Review of “Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History” by Robert Sherwood

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Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History” is Robert Sherwood’s 1948 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins (a close friend and adviser to FDR). The author was a successful playwright who served as one of FDR’s speechwriters (alongside Hopkins) for nearly five years. Sherwood died in 1955 at the age of 59.

Sherwood wrote this lengthy biography at the request of the Hopkins family following Harry’s death in 1946. After two years of exhaustive research (including access to Hopkins’s uniquely insightful and revealing personal papers) this 934-page tome was published. Esteemed biographer David McCullough recently confessed in a New York Times interview that “Roosevelt and Hopkins” is one of his two favorite presidential-related biographies.

However, while its title suggests this is a dual-biography of FDR and Harry Hopkins (or at least an examination of their relationship) it is much more focused on Hopkins than Roosevelt. And in many respects it is not a biography at all – it is more like a doctoral thesis offering a detailed behind-the-scenes look at the Roosevelt administration’s prosecution of World War II.

Enormous value accrues from the fact the author knew FDR and Hopkins personally. But Sherwood also knew Eleanor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower and several other important characters in this cast (with varying levels of familiarity). As a result, the narrative is extremely well-informed and offers a bird’s-eye-view of history from the inside out.

The first one-third of the book (covering ground preceding US involvement in World War II) is exceptional, and here the book proves nearly impossible to put down. These chapters are like sitting in a comfortable chair listening to an old sage tell stories; Sherwood’s writing is engrossing and eloquent, if a bit dated. These early chapters provided one of the most enjoyable “dense” reading experiences I can remember.

Most of the book’s thirty-six chapters, however, focus on the war years. While there is much of interest in these pages, the pace slows significantly and the text becomes much more difficult to navigate. Where the book’s earliest chapters often focus on the fascinating characters surrounding FDR, the narrative in these later chapters devolves into an extremely detailed – almost day-by-day and blow-by-blow – account of the war, with a clear diplomatic, rather than military, emphasis.

But while such a unique perspective could be interesting, the broad strategic strokes of World War II prove elusive and the “tops of the trees” are seldom observed. Instead, the focus is on the forest floor with all its microscopic minutiae. Much of this was (and presumably is) of great interest to historians, but many readers will become lost in a sea of unfamiliar detail. The chapters relating to Hopkins’s visits with Winston Churchill and Stalin, however, are extremely rewarding.

For fans of efficient history it will be regrettable that Sherwood did not resist the temptation to frequently embed lengthy blocks of primary source material in the text. Rarely are there more than a few consecutive pages without multi-paragraph (or even multi-page) quotes from letters, memos, speeches and cables. These add color and substance to the discussion but may well account for one-third (or more) of the book’s length. In a crisply-edited 600-page form this book might be incredible.

Overall, “Roosevelt and Hopkins” offers the reader a unique and richly detailed behind-the-scenes examination of the Roosevelt presidency with an emphasis on 1940-1945 (when the author worked in the administration). Readers seeking a modern, easy-flowing narrative or a comprehensive dual-biography will be disappointed. But as a second or third book on FDR, Sherwood provides the patient reader with a front-row seat to some of America’s most dramatic history.

Overall rating: 3¼ stars