‘Mr. Speaker:’ Nicholas Longworth of Ohio

From the author’s personal collection. Speaker Nicholas Long,  1929
From the author’s personal collection.
Speaker Nicholas Long, 1929

By Ray Hill

If Nicholas Longworth is remembered at all today, it’s usually because of his marriage to Alice Roosevelt, the tart-tongued daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt.  Alice Roosevelt was anything but conventional and while their marriage started out with much promise, it grew somewhat cold.  The only child born during their union, a child Nick Longworth doted upon, was not his own.

Nick Longworth was a man of many talents, not the least of which was his musical ability.  Longworth was by all accounts a remarkably talented violinist and had a genuine love of music.  Longworth’s delight in classical music was not shared by his bride.  His other passions were alcohol and women.   Longworth was quite popular with his colleagues, most of whom knew about the Speaker’s interests.

There is an oft-repeated tale of a blustery Congressman approaching a sitting Longworth and rubbing his hand over the Speaker’s bald head.  The Congressman said, “Why, it feels just like my wife’s backside!”

Longworth slowly reached up and rubbed his head.

“Well, damned if it doesn’t,” he said, to much laughter amongst those present.

The blustery Congressman was said to have slunk out of the room.

Nicholas Longworth, III was born into wealth and privilege on November 5, 1869.  His grandfather, the original Nicholas Longworth, had been a very successful winemaker.  Some believe the first Nicholas Longworth was the father of wine making in America.  Nick father, Nicholas, II, earned a law degree and practice law, eventually rising to serve on the Ohio State Supreme Court.  Justice Longworth resigned from the bench and ceased to practice law at all, apparently distraught when his father died.

The Longworths were both socially and politically prominent.  Unlike most urban areas, Cincinnati was dominated by the Republican Party.  In turn, the Republican Party in Cincinnati was dominated by George B. Cox, who was the GOP “boss” in Hamilton County.

Nick was very well educated himself, attending an exclusive school for boys before going to Harvard University.  While most everyone agreed Nick Longworth possessed a fine mind, the trick seemed to be getting him to use it, as he rarely applied himself to his studies.  Nick did well enough to get into Harvard Law School, but he remained only a year before transferring to the Cincinnati School of Law.

Nick Longworth practiced law, but was deeply interested in politics.  He soon found a mentor in Boss Cox and he was elected to the Cincinnati Board of Education in 1898.  A promotion to the Ohio House of Representatives came next.  In 1900, Longworth was promoted yet again, winning election to the State Senate.  By 1902, Nick Longworth had won election to Congress.  He was to remain there, save for one two year interval, for the rest of his life.

Arriving in Washington in 1903 (along with another future Speaker and Longworth’s successor, John Nance Garner of Texas), Nick Longworth was a thirty-something, wealthy, charming, and one of the most sought after bachelor’s in the city.  A fair singer, who also played the piano, Nick Longworth was always a welcome guest at Washington parties.  Despite being fourteen years older than Alice Roosevelt, he managed to captivate that contrary young lady and they were married at the White House in 1906.

The two had met and became more acquainted when they were members of a large diplomatic delegation journeying to the Far East.  In a time before air travel, the delegation, consisting of seven members of the United States Senate, twenty-three congressmen, Alice Roosevelt and Secretary of War William Howard Taft, slowly made its way through Hawaii, the Philippines Japan, Korea, and China.  The press closely followed the activities of the delegation, but especially Alice Roosevelt.  Miss Roosevelt was the gleeful recipient of a number of lavish gifts and apparently she received enough beautiful silk material to have gorgeous dresses made for her for the rest of her life.  Alice also received a strand of magnificent pearls from the Cuban government that she wore around her neck until her death decades later.  At least one newspaper sourly described the trip as “Alice in Plunderland”.

With Secretary Taft serving as something of a chaperone, a budding romance blossomed between Congressman Longworth and Alice Roosevelt.  The wedding at the White House was the social event of the year in Washington, D. C. society.  The wedding accommodated more than a thousand guests, while thousands more stood lining the streets, hoping to get a glimpse of the bride.  Anything but conventional, Alice wore a blue wedding gown, as she had made a particular shade of blue her own and it was commonly referred to as “Alice blue”.  The bride and groom used a borrowed sword to slice the wedding cake and after a honeymoon in Cuba and a tour of the European continent, they settled into a comfortable and large home at 2009 Massachusetts Avenue, along trendy Embassy Row.

The Longworths would hold numerous soirees in their parlor and Alice’s dinners were well known and many who attended claimed the she-crab soup served at meals was exquisite.

Nick Longworth also helped to strip tyrannical Speaker of the House Joseph G. Cannon of his dictatorial powers.  It was the birth of the modern speakership in the House of Representatives.  A pitched battle between insurgent Republicans, allied with Democrats, against reactionary Republicans who supported the one-man rule of Cannon brought about the fall of “Uncle Joe”.

Although he had been an indifferent student, Longworth was a hardworking congressman.  Ironically, his one political defeat centered around his wife’s family, most specifically, Theodore Roosevelt.  The youngest man ever to become president at that time, Roosevelt had served most of William McKinley’s second term after McKinley had been assassinated and was elected to another in his own right in 1904.  Just after winning reelection, Roosevelt had blurted out he would never run for a third term.  TR’s wife, Edith, blanched when he said it and Roosevelt himself later admitted he would give up his right arm if he could take the statement back.

Theodore Roosevelt had hand-picked his successor, William Howard Taft, who had been his Secretary of War.  The two had enjoyed a very warm personal friendship, yet TR had been disappointed by Taft’s administration.  It is impossible to say, but much of Roosevelt’s disappointment may well have been motivated by personal ambition, as TR certainly desperately wanted to be president yet again.

Nobody was more avid for TR’s triumphant return to the White House than his daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth.  Nick Longworth was in a somewhat more difficult and precarious position.  William Howard Taft hailed from Ohio; in fact, he was from Cincinnati.  Taft’s brother, Charley, owned a media empire in Cincinnati (he also owned both the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago Cubs at one time).  Roosevelt and Taft fought a bitter battle for the Republican presidential nomination in 1912 and TR humiliated the president in preferential primary, including Ohio.  Yet most of Longworth’s family were strongly in favor of William Howard Taft.  Theodore Roosevelt, realizing his son-in-law’s uncomfortable, if not impossible, predicament, told Longworth it was perfectly understandable for him to be for Taft.  When Taft won the nomination only narrowly, an angry Roosevelt bolted and accepted the nomination of the Progressive or “Bull Moose” party.

Nick Longworth was horrified when he faced not only a Democrat in the 1912 general election, but a Progressive candidate as well.  The Progressive siphoned off just enough votes to elect the Democrat, Stanley Bowdle by 105 votes.  Longworth was crushed.

Alice Roosevelt Longworth was mortified when she had to leave Washington, D. C. to take up residence in Cincinnati.  Despite living at the family estate, Alice was miserable while Nick worked hard to reestablish himself in his home city and prepare for the 1914 congressional campaign.  Alice Longworth’s exile from the nation’s Capitol ended when Nick Longworth was reelected, reversing his narrow defeat two years earlier.

Even though Longworth had lost his seniority in the House, he quickly climbed the ladder, winning election as Majority Leader in 1923.  When Speaker Frederick Gillette of Massachusetts opted to run for the United States Senate in 1924, Longworth became the favorite to succeed him.  In 1925, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives elected Nicholas Longworth Speaker.

The decade of the twenties was a high point for the Republican Party.  Warren G. Harding had been elected by a huge majority over James Cox in 1920; the election had been as much a referendum on the ailing Woodrow Wilson and American entry into the League of Nations.  Harding’s call for a return to “normalcy” had resonated with millions of Americans.  After Harding’s death, Calvin Coolidge succeeded to the presidency and the flinty man from Massachusetts had said little, but presided over a booming economy.  With Coolidge’s announcement that he “did not choose” to run again in 1928, Herbert hoover, who had been Secretary of Commerce throughout the Harding and Coolidge administrations, won the GOP presidential nomination.  Despite never having been elected to any office, Hoover won a thumping victory over New York governor Al Smith, perhaps in large measure due to Smith’s Catholicism and “wet” politics.

Speaker Longworth immediately established his authority in the House and set out to teach those “progressive” Republicans who had refused to back President Coolidge in the 1924 election.  The thirteen congressmen who had refused to support Coolidge were ejected from the House Republican Caucus.  Worse, the Speaker stripped them of their seniority, which included some who chaired standing House committees.  As one of the progressives who had led the fight to strip Speaker Joe Cannon of much of his authority, Nick Longworth demonstrated he understood both the House and its rules; furthermore, he understood the use of power.  The new Speaker stacked the powerful Rules Committee with members loyal to him and assumed control over the Committee on Committees, which made committee assignments, as well as the Steering Committee of the House.

Longworth quickly established the authority of his office and remained as Speaker for the rest of his life.

Alice Roosevelt Longworth managed to shock Washington society yet again when she announced she was pregnant at age forty in 1924.  Mrs. Longworth gave birth to a child, Paulina, and her diaries confirm the child was not that of Speaker Longworth.  Paulina was indeed a daughter of a political notable, just not that of Nick Longworth.  Rather, Paulina was, so Alice recorded in her own diary, the result of an affair she had with Senator William E. Borah of Idaho.  Indeed, Paulina looked astonishingly like Borah.  Alice’s secret was hardly a secret in Washington.  Some speculated upon the close relationship between Borah and Alice Longworth and some wags referred to Paulina as “Aurora Borah Alice”.  Another wag suggested a better name for the child would have been “De-Borah”.

Whether or not Nick Longworth knew Paulina was not his daughter is unknown; what is known is that he adored her and she him.  Paulina would never truly recover from her father’s death.

The presidency of Herbert Hoover was especially trying for Longworth and while the Speaker had resisted enlarging the role of government, with the onset of the Great Depression, things began to change.  Longworth disagreed with the president over legislation designed to pay veterans a bonus.  Congress passed the bill, only to see President Hoover veto it.

The 1930 elections were a disaster for the Republicans.

Prior to the 1930 election, the GOP enjoyed a 270 – 164 majority in the House.  After the 1930 election, Democrats had gained fifty-two seats, giving the Republicans control by a very slender thread of 218 seats to 216 seats for the Democrats.  That slender thread was cut by the death of several Republican congressmen and the special elections gave the Democrats a bare majority of 218 when the new Congress opened on march 4, 1931 to 217 seats for the Republicans.  Nick Longworth was replaced as Speaker of the House by John N. Garner of Texas.

The Speaker, in spite of his fondness for alcohol, was very well liked by his colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats.  Longworth dressed quite well and was occasionally seen wearing spats.

Having lost the Speakership to John Nance Garner of Texas, Nick Longworth found himself ailing and decided he needed a vacation.  Longworth did not invite Alice to join him, but left for Aiken, South Carolina and the estate of his warm friend Dwight T. Davis (founder of the Davis cup).  There the former Speaker’s health worsened and pneumonia set in.  Alarmed, Alice was notified and she hurried to South Carolina, but did not reach her husband’s side before death claimed him.

Alice brought Nick Longworth’s body back to Cincinnati where he was buried.  Neither Alice or his beloved Paulina rested beside him.  Paulina Longworth’s life was both tragic and short.  She lost her husband when he was only twenty-eight and although they, too, had a daughter, Paulina suffered from alcohol, which had also plagued her father, as well as depression.  Paulina died from an overdose of sleeping pills at age thirty-one.

A friendly, debonair and charming man, Nicholas Longworth reached the political heights, yet his family life was unhappy and his legacy soured.

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