Friday, May 15, 2015

FDR by Jean Edward Smith (2007)

Jean Edward Smith's FDR  is one of the best pieces of nonfiction I've read in quite a while.  I'm trying to think back to the last biography or history I read and enjoyed as much as this (I went back and looked at my Goodreads account, and setting aside Pioneer Girl by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which isn't really the type of nonfiction I'm referring to here, it would have to be Peter Ackroyd's Foundation, which I read last November!).  His writing style is superb.  This isn't hagiography or hatchet-jobbery either. I mean , you can't take a historical figure of reverence like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and not be occasionally laudatory; but Smith pointed out warts too.  Smith's preface really sets out what he's attempting to do here, a road map if you will, which I think sets the book apart from other books I've read about Franklin Roosevelt.  One of those things that sets this book apart is his use of four women in FDR's life as the cornerstones to his foundation:  his mother Sara, his wife Eleanor, his one time mistress Lucy Mercer, and his secretary Missy Le Hand.

If you are a keeper (practitioner?) of Rooseveltiana - I'm not a Roosevelt historian, but I enjoy reading about this family immensely - then you already know how important these women were to FDR.  But Smith makes the argument throughout the book that these four women combined in FDR to make him great.  That's not all the book is about obviously - FDR the master politician, FDR the sphinx, FDR as Dr. New Deal and Dr. Win the War, all make an appearance.  But Smith's take on each of these women is rather new and unique to Roosevelt history, I think.  Sara Roosevelt gets better lighting here; she's not the wicked witch of a mother-in-law that she's been portrayed as in other things I've read.  There is a delightful story about her I'd never heard, about her seating Mary McLeod Bethune, president of the National Council of Negro Women, next to Eleanor Roosevelt at a function with a twinkle in her eye, disregarding other racist women in the room.  Eleanor herself is downplayed throughout most of the book - I love his line in the preface about "rummaging through the life of Eleanor Roosevelt has become a cottage industry."  If you know the Roosevelts, you know they led separate lives, that's no surprise.  But Smith points out how much of a detriment Eleanor was to her husband's career, particularly in the late 1930s, and also how much his shadow she was; she only came into her own after her husband's death. (also, Eleanor Roosevelt might have been a great woman and humanitarian - Smith says as much in his preface - but she sure was a stick in the mud). The story of Missy LeHand is well known as well, but Smith downplays FDR's abandonment of her after her stroke.  Finally, Smith - and this for the first time that I've ever read - really illustrates the importance Lucy Mercer had in FDR's life and how she changed him, molded him, and made him a stronger, better person.  She was truly the love of his life, and he was the love of hers, and quite frankly their story is very sad.  This story is usually told from Eleanor's point of view, bitter and powerful; but from FDR's point of view, it's bittersweet; Lucy Mercer was FDR's midlife crisis, and in the modern world of today, he probably would have married her (and bought themselves a sleek red convertible).  As a middle-aged man myself, I understand FDR better now, at least in this respect.
Smith doesn't stray too far off the beaten path though.  All the main players are here, in all their 1930s glory - Louis Howe and Al Smith, the very unlikable and sort of sleazy Roosevelt sons, James Farley and Josephus Daniels, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin.  Smith quotes Frances Perkins much, and uses her perspective to cast light on both political stories and FDR's character.  The more I read about Woodrow Wilson; the less I like him:  arrogant, megalomaniacal, racist.  Revisionism hasn't been kind to him.

This isn't a perfect book; the last quarter or so of the book is more of a history of World War II than a biography of Roosevelt, and lacks the pathos and poignancy of Doris Kearns Goodwin.  But that's a quibble - this was a magnificent book by a magnificent writer.

FDRFDR by Jean Edward Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of the best pieces of nonfiction I've read in many months.  Smith's writing style is superb; this isn't hagiography or hatchet-jobbery either.  You can't write about a revered historical figure like Franklin Roosevelt without some sense of laud, but Smith maintains a mostly even keel.  FDR has warts on show here.  What I thought was particularly interesting was the Smith's premise that four women - Franklin's mother Sara, his wife Eleanor, his secretary Missy LeHand, and his one time mistress (and love of his life) Lucy Mercer, were the cornerstones of the foundation that made FDR into who he was.  That's not all the book is about obviously - FDR the master politician, FDR the sphinx, FDR as Dr. New Deal and Dr. Win the War, all make an appearance.  But Smith's take on each of these women is rather new and unique to Roosevelt history, I think, particularly with reference to Sara Delano Roosevelt (who gets better lighting here) and Lucy Mercer; Eleanor is more of a shadow figure as well, which Smith justifies by illustrating how peripheral she became to his political life once he became president (she comes into her own fully after his death).  Smith doesn't stray too far off the beaten path though.  All the main players are here, in all their 1930s glory - Louis Howe and Al Smith, the very unlikable and sort of sleazy Roosevelt sons, James Farley and Josephus Daniels, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin.  Smith quotes Frances Perkins much, and uses her perspective to cast light on both political stories and FDR's character. This isn't a perfect book; the last quarter or so of the book is more of a history of World War II than a biography of Roosevelt, and lacks the pathos and poignancy of Doris Kearns Goodwin.  But that's a quibble - this was a magnificent book by a magnificent writer.


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