From left to right: standing, John Ellis Roosevelt, his wife (Nannie Vance), Elliott Roosevelt. Seated on chairs: Corinne Roosevelt, Anna Roosevelt. Seated on step: Theodore Roosevelt, ? Iselin. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. See digital record here.
On August 14, 1894, Theodore Roosevelt’s brother Elliott died from a seizure suffered a few days after he attempted suicide by jumping out of a window. It was a tragic end to a life that had slowly disintegrated from a promising start.
Born two years after his more famous brother Theodore, Elliott shared a competitive relationship with Theodore. Elliott was often considered the more successful of the brothers when they were younger, only to be surpassed by his brother later in life. He married Anna Hall at the age of 23 and the couple had three children. Their oldest child and only daughter, Anna Eleanor, would go on to marry her cousin Franklin Delano and become one of the most famous First Ladies in United States history.
Elliott’s lifelong struggle with alcoholism would lead to his estrangement from his family when the children were quite young. The estrangement was hard on the entire Roosevelt clan. Theodore and his sisters rarely mention Elliott’s problems explicitly. Theodore will write about “Poor Elliott” but with little explanation as to why. One has to often read between the lines to understand they are discussing their brother’s worrisome lifestyle. Often, how to deal with his illness is openly discussed as the family thought a new doctor or change of scenery might help “cure” Elliott. Concern about his children and Anna’s inability to control Elliott is also what is openly discussed in the family correspondence. As with families today, it was clear the Roosevelts had trouble putting into writing their brother and his problems and discussing them openly, even to each other.
In this letter, Theodore writes to his sister, Anna Roosevelt Cowles, and discusses what must happen with Elliott. No mention of why Elliott needs a doctor or why the social scene is bad for him to be a part of; simply a discussion over what must be done and where to send him.
Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Anna Roosevelt Cowles, April 30 1890. MS Am 1834 (280). Houghton Library. Harvard University. Electronic copy sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University. For reproduction or publication permission, contact the Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library.
Transcript of Letter:
April 30, 1890
I have been very glad to get both your recent letters; you are very good to keep us so constantly informed. Yesterday I received a perfectly ordinary letter from poor old Nell himself; it made me feel dreadfully to read it. In response I put in a line or two of as earnest request and advice as I knew how; but of course it will do no good. He must leave that fool Lusk and put himself completely in the hands of some first rate man of decision, whether Polk or somebody else; and when he goes to a retreat he ought to be sent on some long trip, preferably by sea, with a doctor as companion. Anna, sweet though she is, is am impossible person to deal with. Her utterly frivolous life has, as was inevitable, eaten into her charade, like an acid. She does not realize and feel as other women would in her place. San Moritz would be in my opinion madness; he must get away [from] club and social life. For you to go to Europe with them, under their guidance, would in my opinion be simply folly. Somebody must guide them; merely to follow them round would be nothing.
Love to Bob; did he send Ted a small play organ?
Your aff. Brother,