If you haven’t anything nice to say, come sit by me.
Alice was Teddy Roosevelt’s oldest child and by all estimates she provided the President with some of his greatest challenges. After interrupting him three times during a meeting, he explained to his friend, Owen Wister, “I can either run the country or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both.” When asked why she behaved so outrageously, she explained that it was the only way to get noticed around her larger-than-life father who, “Always wanted to be, the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral and the baby at every christening.”
And she certainly was noticed. She was noticed smoking on the roof of the White House (her father had banned her from smoking indoors). She was noticed driving around the countryside at high speeds in her roadster (with boys but no chaperone). She was noticed staying up all night partying, wearing a boa constrictor around her neck, shooting at telegraph poles from trains and placing bets at the track. On a diplomatic mission to the Far East with future-president Taft she was even noticed jumping into the ship’s swimming pool fully clothed. And the public loved every minute of it. Songs about Alice sold out as fast as the sheet music could be printed. Her favorite color—a soft shade of gray-blue—was dubbed “Alice Blue,” and became a fashion rage. Men and women alike were enthralled by her brash independence in an age of measured restraint.
Age didn’t slow Alice down. As times—and administrations—passed she reveled in her role as a social and political gadfly. She became known as the other Washington Monument and had the distinction of being banned from the White House by three different Presidents. (Even cousin Franklin drew the line when during his third campaign she announced she’d sooner, “vote for Hitler than Franklin again.”)
There’s no doubting that Mrs. L—as she was called in later years—was something of a character. It’s surprising, though, how tame her antics would be considered today. The easy defiance of authority and the provocative behavior has become commonplace. Rapier sharp put downs and hard edged sarcasm are now integral parts of our entertainment, politics and social discourse. But behind her entertaining façade, was the persistent belief that in her case the rules didn’t apply, that she always knew best and that all was fair as long as she got the last laugh. We can see—with some alarm—that these same values have somehow permeated our modern culture. In an odd but very real way, things that were once viewed as selfish, coarse, and unkind have become acceptable. The outrageous has become routine.
Despite all that, there’s something we find appealing about Alice and the “Alices” of our own time. We’re drawn to cleverness, daring and fearlessness in taking on titans. We enjoy having someone poke a stick at convention. But it’s an appeal with inherent dangers. The next time someone swears at work or is willfully rude, gauge your tolerance. Are you really comfortable with the lack of civility? Are you growing numb to behaviors that diminish both you and others? Your life should be more than a sitcom. Reclaim your dignity. —Ebert