In the 1962 D-Day ensemble The Longest Day, an aging Henry Fonda plays the small but important role of General Ted Roosevelt Jr. General Roosevelt, three decades older than the troops he is leading, hides his cane in order to persuade his superiors to allow his participation in the invasion, then uses the cane as he exhorts troops forward under withering fire on Utah Beach.
Roosevelt died a month after D-Day, age 56, not of any injuries but of a heart attack. And unless you have seen the movie, it's unlikely you know much about him. He seems to be a somewhat forgotten figure in American history, an oversight Tim Brady is trying to correct in this new biography.
Brady recognizes that Ted Jr., living in the shadow of a famous father, never managed to fully emerge from that large shadow. In fact, as Brady puts it, Ted worshiped his father but "was not an obvious heir to his father's legacy." He was small and bespectacled and long felt the pressure of living up to the exploits of the former president who shared his name. As a child, Ted was dressed in the peculiar manner that fin de siècle well-to-do parents imposed on their children—complete with curls, shorts, and effeminate hats—but the look did not suit him. As Brady puts it, in photographs from the time, accompanied by the ubiquitous book, Ted "looks for all the world like a precocious Talmudic scholar."
He grew up, went to Harvard, like his father, then served valiantly in World War I. He also badly injured his knee, which contributed to the need for the cane he would later wield at Normandy. Everyone had high expectations of him, but he could not seem to measure up. In fact, his distant cousin Franklin consistently outshined him, securing positions that Ted unsuccessfully sought (governor of New York) and also aspired to (president of the United States).
Part of this was due to FDR's superior political talent, but Ted was also knocked off course politically by the Teapot Dome scandal. As assistant secretary of the Navy—the same position TR and FDR held on their paths to the top—Ted signed off on the oil leases at the heart of the controversy. While cleared of wrongdoing, the scandal also meant an effective end to his quest for elective office. A few years later, Ted was serving as governor-general of the Philippines when Franklin became president. When asked by a reporter to describe his relationship to his more famous relative, Ted replied wryly, "Fifth cousin about to be removed."
While he may not have lived up to expectations, or to his father's legacy, Ted did manage to have an interesting life. In addition to his work in the Philippines, he also served as governor-general of Puerto Rico. But the Democratic FDR's long reign shut the door to appointed office: Once FDR was sworn in, Ted would never live again under another president. And in what was effectively political exile, Ted enjoyed life in New York, working as an editor at Doubleday—his Knickerbocker Club pal Nelson Doubleday got him the job—and hanging out with Manhattan's literary and cultural elites. As Brady puts it, "Widely read, an international traveler with a broad circle of friends and connections everywhere, Ted fit well into the literary world of New York."
The famous authors he worked with included Pearl S. Buck and H. G. Wells. He also made an aborted effort to get Justice Louis Brandeis to write his autobiography. (The plan failed, though: As his friend Felix Frankfurter told him, "Of one thing I am sure and that is that nothing is farther from his mind than the writing of an autobiography.") Ted even hung out with the gang from the legendary Algonquin Round Table. Fortunately, as the fifth-cousin-about-to-be-removed crack showed, he had the wit for it.
He was also co-captain of an annual baseball game that included famous stars from multiple fields. The 1938 team that Ted headed, for example, included Robert Ripley, Grantland Rice, Jack Dempsey, Richard Rodgers, Rube Goldberg, even Babe Ruth. The opposing team featured Jimmy Doolittle, Westbrook Pegler, Gene Tunney, David Sarnoff, William J. Donovan, and Heywood Broun. Ripley could have put teams with that much star power as a feature in his Believe It or Not! series.
Ted appears to have loved the comfortable upper-class life of New York; but in the end, duty called, and he returned to military service. Just as in World War I, he was once again a war hero. He participated in more amphibious assaults in World War II than any other American general. His jeep had the words "Rough Rider" on it, in homage to his father, and his men loved him. He was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for his efforts on D-Day, given posthumously to his wife Eleanor (yes, she was named Eleanor as well). In describing Ted's heroics, Secretary of War Henry Stimson read from the medal presentation:
Although the enemy had the beach under constant direct fire, Brigadier General Roosevelt moved from one locality to another, rallying men around him, directed and personally led them against the enemy. . . . He thus contributed substantially to the successful establishment of the beachhead in France.
He never became president, or even governor of New York. He never outshined his famous father, and his cousin surpassed him on the ladder of success. But Ted Roosevelt was a true American hero who deserves the epitaph that Brady has given him with this book: It was a life well lived.