Skinny and Swelly

Elliott Roosevelt was Theodore’s younger brother.  When he died an alcoholic at only 34, Theodore wrote to their sister Corinne that they should think of him as the boy who played with them in the hotels of Europe – “Do you remember how we used to do it?”  In their Victorian childhood Theodore, Elliott and Corinne referred to themselves as “We Three.”  Older sister Anna (Bamie) was in the category of the adults, for it seemed she had always been one.

Harvard University photo

Little Elliott was kind-hearted.  Once on a chilly day, he returned from a walk without his coat, having given it to a boy who didn’t have one.  He was concerned about the welfare of the family’s servants, and when they attended a circus, about the performing animals.

The family took a second grand tour in 1872.  This time, the three youngest stayed in a German home to study.  Theodore and Elliott took breaks from their lessons with rounds of boxing, wearing gloves sent by their father.  Each pummeled the other: getting black eyes and bloody noses, seeing stars, and enjoying every minute.  They called each other “Skinny” and “Swelly.”  Theodore was “Skinny,” asthma stricken, frail but tough; Elliott was “Swelly,” more handsome, more robust.

In his late teens Elliott started drinking, partly to numb strange incidents of blood rushing to his head.  Was it a psychosomatic illness?  Was it because of one too many boxing blows?  His parents sent him away on long hunting trips instead of to Harvard University where Theodore had gone.

Theodore and Elliott Roosevelt

Harvard University photo

Then, in the middle of Theodore’s sophomore year of college, their father died of an agonizing stomach tumor.  When Theodore was in the state legislature at Albany, their mother and Theodore’s beautiful wife Alice died in the same house on the same day.  In both cases Elliott was left behind at home to deal with the terrible events that marked the end of the lives of people Skinny and Swelly dearly loved.

FDR Library photo

“Good Old Nell” was an attractive man, a natural socializer, and after marrying beautiful Anna Hall (pictured above) he joined the hunt club set.  He grew apart from the rest of the family, sinking deeper into drinking and then philandering.  Sister Bamie attempted  to save him with a European trip for the family, which by the early 1890s included three children, but it ended in Elliott’s commitment to a sanitarium.  He relinquished his property to his wife.  Anna died of diphtheria in America; he died soon afterwards.

Of the couple’s children, Eleanor and Hall lived to adulthood.  Eleanor was educated at a private school, Allenswood, in England and married a fellow crusader, her fifth cousin Franklin.  She had a profound role in the White House during World War II.

During the hunt for information for my book, I visited the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York.  It was the first such library designed by a sitting president and built next to Franklin’s boyhood home, which began as a farmhouse but was largely remodeled.  I enjoyed the tour of the great house and noted birds on display from his own collection.  It seems that James Roosevelt told his son he could take taxidermy lessons like cousin Theodore had, if he could find and stuff one of each species seen on their property.  I marveled at the rope-controlled elevator with which Franklin built his upper body muscles as he sat in a kitchen chair converted to a wheelchair.  The rose garden surrounding the presidential couple’s gravesite was breathtaking.

In the library I read a few of Elliott’s boyhood letters.  He once wrote that he had been excited to get a new watch for his birthday, but when he ran to show Theodore, his brother told him he already knew about it.

I looked at letters Elliott wrote to little Eleanor after her mother died.  They were very sad.  His love for his family was evident, but he could not overcome the demons that prevented him from nurturing his family.

  Eleanor Roosevelt

FDR Library photo

On display downstairs in the FDR Library is a necklace made of tiger claws which Elliott brought back from a hunting trip to India.  Ironically, this was an animal Theodore had wanted to bag but never did.  Its skin was prominently draped before the fireplace at his mother’s home on West 57th Street in New York, and the stunning piece of jewelry went to his wife, Anna.  Eleanor inherited it and wore it as first lady.

It is a reminder of a tragic life in a family that left a lasting influence on the world.  Ken Burns’ new documentary, The Roosevelts, will air beginning September 14 on PBS.  Undoubtedly it will shed more light on the relationships and contributions of these fascinating Americans.

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