Read the First Chapter of “Forging a President: How the Wild West Created Teddy Roosevelt”
Forging a President: How the Wild West Created Teddy Roosevelt | Chapter 1
Theodore Roosevelt clutched the two telegrams, shifting uncomfortably in the train—leaning forward, tapping his foot, trying to hurry on the frustratingly slow steam engine. Roosevelt was a man with a beautiful wife, a new baby, a brilliant political career, and the patronage and wealth of an aristocratic family behind him. Now, all this seemed in danger. The young assemblyman from Albany was making his way 145 miles south to Manhattan, where his wife and his mother both lay dying.
On a clear day the train ride from Albany to Manhattan took five hours, but a heavy fog had been hovering over New York for days, seeming to portend what lay ahead for him. Teddy Roosevelt tapped his foot impatiently and stared at the first telegram. You have a baby girl. Congratulations. The second telegram told a much different story. Come at once. Mother and Alice gravely ill. The light went out for Roosevelt that day as he ran for the train. The man who valued action above all else could now do nothing but wait to be delivered to destiny.
Roosevelt stared out the window. The fog reminded him of when he was a boy and he would sleep sitting straight up because his asthma squeezed his small chest. On such nights, his father would take him out in his carriage. They would ride like the wind through the streets of New York. “Open your mouth Teddy! Open your mouth!” his father instructed. “Let the air in!” And, as in a primitive oxygen ventilator, he would open his mouth and feel the cool air go down his throat and inflate his lungs. The image of a man frantically driving a black, rain-slicked carriage through the night streets of New York, and a boy hanging off the side with his mouth open to the heavens—it was all his father could do, after walking up and down the hallway with him all night. The rich man’s son could get no air, and his father could only admonish the boy to open his mouth while he sped the horses savagely along. “Faster! Faster! For my son must breathe!”
Now the train was pulling into Grand Central Station. The young dandy ran for his home in a fog so thick he could only grope his way toward 57th Street, where the lordly Roosevelt mansion commanded the street. Finally, he ran up the stairs to where his young wife, Alice, lay in bed. She was dying of Bright’s disease, an affliction of the kidneys causing fever, vomiting, terrible back pain, and bloody urine. They had just married the year before, but now the love of his life was dying in his arms.
They had recited poetry and written love letters to each other. Alice Hathaway Lee was the young beauty of a prominent Boston family who had fallen in love with the man with thick glasses and teeth that snapped words in half. Alice was just seventeen when Theodore first saw her on October 18, 1878. “As long as I live I shall never forget how sweetly she looked and how prettily she greeted me.”1 Roosevelt was smitten. He had found his true love and often walked the six miles from Harvard to Chestnut Hill to see her. His grades fell as he courted her with rides in the woods and long days spent reciting poetry.
He asked her to marry him his junior year, and after an arduous courtship he won her. Now . . . now, incredibly, she was leaving him. Roosevelt hit his knees and held his wife. Bright’s disease, combined with complications from childbirth, was robbing the world of Alice Lee, and in the late nineteenth century there was little anyone could do. The fog outside the windows was so heavy it was as if the world was cloaked in a thick blanket.
“What can I do for you my love?”
“Teddy . . . ” She was very weak by now. “Teddy.”
The long labor had robbed her of any fight, and Roosevelt saw clearly she was moribund. At that precise moment, he heard a voice from outside the room—it belonged to his brother Elliott. “Teddy. Come at once if you want to see mother one last time.” It was Elliott who had declared, on realizing his mother and sisterin-law were dying on the same day, “There is a curse on this house.”
It was the same house in which he had helplessly watched his father writhe in agony from stomach cancer years before. The same sense of helplessness possessed the two brothers now. Men of action could do nothing against the primitive state of medical science.
Roosevelt reluctantly left his barely conscious wife and rushed downstairs to see his mother. Mittie Roosevelt was dying of typhoid fever. There were no antibiotics, and one in ten people died from complications stemming from the symptoms of 104-degree fever and chronic diarrhea. At age forty-eight, Mittie was still a Southern beauty with a cream-white complexion and dark glossy hair. She barely recognized Teddy as he kneeled down and held her hand. Even now, he could scarcely believe that just seven hours earlier he had been leading a reform movement in the halls of Albany, a young crusader with a brilliant political future and a wife and new baby.
Kneeling there, in his suit pants with dirty cuffs and hair tousled from the humidity and six hours on the train, Roosevelt felt at a complete loss. Could this be his mother, whom he so depended on? And could that really be his wife, who lit up his world in a way he never thought possible? Could she really be leaving him in this dark, fog-soaked world to forge ahead by himself? Why, he had a daughter! But where was she? How would he raise her? No answers came—Theodore Roosevelt simply couldn’t think anymore as he ran back and forth between two dying women in the hell of that long night.
At three o’clock in the morning, his mother, Martha Stewart “Mittie” Roosevelt, died. The fog didn’t lift. Roosevelt then devoted himself to holding his semi-comatose wife and willing her back to health. Will. Will. Will. This was his mantra. He had beaten back death with will. He had pushed through life as a sickly child with will and she must do the same. But Alice Lee wasn’t her husband and barely clung to life through the morning. The fog lifted briefly; then the rain came, followed by the sun—then clear cool air poured down from the northeast. Roosevelt cradled Alice Lee and refused to give up hope. It was for naught. At two o’clock in the afternoon on February 14, 1884, Alice Hathaway Lee, the mother of his first child, died.
Teddy Roosevelt had lost the second light of his life and could see only darkness. He stumbled through the funeral. Some said he was like a child now, and they worried about his sanity. He seemed dazed and unable to think. He gave his newborn daughter to his sister, and when the last funeral had passed, Roosevelt headed back to Albany to throw himself into his work as the reforming politician. “I have never believed it did any good to flinch or yield for any blow,” he later wrote. “Nor does it lighten the pain to cease from working. . . . Indeed I think I should go mad if I were not employed.”
Roosevelt had always been an insomniac, and now he slept even less. He had taken on the corrupt bosses of Tammany Hall, but this blow made that look like nothing. He didn’t sleep. People heard him pacing back and forth. No one was allowed to mention his wife or mother. People worried he might just collapse or have a nervous breakdown. Roosevelt didn’t collapse, but his political career did. He literally worked around the clock as an assemblyman and as chairman of the city investigating committee. He split his time between New York and Albany, rewriting a fifteen-thousand-word Investigative Report on corruption during hearings in Albany. “He feels the awful loneliness more and more,” his sister Corinne wrote to his brother Elliott, “and I fear he sleeps little, for he walks a great deal in the night.”
Roosevelt introduced nine bills related to his findings and submitted two more reports of a million words of testimony. He was a man running from himself as he headed to the Republican National Convention in Chicago. As if to actualize his feeling of isolation from the world, he joined the Mugwump faction of his own party against the nominee James G. Blaine. Roosevelt’s candidate, George F. Edmunds, lost to Blaine, and Roosevelt was seen as a traitor. When all was lost and the Stop Blaine movement collapsed, the Mugwumps then swung around to support Grover Cleveland, the Democratic Nominee, and demanded Roosevelt join them. Roosevelt equivocated and considered abandoning the Republican Party. He further alienated Republicans by telling a reporter from the Evening Post that rather than vote for Blaine he would give “hearty support to any decent Democrat.”
After the reform movement was handed a resounding defeat, Roosevelt found no more interest in politics, or anything else for that matter. He was going one place and one place only. He was going to the South Dakota Territory—that unsettled swath of country where Indians roamed and men with six-shooters settled scores. In a letter to the editor of the Utica Herald, he confessed his weariness with politics, if not life, and his ambivalence about his future:
I wish to write you a few words just to thank you for your kindness towards me. . . . Although not a very old man, I have yet lived a great deal in my life, and I have known sorrow too bitter and joy too keen to allow me to become either cast down or elated for more than a brief period. . . . I have very little expectation of being able to keep on in politics. . . . I feel both tired and restless; for the next few months I shall probably be in Dakota . . .”
In the year 1884, four months after Theodore Roosevelt’s wife and mother died, there was still a Wild West; and though it would end soon, there was yet room for one more man who had lost everything. Roosevelt boarded a train in the middle of the night. The engine chugged out of the station as he stared out at the fading lights of the East. He didn’t hurry the train along this time. He was leaving and heading into the unknown darkness. His last words to a World reporter were that he was heading West and “what I shall do after that I cannot tell you.”
The twenty-four-hundred-mile journey took him first to Chicago, where he switched to the St. Paul Express, which then plunged into the great flat plains of the American Midwest. When he crossed the Red River at Fargo and slipped past the Western Boundary of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt knew he had reached the vast Dakota Territory. Roosevelt stared out into the flat darkness and saw the moon glimmering on the Missouri River as the train clattered over the trestle.
He sat back in the train car, heading for the one place he could be alone. Life had divested itself of him and now he would divest himself of life. He stared into the darkness hiding the geological formations of cliffs, ravines, and buttes, volcanic fire still smoldering up from the rocks. Hell was outside the window as he slept and traveled farther into the last bit of land not claimed by men. He dreamed of the first time he had taken the journey. It was much like this, and just a year before.