Welcome to Jennifer from California, another of our summer interns here to share her discoveries in our collections!
I have been very fortunate to catalog letters that Roosevelt wrote to his older sister, Anna. Known as Bye, Anna became Roosevelt’s confidante at a young age. The letters I have cataloged prove that this relationship was a source of support and inspiration throughout his life.
Roosevelt was a masculine, scholarly patriot who was fearless in the face of battle and wrongdoing. In these letters however, I can see him as a brother. At times he misses his sister and her family. At other times he shares frustration and anger over injustice or the direction of the country.
For me the most touching letter was one Roosevelt wrote long after he left the presidency, on July 6, 1918. At the time, Roosevelt’s youngest (and by many accounts, favorite) son, Quentin, was 20 years old and engaged to marry Flora Payne Whitney. Having completed his aviator’s training, Quentin was, in the tradition of Roosevelt men, eager to take part in the war in France. He had watched his two brothers beat him to the front lines and wanted desperately to prove himself to them and to his father.
Quentin spent a good deal of time waiting for his combat orders, and in the meantime he sought to bring Flora to France so they could be married before he left. Unfortunately, Flora’s visit was prohibited by an odd and arcane rule that said sisters of soldiers must remain stateside—and since her brother, Sonny, was also an aviator, she could not go to France.
Roosevelt was extremely frustrated at this development. Venting in a letter to Bye, he wrote: “Under the idiotic ruling about the sisters of soldiers poor Flora was not allowed to go across. It is wicked; she should have been allowed to go, and to marry Quentin; then, even if he were killed, she and he would have known their white hour; it is part of the needless folly and injustice with which things have been handled.”
Detail, Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Anna Roosevelt Cowles, July 6, 1918. MS Am 1834 (777). Theodore Roosevelt Collection, 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.
The same day Roosevelt wrote this letter, Quentin experienced his first dogfight. Eight days later, on July 14, 1918, Quentin was shot down and killed.
Roosevelt’s fear—that Quentin would be killed without he and Flora having had their “white hour”—had almost foretold Quentin’s fate just eight days before his demise. Some accounts suggest that Roosevelt never recovered from Quentin’s death, and his sadness worsened his already ailing health until his own death six months later.
Letters like this make me feel as if I’ve been given a chance to peer through a private window into Theodore Roosevelt’s life. When I started this internship, I did not know that Quentin had been killed in the war—I learned doing research to catalog this letter. I know many of these letters have been published but I feel privileged to read digital copies of them, often in Roosevelt’s own handwriting, as this one is. Now I am drawn to books about Roosevelt’s life and family, and even the Colorado fires in the Roosevelt Forest mean something different to me as a result of this experience. I am grateful to have learned about Quentin Roosevelt’s legacy in time to pay tribute to him on this year’s anniversary of his death on July 14.
Renehan Jr., Edward J. (1999). The Lion's Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jennifer will complete her MLIS with a specialization in archives and records management at San Jose State University this fall. She is also an intern at the San Francisco History Center at the San Francisco Public Library and a volunteer at the National Archives and Records Administration.