A Dynamic Duo Named Roosevelt : Lucky, Archie: Their Lives and Careers, Past and Present

The Washington Post

The U.S. chief of protocol begins by threatening to cry.

The interview has been arranged for a dual profile of Ambassador Selwa (Lucky) Roosevelt and her husband, Archie, a retired CIA officer who has just published his memoirs. Most of it will take place at the couple’s house in Georgetown, but the reporter has asked first to meet Mrs. Roosevelt at her office in Foggy Bottom. To catch her, as it were, in her habitat.

She has agreed to this much, but says first and firmly, “This is Archie’s hour.” He deserves the limelight for his book, she says. She gets far too much attention as it is, she says. Don’t, she pleads, make it a story about her.

“I’ll burst into tears if you do that,” she says.

Protocol demands fair warning.

“Darling Gracie,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt to his daughter-in-law in July, 1918, the year his grandson was born, “the picture of darling wee bunny Archikins made me so dreadfully homesick for him. I long for him, and shall croon every kind of aboriginal nursery song to the blessed wee person . . . .”


That is the extraordinary heritage of Archibald Bulloch Roosevelt Jr. His pedigree is there to hear in his voice, a dry emanation from the very back of his nose; it is there more faintly to see in his looks--in the sly smile that goes with a wit as dry as the voice.

But “For Lust of Knowing: Memoirs of an Intelligence Officer” is largely the story of how Archie saved himself from the wretched fate of being a Roosevelt.

“I’ve always been attracted by the exotic,” he says. “I didn’t want to fall into the mold: I was brought up as a Groton-Harvard-Long Island-New York type, and I didn’t want to fall into that.”

According to former CIA director Richard Helms, Roosevelt is the real McCoy, “an uncommonly good intelligence officer.” The subtitle of his book is something of a misnomer, however; it is discreet to a fault about his CIA activities. More than anything, Archie Roosevelt’s memoir is a romance in the tradition of the British Arabists, an account of his love affair with the East. “When I speak of an intelligence officer,” he writes tellingly, “it is in the old-fashioned sense, perhaps best exemplified in fiction by Kipling’s British political officers in India.”

With an initial leaning toward academia, he learned at one time or another 20 different languages, from Arabic to Old Norse to Middle High German. (Being a Roosevelt had its advantages after all: “I learned Russian at home,” he says. “I taught myself the grammar, and I learned how to speak by talking to the Polish gardener.”)

World War II was the welcome disruption that turned him toward his passion. Sent to North Africa and the Middle East as an Army intelligence officer, he came away with strong opinions about French colonialism and Soviet expansionism in those regions--and about American myopia toward them. He also came away confirmed in his lust for the East. At war’s end he joined the CIA, which he served until 1974--as chief of stations including Istanbul, London and Madrid, and later in Washington as a high-level administrator.

In the course of events he married properly (to Katharine Tweed, daughter of Wall Street lawyer Harrison Tweed), and improperly divorced.

After the 1950 divorce, “I pondered it night after night,” he writes, “and concluded that perhaps my nature was too different from that of the New Englanders with whom I had spent my youth. My next wife would not be a Yankee, but perhaps a warm, smiling Southerner with a softer nature, or even an Arab girl, a black-eyed Houri like many I had seen--but never touched!--over the last few years. I had known a few married to British and Americans in the Middle East and their husbands all appeared to be serenely happy.”

Only a few months later, Roosevelt found Southern belle and black-eyed Arab rolled into one 21-year-old Vassar student. He was then on loan to the Voice of America, where Selwa Showker, who was about to graduate, was referred for a job interview. “The minute Archie saw me,” she says, “he understood me. He knew my history practically from one look at my face.”

They were married three months later. “I took this little thing right out of Vassar,” he says, and suddenly you can see generations of Roosevelt males behind him. “I didn’t want anyone else to see her first.”

“May I call you Barbara?”

The question, an hour into the interview, is delivered in her low, nearly husky tones, with standard Southern ebullience. It seems peculiar only because it is addressed to someone named Marjorie, and asked by someone who is paid $77,500 a year to be the best-mannered person in America.

Washington, of course, produces lots of attractive, well-married ladies in slim Chanel suits and smiles of business-like sociability. Some of them work for salaries and some of them serve their husbands’ careers, and a few, lately, do both. But Lucky Roosevelt, who has the accouterments down so completely that she could give lessons in the type, is yet too extravagant a personality to belong to it.

Like many others, she reflexively salutes her lord and her master at every turn, as in: “You know how darling Ronald Reagan is, I mean he’s the most adorable man, he’s so sweet and nice. And Archie’s just like that.”

Like others, she has been known to drop a name or two. “I could never ask someone I know socially,” she told House & Garden about her fund-raising for the renovation of Blair House. “Take John Kluge. Now he really hides his light under a bushel, but it wouldn’t have been kosher to ask him, especially since we were both on safari with Malcolm Forbes.”

But she is not like others. She has, first, the distinctive, dark good looks of her parents’ native Lebanon. And with Middle Eastern parents, a Southern upbringing and a patina of Roosevelt reserve, at 59 she has the air of struggling to fit too many parts into too small a container; of Bette Davis auditioning to be Joan Fontaine.

Her parents, both of the Druze sect, raised their two daughters in conservative Kingsport, Tenn. Her father, who immigrated at 16 and started as a peddler, built up a dry goods business only to lose it in the Depression and begin over. “We never were well off,” says Lucky, “but we were very rich in love and warmth and a happy home.”

Although Selwa is a common name in Lebanon, people in the South thought it “the most exotic thing in the world.” Over time, the nickname “Lucky” evolved. “I was lucky at cards,” she says.

Lucky first worked at 13, earning Christmas money selling perfume in a department store. Later, she saved money toward her college education, which was mostly paid for by scholarships she earned with her top grades.

“If I had as a child any experience of sadness, I suppose it was because I wasn’t blond and blue-eyed and the girl next door,” she once told Interview magazine. But as time went on, she says, she came to “love the fact of my background . . . . I have always basically found that I was an object of interest to people. I think it’s also given me some more empathy with people.”

“The difference between (Archie’s) background and mine is huge,” she continues, saying of her own family’s boisterous warmth, “My mother-in-law thought it very, very de trop .

“I think Archie’s family taught me something of the dignity of restraint. There is a dignity maybe I would not have had, just being ethnic me.”

After decades of fudging what he did for a living--pretending to work for the State Department, answering questions about his career with vague generalities--Archie Roosevelt seems to enjoy the mild exhibitionism of authorship.

But in this interview, he doesn’t get to enjoy much of it. He is asked about the great discretion he used in writing the book-whether it was his choice, the CIA’s, or both.

“Well, the thing is,” he says, “I can say by the contract I wrote (upon retirement) that I served overseas for the agency, always as chief of station. But I couldn’t say what stations I was chief of. But if you read the book . . . .”

“Now, Archie,” Lucky interjects. “You have to be very careful.”

He improvises. “Well, no, I think what you can say is I wasn’t allowed to say where I was chief of station. So what you’ll have to do is read Who’s Who . . . .”

Lucky breaks in again. “I don’t think you should say anything about that. I’m sorry.”

“All right,” he says, “all right.”

To the reporter, she says, “I just think he’s going to get into trouble.”

“I’ll get into trouble,” repeats Archie. “All right. Well, I . . . .”

“Skip that.”

“Well, what can I say, then?”

Lucky smiles. “Well, what was the question?”

She is more afraid, it develops, that he will get her into trouble. Minutes later, Archie is warming to a description of his old craft. “Now, intelligence--its function is to get the intelligence and find out what’s going on in all the countries of the world, and of course the No. 1 intelligence target is the Soviet Union . . . .”

“Now, Aaar-chie,” says Lucky.

“That is perfectly all right to say,” he says with some asperity.

“No, but you’re . . . I’m the chief of protocol.” She turns to the reporter and smiles, points to the tape recorder on the tea table. “Turn this thing off,” she says sweetly.

These four words, and variations on them, will get a workout in the next two hours. Each time, she indicates that she had not sufficiently thought out the delicate problems that might arise in a joint interview. Given her position, she cannot countenance any slurs on other countries or their leaders. “Archie,” she says, “is an innocent where the press is concerned.”

The conversation goes more smoothly when she is invited to talk about her husband’s attributes. “I still think I’m married to the most brilliant man that I’ve ever met,” she says. “I always wanted to be married to a man whose mind was exciting and different . . . . Archie will not remember the name of someone I’ve just introduced him to. But he can remember esoteric things about Roman history or the Visigoths. Or the Uzbeks.”

As soon as the conversation returns to more recent history, however, her brow furrows. Archie brings up former CIA Director William Colby, whom he castigates in the book as one of the worst directors he worked for.

“Now, Archie. I can’t . . . .”

“I’ve said it in my book,” he says plaintively.

“I’ve told you,” she responds tartly: “You can have your controversial things, but not with me.”

She objects to talk about former CIA agent Philip Agee. She rules out his routine description of security procedures in foreign missions.

“But that’s got nothing to do with your job, or politics,” he says.

“I know, but I don’t . . . I find it difficult.”

Archie is asked about the defections, 27 years ago, of British intelligence officers Kim Philby and Donald Maclean.

“Aaaaaaah,” she moans. “I think Archie ought to talk about something other than specific things to do with the agency, when he’s being interviewed with me,” she says. “I don’t really care what he says when we’re separate.”

He is trying in vain to explain that he wasn’t even in London at the time.

“Archie, please!” she says. “You have to be careful!”

What has he said that has hurt her, he asks. Has he said anything compromising about a foreign government?

“Well, I know,” she answers, “but I just, I mean, it’s very hard for me.”

“Well, you tell me when I’ve said anything that’s difficult . . . .” His voice is beginning to rise.

“Remember,” Lucky admonishes her husband, “we’re being recorded as we’re discussing this.”

Could you turn that off a minute?

Several times she reiterates her concern, and the next morning she will call and say, “I didn’t ever want to stop him from saying what was on his mind, but there were times when I thought he was on thin ice. I can’t be associated with something about foreign leaders or countries that might be pejorative, I just never would in this job. I just might as well quit as do that.”

The obvious solution--that she might leave the room while he is being interviewed--never seems to cross her mind.

“It didn’t bother me,” Archie says of the anonymity that inevitably accompanies intelligence work, “because I had self-confidence. But we’d have friends from the foreign community who’d say, ‘Why doesn’t Archie ever make ambassador? At his age, shouldn’t he be an ambassador? He seems to know quite a lot about the countries, and to be doing a good job, and why does he never get promoted?’ ”

In the end, of course, it was his wife who made ambassador. While the Roosevelts were moving around the world, returning to Washington for occasional stretches, Lucky worked as a writer. In the mid-'50s she wrote a column, “Diplomatically Speaking,” for Washington’s Evening Star and later free-lanced for a number of magazines and newspapers, including Town & Country, McCall’s, Family Circle and the Washington Post. “All my life,” she says, “I was a housewife first, a journalist second.”

In November, 1981, when Nancy Reagan was being widely criticized as extravagant, Lucky wrote a rousing defense on the Op-Ed page of the Washington Post asking, “When is the press going to give the First Lady a break?” She made this appealing diagnosis of Nancy Reagan’s difficulties: “Mrs. Reagan is shy, sensitive and vulnerable . . . . She cannot dissemble. She is so honest she cannot ‘stage’ events to make her look good.”

Two months later, President Reagan’s first chief of protocol, Leonore Annenberg, resigned after only a year in office. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Michael K. Deaver suggested that Lucky Roosevelt replace her--an idea prompted in large part, according to several former White House staffers, by her article. “The name Roosevelt didn’t hurt any, either,” added one.

Protocol Chief’s Job

The protocol chief’s office is responsible for, among other things, coordinating visits from foreign dignitaries; the purchase and presentation of gifts to foreign leaders; accrediting foreign diplomats, and the maintenance of Blair House, the official guest residence across the street from the White House. When Lucky Roosevelt leaves office with Ronald Reagan, she says, she will be the longest-serving chief of protocol in history. It is a physically demanding job, calling for early hours and late ones, and endless smiling visits to embassy functions. But it confers a redoubtable social standing.

In the words of Henry Catto, who served as chief of protocol under President Lyndon B. Johnson: “It’s a little bit like being the captain of a mine sweeper. If you do your job well, nobody notices. If you don’t, there’s a hell of an explosion.”

In 1974, when he retired from the CIA, Archie took a job with the Chase Manhattan Bank as director of international relations. If he is mentioned these days chiefly as Mr. Lucky Roosevelt, he takes this, too, in stride. “He has been so supportive of me in this job,” she says.

“He’s totally secure in himself,” says their longtime friend Ina Ginsburg, “and he wants her to shine.”

“She is very lucky to have a husband like Archie,” says another old friend, “because many husbands would hate being dragged around like that . . . . When you have a strong woman like Lucky, who does come on strong and tend to dominate, well, Archie is a very strong man. He’s at peace with himself. It would drive some men crazy, but it doesn’t bother him.”

“Well, I have no insecurities about myself,” Archie says. “So I don’t mind playing second fiddle and being a prince consort, and picking up her train. I mean, after all, she spent her life following me around . . . . I think she’s got this coming to her.”

He does point out, with some glee, that diplomatic practice--which has long had an established role for the wife of an ambassador--has not yet come to a universal decision about what to do with the “husband of.”

“So let’s say I go to an embassy dinner,” he says, “I never know how I’m going to be treated. If the ambassador . . . .”

“Aaar-chie,” she begins.

“I don’t see . . . do you think this is bad, to say this?”

“Not--yeah. I mean, you can say it, but I don’t think you care,” she says.

“I don’t care, it’s just that . . . .”

“It’s just that it amuses him,” she explains.

“It amuses me,” he says. “Because sometimes I’m treated as if I’m of ambassadorial rank, you know, next to two lovely ladies. Other times, I’m next to the pantry.”

When they walk their visitor downstairs, Archie lags slightly behind. “He’s so precious to me,” Lucky half-whispers, her hand over her heart.

As the Roosevelts stand on the stoop of their house waiting for the visitor’s cab to arrive, Lucky grasps her husband’s chin and pushes until his left profile is toward the visitor. He pulls his chin up and protests mildly, but again she grasps, and pushes.

“There,” she says, stroking back his hair and indicating his forehead. “This part looks so much like his grandfather, doesn’t it?”

In the end, she may sense that the reporter is having difficulty seeing this as “Archie’s hour.” A week after the interview, she calls again.

“I realized there was one thing I hadn’t commented on, about Archie’s book,” she says breathlessly. “I just wanted to tell you. The first time I read it, when I got to the part where I read that epilogue, the last two pages, I burst into tears I was so touched.”

The passage in question describes her, his “companion on the Road,” as having “Arabian eyes and a smile that lights up the world,” and says, ". . . long ago she took my heart within her hand and joined me on the caravan.”

There is a pause. “In fact, I cry when I try to talk about it.” There is a sniffle. “Even now.” Another. “Oh, dear. I’m sorry,” she whispers.

But she presses on. “And the second time I read it I burst into tears. I thought that was such a lovely thing to say after 38 years of marriage.”