Mornings On Horseback

Unknown.jpeg I’ve just finished David McCullough’s book, Mornings On Horseback (1981) about a young, romantic Theodore Roosevelt.

The by-line reads: The Story Of An Extraordinary Family, A Vanished Way of Life And The Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt.

What inspires me to write is not the story itself, but the poignant message I’ve come away with.

Teddy, who by the way hated that name, preferring Theodore, experienced tragedy enough for ten men.

He was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1881, spending his week in Albany, coming home to New York City on weekends.

He had married his first love, Alice Hathaway Lee, in 1880, after a very long, passionate pursuit. I always smile when I think, one of the reasons Alice didn’t respond right away, was because of Teddy’s distinct odor due to the taxidermy he performed in his rooms at Harvard. Kind of like a smoker who has no idea that he smells like a pool hall.

But since he was so bewitched, the word he used after meeting her, our Teddy was determined to make Alice his own, thus their engagement being announced on Valentine’s Day, 1880.

Alice, three years later, pregnant with their first child, had moved into the Roosevelt Family home at 6 West 57th Street to be with Theodore’s mother, Mittie, short for Martha, when her due date got closer. As unimaginable as it sounds, women had their babies at home without much fuss, often with a midwife rather than a doctor.

Teddy gets word while on the Assembly floor, Alice gave birth to a healthy baby girl, shaking hands, handing out cigars, till a second telegram comes saying, he better come home.

She had contracted Bright’s Disease, a post pregnancy inflammation of the kidneys common at the time. If you ever saw the Downton Abbey episode when Sybil dies after giving birth, it gives you an idea. One minute the mother is fine, the next, in a state of fatal flight.

Mittie, two floors up, after thinking it was merely a cold, was down with Typhoid Fever. Where an antibiotic would have cured her if they had existed, she was unable to fight her way back.

So on Valentine’s Day, 1884, four blissful years after their engagement…and I’ll quote from the book:

By the time he reached her bedside and took her in his arms, Alice barely knew who he was. He stayed there, holding her, until some time before three in the morning when he was told that if he wished to see his mother again, he must come at once.

Mittie died at three o’clock the morning of February 14, her four children at her bedside. Alice lingered on another eleven hours. She died at two in the afternoon, Theodore still holding her.

His diary entree that night: And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went out of my life forever.

Alice was but 22. Unknown-2.jpeg

Thus, our noble Teddy lost both his mother and wife on the same day, in the blink of an eye.

The message this sent, and I’ll quote him again: The sole overwhelming lesson is (was) the awful brevity of life, the sense that the precipice awaited not just somewhere off down the road, but at any moment.

I’ve heard it said, God speaks through other people, so right now it’s Theodore Roosevelt from the ether, reminding us to live one day at a time as happily as possible, not concerned with tomorrow, since fate, alas, will have the final say.

History remains our greatest teacher.


Dedicated to Helen, who inspired this.



About Susannah Bianchi

I'm just a girl who likes to write slightly on slant. I've had a career in fashion, dabbled in film and to be honest, I don't like talking about myself. Now my posts are another matter so I will let them speak for themselves. My eBooks, A New York Diary, Model Behavior: Friends For Life and Notes From A Working Cat can be found on Thanks.
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38 Responses to Mornings On Horseback

  1. skinnyuz2b says:

    Susannah, this is another informative piece. How does a person get through so much heartache occurring within such a short time span? It just seems too much to bear.
    As always, thanks again for the reminder to live each day like there’s no tomorrow.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Its an amazing story. He really didn’t do well, never properly grieving. He basically gave the baby to his sister, then ran away. Heartbreaking, even all these years later. Sigh Thanks for reading.


  2. Kate Howell says:


    Hal Rubenstein from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sorryless says:


    Now that was a time when leaders actually led. It almost feels like science fiction from where we currently reside.

    Theodore was a swashbuckling character, wasn’t he? He is a great case study in perseverance that our elected officials could learn a thing or two from. But maybe that’s just too outdated a concept.

    You are a most pleasant political party pal. 🙂


  4. Many have not understood why my Sister had to pass at a, relatively, young age from a disease often thought to come to old people. They insist the world is not fair. They are right. The world is not fair; however, my views on life, God, and death hold that fairness has little to do with it. Sis died and that is horrible. I am not certain l believe she died “For a reason”, but that her death showed, at least, me that our lives are totally uncertain in how long they are and, yes, we have to live one day at a time with an eye to the future and learning from the past.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dale says:

    Thank you for this, Susannah,

    It is funny how some people are given so much to deal with while others just go along, oblivious to the vagaries of life. His strength of character shines through on this little snippet you have shared with us. I am definitely adding this one to my reading list.

    Life, we know not how much of it we will be accorded, so yes, go out there and live it. Open yourself to the possibilities and grab them when they come.


    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a great read. McCullough at his best. It’s as though he transcended the whole family for our reading pleasure.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dale says:

        Oh wonderful! With such a glowing review, it has moved closer to the to of my pile!

        Liked by 1 person

      • It was one of his earlier books, and perhaps, in my humble opinion, his best. So clear, so vivid. He really takes you on a magic carpet ride into the decadent past, the Roosevelts, an old time New York family. His dad, Theodore senior, dashes off the page. A stellar human being and then some, before he dies pretty young. Teddy’s brother Eliot, Eleanor’s dad, also had tremendous swagger before he succumbs to the alcoholism that eventually kills him. It was why his daughter became a lifelong teetotaler. It goes on and on.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Dale says:

        Sounds totally engrossing. A yummy and educational read.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. TR is such a fascinating character is so many ways and a very complicated one too. I hadn’t heard this story before though. How tragic, and how resilient he must have been to persist through that. Thanks for continuing to teach me about history. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • His church, where they held a double funeral for his wife and mother, is still there, its sanctuary, though lovingly restored, unchanged. I often pass by going in to pray for a moment and can see him there, sitting between his two beloved sisters, his brother’s hand on his shoulder, numb as can be.

      I appreciate that you appreciate history as much as I do, which can explain why you went into the teaching business. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Vasca says:

    Reading this put the book high on my list. Teddy was one fine man…always enjoy reading about him. Sad to lose two precious loves in one day…truly heartbreaking. Your interesting post about him caused me to remember my husband’s grandfather who was one of Teddy’s Rough Riders. He was feisty…well suited for Teddy’s group. It was a marvelous, fascinating generation. So happy you wrote this sweet piece…jolly good job, Susannah.


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