Edith Roosevelt (1861-1948) was an American first lady (1901-09) and the second wife of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States. Childhood sweehearts, the two were separated for a number of years before resuming their romance and marrying, two years after the tragic death of Theodore’s first wife, Alice. In 1901, the Roosevelts entered the White House, which Edith and Theodore quickly realized could not accomodate their large and boisterous young family. They secured permission and funding from Congress to extensively remodel the building, including construction of the new West Wing, which separated the private family quarters from the presidential offices for the first time.
The second child of Gertrude Elizabeth and Charles Carow, scion of a successful New York City-based shipping firm, Edith Kermit Carow was born into a world of privilege. She received an extensive education in writing, literature, languages and the arts, and learned the proper social behavior expected from a young woman of high society. But all was not rosy within the Carow household due to Charles’s drinking and gambling habits, and his sudden loss of income in the late 1860s forced the family to live with relatives for a few years. Deeply ashamed of her father’s failures, Edith later destroyed much of his surviving correspondence and records.
Edith was schooled in the Roosevelt household alongside the future president’s siblings, and accompanied the family on their summer trips to Oyster Bay, Long Island. Their frequent proximity fueled romantic sparks, though their relationship cooled after Roosevelt’s sophomore year at Harvard University, and he soon began his courtship of Alice Hathaway Lee. A year and a half after his first wife’s death, Roosevelt reconnected with Edith at a sister’s home. Engaged in November 1885, they agreed to keep their status a secret while Edith’s mother went through with plans to move the family to Europe. The Roosevelts finally tied the knot in London on Dec. 2, 1886.
She established a precedent by hiring the first federally-salaried White House social secretary to answer mail, convey news to the press and help run the household. Edith also honored her predecessors by hanging portraits of former first ladies a ground-floor corridor of the White House. From a policy standpoint, Edith’s most important contributions came via her private correspondence with Cecil Spring-Rice, a junior British ambassador who had been the best man at the Roosevelts’ wedding. Continually apprised of the ongoing Russo-Japanese War through his wife, the president negotiated an end to the conflict, for which he earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906.
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The Roosevelts traveled extensively after leaving the White House in 1909, with Edith escorting her husband through several South American countries before his departure on an expedition into the Amazon jungle. Following the former president’s death in 1919, Edith continued her world tour by visiting Europe, South Africa, Asia, Hawaii and the West Indies, later recounting her experiences in the 1927 travelogue “Cleared for Strange Ports.” Edith also edited a history of her genealogy with her son Kermit and assisted the aging members of her husband’s “Rough Riders” contingent during those years.
Edith resurfaced in the public eye as an opponent of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1932 presidential campaign. A proud Republican, she chafed at what was misconceived to be a close relationship with her niece Eleanor’s husband, and spoke at a rally for the incumbent Herbert Hoover at New York’s Madison Square Garden that October. Edith eventually developed more respect for FDR and his New Deal policies, and maintained cordial relations with that branch of the family. She passed away on Sept. 30, 1948, at her longtime home in Oyster Bay.