- - Wednesday, April 20, 2016



By Eric Burns

Pegasus Books, $26.95, 224 pages, illustrated

There have been young people in the White House during many administrations. Not all of them were the actual children of presidents, but grandchildren, nephews and nieces — even in the case of the widowed FDR resident insider Harry Hopkins, his young daughter. But it is fair to say that never have children so thoroughly inhabited the Executive Mansion, made it their own, as did those of Theodore Roosevelt at the dawn of the 20th century. The younger ones even formed themselves into The White House Gang and it was the youngest of TR’s offspring, Quentin, who, television journalist and author Eric Burns tells readers, was “the ringleader of [this] band of free-spirited lads.” Mr. Burns calls his account of the special relationship between the president and his favorite child a haunting one, but it is so many other things as well: heartwarming and heartbreaking, joyful exuberance ending with the kind of death in combat so celebrated and sought by TR for himself but unendurable in his Golden Lad.

First lady Edith Roosevelt, no stranger to difficult children with a half-dozen of her own to raise, summed up her youngest with a mixture of pride, admiration and exasperation: “What a fine little bad boy he was!” Soon, Mr. Burns, whose portrait of Quentin is nothing if not finely nuanced, writes that “the description had become inadequate to her son’s growing complexities.” The child who resembled his famous father in character and disposition although not in looks (he was by any standards an exceptionally handsome young man by the time of his death at 20), they equaled one another in triumphing over constant bouts of ill health with an indomitable spirit and courage which carried over into other aspects of their lives. Quentin was his father’s favorite: “he clearly showed more affection to Quentin than any of the others and less obviously, Quentin was also Edith’s favorite.”

This was in part because he appears more than any of the other children to have inherited his father’s formidable intellect, one of the most impressive of any presidents’, although it has too often been eclipsed by his extraordinary physicality and force of personality. The rebelliousness that made Quentin the darling of newspapers in his White House days (right up until the time he left it at 11) continued throughout his all too brief life. Mr. Burns shows the strength of character and moral grounding that coexisted with all that rascality, narcissism and needing to be the center of attention.

His view of Quentin is, if anything, more benevolent and forgiving than his parents’, but it is doubtful if the officials and congressmen who had to confront the child’s antics with several large snakes would have shared it. According to Mr. Burns, Edith Roosevelt thought “that Quentin was the ‘least martial’ of the children. What she tolerated in her husband she did not want to encourage in her children.” All of her four sons fought bravely in combat, three of them predeceasing her during two world wars. But the loss of Quentin, whose enlistment as an airman soon after the United States entered World War I was clearly driven by a sense of duty and obligation rather than bloodlust, was the sharpest blow, the most painful to endure, because of his extreme youth. The surprisingly gifted student at prep school won a scholarship to Harvard but never had the chance to fulfill his potential.

And not just academically or professionally, for the Golden Lad had found his Golden Lass in Flora Payne Whitney, an heiress and a remarkable figure in her own right. Her mega-rich father Harry Payne Whitney and equally wealthy and artist mother Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney were cool to a Roosevelt match, but Theodore and Edith seemed to have been only a little less enamored of Flora than Quentin:

“Flora visited Theodore often during his illnesses, and he found her ‘so darling and pretty; and afterwards she wrote one of the finest, dearest letters ever written by a young girl happy in her love but sundered from her lover.’ That dinner, in fact, seems to have inspired Roosevelt: ‘Why don’t you write to Flora, and to her father and mother,’ surely not realizing how cold-hearted he was about to sound, surely believing in glory more than misery, ‘asking if she won’t come abroad and marry you? As for your getting killed, or ordinarily crippled, afterwards, why she would rather have married you than not married you under those conditions; and as for the extraordinary kinds of crippling, they are rare, and anyway we have to take certain chances in life.”

Flora was willing, but wartime bureaucracy was not. After Quentin’s death, “for a time, Flora would continue visiting, ‘comforting and seeking comfort’ ” as if she were actually his widow. Roosevelt’s epistolary words to his son — unflinching in his realism and courage, driven by understanding and affection for the young lovers — reveal the true measure of the man. Such chivalry is rare at any time but seems especially so today and thus this story — hauntingly tragic and undeniably sad — shines brightly as a reminder of true gallantry, admirable for all seasons.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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