Author Chip Bishop has released a book about the relationship between Quentin Roosevelt and Flora Whitney. Quentin & Flora: A Roosevelt and a Vanderbilt in Love during the Great War may read like fiction but the story is all the more poignant for being true. Mr. Bishop tells us more in this interview.
The Strawfoot: Tell us who Quentin and Flora are.
Chip Bishop: Quentin was the youngest and favored son of Theodore Roosevelt and his wife, Edith. He is remembered best today as a heroic aviator during the Great War who lost his life in combat over German-occupied France. Flora Payne Whitney was the great-great granddaughter of the industrialist, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. Quentin and Flora met in New York during their mid-teens, and began a relationship that evolved into a romance. It is revealed through their many letters. In the spring of 1917, they were secretly engaged. She went on to finance and direct the development of the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City.
Flora was not only a Vanderbilt but a Whitney. Was her upbringing as gilded as one would imagine?
It was. She was brought up in multiple homes including The Breakers, her grandmother’s “summer cottage” in Newport, RI. She traveled abroad extensively and went to the posh Foxcroft School in Virginia. But Flora survived that extravagance to live and long and productive life, mostly in New York. She married twice and had four children. How did that differ from the Roosevelt children’s experience? The Roosevelts were comfortable financially but not super wealthy. Quentin grew up understanding that those who are given much are obliged to put their energy and resources to work for the benefit of others.
Quentin had a mechanical bent and always had a love for aircraft as well. His mother even took him to La Grand Semaine de l’Aviation de la Champagne, the big 1909 air show in France. Did his father encourage his interest in machinery and gadgetry?
Theodore was not a mechanic necessarily, but he marveled at his son’s aptitude for machinery. Remember that Theodore was the president with an impressive list of “firsts:” the first to fly in an airplane (Oct. 1910); the first to ride publicly in an automobile (Aug. 1902); and, the first to be submerged in a submarine. He appreciated the products of the industrial revolution and enjoyed their benefits. Of his first flight he remarked, “It was the finest experience I have ever had.”
All four of the Roosevelt sons, and even daughter Ethel, served in the Great War. What was their WW1 experience like? Was there extra pressure on Quentin as the youngest?
Ethel served early on during the Great War in Europe, as a nurse beside her surgeon husband, Dick Derby. Ted and Archie were seriously wounded in battle during the Great War. Both returned to service during World War II. Archie was injured again, and Ted was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery during the D-Day invasion of Europe. Quentin certainly felt the pressure of being a Roosevelt; he understood his family obligation in wartime and his duty to his country. He once remarked, “After all, it is up to us to practice what Father preaches.” Gertrude, Flora’s mother, found a sense of purpose during the Great War, didn’t she? Yes, she journeyed to Europe in the early days of the war and used her own resources to organize a hospital for injured warriors in France. Not only that, she “got her hands dirty” doing the kinds of menial jobs necessary to see that soldiers had a facility where they would receive quality care for their injuries.
Tell us the circumstances of Quentin’s death.
Quentin lost his life in aerial combat with German forces over occupied France on July 14, 1918, Bastille Day as it turned out. He and other members of his reconnaissance mission were attacked by enemy fighters. Quentin suffered two bullet wounds to his head while airborne. His French-made Nieuport bi-plane crashed in a farmer’s field at Chaméry where he was given a ceremonial burial by occupying German forces. He laid at Chaméry for 37 years until his remains were relocated in 1955 to the American Cemetery in Normandy where he rests aside his brother, Ted, on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. Quentin is the only serviceman from World War I to be buried in the American Cemetery.
What was life like for Flora after 14 July 1918? How long did she live and what civic projects was she involved in?
As you can imagine, Flora was wracked by “unspeakable grief” at Quentin’s loss, but she rebounded to marry and raise a family. She devoted much of her adult life to advancing her mother’s passion for American art at the Whitney Museum. She died peacefully in her late 80s and rests not far from her family’s former Westbury estate on Long Island.
Tell us about yourself. How were you drawn to the story of Quentin and Flora?
In researching my first book, “The Lion and the Journalist – The Unlikely Friendship of Theodore Roosevelt and Joseph Bucklin Bishop,” I was struck by how deeply Theodore was affected by Quentin’s death. He had great plans for that boy, but was himself dead within six months of Quentin’s passing, in part from a broken heart. I just knew I had to write Quentin’s tale. I was later urged by my literary agent to add his love fort Flora to the story. It was a wise recommendation. I enjoy hearing from my readers. You can reach me at www.Facebook.com/quentinandflora and on Twitter @QuentinandFlora.
(images/The Breakers, Menuett; Quentin Roosevelt, US Armed Forces)