This dual biography recounts the lives and doomed courtship of Quentin Roosevelt, youngest son of Theodore, and Flora Payne Whitney.
Biographer Bishop (The Lion and the Journalist: The Unlikely Friendship of Theodore Roosevelt and Joseph Bucklin Bishop, 2011) examines letters, cablegrams, diaries and other sources—some still unpublished—to tell how these two scions of influential American families grew up, met and fell in love. Quentin (1897-1918) was the irrepressible youngest child in the large Roosevelt household. Energetic and curious, he had a deep interest in engines and machines (especially aeroplanes) and loved fiction and poetry. Flora (1897-1986), daughter of one of the wealthiest families in America, was raised largely by governesses among luxury and privilege. Bishop traces their relationship “from awkward adolescent acquaintanceship to impassioned love” through their engagement and Quentin’s death in an aerial battle. Well-written and novelistic, the book also brings to light unpublished material, helping augment the stories of two prominent American families. But Bishop’s emphasis on a year and a half of “exemplary love…authentic and full-bodied” between two 20-year-olds has a weak foundation. Reading their letters, there is little to distinguish their relationship from that of any other young couple separated by war, missing each other and fearing for the future. “I love you, dearest, and always shall” is something any lonely airman might write. More fruitful are Bishop’s speculations about how damaging Theodore Roosevelt’s high expectations for his sons were when combined with “a distorted, romanticized view of war.” (An interesting comparison here might have been made to Kipling and his son.) Sometimes, though, Bishop seems to romanticize war himself; he quotes—with no sense of irony or history—the tag “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (it is sweet and right to die for your country) after describing the Great War memorial tablet at Quentin’s school.
Adds to the literature on the Roosevelts and Whitneys, but the father-son relationship holds more interest than the romance.