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.
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.