Mashpee resident Chip Bishop has been busy this spring promoting his latest book, “Quentin & Flora: A Roosevelt and Vanderbilt in Love During the Great War.” The book is an account of the courtship between Quentin Roosevelt, President Theodore Roosevelt’s youngest son, and Flora Payne Whitney, granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt and heiress to both the Vanderbilt and the Whitney fortunes.
The two met in Newport, Rhode Island, when they were teenagers and became engaged in secret just before Quentin left to serve as a pilot in World War I. Tragically, his plane was shot down over France in the summer of 1919.
The book, released in April of this year, follows on the heels of Mr. Bishop’s successful 2011 book, “The Lion and the Journalist,” about the friendship between President Roosevelt and his official biographer, Joseph Bucklin, who was the brother of Mr. Bishop’s great-grandfather.
Both books are works of nonfiction.
“My goal,” explained Mr. Bishop, “has always been to bring the dry pages of history alive by putting a personal face on the story.”
As a work of nonfiction much of the “Quentin & Flora” story survives in the 125 letters written between Quentin and Flora during their courtship.
“Fortunately for us the letters are preserved at Harvard [University] as part of the Theodore Roosevelt collection,” said Mr. Bishop, who added that he spent many days in the library at Harvard reading the letters and copying down excerpts that illustrated the couple’s relationship.
Mr. Bishop was also grateful to Flora’s daughter, who twice invited him to her home in Connecticut for lunch and long talks that Mr. Bishop said added richly to the story.
After reading all the letters between the couple Mr. Bishop admitted to feeling like an intruder or reading such personal correspondences. He said he felt better about it when he reminded himself that the letters had been entrusted to the public domain and that “the people who donated them intended for them to be read as part of their story.”
“They kept their engagement a secret because they didn’t think their families would support the marriage,” Mr. Bishop said, although by the time word of the engagement leaked out both families were in support. After Quentin’s death Theodore Roosevelt brought Flora into his family, treating her like a daughter until his own death. Flora went on to marry twice and raise four children. She died in 1986.
Mr. Bishop hopes the public will enjoy this wartime romance.
“We don’t collectively know as much about World War I as we do about World War II and subsequent wars,” Mr. Bishop said. “I hope the book will open a window on that period of time, which began exactly 100 years ago.”
From the book, Mr. Bishop said, people can get an idea of what life was like on and off the battlefield, including “how people coped and what challenges the war brought to different individuals.”
In addition to the story of Quentin and Flora, Mr. Bishop said, he enjoyed researching and writing about Theodore Roosevelt during that time period, which was late in his life, long after he had left the White House.
The book creates a revealing portrait of Theodore Roosevelt at that time, Mr. Bishop said. With his affection for Quentin and then for Flora, Theodore Roosevelt becomes a doting figure in the book.
When Quentin leaves for the war, President Roosevelt tries to arrange for Flora to get to France so she and Quentin can be married but because of red tape, bureaucracy and wartime rules he isn’t able to make it happen.
“It was a real frustration for him,” Mr. Bishop said.
Theodore Roosevelt died in January 1919, just six months after Quentin’s plane went down.
“Many historians, myself included, believe he died of a broken heart over losing his favorite son,” Mr. Bishop said.
While the end of the book is admittedly sad, Mr. Bishop assured me it is definitely not “a three-hanky book.”
The opening chapters trace Quentin’s younger years and people “will laugh their way through the first few chapters,” Mr. Bishop said.
Quentin grew up in the White House from the time he was 4 until age 12, said Mr. Bishop, who added that along with some of his pals, Quentin was a “real hellion.”
Quentin was very popular with the media and the newspapers loved to report on his antics. Said Mr. Bishop, comparing the young Quentin to Shirley Temple, “He was a real child star in the glare of the White House spotlight.”
In contrast, Flora grew up in luxury with homes both on 5th Avenue in New York and at the Breakers in Newport. “Our families inhabited different planets,” Quentin once observed.
So far Mr. Bishop has given talks about the book as far afield as Oyster Bay, Long Island, Theodore Roosevelt’s hometown. Locally, he has events scheduled at the Old Barnstable Courthouse on July 28 at 7:30 PM, Cotuit Public Library on July 30 at 6 PM, and at the Falmouth Historical Society on September 10 at 7 PM.
As an elected member of the Mashpee Public Library’s board of trustees Mr. Bishop will be at the Mashpee library in a different capacity on Wednesday, June 18, at 7 PM, when he’ll be talking about “Quentin & Flora” and signing copies of the book, which will be on sale. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book will go to support the library.
Prior to the 7 PM talk, the Friends of Mashpee Public Library will hold a Dinner with the Author event at 5 PM at Siena in Mashpee Commons. All are welcome. Reservations can be made by calling 508-539-1907.
“It will be a casual and free-spirited event,” said Mr. Bishop, who said some of the proceeds from patrons’ meals also will help support the library.