Authors: Rebecca Behrens
“Alice Lee! We have the same middle name and initials. So. Awesome,” I whispered. Then I ignored the “no peeking” part and started deciphering the first entry immediately.
September 26, 1901
Now that I am the president’s daughter, it seems like I ought to keep a diary. For the sake of remembering these momentous years, even though I think diaries are rather silly things. They’re like writing letters to nobody, which seems like a waste of precious time. I have failed miserably at keeping a journal in the past. I will try better this time; perhaps more interesting things will happen to me now.
The lot of us just arrived at the “White House,” which is the newly official name of this hulking whitewashed presidential shack. I’m glad that we aren’t calling it the “Executive Mansion” anymore. That moniker takes on more airs than the building merits; I dare say it’s not a true
. When I first visited it as a little girl, grizzled President Benjamin Harrison bent down and told me it was his “jail.” Heh. This positively grim building somewhat resembles one—it’s far from lavish. Crumbling walls, leaks, peeling paint, and decrepit furnishings. There are not nearly enough bathrooms on the second floor, at least for a family of eight. My stepmother will have her hands full fixing up the place, as per her First Lady duties. As though she didn’t already have her hands full with my rambunctious siblings, and me!
Now the White House is
of young people and overrun it we shall. Ted, Kermit, Ethel, Archie, Quentin, and I have already discovered endless possibilities for mischief and merriment. Last night, we took some tin trays from the pantry and found them excellent as sleds on the stairs leading down to the main hallway. It was our Inauguration of Fun. That was, until Archie knocked his head on the banister and wailed like bloody murder. Stepmother wasn’t pleased at that. She isn’t pleased with much right now, between all the mourning for President McKinley and even more mourning for our family’s precious “privacy.” If she hated attention so, she had no business marrying Theodore Roosevelt.
All of us are all excited, though. I hope being the children of the president will make life in Washington grand, even though I know from personal experience that this town can be like a little Puritan village, at least when compared to life in bustling New York City. It will be far better than Albany, where we lived while my father was governor. Albany was dreadfully boring. The places one is forced to live when one’s father is such an Important Man! (And now he is the Most Important Man.)
Whenever we travel with Father, we create a whirling ruckus. Crowds and press and attention from all corners of the earth. I rather love the feel of it, but then again, I am someone who wants to eat up the world. I expect that I will be able to eat more of it now, for two reasons: 1) Being the eldest in my family, I expect freedom to do as I please here. The addition of a few security men to guard my father and our family should not hamper that. (And after the tragic assassination of McKinley, they are indeed necessary.) My father has a Secret Service man who is with him all the time, William Craig, and another one, Sloane, watches the little boys as they scamper around. But the rest of us don’t see much of the Service at home. I don’t mind when I do—most of the chaps are good sports. 2) I expect to have my society debut this year and I will get to have it in the White House. It doesn’t get more exciting than that, does it?
I am supposed to be unpacking my hatboxes and such now. More later.
To Thine Own Self Be True,
P.S. That Shakespearean allusion is my newly adopted motto for life, by the way. My father always has mottoes and such, and it seemed like a good idea for me to choose one to guide my life too.
Shivering with excitement, I put down the diary to let the words sink in. Alice was writing well over a hundred years ago, but I felt a connection to so much in her entry. 1600 sometimes
feel like a jail! My parents were always freaking out about privacy too! And I wasn’t totally sure what she meant about “eating up the world,” but I liked the sound of that. I murmured those words aloud, then picked the journal back up and turned to the next entry.
October 5, 1901
I have been busy, trying to be helpful and watch my little siblings as we slowly settle into our new home. The first floor is formal and public, where we dine and entertain and the like. The second floor has the seven bedrooms, some sitting rooms, my father’s library, and the president’s offices, which are separated by glass partitions from the rest of the floor. A musty smell abounds, the floors creak, and paint peels on the second floor, but there is a newly installed elevator. My stepmother has made our room assignments at long last. I came out fairly well. My bedroom is on the northwest side of the floor, next to my sister Ethel’s room and catty-corner from my stepmother’s sitting room. (Coincidence? Surely not.) It’s a large room, though, with lovely windows. I can peer down from them and see Lafayette Square and the grand houses (mansions, really) of John Hay and Henry Adams. Last night I stood in here and watched the view as the sun went down, and the room was full of the most beautiful light. Unfortunately the furniture is not up to par. It’s positively Spartan compared to what I have at Sagamore, our house on Oyster Bay, where my room is very fashionable and has nice chintz curtains and a happy floral pattern on the wallpaper. This room has big, cumbersome furniture made of black walnut wood. The pieces are ugly and dull. I have two inferior brass beds—couldn’t they have one
bed instead of two creaky ones? I’ll have it redecorated, though. Renovations will start shortly, under the watchful and persnickety command of First Lady Edith Roosevelt. Shockingly, we are in agreement about something: that the private residence is in shambles. I know I’m belaboring the decrepit state of the White House, but it still shocks me how ramshackle it is. It reminds me of Dickens’s
and Miss Havisham’s home—both are full of cobwebs and nostalgia gone awry.
In addition to our tray-sledding, my siblings and I have taken to racing through the upstairs hall on our stilts and bicycles. You wouldn’t think, with my crippled history of orthopedic footwear, that I would be any good at stilts. The leg braces I had as a child prevented my feet from turning inward like those of a pigeon. It was a result of polio going undiagnosed. Those darned braces were terribly uncomfortable, and they used to lock up and make me pitch forward, face-first. But the challenges I faced early in life with my legs have only made me strong as a young woman. I practice yoga exercises, which help stretch my limbs, and I am so limber that I can put my leg behind my head. I find it oddly relaxing. It drives Edith mad; she thinks yoga is strange and horribly unladylike.
We and our stilts and bicycles are strictly forbidden from the first floor…when it is open to the public. Otherwise, we have the run of the house. It’s already become the Roosevelt zoo with all the children and the animals. We are keeping some pets in the Conservatory, like our blue macaw, Eli Yale. The cumbersome stodgy furniture is remarkably good for playing hide-and-seek. Although I know I am getting too old for childish games, I can’t help but join in from time to time. I believe I’ve found the secret to eternal youth, and it’s arrested development. Yesterday, Archie and Ted were hiding behind chairs in the East Room, waiting for visitors to come to see Father so they could pop out and scare them. I couldn’t stop laughing, though, and I am afraid my bark kept giving us away.
To Thine Own Self Be True,
Footsteps, heavy ones, coming down the hallway interrupted my reading. It didn’t sound like my mom’s heels or my dad’s loafers, so I knew it was probably a Secret Service guy doing rounds. No matter who it was, I
didn’t want anyone to bother me. I had uncovered one-hundred-plus-year-old artifacts,
, hiding under a floorboard. They would get confiscated instantly if anyone else found out, and surely sent off to a museum where historians wearing little white gloves would pore all over them or keep them under glass. I’d never get a chance to read it again, at least not like this. Turning the pages that Alice herself poured her thoughts onto, in the very rooms in which she wrote. If I believed in ghosts or spirits, I would think that she was here with me as I read. That’s how strong her personality was, even on the page. It filled the room.
I knew a bit about girls who lived in 1600 before me, thanks to a book someone gave me before I moved in. I read it three times and sucked up all the good facts: Caroline Kennedy had a pony named Macaroni, and she let it run all over the grounds. Chelsea Clinton loved dance, like me—but she liked ballet, not jazz. Denise would’ve
her. Amy Carter had a dog named Grits, and they used to hang out in a treehouse she had on the South Lawn. And Susan Ford got to hold her senior prom in 1600. But those are facts, not feelings. Sometimes I’ve wondered how other First Kids felt about living here, especially when I’m feeling homesick or annoyed at Denise or nervous about my mom traveling. Was living here always great for them? In that book, Susan Ford said that life at 1600 is “like a fairy tale.” Sometimes I wonder if the fairy tale she meant was “Rapunzel,” in which a girl gets locked up in a tower for years and has to put her life on hold. It feels most like that to me. I ran my fingertips over the diary in my hands, and breathed in its scent of old leather and paper.
The footsteps came closer, stepping into the pantry next door. I scooped everything up and knotted the handkerchief into a bundle again. I stood and slipped the bundle inside the waistband of my pajama pants, pressing it into my hip with my elbow so it wouldn’t slip out as I walked. In my other hand, I held my mug of tea. Then I casually sauntered out of the dining room. The Secret Service guy waved hello from the kitchen doorway as I passed by on my way to my room. “Don’t leave on account of me. Just doing rounds.”
“No, it’s past my bedtime, anyway. Night!” I grinned and hustled over to my door. Somebody had shut it after I left, so I struggled to open it, raising my diary-balancing leg to keep the bundle from dropping while I used that hand to open the door. I sloshed some tea on my shirt and the door frame.
“Need help?” The agent looked puzzled by my weird leg position.
“No, I’m stretching. A dance stretch. Eleventh position.” I don’t think there is an eleventh position, but I doubt he knew his first from fifth. My door finally popped open and I hopped inside. I grabbed the bundle before it could fall to the floor—I was terrified of screwing up anything inside. I looked around my room, thinking that one nice thing about living in 1600 today was that I got free rein to put up
pictures in my room—and I picked out all the furniture myself. It was a nicer looking room than my bedroom in St. Paul. And it didn’t smell musty at all, thanks to the hardworking cleaning staff. Poor Alice, having to downgrade her bedroom once she moved to the White House. After setting my cold tea on my bedside table, I sat down with the diary and dove back in to Alice’s version of 1600.
October 16, 1901
Today I miss my Auntie Bye’s joyous home in New York City, right at the corner of 62nd and Madison, and the time we shared there. I miss it even though she and her husband, Cowles, now live nearby on N Street and I am often at their home, basking in Bye’s extensive and well-appointed library and drinking tea. Today I craved an afternoon tea, but when I went about getting a pot for myself, Stepmother insisted that I take it up to my room. Never mind that my room is a dreadful mess and no place for a proper English-style tea, taken like Bye taught me, with piping hot Earl Grey and plenty of buttery, paper-thin bread. I should have expected that the volume of rules surrounding me would only grow once we took up residence in the White House. I can’t stand for them, though. I am positively allergic to discipline. I think I have mentioned that my aim is to eat up the world. Having a decent tea is part of that.
Perhaps the slew of rules are partly because the last time the Roosevelts took Washington by storm, four years ago when Father became Assistant Secretary of the Navy, poor Alice proved to be too much storm for her family to handle. I would spend all day on my bicycle, riding the hills of Washington with my feet up on the handlebars. I broke my curfew more times than I could possibly count. I had my secret club of boys, and we ran riot all over and under and through. Usually I led them in the mischief, the little tomboy hellion that I was. Once I concocted a plan to get my friend Thomas in the house without my parents knowing. I gave him one of my old dresses, some girl’s shoes, a hat, and gloves. That evening he came to the door dressed in my cast-offs and tried to gain entry as a girl. He said his name was Estella. It was harmless fun, but the poor thing didn’t fool the housekeeper (who recognized the dress she’d laundered for years, of course—I’ve never had many of them) and then all hell broke loose. Father even called me a guttersnipe (the nerve!), which was a real slap in the face. So the day after my birthday he and Edith shipped me off to Bye’s house in New York, despite my pleas to stay. As much as I don’t like Father telling me what to do, I hated the idea of the rest of my family together without me—it validated, to me and the rest of the world, the notion that I’m only halfway part of the Roosevelt clan. There was no changing his mind, though, and poor Alice was cast out.
Life at Bye’s was wonderful, though. I am certain that if Bye were a man,
would be president and not my father. I have always felt warm and safe and loved in her home, which is hospitable, refined, and always full of great and lively minds. Bye always calls me “Alice” when the rest of my family will not. (To my father I’m never “Alice,” but “Sister” and “Sissy.” He’ll use any nickname to avoid uttering my name, which is also the name of my late mother, Alice Lee.) Bye took me in as an infant, and I know it broke her heart to give me back to my family at the tender age of three. I suppose it broke mine too, but I don’t remember it. Every time we’ve parted since, even for only a few days, I feel a wrenching in my chest. I keep a letter from Bye in my jewel box, which reads “Remember, my blue-eyed darling, if you are very unhappy you can always come back to me.” It gives me some comfort when I’m in the storm of a dark mood.
Now I must go, for I hear Eli Yale making a fuss in the Conservatory, and I want to make myself scarce in case the maids complain about his droppings again.
To Thine Own Self Be True,
I stopped reading for a second to think. Reading Alice’s diary
feel like talking to someone.
It’ll be like having an imaginary older sister.
I’d always wanted one; Harrison was as close as I got. Maybe Alice could be something like my First-Daughter mentor—even if she lived in the olden days so her diary would not be giving me tips on decoding flirty texts or jeans shopping.
. I flipped back to the entry in which she sneaked in her friend, “Estella.” I laughed out loud, rereading it. Did Alice really think she could fool someone by making her guy friend wear a dress? Security must have been very different back then. I wonder if the Roosevelt White House had armed Marine sentries as doormen.
Sneaking in Thomas got Alice shipped off to her aunt’s house. I’ve been shipped off too—I spent much of the campaign living at Harrison’s. I love him and Max, and their house in Madison is always full of music and delicious food and happiness. Staying with them in Wisconsin wasn’t a bad way to live, but it was strange to be away from my parents so much. At least my dad made sure to call me every single night, and sometimes we Skyped while watching our favorite dance-competition show. Dad couldn’t help it that the grant meant he had to start up his new lab right away. But sometimes I wondered—why wasn’t I as important as the grant? I needed him then, especially as my mom closed in on the presidency.
It was getting late—the White House was as quiet and still as it ever got—but I couldn’t put the diary away for the night. I flipped to the next entry.
November 14, 1901
At long last I’ve settled into life as a First Daughter, and I find it quite to my liking. I’ve reacquainted myself with some old Washingtonian friends. Our gang is called the Gooey Brotherhood of Slimy Slopers, quite a juvenile nonsense name, but I am rather fond of it. We all gather at Bye’s for meetings. I’m lucky to have her, for it’s very difficult to entertain at the White House. I lack a sitting room, and I am only allowed to entertain in the Green or Red rooms. They are in full view of all of the staff, not to mention my five siblings and parents. It’s like throwing a party in a fishbowl. So we go to Bye’s refuge and meet in her parlor, where she holds such very
salons for her friends. We Slopers do discuss literature and great ideas, but also try out all the new dances. The other day I taught my friends the hootchy-kootchy, which I first encountered when helping my father open the Buffalo Exposition. There I, totally transfixed, watched a troupe of female dancers swaying their hips in unison, as their arms moved in a serpentine manner above their heads. Edith clucked her tongue next to me, but I studied the scandalous steps and started practicing them in my bedroom when I got back home. I am quite the dancer, bum legs and all.
When I’m back at the White House, so much of my time now is spent with Stepmother making arrangements for my coming-out ball. I am enchanted by the prospect of a White House debut. It will be the most fabulous, glorious debutante ball Washington has ever seen, and loads better than any in New York. There may be many girls richer than I am, but none of them can have their debuts at the residence of the president. Stepmother just today arranged for Belle Hagner, party planner extraordinaire, to help us with all of the arrangements. Now I am about to make a list of all that I
have, so I can present her with a list of my essentials tomorrow. I know I am asking for the moon, but I am the First Daughter so quite frankly I do think that I am entitled to it.
To Thine Own Self Be True,
November 28, 1901
I have an introduction to make to you! I have a new playmate in the White House. I’ve recently acquired a lovely little green garter snake, whom I have christened “Emily Spinach.”
in honor of my aunt Emily, because both are unusually long and thin, like string beans.
, naturally, because of my dear snake’s bright green color. The endlessly entertaining Emily Spinach loves to wrap herself around my arm. She distinguishes me from your average girl, who would run away in fear of a snake and not wear it around her neck like a scarf or let its little flicking tongue lick her elbow gloves. I’ve had so much fun “introducing” her to guests of the White House. One visitor was so shocked and frightened upon seeing me wandering the White House with Emily looped over my shoulder that she fainted and had to be revived with smelling salts. How silly—Emily’s just a harmless snake! (You can imagine my stepmother’s reaction.) They tried to make me get rid of her, but I pitched a fit. I don’t see what the issue is. When I’m not bringing Emily around the house for socializing, she happily stays in a little stocking box in my room. It’s not as though I let her slither free through the East Room or the dining areas. Well, sometimes I do bring her around to parties, but I keep her tucked in my purse.
Although my father disapproves of how I am “deliberately trying to shock with that little snake,” nobody is more of a champion of wildlife than him. Thanks to that, I know that there is little risk of me being forced to dispose of Emily Spinach. My father will even play with her too, on the rare occasions that he is home and not working. Then he’ll go on wild tangents and tell me tales of buffaloes and bears and elk and the other beasts he’s encountered out west. One day I wandered into his office with Emily on my arm as he was meeting with his journalist friend Mr. Wister. Mr. Wister was quite taken aback by my little snake and me, but my father simply said, “I can either run the country or I can control Alice, but I can’t possibly do both.” Emily and I laughed. Father picks his battles well.
To Thine Own Self Be True,