Edith Kermit Roosevelt: Creating the Modern First Lady. By Lewis L. Gould. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2013. 171 pp.
Lewis L. Gould, professor emeritus of history at the University of Texas, has produced a solid introduction to the life of first lady Edith Kermit Roosevelt. The author argues that Mrs. Roosevelt created the role for the modern first lady at the turn of the twentieth century. Edith Roosevelt was the first presidential spouse to be allocated the resources to hire a staff member. Belle Hagner, Mrs. Roosevelt's social secretary, helped the first lady to answer correspondence and plan White House events. Though Mrs. Roosevelt retained only a single staff member, this laid the foundation for the full-time staff that the first lady's office maintains today.
The author also argues that Mrs. Roosevelt started the practice that first ladies attached their names to public causes. She backed the efforts of the New York Legal Aid Society and appeared at a highly publicized benefit opera to raise funds for the organization. These efforts began the twentieth-century pattern of first ladies embracing pet projects, which ranged from Lady Bird Johnson's beautification projects to Nancy Reagan's antidrug crusades.
In addition, Edith Roosevelt was determined to make the White House a cultural showcase. She arranged for theatrical performances and concerts by musicians such as the young Pablo Casals. This established the precedent for future first ladies to invite performers to the White House, continued by such presidential spouses as Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Obama.
Though Mrs. Roosevelt preferred to stay in the background, she offered political assistance to her husband. Theodore Roosevelt read few, if any, newspapers, but, by contrast, Edith Roosevelt read almost anything printed about her husband. She collected clippings of articles and editorials and brought these to his attention. This helped to keep the president connected to public opinion and to be attentive to public sentiment, as he and his advisors formulated the Square Deal. In this way, Edith Roosevelt maintained an informal but strong position of political influence within the administration.
Gould provides a...