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Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Rooseveltby David McCullough
In the year 1869, when the population of New York City had reached nearly a million, the occupants of 28 East 20th Street, a five-story brownstone, numbered six, exclusive of the servants.
The head of the household was Theodore Roosevelt (no middle name or initial), who was thirty-seven years of age, an importer and philanthropist, and the son of old Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt, one of the richest men in the city. Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt — Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, or Mittie, as she was called — was thirty-three, a southerner and a beauty. The children, two girls and two boys, all conceived by the same father and mother, and born in the same front bedroom, over the parlor, ranged in age from fourteen to seven. The oldest, Anna, was known as Bamie (from bambina, and pronounced to rhyme with Sammy). Next came ten-year-old Theodore, Jr., who was called Teedie (pronounced to rhyme with T.D.). Elliott, aged nine, was Ellie or Nell, and the youngest, Corinne, was called Conie.
Of the servants little is known, except for Dora Watkins, an Irish nursemaid who had been employed since before the Civil War. Another Irish girl named Mary Ann was also much in evidence, beloved by the children and well regarded by the parents — it was she they picked to go with the family on the Grand Tour that May — but in family papers dating from the time, nobody bothered to give Mary Ann a last name. Concerning the others, the various cooks, valets, coachmen, and housemaids who seem to have come and gone with regularity, the record is no help. But to judge by the size of the house and the accepted standards for families of comparable means and station, there were probably never less than four or five "below stairs" at any given time, and the degree to which they figured in the overall atmosphere was considerable.
The house stood in the block between Broadway and Fourth Avenue, on the south side of the street, and it looked like any other New York brownstone, a narrow-fronted, sober building wholly devoid of those architectural niceties (marble sills, fanlights) that enlivened the red-brick houses of an earlier era downtown. The standard high stoop with cast-iron railings approached a tall front door at the second-floor level, the ground floor being the standard English basement, with its servants' entrance. A formal parlor (cut-glass chandelier, round-arched marble fireplace, piano) opened onto a long, narrow hall, as did a parlor or "library," this a windowless room remembered for its stale air and look of "gloomy respectability." The dining room was at the rear, again according to the standard floor plan. Upstairs were the master bedroom and nursery, then three more bedrooms on the floor above, with the servants' quarters on the top floor.
Only one thing about the house was thought to be out of the ordinary, a deep porch, or piazza, at the rear on the third-floor level. Enclosed with a nine-foot wooden railing, it had been a bedroom before the Roosevelts tore out the back wall and converted it to an open-air playroom. It overlooked not only their own and neighboring yards, but the garden of the Goelet mansion on 19th Street, one of the largest private gardens in the city, within which roamed numbers of exotic birds with their wings clipped. Daily, in their "piazza clothes," the children were put out to play or, in Bamie's case, in early childhood, to lie on a sofa.
The house had been a wedding present from Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt — CVS to the family — whose own red-brick mansion on Union Square, six blocks south, was the figurative center of the Roosevelt tribal circle. The father of five sons, CVS had presented them all with houses as they married and the one given Theodore, youngest of his five, adjoined that of Robert B. Roosevelt, the fourth son, who was a lawyer.
With their full beards and eyeglasses, these two neighboring brothers bore a certain physical resemblance. The difference in age was only two years. Beyond appearances, however, they were not the least alike. Robert was the conspicuous, unconventional Roosevelt, the one for whom the family had often to do some explaining. Robert wrote books; Robert was bursting with ideas. He was a gifted raconteur, a sportsman, yachtsman, New York's pioneer conservationist (fish were his pet concern), an enthusiastic cook, an authority on family origins. He was loud and witty and cherished the limelight, seeking it inexplicably in the tumult of Tammany politics. Until the Civil War, the Roosevelts had all been Democrats. As late as 1863, Theodore had still been an avowed War Democrat — one who supported the war and thus the Republican Administration — but when he and the rest of CVS's line at last turned Republican, Robert alone remained in the Democratic fold and was never to be anything but proud of the fact. ("Our party is the party of the people!")
Robert's middle name was his mother's maiden name, Barnhill, but in anticipation of what his political foes might make of this ("manure pile" or variations to that effect), he had changed it to Barnwell and it was as Uncle Barnwell that he was sometimes known to the small nieces and nephews in the house beside his.
Robert's wife, Elizabeth Ellis Roosevelt, was called Aunt Lizzie Ellis to distinguish her from still another Aunt Lizzie in the family, and she too was considered "unorthodox." At the back of her third floor — the floor corresponding to the piazza next door — she maintained a marvelous and odorous menagerie of guinea pigs, chickens, pigeons, a parrot, a monkey, "everything under the sun that ought not be kept in a house." The monkey, her favorite, was a violent little creature that bit. She dressed it like a fashionable child, complete with ruffled shirts and gold studs. Once Aunt Lizzie Ellis aroused the neighborhood with the purchase of a cow that had to be led from East 20th Street into her back yard by the only available route, through the house, an event that, for excitement, was surpassed only by the removal of the cow, once Aunt Lizzie Ellis was threatened with legal action. On the return trip through the house the animal became so terrified it had to be dragged bodily, its legs tied, its eyes blindfolded.
To the children next door such occasions naturally figured very large, as did Uncle Barnwell with his talk of fishing and hunting, his yacht, and his flashy political friends. So it is somewhat puzzling that so little was to be said of him in later years. His immediate proximity would be passed over rather quickly, his influence barely touched on. He is the Roosevelt everybody chose to forget about. Politics undoubtedly had much to do with this, but more important, it would appear, was his private life. For in addition to all else, brother Rob was a bit lax in his morals. He was what polite society referred to as a Bohemian, the kind of man who kept company with "actresses and such." An admiring later-day kinsman would describe him as an Elizabethan in the Victorian era and a story has come down the generations of the ladies' gloves Robert purchased in bulk at A. T. Stewart's department store, these in a violent shade of green. The gloves had been on sale, according to the story, and he distributed them liberally among his "lady friends," with the result that for years those who knew him well knew also to watch for the gloves while strolling Fifth Avenue or driving in the park.
Ordinarily, such stories might prompt some question as to whether Robert only seemed scandalous — so very straitlaced was the family, so quick was "the best society" to leap on the least deviation from the prescribed code and call it, if not immoral, then indecent. But in truth Robert was something more than a mere rake or charming boulevardier. He was a man living a remarkable double life, keeping another woman and ultimately an entire s
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