Public Intrigued by Private Lives of Nixon Daughters

This signed family portrait of the Nixons, showing the first daughters and their husbands, sold for nearly $200 at an April 2012 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

By most accounts, Patricia “Tricia” Nixon was the most beautiful of all White House brides. She was featured alone as the cover story on Life magazine not once but twice. By January 1971, the public was fascinated by her romance with Edward Finch Cox, a young Harvard Law student who had once worked with consumer activist Ralph Nader and written for the liberal New Republic.

Tricia and Ed came from opposite social and political poles. The young Mr. Cox could trace his lineage to a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His parents both had social pedigrees and spent their summers at the Long Island estate that had been in the family for six generations.

Richard Nixon was already a lightning rod for an increasingly adversarial media and traveled in much different circles. He had earlier defended himself from using a private fund for personal use by showcasing his modest lifestyle. He bragged that his wife could not boast of a mink coat, but owned a “respectable Republican cloth coat.”

Ed accompanied Tricia to the International Debutante Ball and discovered they had a lot in common. He was “aloof and private,” and she often avoided White House events and was called the “Howard Hughes of the WH” by her popular younger sister Julie. In fact, when Julie married Dwight David Eisenhower II in 1968, it was a small, private ceremony performed by minister and bestselling author Norman Vincent Peale. This alliance of the Nixon-Eisenhower dynasties was intriguing to the public, which naturally assumed Tricia was sure to follow in a more understated manner.

Surprisingly, the private Tricia chose a large White House wedding with a guest list of 400. First Lady Pat Nixon suggested a Rose Garden event and, after a long debate over the risk of rain, the date was set for June 12, 1971. Priscilla Kidder, the “doyenne of bridal outfitting,” designed the dress, and WH pastry chef Heinz Bender produced a 350-pound cantilevered cake that was dissed by some pompous food critics as a “lemony, sweetish non-entity” (tough crowd!).

There was intermittent rain in the morning, but the sun broke through right on schedule. Eighty-seven-year-old Alice Roosevelt was on hand, complaining that her seat was wet. Talking about the Nixon girls, Alice would offer one of her patented biting comments: “I like Julie better than Tricia. I’ve never been able to get on with Tricia. She seems rather pathetic, doesn’t she? I wonder what’s wrong with her?”

It has been pointed out that there were deep reasons and issues behind the famous quips of Alice Roosevelt. Sitting in her damp seat in the Rose Garden, her own glorious moment long forgotten and her famous father now covered over by multiple layers of important personalities and issues, Alice Roosevelt may have been lashing out at the only White House bride whose beauty transcended her own. Pure jealousy is a powerful emotion that takes a long time to dissipate.

The day after the wedding, Ed and Tricia were off to Camp David for their honeymoon. The New York Times broke some story about some “Pentagon Papers” from a little-known military analyst employed by the RAND Corporation. Few probably suspected that this would lead to an even more complex situation that would eventually jar the entire nation.

Fate seems to be indifferent to the emotions of mere mortals.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Her Fearless Tongue Made Alice Roosevelt the Most Popular of Presidential Children

Albert Beck Wenzell (1864-1917) painted this gouache on paper, titled Theodore Roosevelt and His Daughter Alice. It went to auction in May 2006.

By Jim O’Neal

To describe Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1884-1980) as a handful would be a gross understatement. She was the only child of Teddy Roosevelt and Alice Hathaway Lee. Her mother died two days after her birth of Bright’s disease – a catch-all term for kidney diseases. Eleven hours before her death, TR’s mother, Martha “Mittie” Roosevelt, had died of typhoid fever. It was a traumatic time in the Roosevelt home and it would haunt Teddy for the rest of his life.

Young Alice never founded a school or hospital, never ran for public office, and was terrified of public speaking, but she became unquestionably the best known and most popular of presidential children.

She was 17 when William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, which vaulted her vice-president father into the White House. When she learned of the news, she reportedly let out a war whoop and danced on the front lawn. Years later in an interview with reporter Sally Quinn (third wife of Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post), Alice described her feelings as “utter rapture.” This kind of candor made her almost irresistible to the American public, and the press dubbed her “Princess Alice.”

One infatuated biographer described her as the “first female American celebrity of the 20th century.” Her cousin Joseph Alsop – the famous syndicated columnist whose robust opinions appeared in national newspapers for five decades – referred to her as “Washington’s other memorial.” Her celebrity started early, as people all over the country were talking about her antics, her clothes and her fearless tongue, which all delighted the average citizen.

On Inauguration Day in 1905, she was so exuberantly waving to her friends in the crowd that her father chided her by saying, “Alice, this is MY inauguration!” She was a flirt who smoked cigarettes in public and when her father declared that no daughter of his would smoke under his roof, she devilishly climbed to the roof of the White House to smoke on top of his roof. A perplexed TR told renowned author Owen Wister (“The Virginian”): “I can either run the country or attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both!”

After her 1902 society debut, the press constantly speculated on her romantic links with most of Washington’s eligible bachelors. She finally married Congressman Nicholas Longworth (future Speaker of the House) in one of the most famous weddings in American history, with front-page coverage across the country. Longworth was a notorious philanderer. William “Fishbait” Miller, doorkeeper of the House, described him as the “greatest womanizer in the history of Capitol Hill.”

Their marriage was an open sham and Alice was rumored to have had a child with William Borah, who became a senator after Idaho became a state in 1890. He was a perennial contender for president and was responsible for killing President Wilson’s attempt to approve the Treaty of Versailles.

Alice delighted in skewering prominent politicians. Calvin Coolidge “was weaned on a pickle.” Speaking of Herbert Hoover, she said “the Hoover vacuum is more exciting, but of course it is electric.” New York Governor Thomas Dewey, with his slick black hair, reminded Alice of the little groom on the top of a wedding cake. When FDR ran for a third term, she declared, “I’d rather vote for Hitler!”

Her acidic commentary on the rich and famous delighted and amused the public for four generations. Alice Roosevelt died of pneumonia on Feb. 20, 1980. At age 96, she had outlived the children of every other president.

She was a handful.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].