26. Theodore Roosevelt
Boyhood Home (March 28, 2007)
In October 1912, campaigning for the presidency in Milwaukee, Teddy Roosevelt got shot by an anarchist. The bullet was slowed down by his overcoat, a copy of the speech he was about to give, and a glasses case in his pocket, but it lodged in his chest.
If I were shot by an anarchist ... I'd immediately take the rest of the day off. I don't care if there's a conference call at 3. I'm going home, and honestly, I might take tomorrow off as a "me" day.
Teddy Roosevelt ... stopped the crowd from lynching his shooter, declined medical attention (the bullet was in him for the rest of his life) and decided to go ahead and speak for the next hour. Over the rest of that day, he set the world record for push-ups, boxed all comers (including a kangaroo) in a driving rain storm and then wrote a 500-page history of the day's events. He was THE MAN.
You can see the shirt, glasses case and speech (all with bullet holes) on display at the Roosevelt birthplace in lower Manhattan (20th St., which in the 1860s was the suburbs). The building isn't original, but it's a pretty close recreation, right down to the small Starbucks in the basement. A few of the rooms have been converted to gallery space but the tour takes you through the parlor, the dining room and a few of the bedrooms. TR lived there until the age of 14, at which point the neighborhood was starting to go to crap (dirty Irish immigrants and whatnot) and the family moved to 57th St. (which in the 1870s was a lot like "Land of the Lost").
But the formative years of our most dynamic and fun-loving president were spent right there on 20th St. (and on world tours, and at their summer home, and swimming in the Roosevelt money bin). We generally think of TR as a pretty robust dude, but he was born a mewling asthmatic -- he had to earn his toughness. His dad put in a home gym just off his bedroom, and with only 5 minutes a day, three days a week on a Soloflex, he could rip phone books in half one-handed. Why did the Roosevelts have a phone book and a Soloflex machine before the invention of the phone or Soloflex? THAT'S HOW RICH THEY WERE.
According to the park ranger, Roosevelt's life was mostly an effort to impress his loaded philanthropist dad, who died when TR was 19. Even as president of the United States, he never felt he quite lived up to that example. So, dad: if you're wondering why I'm not motivated to become the leader of the free world, it's your fault a) for not being obscenely rich and b) not dying when I was a teenager. Way to deprive the country.
Sagamore Hill (July 5, 2009)
Mount Vernon has been called the autobiography that Washington never wrote. Sagamore Hill, then, would be the comic book that Theodore Roosevelt never drew.
The most interesting man in America had his passions, and judging from the house in Oyster Bay, they exploded all over the walls. You can't swing a big stick without hitting a dead animal, a bookshelf or something that might have killed a dead animal. It really is the house that TR built -- he bought the property in his early 20s, had the house constructed from scratch and clearly had a pretty heavy hand in the decorating. It was a warm-weather residence at first (the family also had digs in New York city, or Washington, or wherever they happened to to be living that year), but it became a year-round home, the "summer White House" and a Theodore Roosevelt museum. It's clunky, kind of tacky, and oh yeah: FUNDAMENTALLY AWESOME.
I got to visit on July 5 with a group of intrepid friends, who put up with a lack of coffee and me being a b****, to the point where we were there for the first tour of the day. As in, they hadn't opened up yet. We had to have a park ranger unlock the carraige house, where Roosevelt kept his vending machines, just to keep blood sugar levels high enough to keep my friends from mutiny. But what a tour it was!
The guide was awful. I've seen 23 presidential homes and this was the worst tour I've had. He was an older guy -- a volunteer for the National Park Service, from New York. We had about an hour to check out the home of one of America's most influential, dynamic and charismatic leaders, and about 15 minutes were used up by the guide talking about:
He didn't wait for the group to arrive in any room before he started speaking, he couldn't answer a few basic questions about items in the house and he complained a few times how there were 15 people in the tour group, when there were 12 of us. The highlight was a delightful yarn (while showing us the kitchen) about how he had to watch a chicken get clubbed to death when visiting rural acquaintances. I don't remember the details, as they were clouded out by my urge to club our guide to death with a chicken. Let's just say that, even as a volunteer, he was clearly getting paid too much.
Fortunately, the house tells you what your horrible, horrible guide probably missed:
Naturalist. From his earliest days, Teddy Roosevelt was a great naturalist, and he expressed his profound love of nature by killing and stuffing large portions of it. Every room had some kind of animal-skin rug, complete with the heads, to the point where it's hard to imagine how visiting dignitaries didn't trip on gaping animal maws. In fact, I'd rather imagine that they did, because it makes history that much funnier. We counted a polar bear, a grizzly bear, a tiger, a zebra and one Spanish soldier. Every non-bedroom had mounted animal heads: moose, deer, African herd animals, a warthog, William Jennings Bryan. There were about five elephant-foot wastebaskets, a few pairs of mounted tusks, and a bannister made from a giraffe's spine. (Spot the lies!) Beyond the animals, the estate itself is a nice spread -- hills and woods, rolling right down to Oyster Bay, where Roosevelt would ditch Secret Service and take his wife out rowing. He was our first president to live in a beach house, and for this we must adore him.
Family guy. Peeking in the kids' rooms, it's like a sitcom: the teenage daughter's room is all prissy, one of the son's room's (Quentin, I think) was packed with skis and snow shoes and college pennants ... If he was alive today, TR would almost definitely have his own VH1 show, and in one episode Alice would make out with a Japanese diplomat. It would be awesome.
Showman. As if the animal heads weren't enough, there's one phenomenal room in the mansion: a two-story addition to the house that's part museum, part rec room. Some of the coolest swag from his career was on display, including, placed across the antlers of one animal head, his sword and hat from his Rough Rider days. In case you misssed that, there's a near life-size portrait of TR in his Rough Rider uniform hanging by the door. Your guests should always know that you killed people and looked dashing doing it. It's an alpha male kind of room, where you would hang your 72-inch flat screen TV, keep your vintage pinball machine and maybe a kegerator. You can't NOT be impressed, and Teddy Roosevelt absolutely had that it mind. One other fun detail -- on the porch, the railing is missing in one section at TR's behest. When crowds would hoof it up the hill to stand on his lawn and hear him speak, he wanted to be as close as possible, with no barriers between him and his audience. Anyone who's tried to do stand-up comedy behind a podium completely gets this.
Nerd. There are books everywhere. Roosevelt's study (the de facto Oval Office a few months out of the year) is lined with them, they're all over the "rec room" and they're even crammed in odd spaces -- the bedroom where Roosevelt died has a bookshelf mounted almost on the doorframe, like they saw a few square inches of space and had to fill it. And like any self-respecting nerd, Roosevelt had a hideaway: a room on the top floor where he could be alone with his thoughts, and some animal heads, and his collection of antique swords, and a giant grizzly bear rug. Yes, Teddy Roosevelt was king of the nerds. And king of the jocks. But not king of the jungle! There were no lion heads in the house, and he died from health complications picked up in the Amazon, so it's safe to assume that the jungle kept its crown.
If the house is missing anything, it's Edith -- Roosevelt's wife pretty clearly deferred to her husband in most of the common areas. There is a parlor which is sort of girly and brighter, but for the most part she seems to be in the background. It actually fits the pattern of their life, as she wasn't one for the spotlight. Living in a moose lodge is the price you pay for marrying greatness, I guess.
In the historic sense, Sagamore Hill was maybe the first true summer White House -- thanks to phone lines and rail lines, TR was actually able to move the operations of the executive branch to a fishing village in Long Island a few months out of the year. It's also the place where TR kicked the bucket, in an upstairs bedroom after a steady decline. And he's buried just a mile a way! Youngs Memorial Cemetery is just down the hill. We were greeted there by yet another intriguing character, a retired teacher who was now the "groundskeeper," apparently knew a few of TR's kids and tried to present us with a photocopied packet documenting his personal advocating on behalf of ... uh ... something. I think there was an anti-child abuse bill in there somewhere. In my mind, he regularly has fistfights in the town square with our tour guide over the girl they both asked to prom. She went with neither of them.
The grave is very simple and, considering that he was the most popular man in America, reserved -- Edith apparently picked out the spot, and maybe in death she finally got her say on the decorating.
TR Inaugural Site (August 26, 2009)
The modern presidency, in which one man is expected to solve all the problems of the world in eight years or less, was born in Buffalo. The man of the hour was Theodore Roosevelt, as the previous man of the hour had just died about a mile away. Wearing a borrowed suit and surrounded by McKinley's cabinet (but no photographers) he took the oath, promised to do exactly what McKinley would have done, and then over the next three years trampled on all sorts of things that McKinley wouldn't have touched with 50-foot pole. Here's where the magic happened:
That's the parlor of the Wilcox mansion, on Delaware street. Wilcox was an old friend from the New York Assembly, and the guy whose suit Teddy was wearing; he had rushed to Buffalo so quickly from his family vacation in the Adirondacks that he didn't have time to pack. The house is real, though the room is a recreation -- after the Wilcoxes died in the 1930s, the place was converted to a restaurant for about 20 years. Presumably, you could request a table roughly where Teddy Roosevelt was inaugurated. Suck on that, Olive Garden.
It's a national park now, and a shiny one at that -- renovations finshed this year, so that means TOUCH SCREENS! And lots of them. Usually I don't go for that stuff, as I actually don't mind reading, but I have to say I liked it. They start you off with a ton of stuff about the Pan-American exposition, which Roosevelt had opened and McKinley was visiting when he was shot. There are old Edison kinetoscopes of the grounds, and it's astonishing. A century ago people would actually build ornate, disposable cities, and things like electric lights were novel enough to be a draw. Remember that the next time you're bored by Wii Sports.
Beyond that, there's a nice overview of the America Roosevelt was facing, his plans for world domination, etc. etc. and so forth. The hightlight still has to be the parlor, though, with one close second. Upstairs is a replica of TR's White House office (the Oval Office was being built), complete with desk, camera and e-mail capability. Here's what was waiting for me on my return to my desk.