Around the Watercooler

Exploring the psychology of rumors.

Gossip Part 1: Portrait of a 20th-century Washington Gossip

A historical example of a political gossip monger.

Alice circa 1902
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Alice_Roosevelt_LOC_USZ_62_13520.jpg
If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me. —Personal motto of Alice Roosevelt Longworth embroidered on a soft pillow

By all accounts, Alice Roosevelt Longworth was a favorite subject-and source-of gossip.

Born in 1884, the eldest daughter of then New York Assemblyman Theodore Roosevelt was bright, beautiful, and ... headstrong. After Roosevelt's rise to the U.S. presidency in 1901 she became "Darling Princess Alice" to the American public for her many antics.

Alice had a flair for attracting attention by flouting convention. She smoked cigarettes publicly in a time when smoking by women was taboo; when her father forbade her to smoke in the White House, she puffed atop the roof. Unchaperoned she traveled about in roadsters with men-a daring thing at the time. While on a diplomatic cruise to the Far East, she jumped into the ship's swimming pool fully clothed. She placed bets with bookies. She was often the talk of the town in a highly conventional era.

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Alice and Nicholas Longworth 1926
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nicholas%2BAlice_Longworth-USCapitol.jpg
Her later marriage to Ohio Representative Nicholas Longworth was rocky-not surprising in light of his playboy habits and heavy drinking, and she surprised the Washington socialite set with the birth of her only child Paulina, eighteen years later. Paulina was in fact the product of a long love-affair with another Republican politico, Senator William Borah of Idaho. Alice may have been the talk of the town, but she also "gave them something to talk about."

In her later years, "Mrs. L." came to be known as an influential purveyor of gossip among the Washington political elite. A 1969 article in American Heritage magazine recorded her habitually malicious tongue: "‘X is not only a snob,' she said recently, ‘but a stupid snob: snobbish about the wrong people.'"

Here is a sample of scuttlebutt from an interview with Washington Post reporter Sally Quinn in 1974: "I like Julie better than Tricia [daughters of then President Richard Nixon]. I've never been able to get on with Tricia. She seems rather pathetic, doesn't she? I wonder what's wrong with her?"

Alice 1959
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Alice_Roosevelt_Christens_Sub_TR.jpg
Longworth was 90 years old at the time of the interview and filled it with entertaining personal social commentary. "I like Jackie [Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis] very much. But I've always wondered what on earth made her marry Onassis. He's a repulsive character. He reminds me of Mr. Punch . . . Jack was so attractive."

Through her many long years as "Washington's other monument," Mrs. L. was renowned for her delight in collecting and disseminating gossip. "Ethel [Kennedy] is behaving very badly these days. There's a certain brash quality about her I never liked. I liked Bobby though, a great deal."

Princess Alice might properly have been crowned the "Queen of Washington gossip."

 

Nicholas DiFonzo is Professor at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of The Watercooler Effect: A Psychologist Explores the Extraordinary Power of Rumors.

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