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CBS2's Mary Calvi pens new book: "If a Poem Could Live and Breathe"

CBS2's Mary Calvi pens new book: "If a Poem Could Live and Breathe"
CBS2's Mary Calvi pens new book: "If a Poem Could Live and Breathe" 05:13

NEW YORK -- CBS2's Mary Calvi has a new book coming out February 14. 

"If a Poem Could Live and Breathe" is a novel of Teddy Roosevelt's first love, based on original love letters from the Gilded Age.

Calvi was able to see and transcribe the letters, and it's the first time most of them will be published.

They reveal a relationship that was emotionally intense and painfully beautiful when you discover the impact it had on Roosevelt and on history. 

CBS2's Maurice DuBois interviewed Mary about her new book. 

"'Darling Alice, I've just written to my family that I am coming out next Saturday as I have something important to tell them. Of course, they will guess what it is,'" Calvi read. "And her letter to him is is this, 'My dearest Thee, I've just time to write you a few lines before it is time to go to bed. You cannot imagine how much I miss you... With many kisses and much love always you're loving Alice.' The two of them had a relationship for the ages."

Alice Hathaway Lee, Teddy Roosevelt, Cousin Rose (standing).   Harvard University Houghton Library

DuBois: How did you get on the trail? How did this first come to your attention that there's something here?

Calvi: I think you know this, but I am what you call a nerd with capital N, so ... I had a hunch.

DuBois: I'm blown away that you would have such a hunch about such a thing.

Calvi: If a man writes in his journal entry over and over and over about this woman he is completely in love with, don't tell me he's not treasuring those love letters and keeping them somewhere ... I just took one step after another after another and then all of a sudden X marks the spot. There was the treasure trove of letters. I couldn't believe it. I was nearly on the floor ... The letters had been donated privately to Harvard University, and they were under the family papers, and so they were there.

DuBois: Right there, the whole time.

Calvi: I started the research on Alice, and when you start by looking at the woman in the relationship, you just centered everything around her ... And that is why I believe I found a story that no one else had found before, because I thought to look at Alice.

DuBois: So the history books have dismissed her and disregarded her. Why do you think that is?

Calvi: For whatever reason, they didn't feel that Alice mattered, which is not the case at all. I believe she mattered so much, that if it weren't for Alice, we may have a Theodore Roosevelt who was a scientist ... But a man who may have never have become the president.

DuBois: This [letter] right here, "Darling baby, I've been studying hard all day."

Calvi: "I am so happy that I hardly dare trust in my own happiness. Last Sunday evening seems almost like a dream. Goodbye, darling. Your loving Thee." She called him "Thee." ... Throughout, that's what you feel, like you're in their world. And oh my goodness, I did feel like I was intruding many, many times.

DuBois: You're this determined, relentless reporter tracking down information, but you also have a full-time job. You also have a family. You're first lady of Yonkers ... You've got all this stuff going on. When on earth do you write? How does this happen?

Calvi: Some people do yoga, and some people paint. And for me, historical research and writing is a getaway ... I spent a lot of time really crafting her character, making her a symbol of the times just to get people to understand what women were going through ... I hope people just take a look at it. And maybe it offers us a new piece of research. We look at that time of his life to determine whether it was maybe more influential than people have thought.  

CBS2's Mary Calvi discusses novel "If a Poem Could Live and Breathe" 03:32

DuBois: How do you feel as you're reading this deeply personal, connective letter?

Calvi: I was so emotional. I was like, practically in tears. I was, I really was.

DuBois: Why? 

Calvi: Well, because you're really close to their feelings. I mean, you're really in their world. 

DuBois: When we think of Teddy Roosevelt, we think of "tough guy." He got shot, post-presidency, in the chest. He survived. The Rough Rider who led the charge of San Juan Hill, right? Bully pulpit, speak softly, carry a big stick. That's Teddy Roosevelt. And then we hear this. 

Calvi: The Teddy Roosevelt that we all knew is not the Teddy Roosevelt at 19 and 20. At 19 and 20, you see a Teddy Roosevelt that is so genuine in his writings, and so honest about his feelings. It really is painfully beautiful, I believe, and a story worth telling of a man who had become the president.

DuBois: You have found a love story that appears to have changed the course of history, Mary Calvi. And no one else has seen this. I mean, this is breaking new ground, once again.

Calvi: He wants to be a naturalist. That's really what he wants to do. He's even writing to his friends, putting science aside in order to completely focus my attention on this one goal. And I believe that one goal was winning the heart of Alice Hathaway Lee. It's the only answer to why he would have changed his career path. I mean, others may say differently, but I would say show me the proof. Because I don't see it.

An image of one the love letters from Teddy Roosevelt to Alice Hathaway Lee.  Harvard Library, Alice Roosevelt Longworth Family Papers

DuBois: You say he was really attracted by her mind, her thoughts. And high on that list was women's rights. She felt the equality was real, and it needed to be attained. 

Calvi: He talks about women deserving the same rights as men... and he's a senior in college giving this address at the commencement exercises. So it reads, "As regards the laws relating to marriage, there should be the most absolute equality preserved between the two sexes. I do not think the woman should assume the man's name," underlined. And I believe that their relationship would have impacted a speech that he gave, because at this time, Maurice, he was so concerned about losing her.

DuBois: You write that he's thinking "If a poem could live and breathe" - there's the title - "Alice Hathaway Lee would be its title." Where does that come from?

Calvi: Truthfully, it was like she was a poem to him. He was so moved by her, not only by her physical beauty, but also her mental beauty. And I feel like, for him, it was as if the words came off the page, and there was poetry before his eyes.

DuBois: "Darling wife." "Wifie." Wifie? Seriously? 

Calvi: Every time.

DuBois: "Darling wifie?"

Calvi: It's "My dearest love" here. I mean, we can go on and on and on. "Darling Alice," "Darling Queenie." I mean every beautiful name that he could give her, he did.

DuBois: As you're reading this, your heart must have just been pounding. Just like, oh my gosh.

Calvi: Oh, my goodness. Here they are in front of me. Yeah. Really, truly unbelievable. I was just blown away by it. And I was really felt like I had a treasure in front of me. I really did. Truly did.

DuBois: Thanks for unearthing it. Wow.

Calvi has a number of events in our area to celebrate the launch: 

  • 1 p.m. Sunday, February 12 at Bookends Bookstore in Ridgewood, New Jersey
  • 7 p.m. Tuesday, February 14 at the Roosevelt House at Long Island University in Greenvale, Long Island
  • 7 p.m. Wednesday, February 15 at the Madison Theatre at Molloy University in Rockville Centre, Long Island
  • 6:30 p.m. Friday, February 17 at the Riverfront Library in Yonkers, Westchester County
  • 2 p.m. Saturday, February 18 at Barnes and Noble in Scarsdale-Eastchester, Westchester County
  • 3 p.m. Monday, February 20 at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, Westchester County
  • 6 p.m. Thursday, February 23 at Elm Street Books in New Canaan, Connecticut
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