There Were Never Such Devoted Sisters

Irving Berlin wasn’t thinking of Anna and Corinne Roosevelt when he wrote the song for White Christmas, but that line certainly describes them.  Except their devotion was, as long as they lived, for their brother, Theodore.  Anna, four years older than he, was called “Bamie” or “Bysie.”  Corinne, three years his junior, was known as “Conie.”

Bamie was put in the category of the “big people” by Theodore, Elliott, and Corinne from the beginning.  She was very smart and strong-willed, and resembled their father in the ways she guided and managed people.  In the summer when the boys were small, she had them pretend they were horses in a toy harness, running with them up and down the beach.   Although she suffered from Pott’s disease, tuberculosis of the spine, it never slowed her energetic pace.

Bamie with niece Alice Roosevelt.  (American Museum of Natural History)

A natural mentor, Bamie encouraged Theodore in his wildlife projects.  He probably wrote to her as often as he did to his parents.  She studied at Mlle. Souvestre’s School near Paris and at eighteen had two debutante parties: one in Philadelphia because their new home wasn’t finished, and the other in New York when it was, for 500 guests.   After the fashion of young ladies of the time she didn’t attend college herself, but went to get Theodore’s room ready at Harvard the summer before he left.  When Theodore’s first wife died, it was Bamie who took care of their newborn daughter (she also lovingly helped another niece, Eleanor).  Later, when Theodore was president, he walked over to Bamie’s home on N Street in Washington to talk over issues he was dealing with.

Theodore and Corinne.

Corinne was same age as, and best friends with, Edith Carow, Theodore’s second wife, from the time they were little.  At age four, when the family had just moved to the country for the summer, Corinne spoke up ahead of her brothers to be the first to ride a new pony.  “I think I did it just to see the light in my father’s eyes,” she said.  She, like Theodore, was severely asthmatic.  In Harvard’s Houghton Library is her little diary of the first family trip to Europe.  The eight-year-old drew a picture of herself on the first page and looped her script carefully, as one who has just learned the art.  Corinne wanted to do everything her brothers did, even if it meant tripping on her skirts and falling down as she ran alongside the carriage in the Alps.  In Europe again two years later, Corinne patiently listened to Theodore’s “lecture” on quail.  She also cut her finger dissecting a bird, which was the extent of her career as a naturalist.  Staying at a German home that summer with her brothers, she wrote stories, as they did, for a literary club they had with cousins their age who were also living abroad.
Later Bamie married William Sheffield Cowles, an admiral in the navy, and had one son.  Corinne and her husband Douglas Robinson, a financier, had four children.  The sisters and their husbands dined with Theodore the first night he stayed in the White House, as Edith and the children were still in Oyster Bay.  Strangely enough, Bamie, whom some thought could have been president if she’d been a man, never believed in women’s suffrage.  But Corinne introduced presidential candidate Leonard Wood at the Republican National Convention of 1920 in Chicago.  She wrote My Brother Theodore Roosevelt two years after he died, and also books of poetry.  Both sisters outlived Theodore by several years, collaborating on the reconstruction of the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace in Manhattan, their childhood home.  It is operated by the National Park Service today.  The past preserved, it is a place where visitors can lose themselves for a time in the story of our twenty-sixth president’s family, which included two very devoted sisters.

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