Biographies & Memoirs

The Mind, But Not the Body

Then, with a smile of joy defiant

On his beardless lip,

Scaled he, light and self-reliant,

Eric’s dragon-ship.

TEEDIE’S FIRST ADOLESCENT STIRRINGS, stimulated by the overwhelming impact of Europe, relapsed into dormancy in the familiar surroundings of New York City and the Hudson Valley. He was once again, through the long summer and fall of 1870, a bookish, bug-loving boy. His diary entries dwindle to single portmanteau sentences:

July 16 I hunted for birds nests and in the Afternoon went swimming and got caught in the rain.

July 17 Went to Sunday school wrote a letter and played about.

July 18 Hunted for birds nests and went over to the Harraymans for tea and had a nice time.1

He does not even bother to record the arrival, one squally September evening, of a very important guest. “Mittie,” said Theodore Senior, as the family clustered around, “I want to present to you a young man who in the future, I believe, will make his name well-known in the United States. This is Mr. John Hay, and I wish the children to shake hands with him.”2 Teedie obeyed, and for a moment looked gravely into the eyes of his future Secretary of State.

“My father was the best man I ever knew.”
Theodore Roosevelt Senior, aged about forty-five. (
Illustration 2.1)

The boy’s only sign of physical development, as his twelfth birthday approached, was a rapid increase in height unaccompanied by any muscular filling out. His resemblance to a stork was accentuated by a habit of reading on one leg, while supporting a book on the jibbed thigh of the other. His health was, if anything, worse than ever: at least three times during the summer Theodore Senior had to take him across state for changes of air.3 When the Roosevelts returned to East Twentieth Street in late September, Teedie was subjected to a thorough medical examination.

Dr. A. D. Rockwell found him “a bright, precocious boy … by no means robust,” and recommended “plenty of fresh air and exercise.”4 This advice seemed superfluous (for Teedie was, on his good days, almost frenziedly active out-of-doors) but it related in particular to the development of his chest. The lungs crammed into that narrow cavity were themselves crammed with asthma, and the mere act of breathing placed a strain on his heart. Theodore Senior pondered Rockwell’s diagnosis, and decided the time had come to present a major challenge to his son. Accordingly he sent for him.

“THEODORE,” THE BIG MAN SAID, eschewing boyish nicknames, “you have the mind but you have not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body. It is hard drudgery to make one’s body, but I know you will do it.”

Mittie, who was an eyewitness, reported that the boy’s reaction was the half-grin, half-snarl which later became world-famous. Jerking his head back, he replied through clenched teeth: “I’ll make my body.”5

The promise, once made, was adhered to with bulldog tenacity. Teedie began to make daily visits to Wood’s Gymnasium, where he swung chest-weights with such energy that his mother wondered aloud “how many horse-power he was expending.” At home, Theodore Senior fitted out the second-floor piazza with an arsenal of athletic equipment, and encouraged Teedie to spend all his spare time out there exercising.6

The piazza was a pleasant place for a city boy to work out. It faced south across the enormous Goelet garden, whence floated a constant supply of plant-purified air. Since the row of houses opposite, on the far side of Nineteenth Street, was low, sunshine poured down all day, all year round. Here, to the caw of peacocks and magpies, and the occasional moo of a cow, Teedie pushed and pulled and stretched and swung, working himself into the rhythmic trance of the true body-builder. “For many years,” wrote Corinne afterward, “one of my most vivid recollections is seeing him between horizontal bars, widening his chest by regular, monotonous motion—drudgery indeed.”7

Drudgery it may have seemed to the little girl, but to a boy of such hyperactive temperament as Teedie, the work was both a release and a pleasure. He exercised throughout the winter and spring of 1870–71. Fiber by fiber, his muscles tautened, while the skinny chest expanded by degrees perceptible only to himself. But the overall results were dramatic.8 There is not a single mention of illness in his diary throughout August of 1871—his longest spell of health in years.

Glorying in his newfound strength, he plunges into the depths of icy rapids, and clambers to the heights of seven mountains (one of them twice on the same day). Along with this physical exuberance, he develops a more studious interest in nature. Observed species are now identified by their full zoological names. Paddling across Lake Regis, Teedie discovers flocks of Aythya americana and Colymbus torquatus. A beryle alcyon dives for fish and a Putorious vison swims across his path, while coveys of Orytx virginianus and Bonasa umbellus rise from the banks on either side. Riding behind a stagecoach to Au Sable Forks, he jumps off whenever he sees “a particularly beautiful lichen or moss,” and collects several hundred specimens for preservation in the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History.9

TEEDIE’S THIRTEENTH WINTER and spring were much the same as his twelfth, except that the weights on the chest machine were heavier and his hours on the piazza longer. Meanwhile he continued to read voraciously. A friend of the period remembered him as “the most studious little brute I ever knew in my life.”10 Private tutors coached him in English, French, German, and Latin (there were rumors of another “terrible trip” to Europe), and a white-haired old gentleman who had been an associate of the great Audubon gave him lessons in taxidermy.11 This smelly subject quickly became his major passion, restrained only by the supply of available carcasses. Then, in the summer of 1872, Teedie acquired his first gun.

It was, in his later description, “a breech-loading, pin-fire double-hyphen barrel of French manufacture … an excellent gun for a clumsy and often absent-minded boy. There was no spring to open it, and if the mechanism became rusty it could be opened with a brick without serious damage. When the cartridges stuck they could be removed in the same fashion. If they were loaded, however, the result was not always happy, and I tattooed myself with partially unburned grains of powder more than once.”12

Although Teedie blazed away determinedly at the fauna of the Lower Hudson Valley (the Roosevelts had taken a summer house at Dobbs Ferry), he found, to his bewilderment, that he could not hit anything. Even more puzzling was the fact that his friends, using the same gun, seemed to be able to bag the invisible: they fired into the blue blur of the sky, or the green blur of the trees, whereupon specimens mysteriously dropped out of nowhere. The truth was slow to dawn on him:

One day they read aloud an advertisement in huge letters on a distant billboard, and I then realized that something was the matter, for not only was I unable to read the sign, but I could not even see the letters. I spoke of this to my father, and soon afterwards got my first pair of spectacles, which literally opened an entirely new world to me. I had no idea how beautiful the world was until I got those spectacles … while much of my clumsiness and awkwardness was doubtless due to general characteristics, a good deal of it was due to the fact that I could not see, and yet was wholly ignorant that I was not seeing.13

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this event on the boy’s maturing sensibilities. Through the miraculous little windows that now gripped his nose, the world leaped into pristine focus, disclosing an infinity of detail, of color, of nuance, and of movement just when the screen of his mind was at its most receptive. One of the best features of his adult descriptive writing—an unsurpassed joy in things seen—dates back to this moment; while another—his abnormal sensitivity to sound—is surely the legacy of the myopic years that came before.14

Another revelatory experience occurred later that summer, and it was considerably less pleasant.

Having an attack of asthma, I was sent off by myself to Moosehead Lake. On the stage-coach ride thither, I encountered a couple of other boys who were about my own age, but very much more competent and also much mischievous … They found that I was a foreordained and predestined victim, and industriously proceeded to make life miserable for me. The worst feature was that when I finally tried to fight them I discovered that either one singly could not only handle me with easy contempt, but handle me so as not to hurt me much and yet prevent my doing any damage whatever in return.15

The humiliation forced him to realize that his two years of bodybuilding had achieved only token results. No matter how remarkable his progress might seem to himself, by the harsh standards of the world he was still a weakling. There and then he decided to join what he would later call “the fellowship of the doers.” If he had exercised hard before, he must do so twice as hard now. He must also learn how to give and take punishment. “Accordingly, with my father’s hearty approval, I started to learn to box.”16

ON 16 OCTOBER 1872, the Roosevelts sailed to Liverpool on the first stage of another foreign tour—this time featuring Egypt and the Holy Land—with varied degrees of enthusiasm. Theodore Senior was as usual full of cheery optimism. Having been appointed American commissioner to the Vienna Exposition the following spring, he looked forward to an enjoyable winter cruising the Nile and the Mediterranean. His lazy wife was quite content to recline on deck-chairs, as on sofas at home, or hammocks in the country. Bamie, already at seventeen the family’s surrogate mother, clumped about arranging everything with a certain grim enjoyment. The two youngest Roosevelts dreaded another year away from their friends, but for a while the excitement of an ocean voyage muted their complaints. Teedie, for his part, took a serious, almost professorial view of the trip. As proprietor of the Roosevelt Museum, he was determined to treat his visit to the Nile as a scientific expedition and had already printed a quantity of pink labels for the identification of specimens. His new spectacles had focused his general interest in animals to an almost total obsession with birds. Hitherto his near sight had forced him to confine his observations to large, slow creatures that inhabited terra firma. Now he was able to record the ascent of hawks to ecstatic heights and sit for hours watching flocks of ibises settling on a distant island, until “the tops of trees would be whitened with immense multitudes perching on them.”17

As Teedie turned fourteen, he blossomed into a grotesque flower of adolescence, offensive alike to eye, ear, and nostril. Mittie Roosevelt, fresh and crackling in her perpetual white silks and muslin, could hardly have contemplated him without despair. Apart from the owlish spectacles and snarling teeth, there was the over-long hair, its childish yellow darkening now to dirty blond; the bony wrists and ankles, which protruded every day a little farther from his carefully tailored suit; the fingers stained with ink and chemicals, the clumsy movements and too-quick reflexes. His voice had not so much broken as taken on a new undertone of harshness, while its shrill upper frequencies remained. Mittie described his laugh as a “sharp, ungreased squeak” which almost crushed her eardrums.18For much of the time he reeked of the laboratory: on days when he had been disemboweling as well as skinning his specimens, it was best to stand upwind of him.

Teedie alone seemed to be unaware of his eccentric appearance. “Pestered fearfully” by street-boys in Liverpool, he assumed it was because he was a Yankee, and was puzzled by a shopkeeper’s refusal to sell him, on sight, a full pound of arsenic. “I was informed that I must bring a witness to prove that I was not going to commit murder, suicide or any such dreadfull thing, before I could have it!” he wrote in his new travel diary.19 Presumably a witness was found, for within a couple of days he was skinning some snipe and partridge. All the way south, through England and Europe, Teedie continued his scientific labors.

Although he had a few words of praise for Continental scenery—the mossy roofs and distant windmills of Belgium, the “wild and picturesque” hills of Switzerland—his viewpoint was on the whole chauvinistic. Railroads, museums, even sanitation systems were unfavorably compared with those of America. Not until Egypt hove over the Mediterranean horizon, on 28 November 1872, did Teedie respond emotionally to his surroundings.

How I gazed upon it! It was Egypt, the land of my dreams; Egypt the most ancient of all countries! A land that was old when Rome was bright, was old when Troy was taken! It was a sight to awaken a thousand thoughts, and it did.

His diary entries immediately become lengthy and enthusiastic. The descriptions of street life in Alexandria are as dense with visual detail and sound effects as film scenarios. Only in front of Pompey’s Pillar did words fail him. “On seeing this stately remain of former glory, I felt a great deal but I said nothing. You can not express yourself on such an occasion.”

Passing through the Nile Delta en route to Cairo, Teedie munched sugarcane and gazed in rapture at a multitude of exotic species: humped, long-haired zebus, delicate waders, great flapping, shrieking zic-zacs, kites and vultures floating on spirals of hot air, water buffaloes wallowing in the chocolate mud. As soon as he arrived in the capital he bought an ornithological directory and began to study Egyptian birds, “whose habits I was able to watch quite well through my spectacles.” From now on the pages of his diary seem to come alive with squawks and fluttering wings. Even when going the rounds of historic buildings, he searched every nook and cranny for birds, discovering swallows under the dome of Mahommet Ali’s mosque, and “perfectly distinguishable” species of geese in an ancient mosaic at Boulag.

There is evidence that this obsession with feathered creatures was something of a trial to the more “normal” members of the family. “When he does come into the room, you always hear the words ‘bird’ and ‘skin,’ ” little Corinne complained. “It certainly is great fun for him.”20 Even the sweet-tempered Elliott revolted against having to share a hotel room with a brother who stored entrails in the basin. Theodore Senior, while sympathetic, was too wise a father to discourage his son’s scientific tendencies. The career of natural historian, to which Teedie was obviously headed, was a respectable one, if not as profitable as a partnership in Roosevelt and Son.21

No doubt his businessman’s eye had already discerned that this absentminded and unorthodox youth would be a disaster in the world of commerce, while questions of health and physical frailty would disqualify him from the Army and Navy. He could see, too, that Teedie, for all his scholarly single-mindedness, had not retreated from life. The boy still exercised regularly, read a wide variety of books and poetry, and showed a healthy interest in people and places. Watching while he eagerly surveyed the Sahara from the summit of the Great Pyramid, or timed the contortions of a group of howling dervishes, or stared at a beautiful houri in a Cairo window, Theodore Senior could relax, knowing that his son was educating himself.

On 12 December 1872, the Roosevelts moved out of Cairo on the first stage of their cruise up the Nile. Their home for the next two months was to be a privately chartered dababeab. “It is the nicest, cosiest, pleasantest little place you ever saw,” Teedie wrote in delight. There were—to Elliott’s relief—individual staterooms for each member of the family, plus a spacious dining salon and a panoramic, shaded deck. For all its modern trimmings, the vessel was little different from those that, four thousand years before, had carried Pharaohs from one palace to another.22

The dahabeah’s progress, as they pushed south against the current, was almost hypnotically slow. Often, when the weak wind died, the crew was obliged to wade ashore with tackle and haul the houseboat along. None of the Roosevelts seems to have minded this Oriental form of locomotion. They watched the bronzed backs of the fellaheen curving against the tow-rope, listened to their “curious crooning songs,” and luxuriated in the brilliant sunshine, “with never a moment’s rain.” Mittie in particular enjoyed herself. Traveling at speeds of two to three miles an hour exactly suited her temperament; she was also flattered by the attentions of four young Harvard men, who had chartered another dahabeah and were sailing upriver in convoy. Frequent stops enabled the children to explore riverside ruins and native villages.23

THE FIRST DAY ON THE NILE was a momentous one for Teedie. He coordinated the lenses of his crooked spectacles, and the sights of his battered rifle, well enough to bag a small warbler. It was “the first bird I ever shot and I was proportionately delighted.” Throughout the twelve-hundred-mile trip to Aswân and back, Teedie ecstatically watched and listened to birds on the wing, and then as ecstatically killed them—a total, according to his own vague estimate, of “between one and two hundred.”24

On Christmas Day his father presented him with a double-barreled breech-loading shotgun, and the boy’s delight knew no bounds. “He is a most enthusiastic sportsman,” wrote Theodore Senior, “and has infused some of his spirit into me. Yesterday I walked the bogs with him at the risk of sinking hopelessly and helplessly, for hours … but I felt that I must keep up with Teedie.”25

No matter how sluggish the pace of the dahabeah, he managed to keep busy all day long. After breakfast he joined his younger brother and sister for two hours of lessons with Bamie. She discovered that Teedie knew a great deal more than she did on most subjects. Later, “he would put on a large pair of spectacles and swing his gun over his shoulder and start on whatever small donkey was provided at the place we had stopped, and ruthlessly lope after whatever object he had in view, the donkey almost invariably crowding between any other two who might be riding together.” His habit, during these lopes, of allowing the loaded gun to bump and bounce about freely aroused considerable nervousness among his fellow hunters. Throughout the broiling afternoons, Corinne recalled, he would sit under the canopy on deck “surrounded by the brown-faced and curious sailors … and skin and stuff the products of his sport.”26 At sunset, when breezes cooled the desert, he would join the family in tours of the stupendous ruins that regularly drifted into view.

One such expedition, early in the New Year of 1873, shattered him.

In the evening we visited Harnak [sic] by moonlight. It was not beautiful only, it was grand, magnificent, and awe-inspiring. It seemed to take me back thousands of years, to the time of the Pharohs and to inspire thought which can never be spoken, a glimpse of the ineffable, of the unutterable.…27

With adolescent determination not to waste good purple prose, he repeated this entire passage, complete with ineffables and unutterables, in a letter to Aunt Annie two weeks later. Rather more characteristic of his mature humor is a postscript on Egyptian rural fashions: “I may as well mention that the dress of the inhabitants up to ten years of age is—nothing. After that they put on a shirt descended from some remote ancestor and never take it off until the day of their death.”28

The Roosevelts enjoyed their southward cruise so much that they were tempted, upon reaching the First Aswân Cataract, to continue on into the heartland of North Africa.29 But time was running out for Commissioner Roosevelt: he still had to escort his family through Palestine, Syria, Turkey, and Greece, before reporting for duty on 1 May at the Vienna Exposition. Reluctantly, he gave the order to turn downstream.

SIX DAYS LATER, after one of those sudden changes of pace and scene in which Theodore Senior delighted, the Roosevelts found themselves cantering on hired horses across the green fields of Palestine. They were accompanied on this leg of their Grand Tour by Nathaniel Thayer and August Jay, two of the young Harvard men they had met on the Nile. A pleased sense of adventure hung over the little party. Ahead of them lay a month’s exploration of the Levant, most of it on horseback. Tonight would be spent in a monastery, and most of the next few days in a Jerusalem hotel; but after that they planned to live like nomads, camping out in the wilderness.30

Toward sunset the party arrived at its destination, the Convent of Ramle, about fifteen miles inland from Jaffa. Theodore Senior had made reservations here, but the monks took one look at his women and curtly announced there was “no room.” This was not the sort of Biblical parallel he was looking for in the Holy Land, and he reacted with his usual aggressiveness. “A long talk ensued,” Teedie reported. “At last the monks said that they had rooms for the gentlemen but that ladies could not go inside the inner walls … this difficulty was also overcome in time.”31

A minor incident, perhaps, yet it haunts the imagination. Six tired women and children, two bewildered students; a gate, a darkening landscape, scowling bearded faces, and—dominating the whole scene—one determined man. Time and again Teedie was convinced, by experiences like this, that his father was all-powerful and irresistible; that forceful talk, combined with personal charm, would vanquish any opposition.

Riding on eastward the next day, Teedie began to get the feel of his horse. “He has some Arab blood in him, and is very swift, pretty, and spirited.” After so many summers spent on the placid back of an American pony, it was thrilling to crouch over this lean body as it drummed tirelessly across the plain. Mr. Jay was challenged to a race and beaten. In great good humor, Teedie galloped up to a ridge of hills, and was suddenly confronted with Jerusalem. “Just what I expected it to be,” he decided, “except that it was remarkably small.”32

Apart from a single expression of “awe” on Calvary, Teedie’s account of his travels through Palestine and Syria is free of conventional piety. He bathed irreverently in the Jordan (“what we should call a small creek in America”), noted that bribery alone gained access to the birthplace of Christ, and “killed two very pretty little finches” in the vicinity of Abraham’s Oak. His pantheistic soul seems to have been stirred more by the bird-haunted glades around Jericho, the desolate grandeur of the Moab escarpment, and the ruins of Baalbek. “They gave me the same feeling as to contemplate the mighty temples of Thebes.” Other, more primitive emotions surged when he came across a pair of jackals outside Damascus:

I had just given the gun to Bootross [the under-dragoman], while I arranged my bridle when the jackals came in sight and he was off like a flash while I followed, shouting for my gun. He did not hear me and kept on. Bootross was on bad ground and could not get near the beasts. They separated, and I went after the largest, thinking to ride over him and then kill him with a club. On we went over hills, and through gulleys, where none but a Syrian horse could go. I gained rapidly on him and was within a few yards of him when he leaped over a cliff some fifteen feet high, and while I made a detour around he got in among some rocky hills where I could not get at him. I killed a large vulture afterwards.33

Apart from a cat he had shot near Jaffa “in mistake for a rabbit,” this was his first attempt to hunt animals for sport, rather than science.

Toward the end of the Roosevelts’ Levantine wanderings, Teedie recorded his first “bad attack of Asthma and Cholera Morbus” since leaving America five months previously. It was brought on by a freezing night in the mountains of Lebanon, and no doubt served to remind him that his battle for health was still not won. The clear dry air of the desert, and a diet of yogurt and salads, had given him a period of easy breathing and untroubled digestion; but now, as the prospect of “returning to civilization” loomed nearer, he knew he would have to take up the fight again.

He was “very seasick” during a short cruise to Greece (whose ruins did not impress him), “very sick” with colic in Constantinople, “very seasick” in the Black Sea, and “had the asthma” again while sailing up the Danube. By the time the Roosevelts arrived in Vienna on 19 April 1873, he was plainly depressed. Boredom weighed down heavily as his father plunged into preparations for the opening of the exposition, and his mother fussed over Bamie’s European debut. “I bought a black cock and used up all my arsenic on him,” wrote Teedie on 28 April, and on 11 May: “the last few weeks have been spent in the most dreary monotony. If I stayed here much longer I should spend all my money on books and birds pour passer le temps.”

But his parents had arranged a better way for him to pass his time. “At 10 P.M. on the 14th we two boys (with Father) left for Dresden, where we are to stay in a German Family for the summer.”

It was Theodore Senior’s typically bold intention to scatter the Roosevelts across Europe while he himself completed his duties in Vienna and returned to America ahead of them. Perhaps he sensed that a period of mutual independence was necessary. Years of close-knit domesticity, and the enforced claustrophobia of travel, had brought them rather too much under his wing. The boys in particular would benefit. A certain coziness, verging on effeminacy, was discernible in their relations with their sisters and “little Motherling,” and it was high time they were off on their own. He had accordingly arranged, through the American consul in Dresden, that they would study German and French there privately for five months. Mittie and Bamie would take the cures at Carlsbad and Frankensbad, and shop in London and Paris. Eleven-year-old Corinne was told that she, too, was going to Dresden, but would live apart from Teedie and Elliott, “so that the brothers and sister would not speak too much English together.” Theodore Senior soon came to regret this unconsciously cruel decision, and allowed the heart-stricken little girl to move in with the boys.34

DRESDEN WAS, in that peaceful heyday of the German Empire, one of the loveliest cities in the world. Its domes and spires and bridges, tremblingly reflected in the River Elbe, gave way on the one hand to mellow clusters of medieval housing, and on the other to the spacious estates of the rich. Beyond lay hills striped with vines and crowned with lush forests. The city’s museums and libraries were full of masterpieces by Michelangelo, Raphael, Dante, and Goethe; its Court Opera had known the batons of Weber and Wagner; its zoological and mineralogical collections were unsurpassed in Europe. A general atmosphere of elegance and culture justly earned it the title of “Florence on the Elbe.”35

Here, “in the finer part” of town (Mittie was pleased to note), lived a genteel family named Minkwitz, who agreed to accommodate and instruct the young Roosevelts through the summer. Theodore Senior could not have found a more typically Teutonic household. Herr Hofsrath Minkwitz was a member of the German Reichstag, imperious and stiffly formal. His wife was pink, plump, and hearty, a fount of cream teas and cakes. Their three daughters were “gay, well-educated, and very temperamental,” and their two sons were fierce-looking university students, much slashed about the face. Teedie was predictably fascinated by this macabre pair. “One, a famous swordsman, was called Der Rothe Herzog (the Red Duke), and the other was nicknamed Herr Nasehorn(Sir Rhinoceros) because the tip of his nose had been cut off in a duel and sewn on again.”36

The Minkwitz family proved to be both hospitable and conscientious. No sooner had Theodore Senior left town than they plunged the boys into a rigorous teaching schedule. “The plan of the day is this,” wrote Teedie at the end of the first month. “Halfpast six, up and breakfast which is through at halfpast seven, when we study till nine; repeat till half past twelve, have lunch, and study till three, when we take coffee and have till tea (at seven) free. After tea we study till ten, when we go to bed. It is harder than I have ever studied before in my life, but I like it for I really feel that I am making considerable progress.”37

Fräulein Anna, the Minkwitzes’ eldest daughter, was placed in charge of Teedie and Elliott, teaching them German grammar and arithmetic with “unwearied patience.” The rest of the family made a point of speaking German at all times, whether their young guests could understand them or not. Teedie, it soon transpired, understood better than they realized. He caught several personal observations about the elder Roosevelts, and gleefully retailed them by mail.38 Although he developed a fair measure of spoken fluency, he never was as easy with German prose as he was with French. However, he grew to love and enjoy German poetry almost as much as he did English. It was during this summer that he discovered the Nibelungenlied, whose Sturm und Drang evoked vague folk-memories of his own Germanic ancestors.39

At first, Teedie did not make a very agreeable impression upon his hosts. They looked askance at his long, wavy hair, his ink-spattered hands, and ill-fitting clothes, from whose greasy recesses he was at any moment likely to produce a dead bat.40 “My scientific pursuits cause the family a good deal of consternation,” he reported sadly. “My arsenic was confiscated and my mice thrown (with the tongs) out of the window.”41 Undeterred, he continued to flay, pickle, and stuff a variety of local fauna. Whenever he could get out in the country he “collected specimens industriously and enlivened the household with hedgehogs and other small beasts and reptiles which persisted in escaping from partially closed bureau drawers.”42 The skins of these unfortunate animals were allowed to festoon the exterior of the house, with fine disregard for aesthetic effect. One night, during a thunderstorm so violent the Minkwitzes hid between their mattresses, Teedie was heard to murmur in his sleep: “Oh, it is raining and my hedgehog will be all spoiled.”43

During their free evenings and weekends, the young Roosevelts happily explored the parks and shops of Dresden, and attended frequent performances of Shakespeare at the German Theater. By coincidence, their cousins John and Maud Elliott were also living in the city,44 and the five little Americans soon became a gang, meeting every Sunday afternoon. Lest Theodore Senior frown upon this socializing in English, they affected a cultural veneer, calling themselves the Dresden Literary American Club. Corinne spelled out their various creative roles: “I … keep up the poetry part, Elliott and Johnny the tragical, and Teedie the funny.” Evidently the last was beginning to fancy himself as a wit: his contributions to the club’s copybooks, which have been preserved, strive mightily to imitate Dickens and Lewis Carroll, but the best that can be said of them is that they are long.45

His letters of the same period, written with the promptness and regularity that would always characterize him as a correspondent, are full of adolescent drollery, and since they are more spontaneous than his formal efforts, can still be read with pleasure. One of them, addressed to his mother, describes himself suffering from a familiar boyhood ailment:

Picture to yourself an antiquated woodchuck with his cheeks filled with nuts, his face well-oiled, his voice hoarse from gargling and a cloth resembling in texture and cleanliness a second-hand dustman’s castoff stocking around his head; picture to yourself that, I say, and you will have a good like likeness of your hopeful offspring while suffering from an attack of the mumps.46

Mittie may have been amused by that, but references in the same letter to recurring asthma and violent headaches were not so funny. She informed her husband that she would visit Dresden in August, and “if I find Teedie still with asthmatic feelings, I think I shall take him with me to Salzburg.”47 Theodore Senior was reluctant to interrupt the boy’s studies, but he had just received a “humorous” letter himself, and it made poignant reading.

I am at present suffering under a very slight attack of Asthma; however it is but a small attack and except for the fact that I cannot speak, without blowing up like an abridged edition of a hippopotamus, it does not inconvenience me much. We are now studying hard … (Excuse my writing; the asthma has made my hand tremble awfully).48

When Mittie arrived in Dresden she found he was sitting up to sleep again, just as he had as a child; his wheeze was perpetual and his color was not good.49 She promptly bundled him off to a resort in the Swiss mountains, where his breathing cleared, only to be replaced by an ugly cough. It took three weeks in the pine-scented air of the Alps before he was well enough to return to his studies.

He compensated for time lost to ill health by asking Fräulein Anna to speed up his lessons. “Of course I could not be left behind,” Elliott reported, “so we are working harder than ever in our lives.” Teedie was already showing the determination, and inspirational qualities, of a born leader. The Minkwitzes, who had gotten over their misgivings about him, openly admired his ability to concentrate on his books and his specimens to the exclusion of physical suffering. “I wonder what will become of my Teedie,” pondered Mittie, as she prepared to depart again for England. “You need not be anxious about him,” replied Fräulein Anna. “He will surely one day be a great professor, or who knows, he may become even President of the United States.”50

Mittie was scornfully amused and unbelieving, but Fräulein Anna prided herself, in her old age, on being the first to predict Teedie’s future glory.

RECROSSING THE ATLANTIC in late October, Teedie turned fifteen. He was now, if not yet a man, then at least a youth of more than ordinary experience of the world. He had traveled exhaustively in Britain, Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, visiting their great cities time and again and actually living in some for long periods. He had plumbed the Catacombs and climbed the Great Pyramid, slept in a monastery and toured a harem. He had hunted jackals on horseback, kissed the Pope’s hand, stared into a volcano, traced an ancient civilization to its source, and followed the wanderings of Jesus. He had been exposed to much of the world’s greatest art and architecture, become conversant in two foreign languages, and felt as much at home in Arab bazaars as at a Germankaffeeklatsch, or on the shaven lawns of an English estate.

As is frequently the case with globetrotting children, the very variety of Teedie’s knowledge put him at something of a disadvantage when it came to the requirements of formal education. His ambition was to enter Harvard in the fall of 1876, which meant he would have to be ready, by the summer of 1875, to take a series of stiff entrance examinations. Strong as he might be in science, history, geography, and modern languages, he was weak in Latin, Greek, and mathematics. For the next one and a half years he would have to apply himself to these uncongenial subjects. Also he would have to complete the building of his body. He was still too frail to think of going to boarding school;51 to go to Harvard he must be able to compete, physically and mentally, with the finest young men in America. Theodore Senior was confident, on the record of Teedie’s past accomplishments, that this challenge would be met and overcome. He had already retained an eminent tutor, Arthur Hamilton Cutler, to take charge of the boy’s education.52

Nothing is known of the Roosevelts’ reunion on the docks of Lower Manhattan, save that it took place on 5 November 1873. We may assume that it was joyous, and that Teedie’s mood, as their carriage clattered up Broadway, was expectant.

INSTEAD OF TURNING EAST toward the familiar row of brown-stones on Twentieth Street, the horses continued north to the distant green of Central Park. Theodore Senior had spent the last five months supervising the construction of a mansion at 6 West Fifty-seventh Street, on the outer fringes of New York City. Now in the prime of life—he was forty-two, a millionaire twice over, a founder of the Metropolitan and Natural History museums, a patron of the New York Orthopedic Hospital and many charities—he wished to establish himself in appropriately grand surroundings. “It seems like another landmark reached on my life’s journey,” he wrote Mittie after his first night in the new house. “We have now probably one abiding-place for the rest of our days.”53

The mansion was designed by Russell Sturgis, New York’s most fashionable architect. Although its blocky facade conformed with the town-house style of the period, its interior furnishings were unusually rich, with heavy Persian rugs in every hall, sumptuous furniture, and much ornamental woodwork, including a hand-carved staircase. Knowing his wife’s intolerance of anything artificial, Theodore Senior had even gone to the length of ripping out a “beautifully finished” plaster ceiling and replacing it with real oak beams. There was a large museum in the garret for Teedie, and a fully equipped gymnasium on the top floor for all the children.54

Teedie lost no time in plunging into his new studies. He took an instant liking to Mr. Cutler, who in turn registered approval of “the alert, vigorous character of young Roosevelt’s mind.” At first Elliott and West Roosevelt, a cousin, joined in the lessons, but Teedie, working from six to eight hours a day, soon left them behind, and they dropped out the following summer. From then on he studied entirely alone. “The young man never seemed to know what idleness was,” wrote Cutler, long after his pupil had become President. “Every leisure moment would find the last novel, some English classic, or some abstruse book on Natural History in his hand.” Although Teedie showed predictable excellence in science, history, German, and French, “he did not neglect mathematics or the dry ancient languages.”55 None of these, however, ever came easily to him. Throughout life he was to mourn his inability to read Virgil and Homer in the original.

He continued to study with such passion that Theodore Senior worried about the effect on his health.56 Yet Teedie could not be restrained. Harvard, with its age-old aura of masculinity, intellectualism, and social success, floated ever nearer. He seemed to sense that, if the grail eluded his reach, he might not have the strength to grasp it again.

IN THE SPRING OF 1874 the Roosevelts moved, as was their custom, into the country. Theodore Senior’s growing desire to put down roots, symbolized by the town house on West Fifty-seventh Street, led him this time in the direction of Oyster Bay, Long Island, where his father and brothers had long since established a family colony by the sea. Here he rented a gracious, plantation-style residence whose white columns and wide veranda no doubt appealed to Mittie’s Southern taste.57 The house, which was to become their permanent summer home, was called Tranquillity.

This name caused considerable amusement among friends and neighbors, for the Roosevelt way of life was anything but tranquil. From dawn to dusk both house and garden resounded with activity. At any hour of the day, including breakfast-time, Theodore Senior might call upon his children for off-the-cuff speeches or recitations, whereupon they would roaringly oblige. Amateur theatricals were always being rehearsed or performed, practical jokes plotted, and violent obstacle races improvised, at great danger to life and limb. Teedie and Elliott took delight in blackening each other’s eyes in boxing matches, and collapsing, at unpredictable moments, into wrestling bouts which would continue until they were too exhausted to disentangle themselves. Invariably, these explosions of energy were followed by a general dash into the waters of Oyster Bay. “We were all absolutely amphibious,” recalled Bamie, “and one of the old fishermen used to say he was pretty sure dem Roosevelts were web-footed, as no one ever knew when we were in or out of the water.” In the evening they would read aloud from classics of history or literature, prompting discussions which would last far into the night. An extraordinary intimacy seemed to bind them together: they unashamedly hugged and kissed one another in spasms of mutual affection which Mittie called “melts.”58

Since the children were all growing up rapidly, their individual personalities became more and more defined in this first summer at Tranquillity. Bamie was kindly, capable, and domineering, already at nineteen a poised hostess and socialite. Teedie, not yet sixteen, was still something of a scholarly recluse, yet, when not bent over his books and birds, high-spirited and unaffected. Fourteen-year-old Elliott was “the most lovable of the Roosevelts,”59 a budding Apollo with an eye for the girls, and twelve-year-old Corinne, mercurial and gushy, had already begun her lifelong career as a composer of sentimental poetry.

Understandably, some of the more staid members of New York society considered the Roosevelts eccentric. Others, such as the teenage Fanny Smith, an early admirer of Teedie, found them a family “so rarely gifted that it seemed touched with the flame of ‘divine fire.’ ”60 With Edith Carow—ripening now into attractive adolescence—she became one of the many “regulars” who stayed at Oyster Bay every summer, and attended a weekly dance class at Dodsworth’s Ballroom during the New York social season.

Although it may be presumed that Teedie was not insensitive to the appeal of the opposite sex in 1874 and 1875 (he makes approving references to girls in his letters, and admits that he enjoys dancing) his main interests continued to be study and exercise.61 Not even his triumph in the preliminary Harvard entrance examinations of July 1875 (“Is it not splendid! … I passed in all the eight subjects I tried”) was allowed to affect the inflexible program he had devised for himself. Four times a year he took a recess of a week to ten days, but even these breaks were doggedly purposeful: he would head for the lakes of the Adirondacks, or the woods of Long Island and New Jersey, collecting specimens and data and loping for miles, gun in hand, after wild game.62 He described one such excursion to Edith’s summer place at Sea Bright as being full of “ornithological enjoyment and reptilian rapture.”63

His battle for health would appear to have been mostly won by the end of 1875. A sporting calendar has been preserved which records that from 21 August through 11 December he engaged his brother and several male cousins in a series of fifteen athletic contests—running, jumping, vaulting, wrestling, and boxing—and won fourteen of them, drawing the other one. On 1 November he noted his physical measurements:














       Arms up     


       ″ straight     


       Fore arm     



124 lbs     



5 ft 8 in64     


From this, and from the descriptions of others, we can conjure up the picture of a skinny, sunburned boy, just seventeen years old, with wiry muscles and a clean glow of health about him. Occasional attacks of asthma still came and went, but did not bother him unduly. He affected a pair of side-whiskers, which emphasized the hard thrust of his jaw; his mouth, during moments of thoughtfulness, clamped “like a band of blued steel.”65 At other times, when he allowed his natural humor to bubble over, it seemed to consist of nothing but perfectly white teeth.

Although he was not handsome, he was an attractive youngster, and Fanny Smith, for one, adored him unashamedly. She was convinced that he would become President, and said as much to her sister; but the prophecy seems to have been as skeptically received as Fräulein Anna’s, two years before. In particular Fanny worshiped his courage and “high-mindedness.” Some of her friends found him priggish, but she felt only a sunny charm, which still warmed her when she was an old woman of eighty-nine:

As I look back to those early days perhaps the characteristic that made at the time the strongest appeal was the unquenchable gaiety which seemed to emanate from his whole personality. This quality was a noticeable family trait, but in Theodore it seemed to reach its height and to invigorate the atmosphere about him to an unusual degree. As a young girl I remember dreading to sit next to him at any formal dinner lest I become so convulsed with laughter at his whispered sallies as to disgrace myself and be forced to leave the room.66

That Fanny herself was something of a rival to Edith Carow is implied in another passage from her memoirs. She describes a winter afternoon when Elliott, always more forthcoming than Teedie, paid her and her sisters a courtly visit. While chatting in a window seat she suddenly noticed Teedie, “looking blue with cold,” walking rapidly up and down outside.

“Why, Elliott, do you see Theodore out there? Why doesn’t he come in!” I exclaimed.

Elliott replied—and to this day the incident remains a mystery—that Theodore also had planned a visit but that suddenly he had been overcome by bashfulness and had decided to remain outside. We brought him in, where he became—as always—“the life and soul of the party.” But the incident reminds me of the unexpected strain of self-depreciation which surprised one through the years.67

MUCH LESS IS KNOWN of the relationship between Edith and Teedie, except that it deepened steadily into intimacy during the summer of 1876, his last before entering college. Having completed the equivalent of three years of college preparation in less than two,68 he could finally relax and allow his social personality to develop. He would gallantly row her across Oyster Bay, “in the hottest sun, over the roughest water, in the smallest boat,”69 and Edith tolerated it with her usual inscrutable sweetness. They would read and recite endlessly to each other, Edith showing a decided preference for belles-lettres, Teedie for rhythmic poetry and warlike, heroic prose.

Years after, family tradition would hold that these two “had an understanding”70 by the time he went up to Harvard in the fall, but if so, there is no formal record of it. Nevertheless, seeds had been sown, and some sort of future flowering seemed assured.

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