Alice Hathaway Lee, Theodore Roosevelt's First Love
"If a poem could live and breathe, its title would be Alice Hathaway Lee."
So says Theodore Roosevelt when he meets Alice Hathaway Lee in If a Poem Could Live and Breathe by Mary Calvi, a biographical novel about Theodore Roosevelt's first love. Calvi takes readers deep into the tender recesses of two hearts during a time of innocence, to an era when love seemed more sacred and a mere kiss could send a young couple to the moon and back.
By all accounts, it was love at first sight for 19-year-old Theodore when he met Alice, a Boston socialite. Even before we turn to page one, however, we know how their story ends.
Spoiler alert: In my posts I usually take readers only so far into the featured novel. Not this time. In the case of Alice and Theodore, we've read the history books. We know they marry. We know Alice dies days after giving birth to their first child.
What we don’t know is how Theodore and Alice fell in love. How did meeting one another transform each of them? And most intriguing to me, who was this young woman who so captivated this ambitious, vibrant man that after she died, he couldn’t bear to say or hear her name for the rest of his life?
Through fiction Mary Calvi gives us a glimpse into these questions. In addition, we see another fascinating side of Theodore Roosevelt, one that doesn’t necessarily align with the Bull Moose, the Lion, the Trustbuster, the man who charged San Juan Hill with his unit of Roughriders, the strong arm who spoke softly and carried a big stick. With Alice Hathaway Lee, Theodore Roosevelt seems none of these things. Instead, he is an unabashed romantic.
It’s believed Theodore Roosevelt’s love for Alice Hathaway Lee and the heart-wrenching pain of her untimely death influenced him deeply, thus, one could argue, his many legacies, making Alice an important historical figure. Little, however, has been known about her. Until now. One of Mary Calvi’s sources of information for crafting this story is a newly discovered cache of letters between Alice and Theodore, letters never before seen by the public. Historians believed Theodore had destroyed their correspondence, making where this collection of letters has been stored somewhat of a mystery. Calvi's theory is that Theodore and Alice’s daughter, Alice, may have kept the letters in her private possession. After having been passed down through the ages, they were eventually donated to the Houghton Library at Harvard, where Calvi found them waiting for someone to bring them to light. The letters remain in pristine condition.
Another compelling aspect of If a Poem Could Live and Breathe is Calvi’s decision to tell this amazing story through both Alice and Theodore’s points of view. In addition to the letters, Theodore kept a diary, as did many people in his day, men and women alike, allowing Calvi access to his very soul. Calvi uses the journal along with the letters to weave a story rich in history and brimming with emotion.
The novel opens in Cowboy Land, North Dakota in 1884 at a ranch Theodore bought just before he and Alice married. The Badlands. It’s winter. Alice has been dead for nearly a year. An inconsolable Theodore stares out his window. His searing sadness juxtaposed against the desolatation of the prairie is chilling:
"The cold broods so mercilessly, the once-golden prairie ices into a bed of frosted steel. Still and silent, the lands idle, until a whoosh sounds, drawing me to the window. A cluster of scrub pines sways outside my cabin. Leaning against the pane, I feel the freeze on my cheek as I close my eyes and listen. Glassy branches touch one another, chiming like the chords of an Aeolian harp—ethereal notes sinking, rising, floating. The melody evokes memories of the first day I saw Alice Hathaway Lee, when she moved with such elegance the word itself could not have known the depth of its own meaning. The breeze calms, the music quiets. I remain motionless. Where has she gone?" 
Readers then go back in time to October 1878, where the story shifts to Alice’s point of view. Alice is visiting her cousins’ estate outside of Boston. A member of Boston’s Brahmins, Alice is buttoned down and laced up in the way her society demands. Through her interiority, we see that she knows her place, she knows her role, and she hates it. At 17 she's restless, curious about the world, and suspect over her likely future. Alice wants something more than what her class of people expect of her but cannot name it. She knows what she doesn’t want; she doesn’t want the life waiting for her after her debutante ball when she turns 18 the following summer.
The topic under discussion with her cousins is whether to admit women to Harvard, not on the same campus, but in a separate, women-only annex. Her male cousin and one of his visiting classmates from Harvard deem the idea “a questionable experiment.” We quickly learn that Alice is a modern girl when she accuses them of “ancient prejudice.” Why shouldn’t women be admitted? Alice secretly desires a career but hardly dares dream of such things. It simply isn’t done. But if women could attend Harvard…
The subject changes when her cousin tells Alice another friend of his from Harvard is coming for a visit. There’s a strike against him in all of their opinions: he’s a Knickerbocker from New York, a step below the Boston Brahmins. Calvi then introduces 19-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, known to his friends as Theo, painting him first as the passionate naturalist he truly was.
Calvi's prose is elegant throughout the novel. Theodore's reaction to Alice following one of their early encounters is a prime example:
"Theodore gazed at beauty from a distance. She looked fair as a maiden stepping from the pages of literature. All four seasons collided within this lady of singular loveliness whose sway shifted gingerly like a falling leaf in autumn, whose gown shone brightly like shimmering flakes of winter snow, whose gait traveled lightly like the morning spring air, and whose aura glowed radiantly as summer rays off still waters. Watching grace from afar and thinking it wondrous, Theodore’s heart tipped a beat faster." 
The novel continues to go back and forth between Alice and Theodore, periodically forwarding to the future where Theodore is waiting out his sorrow in the Badlands after Alice has died. This story-telling device works beautifully for blending the couple’s initial impressions of one another, how their love blooms and begins to mature over the next six years, and how Alice’s loss devastates Theodore.
The budding romance between Theodore and Alice isn’t all this novel offers. Other things that make for splendid reading are images and anecdotes regarding 19th century luxury enjoyed by America's upper crust during the Gilded Age. Rooms filled with elaborate flower arrangements, magnificent table settings, lavish menus, breath-taking dresses, glittering ballrooms, Alice’s sapphire engagement ring. Jokes of the day. Historical tidbits that make the reader smile. A trip, even, to Harvard’s exclusive Porcellian Club. Theodore knows Alice supports equality for women, and he is determined to show her he agrees with her (a sign, perhaps, of her early influence on his thinking). To prove it, he defies the Porcellian’s no women policy and takes Alice there to dine, making her the first woman ever to do so.
A secondary storyline I enjoyed is while Alice is falling in love with Theodore, she is also falling in love with the idea of going to Harvard. Off the page we briefly meet two side figures—catnip for historical fiction lovers. Both inspire Alice. Abigail Leach is the first woman to attempt to enroll at Harvard. She is already studying under Harvard professors. Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz, married to the famous naturalist Louis Agassiz who recently discovered the ice age, is leading the campaign to enroll women at Harvard.
Sadly, Alice’s mother thwarts her application to be one of the first women to attend Harvard. Alice is sickly from time to time, it is not clear why, making her mother overly protective. Theodore, however, remains Alice’s steadfast supporter. When chosen to speak at Harvard’s commencement, he advocates openly and forcefully for equal rights for women in his speech. Knowing it would take another forty years for women to gain suffrage shows just how forward-thinking Theodore and Alice were, and how willing Theodore was even then to challenge convention.
The wedding nears, and the couple’s ardor increases. Theodore is a poetic man whose emotional waters run deep. Cocksure on the outside, reflective on the inside, he is as invincible as he is vulnerable. Three months before their wedding, he writes in his diary:
"How I love her! and I would trust her to the end of the world. Whatever trouble comes upon me—losses or griefs or sickness—I know she will only be more true and loving and tender than ever; she is so radiantly pure and good and beautiful that I almost feel like worshipping her. Not one thing is ever hidden between us. No matter how long I live I know my love for her will only grow deeper and tenderer day by day; and she shall always be mistress over all that I have." 
Theodore and Alice had agreed to not see each other until their wedding day, so Theodore goes that summer to North Dakota. The wait is long. From North Dakota he writes:
"My Dearest Love, You are too good to write me so often, when you have so much to do; I hope you are not all tired out with the work. But at any rate you will have complete rest, and then you shall do just as you please in every thing. Oh my darling, I do so hope and pray I can make you happy. I shall try very hard to be as unselfish and sunny tempered as you are, and I shall save you from every care I can. My own true love, you have made my happiness almost too great; and I feel I can do so little for you in return. I worship you so that it seems almost desecration to touch you; and yet when I am with you I can hardly let you a moment out of my arms. My purest queen, no man was worthy of your love; but I shall try very hard to deserve it, at least in part. Goodbye, my own heart’s darling." 
Alice responds with equal affection:
"My dearest Teddy, I have been so tired all day that I have again put off my writing till night. I was not tired from sitting up late but very early this morning. I did not sleep much after that. We have had a great change in the weather. Teddykins, I do so wish that you were here, we could have gone for a nice walk this afternoon, to see the surf which I know you would have enjoyed. Teddy, I long so for some nice quiet little evenings with you alone; it makes me so homesick to think I shall not see you for so long, for I love to be with you so much. Don’t you think I am pretty good to write you every day? I suppose you laugh and say, these funny letters, they sound just like Alice. Good night and sweet dreams." 
Theodore and Alice marry on October 27, 1880, Theodore’s birthday. Joy is theirs at last. After a five-month honeymoon in Europe, they move to New York so he can attend law school at Columbia. At this time he also begins his career in politics when he is elected as a New York state assemblyman. His platform: reform labor laws, outlaw racial segregation, advance park and forestry programs, and take on corrupt politicians. He was just 23.
In time Alice becomes pregnant. Near the date of delivery, Theodore is in Albany for a legislative session. Alice delivers the baby on February 12. He receives a telegram and rushes home. Two days later, Alice dies in his arms. It’s Valentine’s Day, 1884. The child is named Alice Lee Roosevelt. Sadly, Theodore’s beloved mother dies the very same day as his wife, doubling his grief.
What is hard to understand is that for the rest of his life, Theodore Roosevelt seemed determined to erase Alice Hathaway Lee from his memory. Why?
Who was Alice Hathaway Lee?
While researching Alice, I found very little information about her, which is why Calvi’s novel is so fascinating. Even in the three biographies about Theodore Roosevelt sitting on my bookshelves that I’d previously read, Alice seems inconsequential. What we do know is this. In Mornings on Horseback, historian and biographer David McCullough wrote:
"She [Alice] was, by every surviving account, extraordinarily attractive, slender, graceful in her movements, and ‘rather tall’ for a girl of that era, five feet seven, which meant that with shoes on she was as tall as he [Theodore]. Her hair was a honey-blond and done in fashionable ‘water-curls’ about her temples, in ‘the Josephine look.’ Her eyes were extremely blue, her nose just slightly tilted. She is described repeatedly as ‘radiant,’ ‘bright,’ ‘cheerful,’ ‘sunny,’ ‘high-spirited,’ ‘enchanting,’ ‘full of life,’ the same words one finds in the descriptions of Mittie Bullock [Theodore’s mother] at that age. She loved games, as Mittie did; she wore white; she was full of humor and flirtatious (‘bewitching,’ Theodore said); her birthday was in July, as Mittie’s was." 
And that’s about it. Other than historians saying she likely died after childbirth from undiagnosed Bright's disease (a kidney disease), we learn little else of Alice, nothing about who she really was—a thinking woman with hopes and dreams of her own. There isn’t even a picture of Alice in McCullough's biography. McCullough stated, however, that when Theodore decided he was in love with Alice and knew she was The One, he was known to wander through the woods around Cambridge at night, sleepless, obsessing about her, worrying someone would run off with her before he could marry her. He even ordered a set of French dueling pistols, which he managed to get through customs. 
Clearly, Alice had a hold on young Theodore.
McCullough isn’t the only biographer guilty of overlooking Alice. In The Wilderness Warrior, Douglas Brinkley included only a handful of benign references to Alice. In Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris, the author provided three references to Alice—three—and even then she is simply “Roosevelt’s first wife.”
Then again, we can hardly blame these biographers. Theodore Roosevelt didn’t include any mention of Alice many years later when writing his own autobiography. I can understand why, given how forcefully he grieved. I respect the depth of his sorrow. Perhaps his wound never healed. And speculation is, Theodore’s second wife, Edith Carow, may have influenced this glaring omission. Either way, it seems we can lay at least some responsibility for the way history has ignored Alice at Theodore’s feet.
If a Poem Could Live and Breathe ends the same as it begins, with Theodore in Cowboy Land. It’s summer, 1886, two years from when the book opens and almost three years since Alice has died. Theodore’s hidden himself in the Badlands the entire time mourning until one day, this heartbroken man acknowledges he must move on. Calvi writes:
"I miss her today. I missed her yesterday and all the days since that day more than two years ago when she was in my arms, and I did not want her to go, and I begged her to breathe. Breathe, Alice. Breathe.
I travel now with no light but that of the stars as the westering moon sinks out of sight. My horse treads his own way down to the creek bottom, which is sometimes filled with quicksand or mud holes… If I have learned anything from being here, it is that courage is not having the strength to go on; it is going on when you don’t have the strength. Today, I shall go home." 
Theodore Roosevelt is purported to have often said he would never have been president were it not for his experience in North Dakota.
Alice, it would appear, surely deserves more than a footnote in history. I reached out to Calvi, a well-known journalist and anchor for WCBS-TV and weekend anchor of Inside Edition, to see how she thinks the cache of letters, which she says in this interview on CBS Mornings were “hiding in plain sight,” might change what we know and understand about Alice going forward. “Finding letters from the 1800s written by women is quite rare,” she noted in our email exchange. “Often, the correspondence of women was not saved and certainly not preserved, as were the writings of Alice. Being able to spend time with the originals certainly gave me a renewed sense of Alice's importance in Theodore Roosevelt's young life, even down to the career path he chose to follow after Harvard College.”
I couldn’t help but also ask Calvi how Alice’s letters might impact the way in which the world views Alice’s historical relevance, namely her impact on Theodore Roosevelt. “For many years,” Calvi stated, “the research on Alice has remained capped. With these letters and documents, researchers will have a new opportunity to study the significance of Alice Hathaway Lee on Theodore Roosevelt’s pivotal years.”
Only time will tell.
I hope you’ll pick up a copy of If a Poem Could Live and Breathe. If you do, let me know what you think of it. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Historical fiction readers are indebted to Mary Calvi for giving Alice Hathaway Lee a voice and for bringing her story to light in such an eloquent manner.
By the way, if you like this sort of historical fiction, Calvi has a prior book, Dear George, Dear Mary, a novel about George Washington’s first love, Mary Eliza Philipse. You can be sure it’s on my reading list.
If you'd like my next post delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to sign up below.
Thanks for reading. I’m glad you’re here.
 Mary Calvi, If a Poem Could Live and Breathe (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2023), p 3.  ibid, p 30.  ibid, pp 243-44.  ibid, pp 256-7.  ibid, pp 257.  David McCullough, Mornings on Horseback (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2001), p. 226.  David McCullough, Mornings on Horseback (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2001).  Mary Calvi, If a Poem Could Live and Breathe (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2023), p 295/298.