A Charmed Life Lost: The Tragic Story of Quentin Roosevelt

February 21, 2016

Dedicated to the memory of

Peter Scanlan (1941-2012)

 

Quentin Roosevelt had led a charmed life.  As the fourth son of President Theodore Roosevelt, he had been born into a life of wealth and privilege.  His future seemed one of almost limitless possibilities.

 

As the world was thrown into turmoil by the events that would ultimately lead to World War 1, Quentin was engaged to the beautiful Flora Payne Whitney, the granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the nation’s richest men. The couple met in August 1916 and fell in love.  Quentin seemed determined to impress the young lady and earn the respect of her family.

 

While he was initially neutral on the question of American entry into the war, Quentin came to believe that American involvement was inevitable.  In a letter he wrote to Flora from Harvard in early 1917 Quentin wrote: “We are a pretty sordid lot, aren’t we, to want to sit looking on while England and France fight our battles and pan gold into our pockets.”

 

After the sinking of the passenger ship, Lusitania in 1915, and later, President Wilson’s war message to Congress on April 2, 1917, American opinion about involvement in the war shifted. At age 20, Quentin was just twenty years old and too young to be drafted, but as the son of Theodore Roosevelt, he felt obligated to get into the fight. His father, at age 58, had already expressed an interest in going to France but had been rebuffed by military authorities.  The former President insisted that his sons should go in his place.

 

Before the end of April 1917, Quentin left Harvard and volunteered for the U.S. Air Service.  At the same time, he proposed to Flora. The couple received their parents’ blessings and said goodbye to each other in New York City on July 23 as Quentin set sail to France. Quentin had a difficult time with the flight instruction.  His training unit was saddled with the unpredictable (and some would say dangerous) Nieuport aircraft that had already been discarded by the French.  In November 1917, Quentin took ill with pneumonia and was sent on medical leave to Paris for three weeks.   At the same time, Quentin’s  older brothers, Theodore, Archie and Kermit, were already on their way to the front.  Quentin was anxious to get the front and prove himself in battle.

 

In June 1918, and perhaps more to do with his lineage than his flying skill, Quentin was made a flight commander in the 95th Aero Squadron.  He took part in aerial combat over the Aisne River and claimed his first victory in a letter to Flora. “I think I got my first Boche,” he wrote on July 11th, referring to a German plane he had encountered during a mission. Three days later, during the Second Battle of the Marne, he was engaged by three German aircraft and shot down.  His aircraft fell behind the German lines, near the village of Chamery, France.  Although several German pilots claimed credit for the victory, the identity of the pilot who shot Roosevelt down has never been definitively determined.

 

 The sad end of Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt preserved in a photo taken by German authorities

 

 

Former President Roosevelt was devastated by the news of his son’s death.  Although he had barely started his promising life before having it snuffed out in the skies over France, Quentin was viewed as an American hero.  He might have comfortably sat out the war and engaged in business but chose to abandon a life of comfort for a life in uniform.  Mass produced photographs of the scene of his death as well as his gravesite were widely distributed.  In tribute to President Roosevelt, the Germans buried Quentin with full military honors. Quentin’s tragic death was used as a rallying cry for American support for the war.

 

 The gravesite of Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt (Bill Howard Collection)

 

For her part, Flora Payne Whitney saved all of Quentin’s letters.   The letters, along with cablegrams and other communications, were recently published in a book, Quentin and Flora by Chip Beck (2014).  In the years after Quentin’s death, Flora was embraced by the Roosevelt family in tribute to her relationship with the young Quentin.  President Roosevelt, still broken hearted over his son’s loss, died in January 1919. Flora would go on to marry twice, have four children, and follow her mother’s artistic passion, into a leadership role at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. She died in 1986.

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