The Romance: How Alice met Nick
The Pacific Cruise
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.
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.
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.”
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