As I worked through the biographies of his predecessor, Chester Arthur, several of you were kind enough to suggest biographies I must read before moving past Cleveland. And although I was skeptical that Santa’s media mail elves could deliver three freshly-ordered biographies quickly enough, they arrived with time to spare.
And thank goodness! Because what better way could there be to spend the holiday season than curled up with a good Grover Cleveland biography?
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* I began with Allan Nevins’s “Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage.” Published in 1932, this remains the definitive biography of Cleveland. It is occasionally criticized for placing Cleveland on a pedestal. But while it is certainly somewhat partisan it is not excessively deferential.
But there is too much emphasis on certain policy topics that become tedious and dull – but which committed historians may appreciate. And I wish there had been more focus on Cleveland’s personal life; while often stern and serious in public, he was allegedly gregarious and affable around his friends. That side of Grover is hard to find here.
At its best, this biography of Cleveland is incredibly insightful, surprisingly clever and very well written. Nevins offers more moments of wisdom and historical acumen than perhaps any of the presidential biographies I’ve read so far. If carefully compressed by 100-200 pages, this biography would be incredibly compelling. (See review here)
* The second biography I read was H. Paul Jeffers’s “An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland,” published in 2000. Jeffers was a professional (and prolific) author, not a dedicated historian, so this biography takes on a journalistic rather than academic feel.
It is well-balanced, comprehensive and fast-flowing. Though it breaks no new historical ground, someone seeking to understand Cleveland could do far worse than absorb this book. Jeffers clearly read each of the major biographies of Cleveland, took excellent notes and used his sense of drama and narration to create his own version of a Grover Cleveland biography. (See review here)
* Next I read Alyn Brodsky’s “Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character” which was published just months after Jeffers’s biography. Brodsky is a former newspaper columnist and book critic and has written several biographies. Of the five Cleveland biographies I read, this was my favorite (though only by a small margin).
This biography is extremely clear, quite colorful and consistently engaging. Its author is an unabashed (but not breathless) fan of Cleveland, but it is easy to compensate for this affinity. What is more challenging to overcome is the author’s tone, which varies widely: from serious and scholarly to downright irreverent. But overall, Brodsky turns what could be a less-than-exciting topic into a lively and informative narrative. (See review here)
* My fourth Cleveland biography was “The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland” by Richard Welch, Jr. Published in 1988, this is the most intellectual of the biographies I read and, together with Nevins’s biography, provides the sharpest view of Cleveland’s presidential terms. Missing was any real focus on his family life…and some readers will find the narrative too academic (rather than dramatic or entertaining). As a second or third book on Cleveland this is a fantastic choice. (See review here)
* My final biography of this president was “Bourbon Leader: Grover Cleveland and the Democratic Party” by Horace Samuel Merrill. Published in 1957, this biography is known for its negative opinion of Cleveland. And while you might imagine an author with an “outlier” view would take the time to carefully and devastatingly dismantle his subject, Merrill’s book is relatively short and casual. Its primary value arises from forcing readers to question Cleveland’s spotless reputation. As a primary biography this is a poor choice; as a follow-up book it is far more compelling. (See review here)
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Best Biography of Grover Cleveland: “Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character” by Alyn Brodsky
The Classic Biography of Cleveland: “Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage” by Allan Nevins