Iolas -Ρουσβελτ Θεοδωρα

Of Theo I Sing
by Brooks Peters

One of my favorite authors has died. A brilliant writer who penned nine fascinating novels, some of them highly regarded by such well-known literary figures as Patricia Highsmith, Peter Quennell, and John Betjeman. And yet, three weeks after her death, The New York Times has yet to publish her obituary. The fact that she also happened to be the granddaughter of President Theodore Roosevelt makes this all the more perplexing. Her name was Theodora Keogh.

Well, actually when she died this month in North Carolina she was known as Mrs. Arthur A Rauchfuss. Never heard of her? That does not surprise me. She lived in relative obscurity for the last four decades. Very few people in her own town knew she was the granddaughter of T. R. It was something she fought hard to keep secret. She preferred to be known for her own accomplishments, and when they were no longer in the spotlight, she chose anonymity.

I first stumbled across the name Theodora Keogh while researching an article on the Roosevelt family. I was hired to do an overview of the Roosevelts of Oyster Bay; those family members in the Teddy Roosevelt camp as opposed to the Hyde Park Roosevelts of F.D.R.’s side. (photo of Theodora below courtesy of davekiersh).

I’d always preferred the Sagamore Roosevelts. To me they represented strong wills, independence and adventure. So when I began to research T. R.’s son Archibald Roosevelt I learned of one of his daughters, Theodora, who obviously was named for her famous grandfather. But I was hindered in my quest for information since there were scant details published about her, and the family members I spoke to either knew very little about her or preferred not to discuss her. The exception was Melinda Jackson, a beautiful young dancer, who seemed to identify with her strong-minded and exotic relative. She encouraged me to read Theodora’s novels. This was back in the days before the internet and I was not able to find any of Theodora Keogh’s books in print. Nor did the local library have any copies on hand. I had to go to the main branch of the New York Public Library in Manhattan and request copies. As I was under a tight deadline, there wasn’t time to read them all but I managed to skim through one with the intriguing title The Fetish, hoping to find juicy risque sections that would add a little spice to my article. Alas, I didn’t find anything obviously prurient, but I was struck by the marvelous prose and writing style. This woman had a very modern attitude for the time period in which she was writing. I was intrigued, but put it on hold while I finished the article. In time, I forgot about Theodora Keogh.

Then, about ten years later, I read in the New York Times that my favorite bookstore in Manhattan was closing. A Different Light, which catered to the gay and lesbian community, was shutting its doors due to a lack of business. Apparently Barnes & Noble had killed it. They were having a sale of their older gay book collection and I raced down to buy what was left. I found a copy of a novel entitled The Double Door. I was amazed to find that the author of the book was none other than Theodora Keogh. Had she written a gay novel? I was intrigued. I bought the book, raced home and read it from cover to cover. It turned out to be a very peculiar novel about a young woman who finds that her father is keeping a male lover in the townhouse next door.

The “double door” of the title is the special entrance he created so he could visit his lover in secret. The whole story had vague echoes of the infamous Wayne Lonergan case. He had been convicted of killing his cafe society wife, a young heiress who happened to be the daughter of the man who was keeping him as a sort of male gigolo. Others have claimed that Keogh was thinking more of the Marquis de Cuevas, a high society ballet enthusiast married to a Rockefeller, who allegedly kept a male lover or two on the side. Regardless of its sources, the story intrigued me. The Double Door was written in 1950, long before gay novels became the vogue. Theodora Keogh was a generation ahead of her time. It is a book that is mysterious, mystifying and completely original.
The photographs on the back of the dust jacket for The Double Door showed a beautiful, rather fey creature with a dancer’s limber body and an eccentric’s love of posing. At the time, Theodora was married to Tom Keogh, a costume designer and artist. He is perhaps best known for designing the costumes for the Vincente Minnelli film The Pirate, starring Gene Kelly and Judy Garland.

The couple led a bohemian lifestyle in Paris. Prior to that, I learned, Theodora had been a dancer and toured with Alexander Iolas in South America. Salvador Dali had designed her rather outlandish costumes. All one could glean from these glimmers of insight was that Theodora was a maverick who had left her more conservative Oyster Bay relatives in the dust. I couldn’t help but identify with her. She reminded me a bit of her famous relative Alice Roosevelt Longworth, although I was certain Theodora’s views were far more liberal. (Below is a shot of her husband Tom Keogh, at left, perhaps with Leslie Caron, although it is difficult to tell. She starred in Daddy Long Legs, another film for which Keogh did the costumes. Following that is one of his illustrations.)

Over the years, I made a point of buying Theodora Keogh’s books whenever I found them. Prior to the mid 90s, it was nearly impossible. But then the internet was launched and suddenly one could simply type her name into Bookfinder.com or Amazon and come upon dozens of her tomes. My particular favorite is The Tattooed Heart, a marvelously atmospheric novel about a young boy and girl living in the Hamptons. Abandoned by their high-flying, distracted parents, they create their own universe amid the sand dunes and privet hedges of the East End. I found a copy while book-hunting in Charlottesville, Virginia — a first edition signed by Theodora Keogh hersel

I also enjoyed the racy pulp versions of her novels. As her fame grew, it seemed to me in hindsight, her books were marketed with even more salacious blurbs. Her tales were hyped as being laced with forbidden love, perversion and subterranean sex. The Fascinator delved into the dark world of “irresistible temptation”. The Fetish was a “dynamic novel of desire and damnation”! Meg tackled the mind of a young girl who was raped. The Double Door became “a throbbing novel of innocence and evil”. Gemini delved into the tragedy of incest: a forbidden love between twins! The Mistress (the American name for the novel The Fetish) described a seductress’s “haunting beauty” which “drew men to her. Her twisted desires consumed them.” The trend culminated in the strangest tale of all, The Other Girl: “The shocking story of a twisted love in the never-never land of Hollywood misfits.” That novel, inspired in part by the notorious “Black Dahlia” murder (of Elizabeth Short) had dark lesbian overtones and was marketed with the figure of a nude girl on the cover covering her face in shame.

Who wouldn’t want to read these “sordid” pulps? Well, perhaps the reason Theodora Keogh is not better known is that these books are not sordid, nor are they salacious. While they are certainly unusual and at times bizarre, they never were written to be “one-handers” as some vintage sleaze titles were. Keogh’s writing is refreshing and quite modern. Her purple prose was a light shade of violet. Yes, some of it is quirky and self-indulgent. She might have benefited from some more effective editing. But name one writer who wouldn’t? What works in the world of Theodora Keogh is her magical and insightful imagination. At a time when most books delved only glancingly at adolescent sexuality, homosexuality, lesbianism, fetishes and childhood abuse, Theodora Keogh explored them with a sophisticated, revelatory, and entirely unsentimental eye.

After completing my collection of Keogh titles, I kept looking for information about her. I reasoned that she must be in her 80s and perhaps had died. I thought of contacting Melinda Jackson again, but I had not been happy with the way my piece on the Roosevelts had been edited (chopped up, is a better word), and was concerned she would react negatively to any further inquiries. So I combed the internet constantly, hoping to learn more about her. The only person I ended up making contact with was an artist named David Kiersh, who has amassed an impressive archive about her, including photographs and books, as well as paintings by Theodora Keogh’s handsome husband, Tom. He did the cover art for many of her books, including Street Music, a touching, odd little novel about a man who befriends a child criminal.

Then out of the blue I got an email from a wonderfully helpful writer named Robert Nedelkoff who had noticed a tiny mention of Theodora on my relatively new MySpace page. He told me that Theodora Keogh had died and sent me links to her obituary in the Charlotte Observer. We then struck up a conversation about Theodora Keogh and other neglected authors that has been fascinating and lively. He also told me that Hugo Vickers, who penned the brilliant biography of Cecil Beaton, among many other achievements, has written a full-length obituary about her in the Telegraph. (see link here). How ironic that it is the British press which goes to the trouble of writing about this granddaughter of one of the most popular and beloved American Presidents while the New York Times, the newspaper of record in the United States, completely ignores her passing. One has to ask why has-been movie stars and long-forgotten opera singers get immediate coverage in the Times when they die, but a writer of nine ground-breaking novels does not? Theodora Roosevelt Keogh O’Toole Rauchfuss deserves much better. bookend3.gif

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