Edith Kermit Roosevelt
Creating the Modern First Lady
Lewis L. Gould
Few first ladies have enjoyed a better reputation among historians than Edith Kermit Roosevelt. Aristocratic and sophisticated, tasteful and discreet, she managed the White House with a sure hand. Her admirers say that she never slipped in carrying out her duties as hostess, mother, and adviser to her husband.
Lewis Gould's path-breaking study, however, presents a more complex and interesting figure than the somewhat secularized saint Edith Roosevelt has become in the literature on first ladies. While many who knew her found her inspiring and gracious, family members also recalled a more astringent and sometimes nasty personality. Gould looks beneath the surface of her life to examine the intricate legacy of her tenure from 1901 to 1909.
“Gould provides a balanced and nuanced view of Edith Roosevelt.”
—Presidential Studies Quarterly
“Gould’s slim biography of Edith Kermit Roosevelt sheds new light on this often overlooked and misrepresented First Lady. ... By examining the good alongside the bad, he provides a robust portrait of a complex private individual thrust into a very public role.”
—BooklistSee all reviews...
“But Lewis L. Gould’s account of her life and influence is as insightful as it is compact, combining distinguished scholarship with engaging storytelling.”
“Draws on newly discovered sources in a biography of the first lady; documents her bigotry toward African-Americans and considers how it may have affected her husband’s policies.”
—The Chronicle of Higher Education
“While many consider Edith Roosevelt to have been a worthy compliment to her husband (as both person and president), a capable mother, skilled organizer, and patron of the arts (especially classical music), Gould shows that the truth was much more complicated. Edith harbored deep-seated racist views—which Gould argues impacted her husband's policies regarding race—and she actively expressed her distaste for certain individuals, including her successor, Helen Taft. Any hope of continued hagiography is laid to rest here, but Gould’s goal isn't simply to bring the saint back down to earth. He acknowledges Edith’s admirable qualities as well, and credits her for her pivotal role in the institutionalization of First Lady duties.”
“Edith Roosevelt always makes the short list of ‘best’ first ladies, and in this insightful, lively biography Gould explains why. Although she is sometimes touted as a woman who ‘never made a mistake,’ this thoughtful examination of her record shows she made quite a few. Using newly discovered sources, Gould portrays a woman whose views on race will surprise some readers. Even those who thought they knew Edith Roosevelt well will find here a far more interesting and complex woman than they ever imagined.”
—Betty Boyd Caroli, author of The Roosevelt Women
“Edith Roosevelt tried hard to conceal the large and often decisive part she played in the life and career of her husband, Theodore Roosevelt. Lewis Gould has succeeded in overcoming that obstacle and has written an incisive, compelling biography of this first truly modern first lady. He shows that behind the public image of a madcap rollicksome tribe of young children in the White House led by an ebullient, doting father lay an often grimmer reality of emotional strain and paternal self-absorption mitigated and managed by this strong, shrewd woman. Likewise, she quietly delved into his public career, usually with good effect but also with some sad results, as in the case of racial views. In all, this is a splendid contribution to understanding the lives of these fascinating, significant people and their times.”
—John Milton Cooper, author of Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
“Lewis Gould has drawn on his wide knowledge of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency as well as on hitherto unappreciated archival material to create a rounded portrait of the complex woman who was the wife of one of our most intriguing presidents.”
—Kristie Miller, author of Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilsons First LadiesSee fewer reviews...
The narrative in this book thus uncovers much new about Edith Roosevelt. Far from being averse to activism, Edith Roosevelt served as a celebrity sponsor at a New York musical benefit and also intervened in a high-profile custody dispute. Gould traces her role in the failed marriage of a United States senator, her efforts to secure the ambassador from Great Britain that she wanted, and the growing tension between her and Helen Taft in 1908-1909. Her commitment to bringing classical music artists to the White House, along with other popular performers, receives the fullest attention to date.
Gould also casts a skeptical eye over the area where Edith Roosevelt's standing has been strongest, her role as a mother. He looks at how she and her husband performed as parents and dissents from the accustomed judgment that all was well with the way the Roosevelt offspring developed. Most important of all, Gould reveals the first lady's deep animus toward African Americans and their place in American society. She believed "that any mixture of races is an unmitigated evil." The impact of her bigotry on Theodore Roosevelt's racial policies must now be an element in any future discussion of that sensitive subject.
On balance, Gould finds that Edith Roosevelt played an important and creative part in how the institution of the first lady developed during the twentieth century. His sprightly retelling of her White House years will likely provoke controversy and debate. All those interested in how the role of the presidential wife has evolved will find in this stimulating book a major contribution to the literature on a fascinating president. It also brings to life a first lady whose legacy must now be seen in a more nuanced and challenging light.