Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt (1861-1948) was Theodore Roosevelt’s second wife. The daughter of Gertrude Elizabeth Tyler and Charles Carow, Edith was born on August 6, 1861, in Connecticut. Raised not far from the Roosevelts in New York City, Edith and her younger sister Emily had a childhood made difficult by their father’s alcoholism, absences, declining fortunes, and eventual death in 1883. Edith took refuge in books and her best friend, Corinne Roosevelt.
By their teenage years, Edith and Theodore Roosevelt became so close that he may have proposed marriage. He called her the “most cultivated, best-read girl I know,” but a rupture in their relationship occurred before Roosevelt left for Harvard College. Once there, he fell in love with Alice Hathaway Lee. Edith determined to be friends with both of them, even after Roosevelt married Lee in 1880.
Alice died in 1884, leaving Theodore a widower. He rekindled his connection with Edith and the two married in London on December 2, 1886, and went to live at Sagamore Hill on Long Island, New York. There, and in Albany and Washington, D.C., Edith and Theodore raised Alice, the daughter of TR’s first marriage, and their own children: Theodore (1887), Kermit (1889), Ethel (1891), Archibald (1894), and Quentin (1897).
In 1890 Edith visited Theodore’s Elkhorn ranch in North Dakota, but for many years the children were her focus. She oversaw household moves to New York or Washington, as Theodore’s career dictated, and to Sagamore Hill in the summers. At her insistence, Theodore did not run for mayor of New York in 1894, because Edith preferred their life in Washington, D.C., and his job of U.S. Civil Service Commissioner.
When Theodore became New York City police commissioner in 1895, they relocated anyway, until 1897 when Theodore was chosen as assistant secretary of the Navy when they moved back to Washington. In 1898 Edith traveled to Tampa, Florida, to send her husband off to fight in the Spanish-American War. Upon his return, Edith defied a quarantine to meet him in Montauk, New York, where she assisted veterans at the hospital. In October 1898, when Roosevelt was nominated for the governorship, she helped answer his burgeoning mail, but stayed off the campaign trail.
Edith Roosevelt enjoyed being First Lady of New York. She modernized the governor’s mansion, joined a local woman’s club, and continued to assist with her husband’s correspondence. With her sister, she visited Cuba. Edith was loath to move back to Washington when Roosevelt won the vice presidency in 1900.
After President McKinley’s assassination, Theodore assumed the presidency, and Edith became First Lady. She regularly hosted the wives of the cabinet officers, scheduled musicales, and remodeled the White House. Edith was the first First Lady to hire a social secretary, Isabelle Hagner, who assisted with many facets of life in the executive mansion. Starting in 1902, Edith oversaw an important renovation of the White House. She worked with prestigious architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White to separate the living quarters from the offices, to enlarge and modernize the public rooms, to re-do the landscaping, and to redecorate the interior. Edith Roosevelt began the White House China Collection and the First Ladies’ Portrait Gallery.
Fundamentally a private person, Edith spent usually an hour alone each morning with Theodore, talking over affairs of state and offering advice. Often a better judge of people than her husband, she twice acted as a diplomatic go-between for the president in her correspondence with Sir Cecil Spring-Rice and with the U. S. Ambassador to England, Whitelaw Reid. She purchased Pine Knot, a cabin in rural Virginia, as a refuge for Roosevelt. When the Roosevelts left the White House in 1909, Edith looked forward to a quiet retirement with the husband she loved.
Instead, Edith suffered through the separation caused by Theodore’s African safari. She took Ethel, Archie, and Quentin on an extended tour of Europe. Edith was not an advocate of Theodore’s 1912 third-party presidential race, but supported him fully when it was formally underway. She tended him after the assassination attempt, consoled him when he lost the election, and accompanied him to Brazil to see him off as he explored the River of Doubt. Both Roosevelts contributed to home-front activities during World War I.
Edith’s grief at the deaths of Quentin and Theodore in 1918 and 1919 was profound. Her last decades were full of travel: to Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. She urged Republican women to vote after the 19th Amendment passed. She wrote about her travels in Cleared for Strange Ports, and about her family in American Backlogs, but to protect her privacy, she destroyed her lifetime’s worth of love letters from Theodore Roosevelt. In 1927, Edith purchased Mortlake Manor in Brooklyn, Connecticut, but retained Sagamore Hill.
During the Great Depression, Edith campaigned briefly for Herbert Hoover, to emphasize to confused Americans that the Democratic presidential nominee, Franklin Roosevelt, was not her son. She volunteered with the Women’s National Republican Club and the Needlework Guild. Reading and family made her happiest. She died on September 30, 1948.