The Hats of Corinne Roosevelt

Particularly close to Theodore Roosevelt was his younger sister, Corinne.  Here, decade by decade, along with some appropriate headwear, is her narrative.

1870

Teedie!  Ellie!  Wait for me!  I’m eight years old but I just can’t keep up with my brothers!

Teedie’s asthma is so much better here in Switzerland that he walked 19 miles yesterday.  We NEVER would have imagined him doing that at home in New York City, where he spent so much time in his sick bed.

Mother and Aunt Annie told him stories to pass the time, wonderful stories about growing up on a plantation: Bre’r Rabbit, the adventures of her daring brothers, and ancestors who fought the Indians!  I think that’s why Teedie likes to make up tales for me.

He does love to talk.  Here in Europe he talks to everyone: why, on the boat over he talked for hours with a man who knew all about nature.  He loves animals, and especially birds.  But we are missing our dear Grandpapa Roosevelt, our cousins, and my best friend Edie.  They are all waiting for us to come home.

I suppose we will just have to make the best of it.  I wrote in my little diary how we have a new hotel to explore tonight.  When our sister, Bamie, and the rest of the Big People are talking, maybe we’ll chase the help again, and throw more wads of newspaper at them!

1880

This fall will be so exciting.  My big brother Theodore is getting married to Miss Alice Lee of Boston.  Weren’t we just so proud of him when he graduated from Harvard this spring, and since then we’ve been busy having teas and social engagements for the bride.  But she said to me the other day, “I do enjoy Teddy’s friends, but I don’t know why I can’t get anywhere with Edith Carow.”

Teddy is thinking he will donate his large number of stuffed birds to  museums…I remember how he and Fred Osborn used to go hunting in the Hudson Highlands.  They took such pride in their collections.   He should have become a scientist, but he didn’t like looking at specimens under a microscope; he always wanted to be outdoors,  in the field.  Now he’s talking about studying law with our uncle.

Our father, the first Theodore Roosevelt, would be so proud of him.  Dear Father.  Greatheart, as my aunt used to call him.  His sudden death stunned us two years ago.  We will never recover from the loss of his guidance and love.

1890

No Name Hats 1890s To Early 1900s

I still don’t believe it.  I have rassled a calf!  My brother and his wife took us to his Elkhorn Ranch on a holiday.  His hired hands taught me how to rope the thing and hang over its back as it was running in the mud.  I grabbed one leg and over we went, both of our legs waving in the air.  A grand time we all had, in Dakota and the Yellowstone.  Theodore growled outside our tent like a bear to scare us.

Theodore, Edith, and the bunnies, as they call their children, will soon move to Washington D.C.  My, what a challenge to be a Civil Service Commissioner.  And what a change from the cattle business here in the west.  That WAS good for him, even though he lost a lot of money on the venture.  He built up his health after grieving for Alice Lee’s and our mother’s deaths, which most tragically happened  on the same day.  Now he has Edith, whom we have known for always, to help him.

It will be hard for them to leave their lovely home, Sagamore Hill, on Long Island.

1900

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How exciting it is for Theodore to be elected Vice President of the United States!  I always knew he would do great things for our country.

I am sure he will make his mark, as he did in his other positions.  He began as a New York State Assemblyman.  Theodore, whom we called “Teddy” at the time, was such a young upstart.  When he was appointed to Civil Service Commissioner in Washington, he went after corruption in the Postal Service.  Next it was back to Manhattan to shake up the New York City Police Department as one of their Commissioners.

Let’s see — he became the Assistant Secretary of the Navy and influenced the beginning of the Spanish-American War.  He resigned to organize a volunteer regiment, the Rough Riders.  And he was just as vigorous as Governor of New York as he was charging up Kettle Hill.  No wonder he said, “I rose like a rocket.”

I wish our poor brother, Elliott, could see him now.  May he rest in peace.

1910

I AM growing uncomfortable with our national leaders.  Theodore just returned from his African trip, and to the adulation of great crowds.  He’s been troubled, I know, by President Taft’s actions and especially his  inactions on conservation.

I believe Theodore’s accomplishments in that office from 1901 to 1909 will stand firm for many years.  After the tragic assassination of President McKinley, he proved himself a true leader.   He negotiated settlement of the coal strike when the mines were shut down and people were shivering from lack of fuel.  He sued the business trusts to break up their monopoly.   He sought to make life better for the poor with the Food and Drug Act.

The little boy who toured Europe with us three decades ago understood the dynamics of monarchies, and stopped Russia and Japan from going to war.  For this he earned the Nobel Peace Prize.  He strengthened our navy and sent the Great White Fleet on a world tour to show other nations we “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Many times we joined him for supper in the White House — oh, and he was responsible for changing the name people used for the executive mansion, which he and Edith remodeled so beautifully.  Theodore thought he should use the power he had  to do what was best for the American people.  He called it a “square deal.”  He wanted to protect the natural world which we began our love affair with  so many many years ago at our summer homes in the country.

1920

Last year, after my husband died, I remember Theodore talking about the severe illnesses which plagued him ever since he was a child.  “I promised myself I would work to the hilt until I was 60, and I have done it,” he told me last year, hitting his fist on the arm of his char.  And now…he is gone.

Splitting with the Republicans in 1912 was hard for him.  The political bosses betrayed him again, taking the nomination which was rightfully his, and so he campaigned under a new party, the Progressives.  Even though he received more votes than President Taft, Wilson won the election.

Being refused permission to form a volunteer regiment in the recent world war, and losing his dear son Quentin in France in the summer of 1918 were terrible blows.  He never recovered from them.

I do think I shall write a book about my brother.  I must focus now on the task at hand, to present a speech for General Wood at the Republican National Convention.  It should have been you, Theodore.  I miss you so. We will carry on for you.

 

At Sagamore the Chief lies low–

Above the hill in circled row

The whirring airplanes dip and fly

A guard of honor from the sky;–

Eagle to guard the Eagle, –Woe

Is on the world.  The people go

With listless footstep, blind and slow;–

For one is dead — who shall not die —

At Sagamore.

 

Oh!  Land he loved, at last you know

The son who served you well below,

The prophet voice, the visioned eye,

Hold him in ardent memory,

For one is gone — who shall not go —

From Sagamore!*

 

*Poem from My Brother Theodore Roosevelt by Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, Scribner’s, 1920.

I am available beginning in the fall to present this narrative in costume for schools and civic groups at no charge.  Contact me in the comment section if interested!

Calf Rassling

This is the first person account of a wild and wooly family camping trip in the late Nineteenth Century.  I presented it this summer as Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, Theodore’s younger sister, close to the place where it happened.

Model of the Elkhorn Ranch House near Medora, North Dakota.

In the late summer of 1890, Mr. Robinson and I, my sister Anna and our friend Bob Ferguson accompanied my brother and his wife Edith back to his ranch in Medora. We arrived by train at four in the morning, it being dark and very muddy from the rain. We made the 40 mile trip to the ranch by wagon, fording the Little Missouri River 23 times before we got there.

Our day at the cattle round-up was one of the most fascinating days of my life. We lunched at the wagon, galloped across the grassy plateaus, and sat under the cottonwood trees by the banks of the river.

On the last day, Will Merrifield and Sylvane Ferris planned a surprise for my brother and my husband. One had shown me the method of throwing a calf, and the other taught me how to rope it.  About 3 o’clock all members of our party and the cowboys were invited to sit on the fence of the corral and watch.

With a severe rain the evening before, it was mud walled in by a fence, with only one animal – the calf – inside. Will announced me very much like a circus rider used to be introduced by Barnum and Bailey.

Well, the calf, which was an unpleasant size, started galloping. I, knee deep in mud, galloped after it. I achieved roping it its neck. I got close enough to throw myself across its back, still running, and the cowboys yelled, “Stay with him!” The sound of their laughter still rings in my ears. I remember the jellified feeling like it was yesterday. I grabbed the calf’s left leg with my right arm. There was one terrible lurch and the calf fell over on its head in the mud. All sensation left me and I only remember being lifted up, encase in an armor of oozing dirt, and being carried on the shoulders of the cowboys to the ranch house.

Years later, when the owner of the Elkhorn Ranch had become the President of the United States, I was receiving with him and his wife at the White House. I was attired in black velvet and white plumes on my hat, when I recognized the figure of Will Merrifield.

He said, “Well now, Mrs. Douglas, it’s a sight for sore eyes to see you again. The last time I laid eyes on you, you were standing on your head in that muddy corral with your legs waving in the air!”

 

 

 

Taking TR to the People

The quandry of how to get more people interested in history continues.  Everyone needs to realize that knowing names, places, and dates is just not the same as digging into fascinating lives which made our country what it is.  So last weekend in Medora, North Dakota, the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation hosted the third annual “Gathering of TRs.”

My husband and I were happy to plan a free cabin-building workshop for children on Sunday afternoon (TR’s reconstructed “Maltese Cross Ranch Cabin” sits just outside the National Park Service visitor center there).  Twenty excited kids of various ages put together the scale models to get a feel for the place where a future president lived.  A few had help from someone very familiar with it.

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Most of the weekend was devoted to re-enactors who came from far and wide to showcase Theodore Roosevelt’s ideals and accomplishments, but they were not all him.  Edith Roosevelt was there, as well as their youngest son, Quentin.  University of North Dakota student Austin Artz received a standing ovation from the Old Time Theatre’s  packed house.

Julia Marple, Austin Artz, and Larry Marple as Edith, Quentin, and Theodore Roosevelt

The person in the selfie below took a turn as Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, telling stories about her older brother.  Used to presenting historical figures in classroom venues, she was taken by surprise when the stage lights prevented her from seeing the audience.  But they asked good questions, and it was even more enjoyable to be part of a discussion panel at the end of the day.

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.