The Roosevelt Everybody Chose to Forget About

RobertBRoosevelt_GreenWood4DS

I still can’t say what exactly I expected to come of my visit to Robert B. Roosevelt’s grave in Green-Wood Cemetery yesterday. I’d been reading Superior Fishing — Roosevelt’s picaresque account of his adventures with Don Pedro from the Sault to the Harmony River — and upon learning that R.B. was buried here in Brooklyn, I felt I had to pay him a visit.

RobertBRoosevelt_GreenWood1

Section 51, Lot 10267 is hardly the grandest corner of Green-Wood. The tombstones of the Roosevelts form a ring around a grassy crown where Locust meets Grape Avenue. Robert’s grave is the first you notice if you approach from Grape, as I did. His stone is set prominently on the left hand of his family — the graves of his first wife Elizabeth Ellis and his children.

Robert “is the Roosevelt everybody chose to forget about,” writes David McCollough in Mornings on Horseback. A Bohemian and a gadabout, a ladies man and an adventurer, Robert was the Roosevelt “for whom the family often had to do some explaining,” and that was not just because he wrote curious books about fishing, invented various noms de plume, consorted with the likes of Oscar Wilde and was “bursting with ideas.”

After Elizabeth’s death in 1887, Robert married Marion (or Minnie) O’Shea. By then, Minnie had been his mistress for about twenty years, and he was the father of her three children — Maude, Granville and Kenyon — a fact that Robert never publicly acknowledged. (Timothy Beard, a genealogist at the New York Public Library, unearthed the story.) While Elizabeth was still alive, Robert kept Minnie in a townhouse not too far from his own, where she lived under the name Mrs. Robert F. Fortescue (a nom de plume of a different order). He married her in 1888, at a Roman Catholic Church in Clapham, England. She and her children do not have a share in the Roosevelt plot at Green-Wood.

Minnie was hardly Robert’s only mistress. He bought a supply of “garish green” gloves on sale at Stewart’s Department Store, and gave them as tributes to the women whose company he kept; and among his friends it became a winking game to notice women wearing them as they strolled down Fifth Avenue or through Central Park. Even on the three-day steamship cruise from Cleveland to the Sault, Roosevelt and Don Pedro manage to make “the acquaintance of one or two kind beings in crinoline.” They are frustrated when the Indian women they encounter in a village along the Agawa River seem unaware of or unmoved by “our high delicacy towards the female sex” and keep hidden from view: “during our entire stay we had nothing but dissolving views of female charms—loveliness that was not arrayed in crinoline.”

In Point Judith, printed as a sort of appendix or afterword in the 1865 edition of Superior Fishing, Roosevelt’s journey to Point Judith, Rhode Island begins with an unpleasant trip by rail from New Haven to Kingston.  There, he picks up a stage to the South Pier and finds himself in the company of “a pretty little widow, with hazel eyes”:

It is seven miles from Kingston to the South Pier, the driver may happen to be a little tight, very sleepy, and wholly unobservant of what is passing in the back of his vehicle. Moonlight is either reflected with great brilliancy from hazel eyes, or else hazel eyes originate a brilliancy akin to moonlight, and certainly moonlight, hazel eyes, white teeth, rosy lips, soft hands, and a slender waist, are very bewitching in a close carriage of a moonlight night, with a preoccupied driver. Some women have a smile like sunshine, and their laugh rings like a chime of bells; and if you happen to be riding alone with a pretty widow, and something suggests love-making, and her merry laughter slowly dies away into a gentle smile, and the smile fades into a look of sympathetic feeling, that you have to draw very near to see, till you feel her palpitating breath upon your cheek, and her hand trembles when by the merest accident you touch it, and the ride occupies an hour or more, you may, before the South Pier is reached, almost forget that you are married.

His grave was not tidy. I cleared away some  sticks and a broken bottle, and tried to scrape the bird droppings from the top of the stone. Some little purple wildflowers have sprung up near his plot, and the sight of them makes it less dreary.

6 thoughts on “The Roosevelt Everybody Chose to Forget About

  1. Pingback: A North American Oceanus (1865) | lvgaldieri

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  3. Michael Jahn

    Hi. Maybe you an spare me a minute or two. My name is Michael Jahn. I’m a reporter and mystery writer who is pretty easy to find online. I’m writing to you because, my grandmother was nanny to the children of Robert Ellis Roosevelt and lived with them both in their Madison Avenue townhouse and at Meadowcroft in Sayville, where I also lived as a young child. Jean Roosevelt and her had a close relationship that continued up to my grandmother’s death in 1964. Jean sent me a Hardy Boys mystery every Christmas, and maybe that’s where my career began. I watched Lotus Lake burn in 1958.

    I admire your research skills and tenacity. Perhaps you can answer a question. Do you know how Minnie O’Shea met RBR and when? Where in Ireland was she from (my grandmother was also an Irish immigrant). Where did Minnie live before taking up with him? In “Irish Harlem” in the East 130s? I just wonder if Minnie had a hand in getting my grandmother the job with Robert Ellis Roosevelt. That would have been right around 1900, just before she died.

    Anything you can suggest would be greatly appreciated.

    michael jahn

    Reply
    1. lvgaldieri Post author

      Hi Michael,

      First, thanks for reading. I’m afraid I can’t be of much help when it comes to Minnie O’Shea. It looks as if David McCollough doesn’t have much to say about Minnie O’Shea in Mornings on Horseback either. McCollough learned Minnie’s story when he interviewed Timothy Beard about his genealogical research at the NYPL, but I haven’t seen a transcript of that interview. I wonder if there is one that McCollough has published, or if there’s anything more about Beard’s research out there? Beard died not too long ago. I don’t know what the NYPL has. It’s probably possible to piece together a few facts of Minnie’s life from immigration and other public records. I’d also consider the US and New York Census as well as anything written about Minnie’s son, Granville R. Fortescue. Keep me posted on what you find. In the meantime, I’m going to have a look at your mystery books.

      Louis

      Reply
    2. Declan Gill

      Hi guys
      Came across this quite by chance
      Marian Theresa O Shea was my great grandfathers(Robert Paul Gill ) first cousin
      Ie her father was John O Shea ,a newspaper editor and journalist and her mother was
      She was from Nenagh Co Tipperary Ireland and would have been well educated arriving in the US .we presume she was governess to Robert Roosevelts children initially .Her own brother was quite a well known author and war correspondent John Augustus O Shea .Her sister ? O shea Dillon ended up in India and was a novelist of some repute writing the novel Dark Rosalee Despite the unusual marital arrangements the family here kept in frequent contact with this branch of the family .There is quite a bit of correspondence between my great grandfathers brother TP Gill who was a politician and Teddy Roosevelt .I also know My own grandfather met with his second cousin Granville Foresecue whilst he was on convalescent leave in Cairo during the First World War after he was wounded at Gallipoli .
      Hope this is of help to you .

      Reply

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