September 27, 2002
I hope that this letter finds you quite hale and hearty. Recently I have been involved in two very gratifying efforts. One of these efforts involves being invited to be a member of the Planned Giving Professional Advisory Board of the Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Valhalla, NY. I have included with this letter a copy of a note that I just wrote to the president of that institution, Mr. Larry Levine. I also have been asked to be part of a national committee to resurrect the FDR Birthday Balls of the 1930’s and 1940’s which raised monies for the creation of the Warm Springs Foundation and later the March of Dimes. I helped initiate the idea with a letter to Mr. William vanden Heuval, the former Ambassador to the United Nations and the director of the Roosevelt Institute. I have also included those letters with this letter. One of my colleagues, who is an expert in the field of “charitable giving” asked me “what to read” about FDR and I sent the following to him. I thought this would be of interest to you.
In regards to Franklin D. Roosevelt and biographical treatments, I will mention a few forthwith. There are now more books written about FDR then any individual in history. Some of the prime reasons for such enduring interest in both the Roosevelts is their character, energy and personalities. To quote Jonas Klein, in his book Beloved Island, Franklin and Eleanor and the Legacy of Campobello, on the first page of the prologue, much is said about them. “No President and First Lady have been examined in such volume and with such passion. Although the Roosevelt’s triumphs and tribulations are well known, it is far less clear how each felt about these events and how emotions governed their actions. Eleanor revealed certain guarded feelings about her marriage, family and personal relationships, but Franklin shared little and revealed less. The search for understanding their successes and their failures is unending.”
Therefore these two very public people remain in their own way undiscovered. Eleanor, a woman of boundless energy, traveled, wrote daily columns, made an incredible amount of speeches, and probably knew more people then any one who has lived. She had great enduring and emotional friendships, after a childhood of bitterness and emotional pain. She was the eternal optimist, who exhorted people to “get involved”. This is a woman who traveled to the Pacific Theatre during wartime, against all of the military commander’s wishes and desires. She toured the hospitals, carried messages of hope and personally wrote 25,000 notes to the families of the wounded. Shortly afterward, Admiral Nimitz, and most of his subordinates, applauded her effort, and recognized it as an unprecedented morale builder. FDR., who had a wonderful supportive childhood and loving parents, on the other hand was a lonely man, who had a small circle of intimates. Most of them passed from the scene without saying anything substantive. They had working friendships with FDR and he rarely if ever revealed his true thinking to anyone.
Maybe Louis Howe and Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, knew him best, but they passed from the scene in 1935, and 1941 with nothing to comment about except some letters. For sure Missy LeHand spoke to no one in an “off-the-cuff” manner. Howe was a wizened political veteran who attached himself to FDR’s star early on in his career, and only death separated them. As close as Howe and LeHand were to FDR, after their passing, he kept his emotional, political and social views on them to himself. Though I am sure he thought about them, they were rarely mentioned in the past tense. Others like Jim Farley, Bernard Baruch, Henry Morgenthau Jr. and Harry Hopkins were also thought of to be intimate advisors, but that is either unproved or unsubstantiated. Hopkins died in 1946 and had little chance to comment on their working friendship and while the others were able to write about their lives and relationships with FDR, there was little new news revealed in their books. All saw FDR from different perspectives, some self-serving some out of great loyalty and some with a political perspective. Perhaps Henry Morgenthau was a friend of his, but after he became Secretary of the Treasury, he became another advisor and for sure FDR never stayed up late at night with him swapping innermost thoughts. Maybe it was FDR, who was the real parodoxical character in “Citizen Kane” and not Hearst.
So basically, I will try to answer your question, “what is a good basic FDR book?”
I have listed certain books from the hundreds written on FDR below and I have added my own rationale to each.
a) Before the Trumpet and A First Class Temperament, by Geoffrey Ward are great treatments of FDR’s early life. Both award winning. I would choose the very long, A First Class Temperament, FDR 1910 to 1928. This book goes a long way to explaining how Roosevelt developed into FDR.
b) No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin, the wartime relationship between the Roosevelts that leans favorably towards Franklin.
c) Eleanor and Franklin, Joseph Lash, their joint award-winning biography, from an Eleanor intimate, that leans towards Eleanor and her struggles and her interests.
d) The Lion and the Fox and The Soldier of Freedom, James MacGregor Burns two award-winning volumes that do an excellent job on analyzing FDR the leader in peace and war.
e) In the Shadow of FDR, Professor William Leuchtenburg’s masterpiece that compares all of FDR’s successors and their attempts to use his administration and personal style as an example, guidepost, or measuring rod.
f) Franklin D. Roosevelt, A Rendezvous with Destiny, Frank Freidel, an excellent one volume history of FDR.
g) Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-45, Robert Dallek, an excellent analysis of FDR’s foreign policy efforts.
h) Roosevelt’s Secret War, Joseph Persico, a contemporary treatment of FDR’s secret diplomacy during WWII.
In summation, they are all excellent and each has a tendency to “make a statement”. I would read Persico’s book first and for the following reasons. One, it is written most contemporaneous to our time and its about World War II and its intrigue. It attempts to answer many of the still pressing questions about FDR’s wartime activities. It’s very interesting and well written by a terrific individual, not just an historian. Also, it is easy reading, and if it piques your interest, you will go on to some of the other’s that I have listed above.
I hope that this sheds some light on a vast unending subject that public seems to have an insatiable appetite to consume.