Dr. Lewis Gould’s newly-released book, Edith Kermit Roosevelt: Creating the Modern First Lady, makes room for reinterpretation of a woman who has enjoyed public perception “verging near secular sainthood” for her role as a first lady.
This book is part of the Modern First Ladies series published by the University of Kansas Press. Gould serves as editor of the series, and has authored three of its books.
“This is not exactly a biography, but a biographical study of Edith Roosevelt as first lady,” Gould said, referring to the focus of the book only on Edith’s time in the White House.
Edith Roosevelt set the precedent for subsequent first ladies by defining what the role meant. She was more in the public eye than her predecessors, and she realized that whether she liked publicity or not, she needed to use it to her advantage. She handled charitable causes in a systematic way, strategically hosted regular cultural events at the White House and, perhaps most importantly, she “elevated the role of social secretary to White House staff.” Upon leaving the White House, she was lauded as a well-loved first lady who had handled her duties capably and with grace.
Although the facts of Edith Roosevelt’s life and time as first lady are well established, Gould’s book offers a fresh look at facets of her personality that have yet to be fully studied.
He credits the availability of information via internet outlets like the Theodore Roosevelt Center and the Library of Congress Chronicling America project for making information that was once difficult to uncover easily accessible.
“There was a lot more newspaper coverage than I had anticipated,” he said. “Edith was much more in the public eye than we had previously realized.”
Part of the fun of research, he said, is finding the unexpected. When Gould ran across a letter Edith wrote that displayed her unmistakable racist leanings, he said, “What’s this?” It was a “four letter word” that practically popped from the page of a letter to her son, Kermit.
The Roosevelt’s youngest daughter, Ethel, taught Sunday school at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Her class was made up of “young negroes,” according to a Washington Post article dated December 28, 1908. On a Sunday in November of that year, Edith wrote, “Ethel has gone off to her little nigs and when she comes back we are going to call on poor little Baroness Speck & on Mrs. Lodge.”
This blatant use of a condescending term may be considered simply as typical of the early 1900s, but it exemplifies a side of Edith that has not been fully examined and opens the way for future researchers and biographers to delve deeper into her attitudes and the possible influence they may have had on her husband.
“In all the TR and race literature, there is no mention of Edith. We need to go back and say, ‘What does this tell us, that his wife had these sentiments?’” Gould said. “This reopens a question that we thought was pretty well settled.”
Gould also takes a new look at the Roosevelt’s perfect family façade and what he uncovers may warrant further examination of Edith as wife and mother, and TR as husband and father.
“From the perspective that I infer for the kids, TR and Edith didn’t cut them much slack,” Gould said. “Clearly Edith was a devoted and loving mother, but she had a hard edge.”
By the same token, TR could be rigid in his plans for the boys. On the one hand, he vetoed the desires of Ted and Archie to make the military their profession, while in World War I insisting that they all serve in combat despite the physical limitations of someone like Quentin as a fighter pilot.
“I have reservations about TR as a husband,” Gould said. “I sense that he was a hard man to live with. He had no money sense. At age 40, with his wife recovering from a serious operation, he goes off to Cuba. The family existed in some way to serve his needs, and when they did, he showered them with affection.”
Gould acknowledges that the perceptions of the author are always influenced by personal experiences and beliefs.
“This is my take on the evidence I looked at,” he said. “The nice thing about history is that someone else can read the same document and have a different perception. No matter how much we think we know, there’s always the potential for something new to come along, sometimes off the wall.”
Dr. Lewis Gould welcomes your comments and reactions. He can be reached at [email protected].
In addition, he would be happy to autograph his book for anyone willing to send him their copy and pay return shipping.