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Robert A. Mills

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Blogs by Robert A. Mills

BIRTH OF THE TEDDY BEAR 7.11.09
7/12/2009 10:18:13 AM
Edmund Morris’ “Theodore Rex,” a biography of President Teddy Roosevelt, has kept me awake after midnight for many weeks. I thought I knew a great deal about our 26th president, but Morris’ adroit narrative has given me new insights and exploded many of the myths I always assumed were gospel.

For example, the business of the Teddy Bear.

It was in November of Roosevelt’s first term that he sought a respite from politics to hunt black grizzly bears in Mississippi, along the Little Sunflower River, near Smedes, when he first learned that even the world’s most powerful men do not always get what they want, the way they want it, when they want it. (When I was six years old, I used to tell the girls in 1st grade that “I want what I want when I want it!” They usually just giggled and said, “You’ll get what I got when I get it!” They lied.)

Days went by. Not only did the President not once fire his .20-.40 Winchester, standing resolute in his corduroy jacket and leather leggings, sporting a bandoleer of brass bullets across his broad chest—but he never once caught a glimpse of a ferocious grizzly breathing fire, growling and spewing drool, and about to attack with flashing fangs white with fury. It was, he said, “Simply exasperating . . . I never got a shot.”

Finally, near the end, one of the “catchers,” a wily woodsman named Holt Collier (great name for a novel,) took his dogs and ventured deep into the forest. He instructed Roosevelt and his party to wait in a nearby clearing, wait for the “signal of the horn” and be ready to shoot as the bear was flushed their way. “Y’all come down heah, Missa Pres’dunt, tuh shoot a bar, an’ y’all’er gonna!”

Hours in the blistering sun and nothing happened. “I say we call it a day,” sighed the President, and they began to pack up and head back to camp. Suddenly, from the woods, came the frantic call of “the horn,” (I think Collier had been a bugler in WWI) and Roosevelt rushed in, followed by his entourage, the Winchester cocked and at the ready.

The grizzly, which indeed had been flushed from hiding by the dauntless Collier, had been chased several miles by the frenzied hounds. The bear was not, however, a formidable beast; it was a skinny, nervous, bedraggled animal weighing at best 230 pounds and, according to Morris, “not much bigger than” the President himself." Collier and his dogs chased the bear until it was exhausted and on the verge of collapse; it plunged into a small pond as the hounds went in after it. Collier flung a lasso about its neck, jumped in, and bopped it over the head with the butt of his rifle. . . . It was then that he sounded the horn to summon the President.

Roosevelt took one look at the unconscious grizzly and refused to raise his rifle. “Shoot him yourself,” he told Collier. “Not me, suh. Somebody else gotta put ‘im outta his mis’ry.”

The President broke his rifle’s breech and walked away, unconcerned that one of the three reporters he had allowed on the trip would wire the story back to his editor (at the Washington Post.) A cartoonist at the Post, Cliff Berryman, picked up the piece (abandoned as hardly newsworthy by the astute editor) and drew a satirical panel on Roosevelt’s race policies by showing “a very black bear being roped about the neck by a very white catcher” as the President turned away in disgust. Morris says the cartoon appeared on the front page of the Post, captioned: DRAWING THE LINE IN MISSISSIPPI.

It may have backfired. Readers became more and more enamored by the President who “refused to kill for the sake of killing” and demanded more and more “Teddy and the Bear” cartoons. Berryman had hit the newspaper artist’s mother lode—so much so that Margarete Stieff in Giengen, Germany, began making cute and cuddly bear cubs with button eyes on orders from F.A.O. Schwartz to be sold by a New Jersey entrepreneur named Morris Michton for $1.50 each. Behold, the advent of the Teddy Bear!

Did Theodore and Edith Roosevelt ever give their children a Teddy Bear? Was Alice, his daughter by his first wife, too old to receive one? I do not think anyone knows for sure.

However, according to Edmund Morris, “For decades, perhaps centuries to come, uncounted millions of children across the world would hug their Teddy Bears, even as the identities of Stieff, Michton, Berryman, [Mills] and Roosevelt himself rubbed away like lost plush."


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