Childhood & Early Life
Edith was born on August 6, 1861, in Norwich, Connecticut, to Charles Carow, who belonged to a successful mercantile family, and his wife, Gertrude Elizabeth Tyler. She was the second of the three children born to her parents. She had a younger sister, Emily Tyler Carow, while her elder brother, Kermit, had died in infancy. She was raised in the same neighbourhood as the Roosevelts.
From a very young age, she knew Theodore Roosevelt (T.R.) and his family. His younger sister, Corinne, was her childhood playmate. She completed her primary education along with the Roosevelt children at their house. Later, she attended Louise Comstock’s private finishing school.
While growing up together, Edith and T.R. formed a close bond. She often went to the Roosevelt family’s summer home on Long Island, where she camped and went for boat rides with T.R.
In 1867, Edith’s father lost most of his wealth, and took to alcoholism and gambling, due to which her family faced many difficulties. This period of suffering and its memories caused her discomfort and she turned intensely private.
Edith was an avid reader (later, T.R. remarked that her taste in literature was superior to his). Although Edith and T.R. had grown quite close to each other, their rumored romance broke (for the reasons unknown) after T.R. joined Harvard University. T.R. later met Alice Hathaway Lee, and they got married on October 27, 1880, at Brookline (Greater Boston). Edith attended the wedding and also occasionally met the couple socially.
After the death of her father in 1883, the Carow women were homeless and couldn’t continue living in New York. They planned to move to Europe to live with their relatives. In February 1884, Alice Lee died soon after giving birth to a daughter. Deeply saddened, T.R. retreated to his ranch in Dakota. His new born daughter was left with his sister in New York.
Edith did not meet T.R. during this period, but they met accidently during one of his visits to New York. Thereafter they began seeing each other. She accepted his marriage-proposal on November 17, 1885, but they kept their engagement a secret. After the Carow women moved to London, T.R. went over, and the two got married on December 2, 1886, at St. George Anglican Church, Hanover Square, London.
Edith and T.R. went on a long European honeymoon and visited places in France, followed by Florence, Rome, Venice, Naples, and Capri. Back in the US, the two went to live at Oyster Bay, Long Island, in the house that he had started building for his first wife. Its name ‘Leeholm’ (selected by Alice Lee) was changed to ‘Sagamore Hill.’
Roosevelt first daughter, Alice, also stayed with them. In the next 10 years (1887-1897), Edith gave birth to 5 children - Theodore Jr., Kermit, Ethel, Archibald, and Quentin. She also suffered two miscarriages.
In 1888, Roosevelt was appointed Civil Service Commissioner (1889-1894). Edith moved to Washington DC, where she took part in cultural events, visited museums, and joined the salon of historian and critic Henry Adams.
In 1894, Edith expressed her disapproval when Roosevelt planned to contest for the mayor’s seat in New York. He accepted it, but was later appointed New York City Police Commissioner (1895-1897). The family moved to New York, only to return to Washington when Roosevelt became assistant secretary of the Navy (1897-1898).
When the Spanish-American War broke out in April 1898, Roosevelt joined the US Army. Edith traveled to Tampa Bay, Florida, to meet her husband and his troops as they left for Cuba. When the troops returned to the encampments at Montauk, Long Island, she went there to meet Roosevelt as a Red Cross volunteer, thus managing to break the malaria quarantine.
After his return, Roosevelt was selected as the Republican candidate for Governor of New York. Edith helped him by looking after his correspondence. After he was elected Governor in 1899, Edith moved with her family into the Victorian Governor’s mansion. She took care of the social commitments as the Governor’s wife by hosting receptions (expected of a Governor). She also refurbished the mansion.
In 1900, Roosevelt was elected Vice President to President McKinley, and Edith became the Second Lady. Six months later, when President McKinley was assassinated, Roosevelt became the 26th president and Edith became the First Lady.
As the First Lady, Edith brought in several official changes. She became the first ‘First Lady’ to appoint a social secretary. Isabelle Hagner became the first White House social secretary for the First Lady. Edith held social events and played hostess to several White House parties. The family’s major events at the While House included the social debut of Alice and Ethel, and thereafter the wedding of Alice Roosevelt.
Everyday, Edith spent an hour with her husband, and it is said that she held a discreet effect over his opinions. Apparently, it was through her contact with British consul Cecil Spring Rice that Roosevelt received information about the Russo-Japanese War, which was brought to an end with negotiation of a treaty. Subsequently, Roosevelt was awarded the ‘Nobel Peace Prize’ in 1906.
The White House aides always had a good word about Edith Roosevelt. She bought a cabin, ‘Pine Knot,’ in countryside Virginia to create a quiet retreat for her husband.
When the family moved into the Presidential house, Edith realized that the space was inadequate to accommodate her large family. She made arrangements to separate the offices from the living area. She appointed the architectural firm ‘McKim, Mead & White’ to renovate the public area, re-do the interiors and also develop the landscaping. The offices were moved to the new West Wing, while the family’s living quarters were positioned in the East Wing.
Previously known as ‘Executive Mansion,’ Roosevelt named it the ‘White House.’ Edith prepared a catalog of the White House china and made a display of the same. She also created a gallery of the portraits of the First Ladies. The antique furniture was preserved under her instructions.
After Roosevelt’s tenure as president was over, Edith travelled with her family. In 1912, when he ran for a third time, she wasn’t for it, but supported him and later comforted him when he lost. In October 1912, when an attempt was made on Roosevelt’s life, she not only looked after him, but also kept the people/journalists away from him. She later went with him to Brazil to see him off, when he left to explore the River of Doubt.
After Roosevelt’s death in 1919, Edith traveled around Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa. In 1932, she campaigned briefly for the Republican presidential candidate, Herbert Hoover.
On September 30, 1948, Edith died at Sagamore Hills, and was buried next to her husband in Youngs Memorial Cemetery, Oyster Bay.