Roosevelt wouldn’t allow himself to believe they were dying.
The night train from Albany rattled along through the darkened countryside. Dimmed lanterns swayed overhead, lighting the passenger coach, his features reflected in the grimy window. He looked exactly the way he felt, drained and stunned, his eyes rimmed with despair. He refused to yield to the terror that pulsed in his heart.
Five days ago, when he’d left New York City, Dr. Murdock, the attending physician, had assured him there was no reason for concern. His mother was bedridden with a severe cold, and his wife, expecting their first child, seemed normal. His responsibilities as an assemblyman in the state legislature and a leading voice in the Republican Party required his vote on impending legislation. He was loathe to leave, but the doctor had again reassured him that his anxiety was unwarranted. He’d caught the Sunday train for Albany, the state capital.
Just that morning, a crisp, snowy Thursday, he had received a telegram from his brother, Elliot. The message informed him that his wife, Alice, had given birth to a healthy baby girl and was doing fairly well, considering it was her first delivery. The date was February 14, 1884, and Roosevelt, euphoric with the news, thought it auspicious that his daughter had been born on St. Valentine’s Day. His colleagues in the legislature, when he entered chambers for a critical vote on civic reform, pummeled him with congratulations. He was proud as punch.
“Wonderful news, Theodore,” one of his friends said, pumping his arm. “How does it feel to be a father?”
“By Godfrey!” Roosevelt replied with a nutcracker grin. “I never imagined it would be so grand.”
But now, as he stared out the train window, the words rang hollow. Late that afternoon, when the legislature adjourned for the day, he had returned to his office. His secretary handed him another telegram, and he’d fully expected a glowing report on mother and child. Upon opening the envelope, his face went ashen as he scanned the message, and a chilling numbness struck at his very core. The text was a death knell, short and brutal. Too much to comprehend.
Mother is dying, and Alice is dying too.
Even on the best of days, there was no quick way from Albany to New York City. The train was slowed by snow squalls in the north and thick ground fog to the south along the Hudson River. The slow, tortuous journey was all but unbearable, and mile-by-mile, alternating between prayers and a sense of desolation, Roosevelt’s thoughts skewed wildly from hope to abject fear. One moment he believed the God he worshipped would show infinite mercy, and the next he dreaded he would be too late. He cursed himself for not being there, for having left when he should have stayed.
The train pulled into Grand Central Station shortly after ten o’clock. Roosevelt was out the vestibule door before the coaches stopped rolling, and hurried up the stairway to the main terminal. The central chamber was a vast beaux arts amphitheater, with vaulted arches, massive stained-glass windows, and the constellations of the zodiac wrought in gold against blue on a majestic ceiling. He marched through the terminal as though blind to the airy marble colossus.
People invariably noticed Roosevelt and were quick not to block his path. He stood four inches shy of six feet and weighed perhaps 150 pounds when fully clothed. Yet he was unusually muscular, with a bull-like chest and a thick neck that strained against his shirt collar. His eyes were pale blue, pince-nez glasses squeezed onto his nose over a full mustache, and brushy side whiskers emphasized his hard, square jaw. His expression was offset by a mouthful of dazzling tombstone teeth and bordered on the snarl of a man peering directly into the sun. He looked like he could walk through granite.
Outside the terminal he caught a hansom cab on Forty Second Street. The broad thoroughfare and nearby buildings were all but invisible in a dense drizzling mist. For the past ten days the city had been enveloped in a fog so pervasive that there was little difference between dawn and dusk. The air smelled of sodden ashes, for homes and businesses were heated by coal, and street lamps appeared shrouded in a viscous gray gauze. The driver held his horse to a cautious walk in the soupy murk.
Roosevelt was reminded of a similar night, just six years ago. An undergraduate at Harvard, he’d taken the train from Boston after being notified his father was mortally ill. Theodore Senior was a partner in an importing firm, a millionaire several times over, and the Roosevelts were among the inner circle of New York aristocracy. Only forty-six, he had taken ill suddenly and died three days later of a malignant tumor of the bowel. A noted philanthropist, Theodore Senior had been a man of tireless vitality, whose love of family was matched by his compassion for the poor. Roosevelt still thought of him by the name he’d secretly invented as a child—Greatheart.
Three years later, in the summer of 1880, Roosevelt had graduated magna cum laude from Harvard. He and Alice had married that fall, shortly before he enrolled as a law student at New York’s Columbia University. His father’s idealism led him to consider a career generally shunned by the wealthier class but one that enabled him to champion the rights of the downtrodden. In 1881 he joined the Republican Party, and at age twenty-three he was the youngest man ever elected to the New York State Legislature. His meteoric rise was attributed to his combative stance against the corrupt politics of Tammany Hall, and last November he had been elected to a third term in the legislature. The New York Times, in a recent article, hailed him as “the most remarkable young politician of our day.”
Tonight Roosevelt would have traded it all for a reversal of what he feared awaited him at home. As the cab drew to a halt before the mansion at 6 West Fifty Seventh Street, he jumped out and handed a wad of bills to the driver. Through the fog, Roosevelt saw the dull glow of lamps inside, and he hurried up the steps and rapped sharply on the door. A moment elapsed, and he was about to knock again when the door opened. Elliot, who was two years younger, pulled him into the vestibule. Elliot’s expression was stark.
“Thank God you’re here,” he said. “I prayed you would make it in time.”
“What’s happened?” Roosevelt demanded. “Mother and Alice were perfectly fine when I left for Albany.”
“Dr. Murdock will have to explain it. I still find it all so . . . incomprehensible.”
Anna and Corinne, Roosevelt’s sisters, rushed from the parlor into the hallway. Anna, fondly known as “Bamie,” was the oldest at twenty-nine and seemed destined for the life of a spinster. Corinne was the baby of the family, scarcely twenty-two, and already married. Bamie threw herself into Roosevelt’s arms.
“Oh, Teddy!” she cried in a shaky voice. “I can’t bring myself to believe we might lose them.”
Roosevelt hugged her and drew Corinne into the embrace. The mansion was three stories, lavishly furnished with Persian carpets in every room and an ornate hand-carved staircase leading to the upper floors. Usually alive with laughter and gaiety, the house was now eerily quiet. Bamie sniffled, her eyes moist with tears, and Roosevelt patted her shoulder.
“Where is Dr. Murdock?” he said. “I must speak with him.”
“In the parlor,” Corinne said softly. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Dr. Harold Murdock was a short, stout man with a mane of white hair. He was standing before a blazing fireplace when they came through the doorway to the parlor. His features were dour as he moved forward to shake hands with Roosevelt. Watching them, Elliot was struck again by his brother’s force of character. Whenever he entered a room, he radiated such a sense of voltage that he immediately became the central presence. Tonight he seemed somehow larger than life in a house of death.
“I require an explanation,” he said with a perfunctory handshake. “On Sunday, you assured me there was no reason for concern. What has happened to change your diagnosis?”
“Your mother contracted pneumonia,” Murdock said frankly. “Her condition deteriorated overnight, and the suddenness of it has no medical explanation. She was simply too frail to fight it off.”
“Are you saying there’s nothing to be done?”
“Nothing known to medical science, Mr. Roosevelt. Only the very strong of constitution survive pneumonia.”
Bamie snuffled quietly while Corinne and Elliot averted their eyes. Roosevelt stared directly at the physician. “And what of my wife?”
“Bright’s disease,” Murdock informed him. “In layman’s terms, irreversible failure of the kidneys. She’s probably had it for some time, a dormant strain. Lying in wait.”
“Lying in wait for what?”
“A stress to the system too grievous to endure. Quite likely, the rigors of childbirth unleashed toxins into her system. Her delivery was long, and difficult.”
Roosevelt frowned. “You couch these terms in a certain vagary, Doctor. Perhaps we need another medical opinion.”
“I felt so, too,” Murdock said. “Dr. John Phelps, chief surgeon at St. Luke’s, was here this afternoon. He concurs with what is now my prognosis.”
“Prognosis, as in final, if I understand the distinction. Are you convinced there’s no hope?”
“I regret to say that is correct, Mr. Roosevelt.”
“You’ve made no mention of the baby. Is she well?”
“Your daughter is quite healthy, perfectly fit. You needn’t worry.”
Roosevelt’s gaze was drawn to the fireplace. He stood for a moment, staring into the flames, as if unwilling to accept the verdict on the women he loved most. Then, abruptly, he turned toward the doorway. “I must see them.”
“Mr. Roosevelt,” Murdock said gently.
“Yes.” Roosevelt paused, unable to look back. “What is it, Doctor?”
“I suggest you see your mother first. In my judgment, she will not last the night.”
“And my wife?”
“She has time yet, perhaps the morning.”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
Roosevelt went through the hall and mounted the sweeping staircase. His shoulders were squared, as though summoning courage. He willed himself to be strong.
The bedroom was lighted by lamps turned low. A fire flickered in the hearth, and a nurse, an older woman in a white uniform, sat in a chair beside the bed. When Roosevelt entered the room, she rose and stepped aside. Her expression revealed nothing.
“Good evening, sir,” she said kindly. “I’ll just wait outside till you finish your visit.”
Roosevelt seated himself in the chair. His mother lay propped against a bank of pillows, her flannel nightdress open at the throat. Her face was flushed bright with fever, and her breathing was labored, hardly more than a wheezing rasp. Her dark hair was tinged with gray, upswept in the fashion she preferred, and her eyes were closed. He thought she looked as beautiful as ever.
Some of his fondest memories of childhood were of the woman endearingly called Little Motherling. Martha Bulloch Roosevelt was originally from Savannah, the youngest daughter of an aristocratic southern family. She was delicate, with vivid blue eyes and a creamy complexion, and after marrying Theodore Senior she had become the belle of New York society. She was known to her husband and closest friends as Mittie, and her gentle spirit, mixed with a buoyant serenity, made her almost angelic. She was the calm in the storm of an exuberant and oftentimes volcanic household.
Roosevelt found it impossible to reconcile that she was dying so soon after her fiftieth birthday. In January, when family and friends gathered for her birthday gala, she had been effervescent, the very picture of health and happiness. And now, only a month later, she lay fragile and withered on her deathbed. His mouth was suddenly thick with the taste of bile.
The sound of her voice startled him. Her eyes were watery and she stared at him as though unable to bring him into focus. Her hand trembled when she tried to lift it from the bed.
“Mama.” Roosevelt leaned closer, taking her hand in his own. “How well you look, absolutely in the pink.”
“Always the fibber,” she said with a wan smile. “I knew you would come. I waited for you.”
“You mustn’t tax yourself, Mama. Save your strength until you recover.”
“I’m dying, Theodore, and you needn’t pretend. I waited to tell you something.”
“Yes, of course, what is it?”
“I am so very proud of you. . . .” Her face congested and she drew a ragged breath, gathering herself. “Your father would have been proud, too. I wish he had lived to see all you have accomplished.”
Roosevelt was unable to speak. He swallowed hard, determined to control his emotions, holding them tight inside. She squeezed his hand with the silken touch of a butterfly.
’Now, I have to rest. Run along and see Alice, Theodore. She needs you so.”
“Yes, perhaps you’re right, Mama. I’ll look in on her and return before you know it. We’ll talk some more.”
“I will be . . .”
Her voice failed even as her eyes closed. Roosevelt stood, hesitating a moment, waiting until he heard the sibilant rasp of her breathing. He finally moved to the door, and when he went out, the nurse returned to the room. As the door closed, he paused to compose himself, dreading what came next. He steeled himself to take heart, hold it together.
Down the hall, he entered the suite of rooms he shared with Alice. Off to the left of the parlor, he saw a heavyset woman bending over a crib in the room redecorated some months ago as a nursery. Quickly, not yet ready to meet his daughter, he walked to the bedroom. A uniformed nurse moved away from the bed and crossed to where he stood in the doorway. She nodded to him with a look of heartfelt sympathy.
“Mr. Roosevelt,” she said in a hushed tone. “We’ve been expecting you. Mrs. Roosevelt is resting quietly.”
“Well, that’s good,” Roosevelt managed. “Is she awake?”
“No, sir, not at this time. She drifts in and out every hour or so. She’s quite coherent when she’s awake.”
“Is she in pain?”
“Not all that much, no, sir. Dr. Murdock ordered laudanum to ease her discomfort. She’s actually doing very well.”
“Yes, I know you’re doing everything possible. I believe I will sit with her for a while.”
“I’ll just wait in the parlor, then. Call if you need me.”
She went out. Roosevelt walked to the bed, mentally prepared for the worst. Alice’s features were pale, somewhat gaunt, and her auburn hair, long and loose, fanned down across her shoulders. Her breathing was shallow, her lips slightly parted, the lashes of her eyes still, as though she’d fallen into a deep sleep. He seated himself in a chair beside the bed and lightly stroked her cheek with his fingertips. He thought, even now, she was the loveliest woman he’d ever seen.
The memory of it, the day they’d first met, suddenly flooded his mind. Her name was Alice Hathaway Lee, and it was during his third year at Harvard. She was seventeen, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, the family prominent in Boston society. Roosevelt was bewitched from the moment he saw her and told friends she was the most enchanting creature he’d ever known. He courted her for two years, and four months after his graduation from Harvard they were married at Chestnut Hill, the Lees’ family estate. He thought then, and had never doubted it since, that he was the luckiest man in the world.
Alice was vivacious and animated, with a sly humor that led him to call her his sunny little bride. After a honeymoon in Europe, they settled into the mansion on Fifty Seventh Street, and her vibrant gaiety quickly enchanted everyone in the Roosevelt family. They were soon the toast of New York’s social elite, invited to a whirlwind of dinner parties and gala balls hosted by the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers. They danced the nights away, carefree and laughing, while he spent his days in law school at Columbia University. Others were quick to comment that they’d never seen a couple so perfectly matched.
Ever his most ardent supporter, Alice reveled in whatever enterprise he undertook. His family, particularly an uncle who had assumed the helm of the Roosevelt & Company importing firm, had argued strenuously against Theodore’s entering the political arena. Their social position and their sober Dutch heritage held that politics was suitable only for low-class Irishmen, certainly not for men of his status. But Alice, who was unwavering in her faith, insisted that he follow his dreams, wherever they might lead. Her pride in his accomplishments ultimately became the pride of the Roosevelt family.
“Pardon me, sir.”
Roosevelt’s reverie was broken by the nurse’s voice. Alice was still fast asleep, and when he glanced at the wall clock he realized he’d been lost in rumination for almost an hour. He turned in his chair and saw the nurse waiting in the doorway. Her look was grave.
“Dr. Murdock asks that you come to your mother’s room. He suggested you come right away.”
“Yes, of course,” Roosevelt said, pushing out of his chair. “You’ll look after my wife?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll be here when you return.”
The family was gathered around the bed when Roosevelt hurried into the room. Bamie and Corinne were crying softly, and Elliot looked paralyzed with grief. Dr. Murdock stood apart, his features stoic, nodding to Roosevelt, as if to say it was time. Roosevelt moved past Elliot, joining Bamie and Corinne at the head of the bed.
Martha Bullock Roosevelt appeared strangely at peace. Her labored breathing of an hour ago was now little more than a gentle gasp, slow and irregular and fainter by the moment. Her face was composed, somehow less flushed, her high, patrician cheekbones rosy with color. The small clock on her writing desk lightly chimed midnight, and shortly afterward she drew her last breath. Her visage was serene in death.
Bamie and Corinne began sobbing, and Elliot mopped his face with a handkerchief. Roosevelt felt numb and cold, struggling against tears, afraid, once started, he might never stop. Dr. Murdock took his arm.
“Your place now is with your wife, Mr. Roosevelt. Your mother is at peace.”
Roosevelt nodded, unable to speak, unable to console anyone, least of all himself. He walked back down the hall, entered the suite, and relieved the nurse in the bedroom. He dropped into the chair, searching Alice’s face a moment, and found nothing to kindle any vestige of hope. His shoulders slumped, and he leaned forward, his head bowed.