Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt was born in Norwich, Connecticut on August 6, 1861. Her father was Charles Carow, from a successful mercantile family. Her mother was Gertrude Elizabeth Tyler. Charles Carow became a bad alcoholic who suffered a serious fall and his success began to rapidly fade. Edith was the middle child of three. She had an older brother and a younger sister.
As a child, Edith was educated at the Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. home and the Anna Bulloch Gracie home in New York. She learned how to read along with the Roosevelt children (Elliott, Theodore, Corinne and Anna). Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. also taught Edith Carow and his own children in natural studies with trips to the countryside, wrote plays for them to memorize lines and perform and gave them topics to prepare oral recitations on.
By 1867, her father’s sudden loss of income led to his permanent state of unemployment and left the family homeless. Edith and her family went to live with a widowed great-aunt during the winter months and her maternal grandparents in the summer. In 1871, her family relocated from the Union Square district of New York. She maintained her friendship with the Roosevelt family and would visit their summer home at Oyster Bay. She was often taken out for long row-boat rides by Theodore Roosevelt who named his vessel after her. Despite leaving New York to begin his higher education at Harvard College in the fall of 1876, Theodore Roosevelt continued his friendship with Edith and she even joined his family in visiting him there in 1877. There was some discussion of marriage, but her grandfather and his father opposed the union. Theodore Roosevelt returned to Harvard in the fall and met Alice Hathaway Lee, who would become his first wife.
The death of her father four months later made it apparent that the family was unable to maintain their lifestyle in New York. In the eighteen months following the death of his mother and his first wife Alice, Theodore Roosevelt made brief visits to his siblings in New York, but focused on the Dakota ranchlands he had purchased and was developed. He carefully avoided any direct contact with Edith Carow but they had a chance meeting at the home of his sister in September of 1886. Roosevelt had once said that “I utterly disbelieve in and disapprove of second marriages; I have always considered that they argued weakness in a man’s character,” but something changed his mind, because he proposed marriage to Edith Carow in November of 1885. She accepted, although they agreed to keep their future marriage a secret from friends and family. Edith Carow, her mother and her sister, went to live in London. A year later, Roosevelt crossed the Atlantic to marry her. While making his voyage, he met and quickly befriended British diplomat Cecil Spring-Rice who became the best man at his wedding.
On December 2, 1886 the 25 year old bride married Theodore Roosevelt, who was 28. They were married at St. George’s Anglican Church, Hanover Square, in London, England. After their wedding ceremony, the Roosevelt took a honeymoon in France, visiting Paris, Lyons, Marseilles and Hyeres in the Provence region and then Florence, Rome, Venice, Pompeii, Naples, and Capri. Edith's mother and sister had settled in Rome to live. An erroneous newspaper account of the marriage conveyed the false impression that she was six years younger than her real age and a Roman Catholic.
The couple had five children together, four sons and one daughter: Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Kermit Roosevelt, Ethel Roosevelt [Derby], Archibald Bullock Roosevelt and Quentin Roosevelt. She suffered at least two known miscarriages, once early in her marriage, on August 8, 1888 and another while serving as First Lady, on May 9, 1902. Edith also raised Roosevelt's daughter Alice whom he only referred to as “Baby Lee” because the name Alice was a painful reminder of the loss of his first wife. Edith Roosevelt insisted that her stepdaughter call her “Mother,” but also arranged for Alice to spend three weeks each spring and fall with the family of her late mother.
During their honeymoon, Edith assumed the role of editor for several magazine articles her husband wrote. She formed a bond with his political mentor, U.S. Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge through their mutual passion and expertise in English literature. She also joined her husband in outdoor sporting activities, learning to play tennis, swim long-distance, bicycle, and row, also becoming an expert horsewoman. She also made her first trip to the western U.S., visiting her husband’s Dakota ranch with him and also Yellowstone Park, as well as to the Chicago World’s Fair.
Edith Roosevelt expertly managed the family’s finances through the difficult early 1890s, a time of economic uncertainty. She was strenuously opposed to his running for Mayor of New York in 1894, and he honored her wishes. When her husband was appointed as a New York City Police Commissioner (1895-1897), Edith Roosevelt relocated her family there from Washington, D.C. She was happy to return to the nation's capital in 1897 when he was made Assistant Secretary of the Navy (1897-1898). Edith Roosevelt was recuperating from surgery for removal of an abdominal tumor when Theodore Roosevelt resigned his government position and enlisted in the U.S. Army, following the April 1898 declaration of the Spanish-American War. But she supported his decision to accept a commission as the Lieutenant Colonel of a cavalry troop to become popularly known as the “Rough Riders.” Before the Rough Riders departed for Cuba, Edith Roosevelt travelled to meet her husband and his troops at Tampa Bay. She followed their progress in Cuba through the newspapers and when they returned to Long Island, she volunteered as a Red Cross nurse.
Just two months after his return from Cuba, when her husband was unanimously nominated as the Republican candidate for Governor of New York, Edith attended public events with him, making an especially prominent appearance at the launch of his campaign at Carnegie Hall. She assumed control of his public correspondence, dictating responses with answers in a tone that matched his own. Following his election and 1899 inauguration as governor, Edith Roosevelt moved her family into the Victorian governor’s mansion, where she focused on the education and care of her young children. Edith Roosevelt expressed her opposition to the growing movement to draft him on the 1900 Republican presidential ticket as President William McKinley’s vice presidential running mate. She nevertheless attended the party’s national convention that year, her first, and watched with reluctance as he was nominated. Edith Roosevelt took no public role during her husband’s successful 1900 vice presidential campaign. She returned with her children to New York following the inauguration, not intending to settle them all in Washington until the following year. Six months later, McKinley was assassinated, Roosevelt assumed the presidency and she was thrust into the role of First Lady.
Edith Roosevelt’s first order of business as First Lady was to adapt the limited space appropriated for the family living quarters to her own large family. Her husband officially changed the name of the Executive Mansion to “the White House.” In 1902 a West Wing was built to house the executive staff offices, thus making the second floor entirely the private domain of the family. New woodwork and lighting, a plumbing and heating system were also added. Edith Roosevelt decided that tourists coming into the house through the newly structured East Wing should value the role of First Ladies in American history and had the hall lined with the few portraits of presidential wives and hostesses then in the White House collection. She hired the first federally-salaried White House Social Secretary. Edith Roosevelt hosted the traditional schedule of winter and spring formal dinners, the special dinners held to honoring visiting heads of state, the larger, general receptions and the innovative afternoon musicals she hosted.
Edith Roosevelt despised having her privacy and family life exposed to the public through the press. She refused to grant interviews to reporters and was opposed to having her clothing described for press stories of what she wore to public events. She did allow her children pose for the city’s renowned photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston, often with many of their beloved animal companions, and agreed to publicly release these for use in newspapers and magazines.
In December of 1901, Alice Roosevelt was given a reception to introduce her formally into high society as a debutante. Two months later, it was Alice and not the First Lady who was given the honor of dedicating the Meteor,the yacht of German Prince Heinrich, brother of the Kaiser, then visiting the United States to strengthen ties between the two nations. The press dubbed her “Princess Alice”. Edith Roosevelt oversaw the February 1906 White House wedding of her stepdaughter to Ohio Congressman Nicholas Longworth, and also offered use of the White House to her husband’s niece Eleanor Roosevelt for her marriage to distant cousin Franklin Roosevelt, but the couple chose to instead marry in private, in New York. As a wedding gift to the Franklin Roosevelts, Edith Roosevelt gave a small watercolor that had originally been a gift to the President, which she did not like.
As First Lady, Edith Roosevelt supported the Washington Hospital for Foundlings, the Hope and Health Mission, Children’s Hospital and the Washington Home for Incurables. She often sent large gifts of cash to various free hospitals that treated the poor, instructing physicians to hand out cash sums to those being discharged. A lifetime knitter, she was president of the Needlework Guild, making clothes for the needy and then, during World War I and World War II, for U.S. servicemen.
On Election Night 1904 when Theodore Roosevelt pledged to the press that, having won a full four-year term, he would not seek another term in 1908. Edith Roosevelt said that had she known he intended to state this, she would have prevented him from doing so, not because she wished for another four years in the White House, but because she realized it weakened his negotiating power in initiating legislation with Congress. She worried about harm coming to the President, conscious of the threats made by anarchists at the time to the lives of many world leaders. While the couple were at a small cottage in Albemarle County, Virginia for use as a presidential weekend retreat, Edith Roosevelt instructed a Secret Service agent to guard the President there from a distance, and without his knowledge.
A year after leaving the White House Edith Roosevelt took an overseas trip, remaining largely in Italy but also going to Egypt where she rode a camel. In 1911, she suffered a severe concussion which permanently robbed her sense of smell.
Edith Roosevelt did not agree with her husband’s growing dislike for his hand-chosen successor William Howard Taft and his shift towards views aligned with the growing Progressive Party movement. She did not like his attempt as a former president to again be nominated for the presidency, but she nevertheless accompanied him to the 1912 Republican convention in Chicago and helped to edit his speech to progressive supporters at a rally outside of the convention, insisting that he remove rancorous and angry language. She was in New York when she learned that her husband had been shot while giving a speech in Milwaukee. She immediately left to be by his side and took charge of his hospital care and recuperation, forbidding political meetings, except with his vice presidential candidate and the reform leader and suffragist Jane Addams.
In 1913, she accompanied her husband to South America for the first leg of his famous trip exploring the Amazon River and made her first visits to Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. In 1916, she joined him in his staunch opposition to the re-election of the Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, whom she described as a “vile and hypocritical charlatan.” She remained strong through the July 1918 death of their youngest son Quentin, shot down in their plane during World War I and the wounds which war inflicted upon their sons Ted and Archie. She resisted giving in to depression, remaining physical active by swimming. The former President, however, already beset by rheumatoid arthritis contracted by a fever during his exploration of the Amazon River, was shaken. He died suddenly of a heart attack in his sleep six months later.
Edith Roosevelt did not attend her husband’s funeral but remained in private at their home. Two days later, she left for a visit with her sister-in-law and then left for France, where she visited her son’s grave and made arrangements for placement of a memorial fountain at his burial place. She settled in Italy where she lived with her sister for two months and studied Italian.
When it came to memorial efforts on behalf of her husband, Edith Roosevelt tended to favor restraint. Determined to maintain certain aspects of their marriage permanently private, she also burned much of their correspondence.
Edith Roosevelt’s three remaining sons enlisted for military service with the outbreak of World War II. Kermit joined the British Army, but his alcoholism led to his dismissal. President Franklin Roosevelt found Kermit a post with the U.S. Army in Alaska. Kermit committed suicide there with a revolver in 1943 but Edith Roosevelt was told that he died of a heart attack. A year later her son, fifty-six year old Ted, the eldest to fight in the D Day invasion, also died of a heart attack.
During the last three years she lost some lucidity. She died on September 30, 1948 at her home in Oyster Bay at the age of 87. She is buried at Young’s Cemetery in Oyster, Bay.