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‘The Loves of Theodore Roosevelt’ Highlights 5 Women Who ‘Created a President’ – InForum

‘The Loves of Theodore Roosevelt’ Highlights 5 Women Who ‘Created a President’ – InForum

FARGO — Ed O’Keefe’s original literary ambition was to write a book about Theodore Roosevelt’s formative adventures in the American West.

He admired Roosevelt, an inescapable figure encountered on family vacations in Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and at home at Grand Forks’ Red River High School, home of the Roughriders sports teams.

The book idea crystallized when O’Keefe was given the opportunity of a lifetime: access to Harvard’s Houghton Library, a major repository of documents and artifacts chronicling Roosevelt’s eventful life, which he received through a fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School .

So he snuck to the library whenever he had free time, packed a lunch so he didn’t have to leave, and combed through the letters between Roosevelt and his family.

“As I was doing the research, I kept coming across these amazing women,” O’Keefe said. The image of “Rushmore Roosevelt, set in stone” began to crumble as Roosevelt’s struggles and vulnerabilities emerged in the letters, in which he was fueled by the support of his mother, two sisters, and two wives.

A black and white photo of a white man with a salt and pepper beard.

Ed O’Keefe, a Grand Forks native and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation in Medora, explores the important role women played in supporting the 26th president in a new book, “The Loves of Theodore Roosevelt,” published by Simon & Schuster.

Contributed / David Burnett

“He was made of flesh and bones,” O’Keefe said. “He needed help at many points in his life.”

That realization led to inspiration for a very different book, “The Loves of Theodore Roosevelt: The Women who Created a President,” published on Tuesday, May 7, by Simon & Schuster.

During his research, O’Keefe discovered a collection of letters that had become available since seminal biographies by historians David McCullough and Edmund Morris. The letters were kept in a safe for seventy to eighty years and, when discovered, donated to Harvard, Roosevelt’s alma mater.

The private letters provided a better understanding of the important role women played in Roosevelt’s life – an understanding that conflicts with the decidedly masculine image of Roosevelt, known as the Dakota Badlands cowboy, big game hunter, Rough Rider and advocate of the ‘strenuous life’. .”

The letters showed that each of the essential women in Roosevelt’s life played a distinct and important role.

“He relies on each of these people in his life for a completely different purpose, and he has done that his whole life,” O’Keefe said in an interview with The Forum.

A black and white photo of a woman in a poofy Victorian dress with a feather in her hat.

Martha “Mittie” Bulloch Roosevelt in 1857 at the age of 22, a year before her second child, Theodore Roosevelt, was born.

Wikimedia Commons

The “sharp and witty” letters of Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, better known as Mittie, came to life with “restrained language and a strong personality” that “almost jumped off the page,” leaving no doubt that she was the mother of the 26th president, he wrote.

Anna Roosevelt Cowles, better known as Bamie, was her younger brother’s “key political advisor and strategist” – a woman whose political acumen was so sharp that Roosevelt’s eldest daughter believed that if she had been a man, she would have risen to the presidency .

Anna Roosevelt Cowles.jpg

Anna Roosevelt Cowles was the older sister and a valued advisor to Theodore Roosevelt. Her name was “Bamie” and her niece, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, said that if she had been born a man, she would have risen to become president.

National Park Service

Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, nicknamed Conie, was Roosevelt’s “confidant and emotional outlet,” as was his younger sister, “her brother’s press secretary before there was such a thing.”

Conie was especially helpful to Roosevelt when he was governor of New York. In a letter to her brother, Conie wrote, “Haven’t we enjoyed being Governor of New York?”

“That’s pretty extraordinary,” O’Keefe said.

Corinne Roosevelt Robinson.jpg

Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, Theodore Roosevelt’s younger sister, supported her older brother throughout his life and “Conie” was especially helpful when he was governor of New York.

National Park Service

At many points, when it seemed Roosevelt’s political career was over, he consistently turned to Bamie for advice and Conie for support, O’Keefe said.

Bamie was also an example of determination for Roosevelt. She was born with a spinal deformity that was the source of chronic, debilitating pain. But she didn’t let the situation stop her.

Roosevelt’s two wives also played a crucial supporting role. Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt, whom the family called “Sunshine,” was strong-willed, “strikingly beautiful,” and imbued Roosevelt with the ambition to leave his mark on life.

A black and white portrait of a woman with piercing eyes and an elaborate hairstyle.

Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt was the first wife of Theodore Roosevelt, who died at the age of 22. To win her hand, Roosevelt changed the course of his life by entering politics and studying law.

Contributed / Library of Congress

Roosevelt, whose first goal was to become a naturalist, concluded that he must pursue a more distinguished career to win her hand in marriage. O’Keefe concluded that Roosevelt therefore made a sharp turn toward politics and law school.

“Pretty much everyone writes her off as unimportant, and that’s just not true,” he said.

As a student at Harvard, Roosevelt came across as a comic figure to many of his classmates, but Alice saw something in him that others missed, O’Keefe said.

Interestingly, it took the help of Roosevelt’s mother and sisters to win over Alice, “who was completely out of his league,” he said.

Although short, Roosevelt’s four years with Alice were some of his most successful. “In his own words, he rose like a rocket,” becoming an influential state lawmaker despite his young age, O’Keefe said.

However, Alice died at the tragically young age of 22 – on the same day as Roosevelt’s mother, a double disaster that prompted him to seek solace in the rugged desolation of the Little Missouri Badlands in Dakota Territory.

Two years after becoming a young widower, Roosevelt quietly married his childhood sweetheart, Edith Kermit Carow, who became his partner and closest advisor, able to provide strict leadership and manage the family’s finances – and manage Roosevelt shrewdly in ways he seemed unable to manage. Pay attention, O’Keefe thought.

Edith watched helplessly as her alcoholic father failed in his business, causing the family’s finances and reputation to decline. “It toughened her up,” O’Keefe said.

Wearing a long Victorian dress and holding a hand fan, a woman stands tall and looks to the side in a posed portrait.

Edith Kermit Carow was Theodore Roosevelt’s childhood friend and teenage romantic interest. Roosevelt married her after his first wife, Alice, died tragically young.

Contributed / Library of Congress

Roosevelt and Carow had known each other since they were three years old, and she was his first love. But when they were seventeen, something happened that caused them to abruptly end their relationship.

“At 17, they were a gas can and a match,” O’Keefe said. “And then fate intervened,” through Alice’s death.

The impression among those who have studied Roosevelt is that the devastating loss of Alice caused Roosevelt to push her out of his mind in order to function. The letters – and the discovery that he kept a lock of her hair in a box – reveal otherwise.

“It showed he hadn’t erased Alice from his memory,” O’Keefe said.

‘A deeply complex person’

O’Keefe, who studied government and psychology at Georgetown University, sought to explore overlooked inner aspects of Roosevelt’s life.

“I was really interested in the emotional life and vulnerability of such a strong man,” he said.

In writing the book, O’Keefe tried to present “a flesh-and-blood TR, the real person. Not the caricature. He was a very complex person.”

To quell his grief, Roosevelt occupied his mind and body with vigorous activities throughout his life. A maxim in his life: “Black Care is rarely behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.”

Black care was a euphemism. “I think it’s another way of saying, ‘I’m depressed,’” O’Keefe said.

After losing the presidential election in 1912, when he ran for a “Bull Moose” and tried to return to the White House, Roosevelt experienced severe depression, according to his daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

“That doesn’t take anything away from TR,” O’Keefe said. “It even increases my respect. He found his way through it the way he needed to survive.

A sepia-toned photo of Theodore Roosevelt in cattle gear and a wide-brimmed hat, standing next to a brown horse on the prairie.

Theodore Roosevelt at his Elkhorn Ranch in the North Dakota Badlands.

Contributed photo

Throughout his life, Roosevelt took physical risks and placed himself in dangerous situations, but he had no death wish, O’Keefe said.

“I consider it a lifelong wish,” he said. “He knew that life was precarious and not of his own making.”

While still at Harvard in 2019, O’Keefe sold his book proposal to Simon & Schuster. Later that year, he became CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation, which is building the library on a cliff in Medora.

Researching and writing a book while simultaneously working a demanding job and family responsibilities proved challenging. When traveling, he packed minimal clothing to leave room in his suitcase for books and research materials.

“I stole time at night, on weekends and on plane rides,” he said.

During his research, O’Keefe gained new insights into Roosevelt’s time in the Badlands.

The cache of letters that recently became available includes several letters from 1885, the year after Roosevelt went to Medora to begin the life of an open rancher, a period of his life that has been a blank slate for biographers and historians.

“We just don’t have much before then,” O’Keefe said. “These letters are extraordinary. They fill in the gaps.”

As evidenced by his convalescing time in the Badlands, Roosevelt found renewal in being outdoors.

“He used nature as a tonic in his life,” O’Keefe said. “Dakota and the Badlands are the place that saved his life.”

At Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch, north of Medora, the wives of his two ranch hands bore children, adding a decidedly domestic aspect to what was otherwise a male environment. “His Elkhorn Ranch became a real nursery during his time in North Dakota,” O’Keefe said.

Shortly after they were married in December 1886, Edith even considered taking up the life of a farmer’s wife.

“Edith was considering moving to Medora,” O’Keefe said. “That was something surprising.”

But those plans died when the murderous winter of 1886-1887 wiped out much of Roosevelt’s livestock – and changed the course of his life, including a return to politics.

Teddy Roosevelt holds a baby dressed in white as three women and two children look on.

Theodore Roosevelt holds a baby as wife Edith, Mrs. Archie Roosevelt, Mrs. Derby (grandchild in her arms), and Theodore Roosevelt III look on in 1918.

Contributed / Library of Congress