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.

Mittie (Part Two)

Martha Bulloch Roosevelt’s mother, who never wanted to know of a Union victory, passed away before Lee surrendered.  Then came the day when seven-year-old Theodore and six-year-old Elliott watched Lincoln’s funeral procession from their other grandparents’ mansion on Union Square.  As if to physically lift the gloom of the previous four years, Mittie redecorated the  townhouse on East 20th Street.  She had the haircloth parlor furniture covered in blue damask.  Brighter wallpaper, draperies, and carpets replaced the neutral backgrounds of the past.

The parlor at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace today reflects the stylish choices Mittie made after the war.  National Park Service photo.

Mittie was more beautiful than ever.  Still the belle, she wore white in every season because her husband, Thee, liked to see her in it.  Two of her brothers who’d fought with the Confederacy had moved to England and she desperately wanted to visit them.  So in the spring of 1869, the family left by steamboat for Europe.  It was the first of two year-long Grand Tours they would take.

During the first trip, they had a happy reunion with the Bullochs and saw the Old World in style.  Art galleries, museums, zoos, famous castles and cathedrals provided lessons for the children.  Thee and Mittie had supper with titled ladies and gentlemen at the estate of the Duke of Devonshire; they all loved hiking in the fresh air of the Alps.

On the second trip, which began in 1872, they rode a houseboat down the Nile River where teenaged Theodore quenched his thirst for bird hunting.  They camped in tents in the Holy Land and took in the Vienna Exposition, of which Thee was an American commissioner.   Then he returned home to work and oversee the building of a new house close to Central Park.  Mittie and Bamie headed to Carlsbad for mineral baths and to Paris for shopping; the youngest three stayed with a German family to study.  When all were reunited at home, it was the grand new place on West 57th Street.

This photograph of Mittie’s parlor uptown was taken after Elliott’s hunting trip to India, with his tiger rug before the fireplace.  National Park Service photo.

Mittie, according to some, went into a decline of sorts.  Her headaches and digestive troubles lingered.  She had always been fashionably late for carriages that waited in the street, but sometimes she didn’t make it out to them at all.  Bamie often acted as hostess for her father when callers came.  Mittie also had a fettish for cleanliness, insisting that a sheet be put on the floor for doctors who came to see her.

The children grew; Bamie had her debut; summer homes changed; Theodore went to Harvard.  In 1878, his second year there, Thee died of cancer.  Then the children took even greater care of their “little motherling.”  In 1880 Mittie welcomed Theodore’s bride, Alice Lee, into the family, with teas and receptions.  But the end came too soon for Mittie, also, four years later from typhoid fever.  It was an unthinkable double tragedy: Alice died on the same day in the same house.  Perhaps in the midst of the grief for the young mother who would never know her child, there was lost some reflection on the life of the forty-eight-year-old “unreconstructed” lady from the South.

A friend who had known the Bullochs in Georgia observed that Theodore Roosevelt got his splendid “dash” from his mother.  Though Mittie was delicate as a china doll, her influence on her children was great.  Daughter Corinne said simply, “Her devotions wrapped ’round us as with a mantle.”

Mittie (Part One)

She was a dainty, dark-haired southern girl in white.  Her pale complexion seemed to exhale fragrance from the peach trees on Georgia’s hills.  With her blue eyes flashing, she could be funny, poetic or reproachful, but one thing she could never be: a Yankee.  She loved the plantation and its way of life until she died, when they were just memories.

If you are thinking of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, it is not an accident.  For a newspaper story Margaret Mitchell once interviewed a woman nearing ninety who reminisced about dances, picnics, and riding parties before the Civil War.  Evelyn King Baker also told of being a bridesmaid in a beautiful wedding at nearby Bulloch Hall.  It is believed Mitchell used details from that interview in her famous story of the Old South (the movie celebrates its 75th anniversary this year).  In real life, Mrs. Baker had been the attendant in white muslin; Martha Bulloch the vivacious bride in white satin; and Theodore Roosevelt of New York, the groom.  Mr. Roosevelt, she said, was “firm against slavery.”

File:Mittie Bulloch.jpg

National Park Service photo.

Martha was called “Mittie.”  Descended from the Scots, she grew to her adult height of just five feet in a big house fronted with pillars and surrounded by white oaks near Roswell, Georgia.  Besides Mittie’s childhood nurse Mom Grace, her widowed mother owned about twenty slaves who worked in the house and fields.  Theodore Roosevelt, also called “Thee,” came calling in the early 1850s, having heard of Mittie through his brother’s wife.  They courted, and the southern belle and northern gentlemen were married and moved to New York.  Her world changed forever.

In 1854 the Roosevelts moved into a Manhattan townhouse that was a gift from his parents, Cornelius Van Schaach and Margaret Barnhill Roosevelt.  The Roosevelts followed Dutch traditions.  The father and five brothers imported plate glass for city storefronts and buildings elsewhere.  Margaret, herself a gentle Quaker from Pennsylvania, had married into a family different than her own and probably felt empathy for her southern daughter-in-law.  It was a rather stiff group with which to spend Sunday evenings.

Thee and Mittie’s first child was a girl, Anna, also called “Bamie” for “bambino.”  Their second was a little boy who was born on October 27, 1858.  He looked like a terrapin, his mother said to her own mother and sister who’d come to help out.  The son was named Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.  Mittie couldn’t bear for her family to return to Georgia and pleaded with them to stay.   So they did.  They remained in New York City for the births of two more babies, a son, Elliott, in 1860 and a daughter, Corinne, in 1861.  By the last child’s September arrival, the nation was at war.

How did three southern women cope with that?  They were caught, living with the people who were destroying their past.  But Mittie loved Thee, and it was his love for her that kept him from enlisting as he wanted to (a decision that he later regretted).  He thought it would destroy her if he fought against her brothers.  He hired two substitutes in his place and joined the home guard.  Then he helped create the Allottment Commission, which urged soldiers to send some of their pay home to their families instead of wasting it on sutlers.  While Thee was away in Washington and various fighting fields talking to troops, Grandmama, Mittie and her sister Anna sent supplies past the Union blockade to their family.  Then came news that General Sherman’s army had surrounded Bulloch Hall.  It was spared, probably because of a Masonic emblem on the house.  Soldiers on the offense could not burn the home of a fraternal brother, even if he lived on the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Bulloch Hall today.
In the meantime the children were growing and learning.  Aunt Annie was their tutor, teaching them letters and numbers, but more special, telling stories as their mother did about the Georgia home.  The sisters were experts at mimicry and music.  They spent long evenings remembering their old way of life for the children who would never see it.  There were mysterious tales of slave quarters, Indian fighters, men of valor, and duels.  The strain of life far from her people’s sympathies and four rambunctious children with various infirmities took its toll on Mittie, but she stayed a vibrant force in everyone’s lives.  Soon she would, along with her husband and children, become a traveler and connoisseur of the world.
Don’t miss Ken Burns’ new documentary, The Roosevelts, which begins on PBS this Sunday, September 14!


Today, a little break from the sepia tones of the Nineteenth Century.  Writing a book on a teenaged ornithologist-turned-president, I couldn’t help but learn more about birds.  So I’m adding some color provided by technology Teedie didn’t have, and his notes about their winged ancestors.  The images you’re looking at are from the blog of a biology professor, Sue, in Minnesota.  You can see more “Backyard Biology'” at  Thank you, Sue, for letting me share your wonderful work!

The teenaged Theodore observed loons diving in Oyster Bay off the northern shore of Long Island.  If one was alarmed, he said that it would sink its body beneath the water, leaving only head and neck exposed.

baby barn swallow

When Teedie was eight, about forty migrating barn swallows flew into the open windows of the summer house where the Roosevelts were staying.  He reported proudly in his first diary that he rounded them up and sent them back out to their flight south.

You get the idea.

Paul Cutright’s book, Theodore Roosevelt, the Making of a Conservationist, gives fascinating details, such as places that specimens from Theodore’s bird collection were sent. While the bulk of them went to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, others were traded to museums and individuals worldwide.  The skin of a red-winged blackbird, the Agelius phoeniceus, wound up in the Museum of Natural History in Paris.

With feathery plumes draped over its shoulder, this heron was not happy with me creeping up on it.

The young naturalist took taxidermy lessons from an associate of John James Audubon and preserved his birds himself.  He wrote to his sister in 1875, “At present I am writing in a rather smelly room, as the fresh skins of six night herons are reposing on the table beside me.”


One spring before going to college Theodore wrote, “The trees and shrubs are in full blossom and the fields are even more verdant than they were…above all, the birds have come back.”  He woke to the beautiful sound of the wood thrush, and also listened to the “sweet, plaintive” notes of the bluebird, above.  Since his eyes were weak, he developed a keen sense of hearing, and invented his own code for birdsongs.

Male and female look alike and both can make the

“Such horrible noises,” he said in one of many notebooks he kept in his youth.  “I do not think you can ever walk in any wood where there are catbirds without promptly being informed of their presence by the monotonous and exasperating ‘pay pay’…”

This was one of the combatants, proudly defending his small stretch of trees from other singing males.

Theodore thought the American redstart was vivacious, with its call of “zee zee zee zee zee!”  When I discovered I could not use my daughter’s snowy owl photo on the cover of my book due to copyright restrictions, I chose Sue’s excellent shot of the redstart for a replacement.  Theodore Roosevelt was also American first of all.  Spots of brightness attracted others to him; he liked to talk.  He was always looking up to better things.  And his life was a series of crisscrossing themes, like the twigs on the branch in the background.

Have birds since his time noticed the change caused by humans?  Space for their homes is limited, and air and water are certainly not as clean today.  There are more and more people interfering with the environment.  TR’s bold action to conserve land for his generation, their children’s children, and the bird and animal life he loved is one of his many legacies.

Reading, Writing, and Roosevelt

When you gather a lot of information, there’s always some left on the cutting room floor, so to speak .  Because I’m a teacher, I began tagging things I’d read about Theodore Roosevelt’s language development; some I used in my book and some I didn’t.  I rolled snippets together into a chapter at the end.  Although my favorite part of The Amazing Bird Collection of Young Mr. Roosevelt is always going to be the chapter about Theodore and his friend, Fred, the one about how he became a “literary feller,” the author of countless speeches, magazine articles and over thirty books, comes in a close second.

Why do some children learn to read sooner than others?  Why are there excellent readers who would rather do something else?  How is writing learned?  Is it a gift?  Is it hampered by strict adherance to mechanics and grammar?  Should boys and girls be required to sit and write during the same period every day at school?  And where does speaking fit into that picture?

If I had all the right answers I’d be Education Czar of America and we’d be a nation of Ernest Hemingways.  But a few years in the classroom helped me note what Theodore had in common with the best of them: speakers, readers, and writers.

TR Family Members

Theodore Roosevelt Sr. (National Park Service photo)

His parents were role models.  Theodore Roosevelt Sr. (Thee) loved to read.  He would recite chapters of scripture to his future mother-in-law when he was courting Martha (Mittie) in antebellum Georgia.  Mittie was a wonderful storyteller herself and later enchanted her children with tales of her childhood and ancestors.  They both treasured books, of which there were many in the home’s library.

They read a variety of materials.  One of the children’s favorites was a magazine called Our Young Folks, which exposed them to authors of classics and values of the Victorian Era.

DSCN0484 (2)

(Author photo)

Poetry was important to their thinking.  They memorized it, the rhyme and rhythm of the words becoming second nature to them.

The family constantly wrote letters.  In the days before telephones and even typewriters, they communicated by writing longhand in cursive, which, by the way, was carefully developed.  They took time to think and organize their thoughts on paper.

The children were exposed to many people, ideas, and great architecture and art.  They were fortunate enough to go with their family on two year-long tours of Europe after the Civil  War.

They were given blank books to compose stories in, take notes in, and keep diaries.

Teedie’s  first diary.  Note his use of specific measurements.  (National Park Service photo)

They played word games for fun.  Crambo was a favorite, in which they’d make up rhymes about each other.

Theodore wrote about what interested him.  He learned more about science from a taxidermist and two uncles who were specialists in conservation and medicine.

Theodore’s young life was full of “being there” experiences, literally a series of what we would call field trips.  Especially notable were his ventures into the outdoors at their summer houses.  Then he could, as we’re still urged today, “Write about what you know.”

The children belonged to literary clubs.  Some were girls only, some were boys and girls, but they met to read each other’s writing and had studio pictures taken of their small groups.  Selfies in a writing club today would be fun, don’t you think?

 The Dresden American Literary Club: Theodore, brother Elliott, cousin Maude, sister Corinne, and cousin Johnny.  (National Park Service photo)
I hope these observations are helpful for someone working with a struggling reader, which I once was.  While physical limitations do play into literacy, there are some things, most of all a LOVE for books and language, that can be given without danger of overdose.  It won’t matter if the reading or writing is done on a thin piece of wood pulp, or on an electronic screen.

Henry Adams’ Salon

The Amazing Bird Collection of Young Mr. Roosevelt ends with Theodore’s entrance to college.  The ten years previous to that event had been, for the most part, an tranquil period of growth in his theatre of family and friends.

Henry Adams was teaching medieval history at Harvard when the teenager landed on campus in 1876.  Adams had experimented with the seminar system, having a half-dozen students read for themselves and discuss/debate rather than giving a straight lecture to them himself.  He reportedly said to a student with a question, “How should I know?  Look it up!”  The Brahmin professor invited the Knickerbocker Roosevelt to dine at his home on at least one occasion during his freshman year.

If there was such a thing as American blue blood, it ran in the Adams family.  Henry’s great-grandfather and grandfather were presidents, and his father was ambassador to England during the Civil War.  Henry worked as his secretary.

Adams in 1858, when Theodore Roosevelt was born.  Photo: Massachusetts Historical Society.
With practical experience abroad observing matters of state, Henry moved on to political writing in Washington, D.C.  An intellectual (“You shoot over the heads of most people,” his father admonished), Henry said that Ulysses S. Grant would have seemed archaic even to cave men.  His wit and word orchestrations served him well as editor of the National Review.  By 1889 when Theodore Roosevelt came to Washington as a civil service commissioner, Henry had been to Boston and back.  His wife died in a tragic manner, but he eventually resumed having friends over for food and conversation.

The mansions of Henry Adams and John Hay on H Street.  An elegant hotel, the Hay-Adams, now occupies the site.  Washington Life Magazine photo.

Henry’s neighbor was best friend and equally short-in-stature John Hay.  Hay had been secretary to Lincoln during the Civil War and co-authored his biography.  He would later serve as Secretary of State under Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt.  The Hays, Henry Cabot Lodges, Donald Camerons, and Roosevelts, all political insiders, were regular company.  At a time when women were constrained by more than corsets and floor-sweeping skirts, the ladies took as much part in the talk as the men.  Other close friends were geologist Clarence King, British diplomat Cecil Spring-Rice, and artists Augustus Saint-Gaudens and John La Farge.

Across the decades the gang that John Hay found so happy knew more than a few others: Henry Hobson Richardson, Mark Twain, Henry James, Walt Whitman, Rudyard Kipling, Edith Wharton, Horace Greeley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Matthew Arnold, and the royal family of Tahiti.  Henry said that his circle’s alliance “was undisturbed by power or patronage,” for neither first family Harrison nor Cleveland shared the same interests.

Adams and Hay were condescending to the brash young Roosevelt behind his back.  In ten years when Theodore became president, he invited Henry across Lafayette Square to his mansion for dinner.  Henry complained the occasion was like a boys’ school out of control, and later assigned two words to the chief executive: “pure act.”  With his wealth Henry could pursue whatever he wanted, and continued to write and travel.  His nine-volume history of the United States during the Jefferson and Madison administrations is a classic, as are his novels and autobiography.  The latter, written in third person, won a Pullitzer Prize the year after he died.

Massachusetts Historical Society photo.

One of the places I’d like to go back in history to is a Sunday morning breakfast at Henry Adams’ house in the early 1890s.  Providing a forum for pliable minds is a wonderful gift.  Isn’t that what teachers do?  Adams was irreplaceable as a patron of the age, and even though he wouldn’t say so, as a teacher.

Now if I could just find his menus.

A blog of this length about a man with so many insights into history has limits. For more reading, and more tangents, try Henry Adams, a Biography by Elizabeth Stevenson; The Five of Hearts, An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends 1880-1918 by Patricia O’Toole (a near-miss for a Pullitzer); and especially his self-summary, The Education of Henry Adams.

Describe It

There’s a certain fluffy creature, a white near-mammal, almost bear, somewhat human looking.  It is actually a large, stuffed bird. Its yellow eyes gleam above a feather-covered beak that follows the curve of its face. Wispy gaiters show little of the claws beneath. The wings, too, are covertly tucked in at its sides; if it could spread them out again, they would measure six feet from tip to tip. When young, before using those wings, the bear-bird was a little gray koala-colored ball, hopping along the Arctic tundra, seeming at any moment to lose its balance and go rolling down a hill.

snowy owl vertical

It took several weeks to get that paragraph the way I wanted it, to describe an object I thought represented Theodore Roosevelt’s bird collection (he stuffed and mounted it in 1876), which in turn represented his education.  You see above a photo my daughter took of the snowy owl in its glass case at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I’d studied it on other visits. But at the time she took this photograph I was sitting on a bench in Roosevelt Hall in the midst of a gazillion other visitors on Spring Break, my head tilted toward the ceiling, trying to stop a Niagra of a nosebleed (probably brought on by the depleted oxygen supply).

In my book, I tell why the arctic owls flew south that year, and that, “Theodore brought down a beautiful one…”  This statement made at least one person report to me that he winced while reading it.  I understand what he means.  But now, as the bird’s contemporaries are dust, a form of him stands for his species (and a boy naturalist) to the world.  I hope the sacrifice was not too great.

I didn’t get much chance to look at the beautiful bird of history that day.  The point is, it was in my mind to share, and  I did.   It’s still there in a public place for all to see, study, and think about.

As a new school year begins and students everywhere are being challenged again to become better writers, here are a few thoughts.  A description can work for you at the beginning, end, or other part of a story.  Among authors of children’s books, Laura Ingalls Wilder was good at descriptions because when she was young, she had to find the right words to tell her blind sister what things looked like.  So, show instead of tell, use figurative language or sensory words or onomatopoeia, and present specific numbers and details.  Give your piece the number of rewrites it deserves.  When you transfer an image to someone else’s mind, make it the best one you can.

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.

Pictures That Didn’t Make The Book

birds from brazilBirdskins from Theodore Roosevelt’s Brazilian expedition of 1914.  He went because it was “his last chance to be a boy,” but narrowly escaped with his life.  The uncharted river the team of scientists explored was named after him.


Is the category “Visually Speaking” an oxymoron?  At any rate, the photographs I used in The Amazing Bird Collection of Young Mr. Roosevelt were a challenge on several fronts.  First of all, there are not many available of Theodore for the time period I wrote about.  Next, there were a few for which I wanted permission, but could never quite reach the right person to get it from.  Then I had a time getting the 30+ images formatted and electronically turned over to the publisher.  It was a large file — thank goodness for some expert tech help.

I’m sharing these, which were taken by photographer Amy Griffin, for those who always want to know a little bit more of the story.  Would that be you?

endangered birds

Extinct passenger pigeon on display at the American Museum of Natural History.  Theodore collected one before they were endangered, and recorded it in the notebook at the top of this blog (Ectopistis migratorius).  He was probably the last person to see them in the wild, in 1907.


mom tr statue bench

Private audience with TR/Day at the Museum.


St. Phillips

St. Philip’s Church in Garrison, NY, where the stained glass window in memory of the Osborn children, Fred and Virginia, still quietly filters the sun’s rays.  Their parents and brothers rest in the cemetery here.


Wing & Wing May 2013 Color

Wing and Wing, where Theodore visited his naturalist friend, Fred.



 Six West 57th St. in Manhattan as it looks today.  The Roosevelt family lived at this address from 1872 to 1884, but the home was razed early in the Twentieth Century.  Theodore’s teenaged friends met with him here as “The Natural History Society.”  Across the street on the former site of the Vanderbilt mansion is now the Bergdorf-Goodman department store.

Five Funny Stories About Young Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt had an infectious personality and told lots of funny stories.  He also was the subject of reminiscences by family and friends.

1. His father, the first Theodore Roosevelt, was concerned about the health of his children and wanted them to get as much fresh air as possible.  So at the back of their brownstone in New York City, he removed a wall from a second story bedroom to make an open porch. The two boys and two girls went out on pleasant days to exercise. According to older sister Anna, one day a neighbor happened to look up to see nine-year-old “Teedie,” as he was called, on the end of a seesaw.  He, on the far seat, and his cousin, on the seat closest the house, were balancing it on the railing two stories up! The neighbor rushed in to tell his mother, Martha, who went out and firmly pulled the boys in. She said, “If the Lord wanted Theodore, He’d have taken him long before now.”

 “Teedie.”  National Park Service photo.

2. During the family’s second trip abroad when Theodore was fourteen, the three younger children stayed with a German family to learn the country’s culture.  He caught the mumps, though, and his asthma flared up.  His mother came to take them to Switzerland for the mountain air.  They packed, and Theodore told Martha he was ready to go, so she checked his trunk.  It seemed unusually heavy.  He’d removed quite a few articles of clothing and replaced them with large rocks he wanted to study.  The clothes went back in, but he managed to take some smaller rocks along in his pockets.

3. Fred Osborn was a good friend who shared an interest in nature and often invited Theodore to his home near Garrison, New York.  Fred’s brother Henry told of the time the boys were on a walk and doffed their hats as they met the carriage of Hon. Hamilton Fish, the current United States Secretary of State, and his wife.  A frog jumped from Theodore’s head to the ground, having been stored under the hat because his pockets were full.

4. Theodore hunted birds and game in the Adirondack Mountains.  At fifteen he was guided around St. Regis Lake by a man named Mose Sawyer.  To show appreciation after the trip, Theodore gave him two stuffed birds preserved with arsenic.  Unfortunately, the birds, and Mose’s cat which ate them, did not last long.


Theodore at sixteen.  Harvard University photo.

5. He was shy in his teens though he attended social events such as dancing parties. At the family’s summer home in Oyster Bay, Long Island, Theodore liked to take girls out for rowboat rides. His sister Corinne wrote about an early morning when he rowed to a dock close to a girl’s house.  As it was several hours before he said he’d be there and no one was around, he undressed to go for a swim.  Then he crawled under the dock and took a nap.  He woke up to the sound of two girls talking on the boards above his head.  Too late he realized the boat had drifted away with his clothes in it, and had to wait until they left before he could finally swim to the boat and his clothes, and return home.

All right, I have one more, but it is not about the young Theodore.

When he was grown, he and two guides took a hunting trip in Idaho. He had a camera with him and wanted to photograph a particularly beautiful waterfall. To get closer, he asked the men to lower him over a cliff with one end of a long rope tied around his waist and the other end anchored to a tree. He took the picture and signaled for them to pull him back up. They pulled. And they pulled. And they pulled.  None of their efforts could raise him. He was dangling so far above the river that it would have been dangerous to cut the rope, and finally they decided the only thing to do was double a shorter rope and tie it to the first to get him closer to the water. One of the men ran down to the shore where Theodore tossed the camera to him; the other cut the rope. He fell into the river, bruised but otherwise all right. Does this remind you of the little boy in the first story? One of TR’s friends said, “You must always remember he is about six.”

President Roosevelt at Yosemite, several years after the incident in Idaho.  Harvard University photo.

Sources: Lillian Rixey, Bamie, Theodore Roosevelt’s Remarkable Sister; Frank Russell, Theodore Roosevelt Typical American; Henry Fairfield Osborn, Impressions of Great Naturalists; Paul Russell Cutright, Theodore Roosevelt the Naturalist and Theodore Roosevelt the Making of a Conservationist; and Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, My Brother Theodore Roosevelt.