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Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: The President's Daughter

Today, the country elects a new president, and along with it, a new First Family. There have been many notable - even infamous - First Family members, including Alice Roosevelt, daughter of former President Theodore Roosevelt. She was independent and brazen at a time in history when women were expected to be demure and take backseats to men. Her father had a problem with her behavior...Alice did not. She remained vibrant and outspoken all her life. Commentator Scott Thybony recounts Alice Roosevelt's adventurous trip to the Grand Canyon nearly 100 years ago as her father prepared to make it a national monument. 

Alice Roosevelt may have been on her father’s mind when he delivered his famous speech calling for the preservation of the Grand Canyon.  “Keep this great wonder of nature as it now is,” Teddy Roosevelt told the crowd.  “. . . Keep it for your children and your children’s children and all who come later.”  Four years later in 1907 the president’s daughter stepped off the train at the South Rim. She was ready to explore the place her father would soon set aside as a national monument.

Her wedding the previous year to Congressman Nicholas Longworth had captured the front pages of newspapers across the country.  The 23-year old was as bold and strong-willed as the president, leading the press to see her as “the new American woman.”  Her beauty and irrepressible spirit drew reporters to every social event she attended, and each new scandal.  In an age when women were expected to follow a strict code of behavior, she took pleasure in breaking the rules.  Her escapades filled the gossip columns, from betting on horses and telling risqué jokes to racing her own car down the city streets. 

And she admitted expressing “sheer joy” upon hearing William McKinley had been shot and her father would become president.  When he shipped her off to the Far East on a diplomatic mission, the reporters followed and were not disappointed.  During the voyage to meet the Emperor of Japan she jumped fully clothed into the ship’s pool and induced a congressman to join her.  Her father admitted, “I can be president of the United States or I can attend to Alice.  I cannot possibly do both!”

The day after arriving at the South Rim, Alice and congressman Nick set out for the bottom of the canyon.  Alice’s good friend Elizabeth Joy stayed behind only to wander away from the trail while walking along the rim.  When Elizabeth failed to return for dinner that evening, Alice knew she was lost.  The whistle at the power plant sounded the alarm, and soon a search party began checking the cliffs and combing the woods with torches.  They were worried since a Harvard professor had become lost in the same area two months before and was found “raving mad.”

The president’s daughter joined the searchers and helped keep the signal fires burning, until she had to catch the midnight train with her husband.  A mix-up in reservations led to a dispute with two wealthy Russians over the only drawing room onboard.  Their heated argument with the conductor threatened to turn into an international incident.  Finally the Russians were persuaded to leave, only to face the boos and hisses of passengers whose departure had been delayed.

Next morning as the train carried Alice eastward in the comfort of the drawing room, Navajo trackers found her friend.  Elizabeth was cold and frightened but safe after having walked 12 miles in the wrong direction.

The president’s daughter remained a colorful figure in the nation’s capital all her life.  When she was in her 80s, Robert Kennedy mentioned having heard about her jumping into the ship’s pool.  The incident, he told her, would have been considered outrageous in those days, but she disagreed.  It would only have been outrageous, Alice said, if she had removed all her clothes.

Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.
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