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The Tragic, Too-Soon Death of Quentin Roosevelt

Sunday morning, July 14th, 1918.

It’s Bastille Day—and, somewhere in France, a fledging, twenty-year old American aviator named Quentin Roosevelt is scampering into his single-seat French-made, wooden-and-canvas Nieuport-28 aeroplane for … nothing less than a rendezvous with death.

Quentin Roosevelt was, of course, Theodore Roosevelt’s youngest child. TR had argued mightily for American military preparedness in the lead-up to war in April 1917. Following our declaration of war, he virtually begged Woodrow Wilson to command his own combat regiment on the Western Front lines.

Wilson said no. And Wilson was right. TR was too old for combat, too ex-presidential for such matters—and too certainly much-too-much TR to be much—if any—good as a subordinate. But if TR did not go overseas, his four sons soon would. TR worried about them all, but most of all for Quentin, his youngest—so young that on his last night at Sagamore Hill before shipping off for Europe, his mother literally tucked her baby in for the night.

“It was hard when Quentin went,” his mother, Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt, conceded. “But you can’t bring up boys to be eagles, and expect them to turn out sparrows.”

Quentin was a mere Harvard sophomore—and a rather undistinguished one at that. But beyond such matters was Quentin’s questionable physical fitness. He longed to be an aviator—a dashing, devil-may-care knight of the air. But he suffered from poor eyesight—and a bad back incurred in July 1913, when a pack horse rolled over him during a Grand Canyon rock slide. Memorizing the eye chart advanced him past the former barrier. But not the latter.

Quentin left behind not a wife but rather a fiancée—the barely twenty-year-old Flora Payne “Foufie” Whitney. Roosevelt-Whitney family relations needed work. Quentin’s father famously excoriated the “malefactors of great wealth”; Flora’s father, Harry Payne Whitney, was richer than Croesus—or at least wealthier than all the many Roosevelts put together.

In any case, love finds its own way, and when Quentin proposed in May 1917, Flora quickly accepted—but she did take more time to inform her family. TR soon resolved his own uncertainties (“After some hesitation and misgiving, Mother and I have become much pleased”) and found Flora to be “a dear.”

Quentin, was soon in France but not nearly ready for combat. He was still, as his second cousin Nicholas Roosevelt, assessed him, “the gayest and most whimsical and most promising” of the Sagamore Hill brood. In France, he was well liked and even admired by his colleagues. He was “gay, hearty and absolutely square in everything he said or did,” remembered the famed American ace Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. “We loved him purely for his own natural self.”

Yet Quentin shared with his father not only a taste for heroic glory and the military life but a nearly suicidal obsession with death. Beyond that lay a far stranger side. “At one time,” noted Kermit, “he was greatly interested in demonology and witchcraft, and combed the second-hand bookstores for grimy tomes on this subject.” Roosevelt family historian Edward J. Renehan noted how Quentin “tended to churn out macabre tales of madness, desperation and suicide that he did not dare to show his parents. . . . Every hero was a tragic, thoughtful, existential intellectual: brave but doomed.”

Quentin tried bringing Flora to France for matrimony. But Flora did not go; the War Department would not allow it.

Quentin fitfully continued learning how to fly—a harder process than one might think. His father was unfortunately right about preparedness. American industry seemed incapable of turning out the aircraft the new American Air Service needed. Two thousand American pilots shuffled around their French training base, grounded not by enemy air superiority but by a simple lack of planes. “They are not going to send any more pilots over here from the states for the present,” Quentin wrote home in April 1918, “which is about the first sensible decision that they have made as regards the Air Service. As it is they must have two thousand pilots over here, and Heavens knows it will be ages before we have enough machines for even half that number.”

In late March 1918, while still in training, Quentin cracked up his plane. “I smashed [it] up beautifully,” he wrote back home. “It was really a very neat job, for I landed with a drift, touched one wing, and then, as there was a high wind, did three complete summersaults (spelling?) ending up on my back. I crawled out . . . with nothing more than a couple of scratches.”

He attracted some antiaircraft fire in late June (“I had a hole through my wing”) but didn’t see actual aerial combat until July 11, 1918, when, after cavalierly veering off from his fifteen-plane squadron and “returning” to its rear, he discovered he was accidentally trailing three enemy aircraft.

“Quentin,” reminisced Eddie Rickenbacker, “fired one long burst. . . . The aeroplane immediately preceding him dropped at once and within a second or two burst into flames. Quentin put down his nose and streaked it for home before the astonished Huns had time to notice what had happened. He was not even pursued!”

The world moved very fast now. The dance of death whirled wildly, particularly for pilots. Eighty percent died in combat. Once aloft in their “flaming coffins,” their life expectancy was a mere eleven days. Such unpleasant facts counted for little to Quentin Roosevelt. “He was [so] reckless,” reminisced Rickenbacker, “that his commanding officers had to caution him repeatedly about the senselessness of his lack of caution. His bravery was so notorious that we all knew that he would either achieve some great, spectacular success or be killed in the attempt. Even the pilots in his own flight would beg him to conserve himself and wait for a fair opportunity for a victory. But Quentin would merely laugh away all serious advice.”

Sunday, July 14, was Bastille Day, and French airmen serving alongside Quentin’s unit hoped to celebrate their national holiday with some authentic American entertainment. Quentin helped by rounding up what talent he could, even participating in his troupe’s rehearsal on the evening of July 13. He was, a superior remembered, “the life of the party, inspiring everybody with his enthusiasm”

At 8:20 the next morning, Quentin’s squadron headed toward Château-Thierry. At forty-three hundred meters, seven Fokker triplanes appeared. Quentin pursued one of them, but it was a trap. Three other higher-flying German pilots descended upon him. Two machine-gun bullets ripped through his skull, killing him instantly. Spiraling downward, he crashed in enemy territory near the village of Chamery, ten kilometers north of the Marne.

Quentin’s German adversaries buried him with full military honors—but also photographed his remains lying alongside his wrecked craft. In Germany, the photo was issued as a postcard. It sold like hotcakes.

At Oyster Bay, the afternoon following Quentin’s crash, TR was dictating to his secretary, the forty-year-old Miss Josephine M. Stricker, when Associated Press correspondent Philip Thompson rapped upon his door conveying puzzling news: the New York Sun had received a cable from France reading, “WATCH SAGAMORE HILL FOR—” with the remainder of the message censored. TR feared trouble. Some family member was wounded—or, worse, slain. “It can not be Ted and it can not be Archie,” he speculated, “for both are recovering from wounds. It is not Kermit, for he is not in the danger zone at just this moment. So it must be Quentin. However, we must say nothing of this to his mother to-night.”

At 7:30 the following morning, Thompson interrupted the Colonel’s breakfast with word that Quentin had been shot down over enemy lines. But was he wounded? Dead? Alive? He had survived one crash. His Nieuport had, after all, once crashed without catching fire. Might he walk away from another?

TR knew enough of war not to deceive himself. And he knew Edith could not be deceived either.

For the longest time, he said nothing. Finally, he exclaimed, “But—Mrs. Roosevelt! How am I going to break it to her?”

Just after 1:00 p.m., TR issued a manly, stiff-upper-lip statement (“Quentin’s mother and I are very glad that he got to the front and had the chance to render some service to his country and to show the stuff that was in him before his fate befell him”). Later, he walked alone to Sagamore Hill’s stables. There, wrote the Sun, he “stopped before the stall of a fat, old and rheumatic Shetland pony, ‘Algonquin,’ which ‘was breathing laboriously under the strain of his twenty years.’ ” Years before this tiny, old Shetland had been Archie and Quentin’s pony. It was Algonquin that five-year-old Quentin so famously transported up the White House elevator back in 1903 to cheer the ailing eight-year-old Archie.

“In the seclusion of the stable,” the Sun continued, “the iron of a Spartan father’s soul gave way . . . and with tears in his eyes he threw his arms around the old pony’s neck.”

Reports filtered in, providing false hope of Quentin’s survival. It was not until Saturday, July 20, that German pilots dropped a note confirming his death—and his identification bracelet—behind American lines. Two days later, German authorities at Geneva notified their American Red Cross counterparts. Eventually, Quentin’s last letters home (“We lost another fellow from our squadron three days ago. However, you get lots of excitement to make up for it”) finally reached Oyster Bay. And thus, day after day, a son died again and again in a mother and father’s broken hearts.

On July 17, TR informed Edith of the terrible news about Quentin. He phoned Flora. And he kept on working. Choking back tears, he continued, as if all were normal, with his dictation. His only concession to tragedy was to cancel an afternoon business appointment in Manhattan.

On the following afternoon, he was to address the Republican State Convention at Saratoga Springs. No one would dare reprove him for his absence. He went anyway.

The next morning, reporters badgered him about his plans. “There is only one thought in my heart and you know what that is,” he responded. The New York World thought he laid “his hand over his heart for an instant.”

“There is no use pretending that we do not bitterly mourn,” TR soon wrote, “but [Quentin] had his crowded hour, of a life that was not only glorious but very happy; he had got his man; he has rendered service; he had a fortnight or three weeks when he stood on a crest of life which cannot even be seen by sordid and torpid souls who know neither strife in our honor and our love, and who live forever in a gray fog at the lowest level.”

“It is rather awful to know,” TR would write in late July to an acquaintance of Quentin’s, a Miss Mary L. Brown, who wrote Theodore and Edith with information about him, “that he paid with his life, and that my other sons may pay with their lives, to try to put in practice what I preached. Of course I would not have it otherwise.”

Three weeks afterward, he confided to Edith Wharton, “There is no use of my writing about Quentin; for I should break down if I tried. His death is heart breaking, but it would have been far worse if he had lived at the cost of the slightest failure to perform his duty.”

Yet even then, TR had committed to writing about Quentin—or at least about death and dying and sacrifice, and everyone knew of what and whom he actually wrote. In the October 1918 Metropolitan Magazine, he gritted his teeth and spat in death’s eye:

Only those are fit to live who do not fear to die; and none are fit to die who have shrunk from the joy of life and the duty of life. Both life and death are parts of the same Great Adventure. Never yet was worthy adventure worthily carried through by the man who put his personal safety first. Never yet was a country worth living in unless its sons and daughters were of that stern stuff which bade them die for it at need; and never yet was a country worth dying for unless its sons and daughters thought of life, not as something concerned only with the selfish evanescence of the individual, but as a link in the great chain of creation and causation, so that each person is seen in his true relations as an essential part of the whole, whose life must be made to serve the larger and continuing life of the whole. Therefore it is, that the man who is not willing to die, and the woman who is not willing to send her man to die, in a war for a great cause, are not worthy to live. . . .

Woe to those who invite a sterile death; a death not for them only, but for the race; the death which is ensured by a life of sterile selfishness.

But honor, highest honor, to those who fearlessly face death for a good cause; no life is so honorable or so fruitful as such a death. Unless men are willing to fight and die for great ideals, including love of country, ideals will vanish, and the world will become one huge sty of materialism. And unless the women of ideals bring forth the men who are ready thus to live and die, the world of the future will be filled by the spawn of the unfit. Alone of human beings the good and wise mother stands on a plane of equal honor with the bravest soldier; for she has gladly gone down to the brink of the chasm of darkness to bring back the children in whose hands rests the future of the years. But the mother and, far more, the father, who flinch from the vital task earn the scorn visited on the soldier who flinches in battle. . . .

In America to-day all our people are summoned to service and sacrifice. Pride is the portion only of those who know bitter sorrow or the foreboding of bitter sorrow. But all of us who give service, and stand ready for sacrifice, are the torch-bearers. We run with the torches until we fall, content if we can then pass them to the hands of other runners. The torches whose flame is brightest are borne by the gallant men at the front, and by the gallant women whose husbands and lovers, whose sons and brothers, are at the front. . . .

These are the torch-bearers; these are they who have dared the Great Adventure.

Some adventures cost more than other.

Copyright David Pietrusza “All Rights Reserved”