. “Therefore he was in a very weakened state when he heard of Quentin’s death. I think the combination of the emotional shock of losing his child most like himself coming on top of his recent medical frailty really brought about his final decline.”
Tweed Roosevelt of Boston, TR’s great-grandson, said: “He was fond of saying he wanted to wear out, not rust out, and he certainly achieved that. His health was pretty bad for a guy only 60. The glories of battle was such a large part of him that when that was ripped out of him with Quentin’s death, it was a tremendous blow to him.”
Roosevelt was weighed down by poor health most of his life. He suffered from severe asthma into his early 20s, Morris said, and experienced heart problems while a student at Harvard University. He contracted malaria during the Spanish-American War. His health decline accelerated in the spring of 1917 when he met with Wilson to seek approval to raise — and help lead — a volunteer division to fight in the Great War. The following February he was hospitalized for various ailments. Reporters posted a deathwatch in the hospital lobby, Morris wrote.
Then, Roosevelt’s son, Archie, was seriously wounded by shrapnel in March; Quentin was shot down in July. The July 16 cable from Gen. John J. Pershing, the American commander in Europe, read, “Regret very much that your son Lt. Quentin Roosevelt reported as missing.” The following day word arrived at Sagamore Hill that Quentin Roosevelt was dead.
His will to live sapped, Roosevelt died in January in his home.
“Roosevelt’s grave awaited him at the top of a steep knoll,” Morris writes. “He had always enjoyed the birdsong in that fir-forested corner, and had long ago decided he wanted to be buried there. . . One of the last mourners to remain, while the rest of the company struggled downhill, was Taft. He stood by the grave for a long time, crying.”