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Presidential historian details White House weddings

Presidential historian, Doug Wead examines the bonds between presidential fathers and their offspring. Wead, the former special assistant to President George H.W. Bush, analyzes the stresses associated with being the son or daughter of one of the most powerful men in the world. An excerpt from Chapter 10 of "All the Presidents' Children," titled, "White House Weddings." Twenty-one presidential children were married while their fathers served as the nation’s chief executive. Jenna Bush will be number twenty-two. Nine were actually married in White House ceremonies.

Many presidential children had spectacular weddings outside the White House.  After the death of her father, when Fanny Hayes was married in Ohio, the sitting president William McKinley was in attendance, as well his Cabinet. The wedding of Luci Baines Johnson was a national social event, even though it took place at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. And the small, private wedding of Julie Nixon, shortly after her own father had won the presidency, to Dwight David Eisenhower II, himself the grandson and namesake of a president, prompted widespread public interest and curiosity.

Finding the right husband or wife is not an easy task for a presidential child. Quite a few of the earlier presidential children from Maria Hester Monroe to Betsy Harrison married their own first cousins. It was a practice common to remote regions of the American frontier where cousins may have been the only choice. But it was also common among European royals. It is hard to trust newcomers into the power orbit. What are their motives? Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was reportedly “suspicious about girls who showed interest in him.” Cousins were already inside the presidential family circle, and this may partly explain the phenomenon. In today’s United States there is approximately one marriage in a hundred between first cousins. 

Other sons and daughters of presidents have fallen in love with White House or congressional staffers and, in more recent times, military aides or secret service agents assigned to protect them.  Eleanor “Nellie” Wilson married Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo, thus overnight becoming a Cabinet officer’s wife in her father’s own administration. Two presidential daughters fell in love on ocean cruises while their father served in office.  Both had spectacular weddings and both husbands turned out to be womanizers. Dorothy Bush, who is both a daughter and sister of a president, married a congressional aide of the opposing political party. When it comes to finding love, the children of presidents, as in the case of the rest of us, can only look nearby.

My favorite White House wedding was the perfect storm. One of the nations most popular presidents married off one of the most famous presidential daughters. In America it was a time of peace and prosperity and it has been called by history, “America’s wedding.”Alice Lee Roosevelt and "America's wedding"In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt was making a determined effort to end the Russo-Japanese War. He not only valued peace on the Pacific Rim, but also sought an ongoing, special relationship with the Japanese that would guarantee the security of America’s new territorial acquisition, the Philippines. If he could help negotiate the end of the war, he would have it. As in all important diplomatic efforts, its success depended greatly on discretion. He chose his closest ally and Secretary of War William Howard Taft for the mission to Tokyo. And he cloaked the mission in secrecy by announcing an important fact-finding mission to the Philippines. Tokyo would be only one of several national capitals that would be quickly visited on the side. The Philippines, America’s newly-won territory, was the focus.  And to offer one more diversionary factor, he decided to send along his famous daughter, Alice.  It would turn out to be a stroke of genius. 

During the first years of the Roosevelt Administration presidential daughter, Alice, mesmerized the American people. Conservative matrons were shocked by her public smoking, fast cars (which she herself drove), and open flirtations with the opposite sex, often in public, sans chaperone. And yet she was so popular that most preachers dared not rebuke her from their pulpits. Conventions and politicians clamored to have her in attendance. She was toasted at the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the Chicago Horse Show and the St. Louis World’s Fair. The head usher of the White House later wrote that she had a party every night of her stay in the executive mansion. A French journalist predicted that if she kept up the pace, she would collapse.

The president’s gambit worked. Alice Roosevelt was the number one story on the Taft diplomatic junket to the Far East. Alice stole the show so completely that even history has been fooled.  Even if the true purpose of the mission had leaked it is doubtful that it would have moved the president’s daughter off the front pages. She jumped fully clothed into the ship’s swimming pool, talked Hawaiian hula dancers into doing their real, more erotic, version of the dance, and smoked quaint pipes of Japanese tobacco. When she became bored at Philippine banquets she furtively created paths of food, luring the insidious ants to the leg of the banquet table which was soon swarming with the invaders.  Her encounter with the Empress Dowager of China was as frightening and colorful as a scene out of an Indiana Jones movie. Apparently growing jealous of her own interpreter’s ability to talk freely to her famous guest and perhaps sensing in Alice another strong woman, the Empress ordered her interpreter to prostrate himself on the pain of death and to keep his forehead touching the ground throughout the audience. Alice was duly impressed and amused.

Before the trip was over, Alice Roosevelt had successfully exported her brand to the world. So pressing were the crowds and so elaborate the growing entourage trailing her that falling behind Alice could mean getting shut out of the party altogether. Mrs. Taft, wife of the Secretary of War and a future First Lady had to talk her way back into a hotel by saying her husband was traveling with Miss Roosevelt! It had long ceased being a diplomatic mission led by an American cabinet member. It was now the Alice Lee Roosevelt road show. A touring German prince gave her a bracelet, a South Pacific native king proposed that she join his harem and everywhere she went she was feted and presented with beautiful gifts. Teasing relatives and friends back home referred to her as “Alice in plunderland.”

There was another reason the president wanted his daughter onboard the ship to the Philippines. He wanted to give her a “breathing spell,” a chance to get away from the young men besieging the White House. It was an idea reminiscent of President and Mrs. Grant who thirty years before had sent daughter Nellie to Europe lest she fall for one of her Washington suitors and marry too young. And it would have the same result.

Thirty-five-year-old Ohio Congressman Nicholas Longworth had been one of the many Washington men pursuing Alice. He was older, bald, but rich and a saucy raconteur. As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee he wrangled a place on the Taft Philippines junket, giving him the chance to pursue Alice without competition. And Alice, restless as she was, fearful of even a moment of boredom, eventually found time on the long cruise for Nick Longworth. By the time the mission returned to America the romance was on.

When the couple announced a White House wedding for noon on February 17, 1906 the American newspapers went into a frenzy. Speculation over details and other non-news items pushed the ground breaking construction of the Panama Canal off the front pages. Reporters competed furiously for scraps of information, pursuing secretaries, caterers, florists and seamstresses. There was a huge stampede for tickets and invitations. The president’s announcement that it would be a small family affair did nothing to dampen the demand. Alice belonged to the people, and the people seemed to be driving the wedding plans as much as the family. After several rounds of invitations had gone out great political battles developed for the remaining seats, with senators and diplomats weighing in with their arguments in behalf of key constituents or foreign representatives. Even those lucky enough to have an invitation could not settle down. Great questions of protocol arose. Should diplomats and veterans wear their uniforms?  What about their medals? The local flower market was wiped out. One couldn’t find an orchid in the city of Washington.

As wedding gifts began pouring in from foreign heads of state the president was forced to declare an outright ban but some got through early under the radar screen. The Mikado of Japan sent silver vases, King Alfonso of Spain sent antique jewelry, and the Cuban government sent an exquisite string of sixty-two matched pearls with a diamond clasp worth almost a half million dollars in today’s money. The President of France sent a rare Gobelin tapestry that was considered “priceless.” The King of Italy offered a table so large that Alice could never use it.  King Edward VII presented a blue and gold enameled snuffbox with diamonds on the lid.  Pope Pius X presented “a mosaic representing the great paintings in the Vatican.”  The German Kaiser offered a bracelet of diamonds. The most exotic gift and one of Alice’s favorites, was a hand carved teak chest from the Empress Dowager of China.  Determined not to lose face in the international competition, the Empress had secreted in the various compartments dozens of valuable gifts of jewelry, an ermine coat, a fox coat, valuable Chinese paintings and jade carvings.

Common folk sent in gifts of their own and announced clever ploys to wrangle an invitation to the wedding, while the local press heralded the antics of its citizens as human interest stories.  Telegrams arrived from new parents announcing that they had named their babies after Alice.  When a group announced they were raising $800,000 so America’s first daughter could live in style for the rest of her life, the president announced that Alice would not accept it. Most of the gifts Alice Roosevelt never saw and many were still found unopened at her death.

It was a forgone conclusion that the wedding of Alice Lee Roosevelt to Nicolas Longworth would be the greatest event of its kind in American history. There would be almost three times the number of guests that had seen Nellie Grant married, and the scale of preparations and the level of anticipation were unprecedented. In the days just before the wedding the scramble for tickets became so desperate that the president publicly begged for true friends of the family to help ease the pressure by offering to stay home. Public announcements about the parking of carriages and dictating the protocol for the event were carried as major news items, even though they had no utility for the average reader. It was one great vicarious thrill for the whole nation.

The wedding day in the middle of February turned unseasonably sunny and warm. Thousands of people began gathering early outside the White House. Alice woke calmly and looked out her front window with amusement at the gathering throng, including inventive entrepreneurs hawking souvenirs of the wedding couple. Her stepmother nervously pushed her along, convinced that she would not be ready in time.

Since the East Room could not hold the crowd the Grand Hallway and other state rooms had been cleverly employed to offer attendees a spot to witness the ceremony or at least witness the bride on the president’s arm as she passed by. The anxiety of the guests, negotiating the cumbersome arrival and parking process and the crush to get into the White House amidst alarming rumors that they would be unable to honor all the invitations, led to bouts of near hysteria. One woman fainted, but was revived in time to see the ceremony.  Another fainted and was carried out, missing the whole event.

Alice Roosevelt had served as a bridesmaid five times, including at the wedding of her own cousins, Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt. At such events she and her girlfriends loved upstaging the bride, which by her accounting had been an easy chore at Eleanor’s wedding.  Having learned such lessons all too well, Alice decided that there would be no bridesmaids and thus no competition at her own wedding. She would be the leading lady in this performance and no one else. There would be twelve military aides and eight ushers, among them U.S. Grant III, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. and Douglas MacArthur.

Alice Lee Roosevelt was a beautiful young lady, as her pictures attest, and on her wedding day she was at her prime.  But there was more. Alice was a personality that projected intimidating power and self confidence.  And this was her proudest moment. She would walk those few seconds on the arm of her father and no one else, no cantankerous stepmother, or sibling, or busy officeholder would share the limelight. There would be Alice and her father, alone, with the whole world watching, but alone. For those few moments Alice would accomplish what few presidential sons would ever do, for a brief moment in time, she would outshine her father right in the middle of his presidency. 

Having anticipated the moment for weeks, the crowd was nevertheless not ready for what was coming and how it would make them feel. The Marine Band broke into a rousing rendition of the grand march from Tannhauser, and Alice and the president suddenly appeared at the end of the Grand Hallway. They had taken the newly installed elevator from the second floor.  At the sight of Alice, her poise, her twinkling eyes, her pompadour hair style with orange blossoms, her stunning wedding dress with its eighteen foot long train of silver brocade, there were audible gasps. She strode through the Hallway toward the East Room on her father’s arm, perfectly relaxed, her confident humor barely suppressed. Some women guests began to openly weep at the sight, overwhelmed by the pure beauty of the moment, saying later that they had never seen anything like it and knew that they would never do so again.  There was no television or radio in those days and yet vicariously the whole world was watching from afar, a fact that seemed to register with many of the invitees who were privileged to see it all with their eyes.

When the Rev. Henry Yates Satterlee asked, “Who will give the bride away?”  An uncharacteristically subdued President Theodore Roosevelt answered so softly that it was hardly heard. 

One of the most famous anecdotes to emerge from the wedding happened at one of the receptions that immediately followed the ceremony. The story has Alice grabbing a sword from Charlie McCawley, the president’s military aide, and dramatically slicing her own wedding cake. Alice later referred to the incident as an exaggeration. One account says that McCawley actually offered her the sword. In any case, she did apparently use a sword to cut her cake, and the public insisted on believing that “their Alice” had done so in a typical act of fearless, good-natured bravado. And so the picture of Alice spontaneously grabbing a sword and attacking her cake has survived.

The next day, the wedding of Alice Lee Roosevelt and Nicholas Longworth dominated the entire front page of The Washington Post. Not a single other news item appeared on page one. And their names continued to be celebrated for years. Sightseeing stages and then buses brought tourists by their house. They were so frequently entertained that a local cleaner boasted in advertisements that he had cleaned “fifteen hundred pairs of Alice Roosevelt’s gloves.” When they traveled the world royalty fell all over themselves to be seen in their company. At one point Alice remarked that if she saw one more King she would have him stuffed.

Nick Longworth, his career boosted by his wife’s popularity, went on to election as the Speaker of the House.  But the great wedding day with all its promise was mocked by events. Nick was a drinker and a philanderer.  Alice could not bring herself to seek a divorce.  After giving up the White House, her father was making a concerted effort to get back in, and she loved him too much to hurt his chances.  But her granddaughter later described the Longworth’s as “not married in any real sense.”

Almost all White House weddings have an interwoven link with the weddings that have gone on before them. On that sunny February 17, 1906, as Alice Roosevelt knelt at an improvised altar with Nick Longworth, watching back in the throng was Ellen “Nellie” Wrenshall Grant. At fifty, she was still a striking figure, looking elegant in gray chiffon velvet, a lace toque and gray furs.   A wiser woman now than the eighteen-year-old bride she had been on her own wedding day, she was likely reliving that experience and comparing notes on how her expectations had compared to the reality of a painful marriage to Algernon Sartoris. It is likely that Nellie offered her best wishes to the couple, hoping that Alice Roosevelt would fare better.  But history never tires of repeating itself.  And we too often pay no attention. Thus, yet another great White House wedding would result in another disappointing marriage. Nick would die twenty-five years later. The legend spread that Alice burned his Stradivarius. She would live on to the age of ninety-six, never marrying again, dying in 1980, only a few days after the anniversary of her famous wedding day.

Excerpted from The New York Times bestseller, "All the Presidents Children," by presidential historian, Doug Wead (Atria Books.)

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