Adam Cohen, American history, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Conrad Black, Doris Kearns Goodwin, FDR, Frank Freidel, Geoffrey Ward, HW Brands, James MacGregor Burns, Jean Edward Smith, Jeff Shesol, Jonathan Alter, Joseph Lash, Little White House, Peter Collier, Pulitzer Prize, Ted Morgan, Warm Springs
Not since Abraham Lincoln have I been this excited about the next president on my journey through the best presidential biographies.
Two years ago, twelve biographies of Lincoln consumed four months of my life with everything that 9,500 pages of (mostly) gripping narrative could offer.
Now I’m on to an even more audacious task: reading 18 of the best biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a 12,000-page assignment that will fill the next six months – more than any other president.
In my case, FDR represents the inaugural president of the “modern era” – the first president remembered and described vividly by someone I knew. Growing up I was treated to colorful stories about FDR by my grandparents who lived a few miles from his retreat in Warm Springs, GA known affectionately as the Little White House. There may have been a few Hoover and Coolidge anecdotes but they weren’t nearly as animated…or upbeat.
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I’m starting my journey through FDR’s best biographies with five well known, single-volume classics:
“FDR” by Jean Edward Smith — published in 2007, this is by far the most popular of FDR’s single-volume biographies. It also happens to be the most highly-rated. Smith’s biography of Ulysses Grant was my favorite of that bunch, so I’m really looking forward to his take on FDR.
“Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of FDR” by H. W. Brands — this 2008 biography is currently the second most popular of the single-volume FDR biographies and was a 2009 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. I’ve enjoyed (if not quite loved) each of the Brands biographies I’ve read so far – Jackson, Grant and TR – so this biography seems sure to please.
“FDR: Champion of Freedom” by Conrad Black — I remember this Canadian- born media magnate principally because of his criminal convictions for securities fraud. But somewhat to my surprise he is also an accomplished author. His 2003 biography of FDR is by far the lengthiest of this group and, while not particularly widely-read, it is quite well-regarded. I’m intrigued to say the least…
“FDR: A Biography” by Ted Morgan — published in 1985, this 30-year-old classic is reportedly an oldie-but-goodie. Morgan is a French-American biographer, historian and journalist whose biography of Winston Churchill was a 1983 Pulitzer-Prize finalist.
“Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny” by Frank Freidel — published in 1990, this single-volume biography was published 17 years after Freidel abandoned his six-volume series of FDR (he completed four volumes between 1952 and 1973). Although I don’t yet know the complete story behind that incomplete effort, this biography is considered “awesome” by some…and “dry” by others.
Next I plan to read two well-known multi-volume series on FDR:
James MacGregor Burns’s two-volume series has the reputation of being the earliest (and possibly the most detailed) complete series on FDR. It has been described as providing excellent insight into FDR “the politician” if not quite on FDR “the man.” Its two volumes were published in 1956 and 1970; the second volume won a Pulitzer Prize.
– Vol 1: “Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox (1882-1940)”
– Vol 2: “Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom (1940-1945)”
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. published a three-volume series on FDR between 1957 and 1960. Schlesinger’s liberal slant apparently infuses the volumes which are wonderfully colorful and insightful, though not as broad or comprehensive as Burns’s series.
– Vol 1: “The Crisis of the Old Order (1919-1933)”
– Vol 2: “The Coming of the New Deal (1933-1935)”
– Vol 3: “The Politics of Upheaval (1935-1936)”
Finally, I plan to read eight topically-focused biographies of FDR:
“The Roosevelts: An American Saga” by Peter Collier — published in 1994, this offers a controversial peek into the Roosevelt family political dynasty (including TR’s and FDR’s branches of the family tree). Collier apparently favors TR over FDR, but the least flattering portrayal is reserved for Eleanor Roosevelt.
“A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt” by Geoffrey Ward — this 1989 character study is said to provide unparalleled insight into FDR’s personality, though at the expense of a deeper understanding of his politics. This book is not widely-read but is strongly recommended by friends who have read it.
“No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt” by Doris Kearns Goodwin — this won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize in History and remains extremely popular. Although the book ostensibly focuses on the Roosevelts during World War II, it is said to resemble a broader dual-biography of the couple. I’ve been told this replaced Joseph Lash’s as the “go to” reference on FDR and Eleanor.
“Eleanor & Franklin” by Joseph Lash — Lash was a close friend of Eleanor and published a book about her life in 1964 (two years after her death). But after being granted access to her personal papers a few years later he spent five years writing this narrative of Eleanor and Franklin which, for two decades, was the Gold Standard on this power couple.
“The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope” by Jonathan Alter – this 2006 review of FDR’s first 100 days apparently spends as much time on his pre-presidency as it does the early days of his first term.
“Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the 100 Days that Created Modern America” by Adam Cohen — this is another perspective on FDR’s “100 days” that promises a gripping narrative of the early days of the New Deal. Rather than focusing solely on FDR, this book features colorful assessments of many of FDR’s advisers.
“Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court” by Jeff Shesol — I included this 2010 book partly in an effort to better understand FDR’s Court-packing “stumble” and partly because the author was a member of my graduating class at Brown University. He became a successful speechwriter and comic strip author while I became an investment banker. Where did I go wrong?
“Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History” by Robert Sherwood — I complete my journey through FDR’s life with this classic, Pulitzer Prize-winning treatment of Roosevelt’s foreign policy during World War II. Sherwood was a speechwriter for FDR and I’m looking forward to his perspective on the Roosevelt administration. More importantly, David McCullough listed this as one of his two favorite presidential biographies of all time. Need I say more?
S. Heinen said:
With all of that FDR reading, I’m surprised that Alonzo Hamby’s “Man of Destiny” did not make your list in lieu of some of the older single-volume FDR biographies (i.e., Morgan and Friedel). Was there a particular reason you omitted it?
No particular reason other than the fact that I assembled most of my FDR collection before Hamby’s book was published last fall. I’ve heard it’s pretty good, so if I can find a way to keep from falling too far behind I’m going to try to add it on at the end. But I would hate to make a promise at this point – I’m not sure how I’m going to feel after 18 biographies on one person(!)
I’ve read it, and those people who say it’s great are overselling it.
Steve Martin said:
Looking forward to this. I’m just finishing Conrad Black’s excellent bio.
You can’t leave me in suspense – what do you think about it!?!
S. Heinen said:
By the way, that is just a question, not a complaint. I’m thrilled and somewhat in awe of what you are doing and (especially) the pace at which you are doing it. I’ve embarked on a similar journey, but I’m only reading one bio on each president (except Washington and John Tyler (long story)) and I started years before you did. And I’m only on Benjamin Harrison!
I am also reading one of each although I plan to keep going back through again and again until I finish or more likely die. I started about a year after Steve and am only on McKinley. I am struggling to get through the Leech book on him. It has been my hardest book to get through so far. Loved the Goodwin book on Lincoln and the Smith book on Grant. Everything else pales in comparison
Malcolm Greenhill said:
If you want some revisionist reading of the period I recommend Amity Shlaes’ ‘The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression’.
Funny you mention that book – after reading her Coolidge biography I became acquainted with “The Forgotten Man” and decided it’s on my “must read” list. I couldn’t rationalize including it as part of my FDR tour but I’m looking forward to reading it (or sneaking it in) at some point.
I too have a project, but differently structured from yours. I want to acquire a solid, but broad, knowledge of American history generally as a kind of base, then go back at more leisure and read more intensively in those periods that interest me. I have just finished with the Revolution and briefly touched on the crafting of the Constitution (Summer of 1787, Stewart); am now thinking about where to go next. I’m not that interested in the period from say Jefferson through the Civil War (I live in a Civil War intensive area and to be honest I’ve kind of had a gutful of it), and have always been curious about the Gilded Age, the robber barons and westward expansion and all that, so I’ll probably go there next.
I’m loving it. And I love reading about your project. How immensely well versed you must be!
I’ve definitely sharpened my knowledge of American history, although it’s interesting how varied the perspectives of different biographers can be – even when they are describing the same era, or the same events. I, too, live in a “Civil War intensive” area but really enjoyed the Lincoln and Grant biographies in part because they gave me a much deeper appreciation for who was marching around the woods near my house 150 years ago…!
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You are missing FDR’s Folly by Jim Powell from your list. The author is very passionate and knowledgeable about the subject and brings an interesting perspective on Roosevelt’s presidency. Here is a brief description of the book: https://gryphoneditions.com/index.php/our-libraries-2/fdrs-folly-by-jim-powell-signed-detail
Alec Rogers said:
Geoffrey Ward wrote a predecessor volume called Before the Trumpet on Roosevelt’s youth that I really enjoyed. Sorry he didn’t continue on past FDR’s election as Governor.
Somehow I missed the predecessor volume. Although it’s disappointing Ward didn’t finish off FDR’s life with a third volume, it seems indisputable I need to read “Before the Trumpet” prior to reading “A First-Class Temperament” – and it looks like 18 FDR bios just became 19…!
Alec Rogers said:
At least it’s short – much shorter than First Class Temprement. I enjoyed the details about his education though, interesting to read about Groton and Harvard back in his day.
AARON MILLION said:
Both Ward books are great. A First Class Temperament is outstanding. Despite its length, I got through it fairly quickly and truly enjoyed it. For me, it was nice for a change to read about a President’s personality and personal life at the expense of policy vs the other way around.
Would also recommend Franklin and Winston by Jon Meacham. Very good read.
Oh my, yes that does look like something I’ll want to read. I really don’t know how I can resist adding this one, too. Maybe 19 is about to become 20?
Neat list. I’ve read the Freidel volume, and I think it’s quite good, though in some ways it’s a continuation of the multi-volume FDR biography in the 1950s. The period covered in those four volumes (which reached the “Hundred Days”) is addressed relatively cursorily, while the rest of the book is about the remainder of his administration. It’s not that it’s a bad book, just that you won’t get the chronologically balanced coverage that you fins in a volume like Jean Edward Smith’s.
For those who read on a Kindle, the Kindle book for Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox by James MacGregor Burns is currently $1.99.
Would you know the other presidential biography the David McCullough listed as a favorite?
Yes, his other favorite is Dumas Malone’s multi-volume series on Thomas Jefferson.
Joanne Brant said:
Robert H. Jackson’s “That Man,” is a worthy addition to your list. Not purporting to be a true biography, but a wonderful series of snapshots by an FDR contemporary, and one of the best prose stylists ever to grace the Supreme Court.
While not a biography, it looks like it might almost be a fascinating character analysis with unique insights. I’m not sure whether it will end up on my formal follow-up list, but I’m definitely going to grab a used copy and peruse this while working through my remaining FDR bios. Thanks for the tip!