How Two Tragic Deaths Led to This President's Success - OZY | A Modern Media Company

How Two Tragic Deaths Led to This President's Success

How Two Tragic Deaths Led to This President's Success

By Libby Coleman


Because grief can be a great motivator. 

By Libby Coleman

Teddy Roosevelt drew a dark X over the top half of his diary page on Feb. 14, 1884. “The light has gone out of my life,” he penned in shaky cursive.

At 3 a.m., his mother had fallen victim to typhoid fever and passed away. Mere hours later, his first wife, Alice Hathaway Lee, died from a kidney disorder. She’d fallen ill following the birth of their first child two days earlier. The new father, in less than 24 hours, had lost the two most important women in his life. 

Roosevelt, a New York Knickerbocker, was the oldest of four. Born into a wealthy family, he attended Harvard College, and during those years he met Alice Lee, an attractive blonde from Massachusetts. He fell madly in love with her and, despite concerns that she would turn him down, insisted that “I am going to have her!” according to the Roosevelt biography The River of Doubt. He did, and they married before he won his first office at age 23, when he became the youngest assemblymember of the New York State Assembly. Roosevelt earned a reputation as an intense striver. “Look out for Theodore,” a doctor told his traveling partner during one hunt. “He’s not strong, but he’s all grit. He’ll kill himself before he’ll even say he’s tired.” 

His ranch hands would hear him sometimes breaking down over [their tragic deaths].

Tweed Roosevelt

Two years later, the 25-year-old was in Albany serving as a representative when he received a telegram calling him back home. When he arrived, his brother had terrible news: Roosevelt’s wife and mother were both deathly ill. Roosevelt had already seen his father pass away, which had drawn him extremely close to his mother, and Alice was considered the love of his life. 

A couple of days after their deaths, he wrote in his journal: “Alice Hathaway Lee, born at Chestnut Hill, July 29th, 1861. I saw her first on Oct. 1878; I wooed her for over a year before I won her … we were married; we spent three years of happiness greater and more unalloyed than I have ever known fall to the lot of others.”

Alice hathaway roosevelt 1

Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt

Source Public Domain

Roosevelt left his newly born daughter with his sister and took off for the Badlands to grieve. He bought a ranch where he’d taken some hunting trips and invested in the beef industry. For two years, he herded and hunted. Unlike in New York, where Roosevelt moved in high-society circles full of entitled people, out West he was surrounded by the physically strong who were good at surviving. “But it was not easy for him. His ranch hands would hear him sometimes breaking down over [the tragic deaths],” Tweed Roosevelt, head of the Theodore Roosevelt Association and Teddy’s great-grandson, says. North Dakota life allowed him to restore himself, pick up the pieces and move forward.


When Roosevelt returned to New York, his sister played matchmaker, creating an “accidental encounter” with Roosevelt’s childhood sweetheart, Edith, Tweed Roosevelt says, and the two hit it off: They went off to Europe, and family members found out after their departure that Edith and Teddy were to be wed. When the pair returned, they decided Alice Lee’s daughter would be raised by Edith and Teddy, who would go on to have five children of their own. Roosevelt “wouldn’t really talk about his first wife,” descendant Sean Palfrey says. “He was devastated.” 

Martha bulloch

Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, Teddy’s mom

Source Public Domain

Roosevelt began achieving again. In 1888 he was rewarded for supporting President Benjamin Harrison’s campaign and was appointed to the U.S. Civil Service Commission. He served until 1895 and earned a reputation with some newspapers as being “irrepressible, belligerent and enthusiastic.” From there, he won military appointments — first as assistant secretary of the Navy and then as a second lieutenant (later promoted to captain) in the Spanish-American war.

William McKinley chose Roosevelt as his running mate after his first-term vice president, Garret Hobart, passed away in office. The dynamic duo won office, but six months in, crisis hit: McKinley was assassinated at the Pan-American Exposition, and Roosevelt was sworn in. “His success in overcoming [his wife and mother’s death] helped build his self-confidence, enabling him to deal with major, major issues,” Tweed Roosevelt says. 

Roosevelt himself chose to set a fast pace his whole life, perhaps in part because of the loss of his wife and mother. “Black care,” he wrote in Ranch Life and the Hunting-Trail, “rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.”

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