It’s late October, so I would like to wish one of my favorite people ever born in these here United States an enormous happy birthday: Molly Sauer, my daughter! She turns six on October 27.
/frantically looks up with whom she shares a birthday
Oh hey, whaddya know? Theodore Roosevelt. Well that’s fitting, they have so much in common. They were both born in Manhattan and later lived on Long Island (technically, Brooklyn counts), both love the National Park System (kid picked up Junior Ranger patches at Yellowstone and Governor’s Island last summer), and Molly owns a life-size Teddy Bear (first sold in a Brooklyn candy shop, so the circle of life is complete.)
Since nobody has seen fit to write Molly’s biography, yet, we here at Signature are celebrating the 158th birthday of her spiritual American ancestor, the ole’ Bull Moose himself, Theodore Roosevelt. In Teddy’s honor, we spoke to seven certified Roosevelt aficionados—authors, historians, a great-grandson, a park ranger, and a sitting member of Congress—about what books best capture Teddy Roosevelt, America’s indomitable 26th President.
1.) Tweed Roosevelt (Great-grandson of Teddy Roosevelt and President of the Theodore Roosevelt Association)
Recommends: Cowboys and Kings: Three Great Letters by Teddy Roosevelt, 1954; The Roosevelt Family of Sagamore Hill by Hermann Hagedorn, 1954; The Seven Worlds of Theodore Roosevelt by Edward Wagenknecht, 1958
“I’m going to stay away from obvious titles and recommend three older books that capture my great-grandfather in unique ways. Cowboys and Kings gives readers a short charming introduction to the real T.R., his authentic voice. The personal letters to friends, which weren’t originally for publication, are a lot of fun, particularly the first two. They’re about a trip through Europe following an African safari, a candid account of staying with various European kings, what he really thought about them. Roosevelt was a great storyteller, and people don’t know this, but he was hilarious. Cowboys and Kings offers the best sense of who the man was.
The Roosevelt Family of Sagamore Hill basically tells the story of the family, over the years, in T.R.’s Oyster Bay home. It’s wonderful, filled with fun stories of the large farming household. Unlike most men of his early-1900s era, he was very much a kids person. T.R. was a very good parent and he passed it on to my grandfather, who loved kids. At least until they became teenagers. When I read Hagedorn, I see the same behavior in Archibald that he had in Teddy. His sons kissed him good night, even after they were grown-ups.
The Seven Worlds of Theodore Roosevelt is interesting because author Wagenknecht is extremely insightful. The book examines seven different ‘worlds’ of T.R.: action, thought, human relations, family, spiritual values, public affairs, and war and peace. It’s not a normal chronology. Each chapter is more or less an independent character study, which allows for an entirely different way of looking at T.R.’s life.
Wagenknecht offers all kinds of terrific examples to bolster his arguments about Teddy’s character. Take the war and peace section. T.R.’s custom was to always say the worst thing about a group to the group itself, made it a point of telling them to their faces. When he was the New York City police commissioner, there was a blue law that kept the bars closed on Sunday, which was the only day most workmen had off. The big groups back then were the Irish and the Germans, both of whom love their pubs, so bribes went to local cops, who then paid off Tammany Hall to stay open on Sunday. It was a major source of funding for corrupt bosses. T.R. wasn’t a teetotaler, but he kept the law to try and starve the money beast. He announced his decision at an Irish political hall, to the guys vehemently against closing the bars. T.R., whose family was Dutch, goes into this meeting hall with 500 angry Irishmen, ready to tear him limb-to-limb. He goes to the podium and quotes a poem, ‘The Irish, the Irish, they ain’t much,’ which has the crowd ready to storm the stage, ‘But they sure are better than the god damn Dutch.’ Totally disarmed the mob before letting them know the bars were staying closed.”
2.) Steve Israel (Democratic Congressman NY 3rd District)
Recommends: The Alienist by Caleb Carr
“Choosing my favorite Theodore Roosevelt book is like trying to choose my favorite child. It can’t be done. But I’ll step out of the scholarship conformity zone and go with Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. It’s a crime novel that opens on the day of Roosevelt’s burial, then flashes back to his role as New York City police commissioner in 1896. The fictitious portrayal of Teddy helping to capture a brutal murderer is enjoyable, entertaining, and, I suspect, lifelike.”
Recommends: Bill Sewall’s Story of Teddy Roosevelt, 1919
“Theodore Roosevelt once said that the man who knew him best was a guide from the North Woods of Maine named Bill Sewall. The pair met in 1878, when Harvard student Roosevelt visited Aroostook County on a hunting trip, not long after the death of his father. They ‘hitched well from the start,’ as Sewall put it. From dramatically different backgrounds—one a scrawny, privileged city boy, the other the first white child born in Island Falls, Maine, and an imposing frontiersman—they became close and remained that way through the rest of their lives. After Roosevelt died, the elderly lumberman recalled their friendship in the little-known book, Bill Sewall’s Story of Teddy Roosevelt. Written in the colloquial voice of a guy who was never formally educated, its 116 pages are not as refined or as page-turning as later bestselling bios, but the story is as real as real gets, beginning with the day Teddy showed up on Sewall’s porch as a ‘thin, pale youngster with bad eyes and a weak heart.’ The old guide recounts countless adventures, from the woods of Maine to the Badlands of the Dakota Territory to the White House. We, as readers, watch the future President grow from a pampered weakling into an icon of manliness. I discovered the book while working as a seasonal park ranger in the same woods the two men explored, found it very inspirational, and used it as a primary source for my own Roosevelt tome. As a Registered Maine Guide and lover of the outdoors, I felt I had as much to learn from Sewall—a man who didn’t believe in meeting life with ‘timidity’—as Roosevelt did. I wasn’t wrong.”
4.) Susan Sarna (Museum Curator, Sagamore Hill National Historic Site)
Recommends: Edith Kermit Roosevelt: Portrait of a First Lady by Sylvia Jukes Morris, 1980
“I’ve been living with the Roosevelt family at Sagamore Hill for 26 years and I think to understand Theodore, you must understand Edith first. Without her, he never would’ve accomplished all that he did. Morris’s biography is the quintessential book about the Roosevelts, the family, how she affected his life, and helped Teddy fight his demons, as it were. Teddy once called her “my strong sturdy woman,” which might not sound like a compliment today, but she was the backbone that propelled him to the White House. Teddy was exuberant, did everything at full speed, and only Edith could get him to slow down. At dinner parties, he’d be prattling on, and Edith would simply say “Theodore,” to get him to stop. She always stood behind Teddy and he said that the few times he didn’t take her advice is when things didn’t end well. I feel without her, he wouldn’t have the grounding for his great achievements like taking on the meatpacking industry with the Food and Drugs Act. The stamps on meat packaging, “prime grade A,” affect every child’s health and T.R. had the courage because the First Lady was his stronghold. You want to know Teddy? Edith Kermit Roosevelt is where you should start.
5.) Michael Wolraich (Freelance journalist, Dagblog.com creator, author Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics)
Recommends: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, 1979; Theodore Rex, 2001; Colonel Roosevelt, 2010; all by Edmund Morris.
“No writer has done as much to popularize the life of Theodore Roosevelt than Edmund Morris. His bestselling, Pulitzer-prize winning The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt set the mold for numerous T.R. biographies that followed in its wake, including his own sequels. Morris doesn’t just tell you about Roosevelt’s life, he transports you into his world. Vivid historical details and richly-drawn characters give his works a cinematic effect. Indeed, the first book was inspired by a screenplay he had written a few years earlier. If you read closely, you’ll notice that the books are composed of a series of ‘scenes,’ each presented from the perspective of one character.
As a reader, I find Morris’s work engrossing; as a writer, I find it inspiring. When I wrote my own history of Roosevelt’s presidency, Unreasonable Men, I made a point of emulating his narrative approach, using historical details and recorded dialogue to tell a story that entertains as well as educates. Morris has been criticized for venerating his subject, and I tend to agree, but his research is superb, and his meticulous attention to historical detail led him to challenge some of the mythologies that have grown around T.R. If you’re looking for compelling, well-researched biographies that make you yearn to join T.R. on his many adventures, you can’t go wrong with Edmund Morris.”
“If not for Teddy Roosevelt taking on the economic interests of the day and cobbling together parks and forests, wildlife refuges, and nature sanctuaries, we wouldn’t have our treasured national wilderness. To ensure the public lands we value so highly today, Roosevelt had to take on miners, loggers, and the railroads. It’s a story best told in The Wilderness Warrior, the most thoroughly-researched book about Roosevelt’s conservation efforts, which are his lasting American legacy.”
“Theodore Roosevelt built his career around leading such a strenuous, active life – pugilist, rancher, soldier, president – that it’s easy to forget his scholarly achievements. As with all his pursuits, his intellect ranged over a broad landscape of subjects: He wrote accomplished, serious books on topics as disparate as naval history, the American West, and big-game hunting. But perhaps his most difficult subject was himself, which he tackled in his doorstopper of an autobiography.
It’s not just a book about Roosevelt; it is a book about Roosevelt trying to make sense of Roosevelt. It is wildly subjective; he leaves out his first wife, Alice, whose death at 22 years old, just days after giving birth to their first child, drove the future president into a deep depression. His unexplained decision to leave her out of a book he wrote nearly 30 years later says more about him than any account he could have put in the book. There are certainly better treatments of Roosevelt’s life; long parts of it drag, while others speed through complex topics that will leave modern readers at sea. But if it’s not the best account of our most complicated president, in many ways it’s the most interesting.”