Adam Cohen, American history, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., biographies, book reviews, Conrad Black, Doris Kearns Goodwin, FDR, Frank Freidel, Geoffrey Ward, H.W. Brands, James MacGregor Burns, Jean Edward Smith, Jeff Shesol, Jonathan Alter, Joseph Lash, Peter Collier, presidential biographies, Presidents, Pulitzer Prize, Robert Sherwood, Ted Morgan
Every student of American history knows that Franklin D. Roosevelt served more terms as President of the United States than any other person ever has – or ever will.
During the FDR presidency, America faced two of the greatest crises in its history: the Great Depression and World War II. His response to those challenges fundamentally altered the relationship between the American people and their government…and left FDR with a reputation as one of the most consequential (if not successful) of U.S. presidents.
It should not be surprising that FDR consumed more of my time than any other president: 19 books, almost 12,000 pages and more than seven months. He proved daring, bold, intriguing, provocative and fascinating – but I’m glad to be moving on to Harry Truman!
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I began with five single-volume biographies of FDR:
* “FDR” by Jean Edward Smith – This is one of the most frequently read and highly acclaimed biographies of FDR, and for good reason: it is excellent. Authored by one of today’s most capable biographers, “FDR” is thorough, engaging and well-balanced. It proved to be nearly the perfect length, consistently clear and difficult to put down. The only thing I really missed was a concluding chapter focused on FDR’s legacy. (Full review here)
* “Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt” by H.W. Brands – This proved to be my favorite of the four Brands biographies I’ve read so far. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, this book is detailed, well-organized and quite interesting; Brands’s discussion of the war years is particularly successful. Missing from this book is adequate coverage of Eleanor and some of FDR’s family and friends, as well a deeper look at their impact on his political life. (Full review here)
* “Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom” by Conrad Black – This is the longest of the single-volume biographies I’ve read on any president. As a result, coverage of FDR is not merely thorough…it is encyclopedic. I cannot image a more comprehensive (or exhaustive) review of FDR’s life in a single volume. Unfortunately, Black’s writing style lacks fluidity and the narrative often fails to engage the reader. In addition, the author offers too many facts and not nearly enough insight or analysis. (Full review here)
* “Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny” by Frank Freidel – This seems to be the abridgement of the multi-volume series Freidel never completed. After writing the first four (of a projected six) volumes, Freidel abandoned the series and, instead, wrote this book more than a decade later. Unfortunately, FDR’s pre-presidency is covered far too quickly and the remainder of the book focuses almost exclusively on the “public” FDR while often ignoring the foibles and quirks which made him so enigmatic. Reading more like a history text, this biography lacks an engaging narrative or a consistent exploration for why events unfolded as they did. (Full review here)
* “FDR: A Biography” by Ted Morgan – Written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, I had high expectations for this biography. Unfortunately, I was left disappointed. This is a lengthy and detailed review of FDR’s life which fails to engage the reader. It lacks vibrancy, a consistent level of focus on important issues or events and provides inadequate insight and analysis. Its high points (including aspects of FDR’s childhood and its description of the Casablanca Conference) do not offset its shortcomings. (Full review here)
Next I read three multi-volume series (only the first covers FDR’s entire life):
The Burns series is often considered the earliest truly comprehensive biography of FDR, its first volume having been published in 1956. The second volume won a Pulitzer Prize in 1971.
Volume 1 covers FDR’s life up through his second presidential term. It is far more focused on his public life than his friends and family – readers will learn more of Mussolini than Eleanor Roosevelt, for example – and is far more focused on his first eight years in office than his pre-presidency. But even his first two terms are strangely covered and discussion of the “New Deal” initiative, in particular, was a bit chaotic and difficult to follow. (Full review here)
Volume 2 begins with FDR’s election to a third presidential term; its primary thesis is that FDR was a deeply divided man who was complex and incomprehensible. Despite offering many excellent moments, this volume is disappointing and, in the end, fails to adequately address its thesis or examine FDR’s legacy. (Full review here)
* Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
– “The Age of Roosevelt: The Crisis of the Old Order (1919-1933)” (Vol 1)
– “The Age of Roosevelt: The Coming of the New Deal (1933-1935)” (Vol 2)
– “The Age of Roosevelt: The Politics of Upheaval (1935-1936)” (Vol 3)
Written in the late 1950s by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., this series offers an interesting but incomplete examination of FDR’s life up through his early presidency. Originally intended to consist of four volumes, Schlesinger abandoned the series after being appointed Special Assistant to President Kennedy in 1961.
Volume 1 ostensibly covers FDR’s pre-presidency but is far more a political history of the times than a comprehensive introduction to Roosevelt. It is excellent at what it does cover (both of the era and FDR himself) but readers hoping to learn much about FDR’s early life will be disappointed. (Full review here)
Volume 2 covers the earliest years of FDR’s presidency and focuses on his efforts to combat the Depression. The New Deal is dissected meticulously but the focus is almost always on the legislative process as well as the programs themselves. Roosevelt appears in person only occasionally. As a review of his early presidency this book shines; as an examination of FDR himself it falls short. (Full review here)
Volume 3 covers the last years of Roosevelt’s first presidential term. Like earlier volumes, this book is detailed and insightful…but also focuses far more on the times than the man; it is essentially a political biography of the last phase of the New Deal. Schlesinger is masterful when writing about the era, but does not promise – or offer – a complete picture of Roosevelt himself. (Full review here)
* Geoffrey C. Ward
– “Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1905)” (Vol 1)
– “A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt (1905-1928)” (Vol 2)
Geoffrey Ward’s series on FDR is the second “incomplete” series I read on Roosevelt. I am unaware whether Ward ever actually intended to complete his analysis of the Roosevelt’s timeline with a final volume…but what Ward does cover of FDR’s life in these two volumes is extremely well done.
Volume 1 reviews FDR’s life up to his marriage in 1905, including a very detailed look at Roosevelt’s ancestry. Two of the most interesting chapters may well be the last two which focus on Eleanor’s troubled childhood and her early relationship with Franklin. This proves a fine, but not perfect, introduction to FDR. (Full review here)
Volume 2 covers Roosevelt’s life through his election as Governor of New York in 1928. As a consequence of this chronology, Ward spends more time reflecting on FDR’s personality and relationships than his politics. Very well written, this book is absorbing and revealing. Unfortunately, it ends too soon and leaves the reader to wonder where Ward might have taken the series had he followed Roosevelt into the White House… (Full review here)
Finally, I read seven FDR-focused books:
* “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt” by Doris K. Goodwin – This classic seems to be the best-read of all FDR-focused books. It is not a traditional biography but, instead, is part history text and part dual-biography. Chronologically it is focused on the last five years of FDR’s presidency, but periodically back-fills (sometimes extensively) to create context. But despite focusing on the “war years” this book is far more concerned with domestic rather than foreign affairs. In the end, “No Ordinary Time” is an excellent standalone read, but is probably even better when read after completing a traditional, comprehensive biography of FDR. (Full review here)
* “Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court” by Jeff Shesol – Focused on the “Court Packing” episode during FDR’s second term, I was skeptical of this book given the topic. Nevertheless, I found it well written, extremely clear and surprisingly engaging. Shesol takes the time to provide adequate context (for both the FDR presidency and the New Deal itself) before embarking on his primary mission. Lawyers may well enjoy this book but it is successfully aimed at the general reader. (Full review here)
* “Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the 100 Days that Created Modern America” by Adam Cohen – As its title suggests, Cohen’s book is focused on the earliest days of the FDR presidency. Because it also offers interesting mini-biographies of his five closest advisers, this feels a bit like Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” but with less depth and character development. It does an adequate (if not exceptional) job reviewing Roosevelt’s first 100 days but, because much remained in the fight against the Depression at the end of this period, the book feels somewhat incomplete when it ends. (Full review here)
* “The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope” by Jonathan Alter – Oddly (given its title) this is not a book focused primarily on FDR’s “Hundred Days.” Indeed, the book’s precise mission is never really clear. After spending well more than half its pages reviewing FDR’s pre-presidency, fewer than fifty pages are actually devoted to FDR’s Hundred Days. While generally well written and often interesting, this book feels like ordering a pizza but receiving half a baked potato, some pepperoni and part of a tasty dessert. (Full review here)
* “Eleanor & Franklin” by Joseph Lash – This Pulitzer Prize-winning book was written by a longtime friend of Eleanor Roosevelt who received special access to her papers after her death. Because of the author’s close relationship with Eleanor it is not surprising this is less a dual-biography of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt than a book designed to highlight Eleanor’s transformation from insecure orphan to champion of humanitarian causes. FDR only appears sporadically (usually as the antagonist) and Lash is reluctant to fully ponder this intriguing couple’s particular challenges. This is essentially a good biography of Eleanor which could have been great. (Full review here)
* “Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History” by Robert Sherwood – This Pulitzer Prize-winning book was authored by one of FDR’s speechwriters at the request of the Hopkins family following his death. While apparently a dual-biography of FDR and Harry Hopkins (who was a friend and adviser to FDR) the lion’s share of the attention accrues to Hopkins. But in most ways this is really a detailed behind-the-scenes historical account of World War II as seen by Hopkins and Sherwood. Much of value is contained in these 934 pages, but the first one-third of the book is by far its best. (Full review here)
* “The Roosevelts: An American Saga” by Peter Collier – This multi-generational (and multi-branch) biography focuses on the FDR and TR branches of the Roosevelt family tree. The book proves readable, interesting and quite colorful. But it fails to shine much light on the FDR or TR presidencies and often feels imbalanced. Eleanor Roosevelt, in particular, receives particularly harsh coverage. The book also promises dramatic clashes between the two branches as they struggle to control the family legacy…but this thesis is oversold. All-in-all, an interesting but not compelling read. (Full review here)
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[Added January 2020]
* I recently had the opportunity to read Alonzo Hamby’s “Man of Destiny: FDR and the Making of the American Century” which was published in 2015 and did not make my original list of biographies of FDR. Hamby’s goal was to write a balanced and efficient biography of Roosevelt. But while the book successfully achieves those two objectives, it proves disappointingly bland and colorless relative to other biographies which cover FDR’s life. Students of foreign policy who are less interested in Roosevelt’s personality and relationships may find it satisfying, but most readers are likely to find it relatively disappointing. (Full review here)
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[Added January 2021]
* Over the past three weeks I read esteemed historian Robert Dallek’s 2017 biography “Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life.” Dallek professes his fondness for FDR, proclaiming him one of the country’s three greatest presidents. But, remarkably, the 627-page narrative is extremely objective and balanced nevertheless.
However, readers seeking colorful context or special insight into Roosevelt’s closest personal and professional relationships will be disappointed – as well those already familiar with the 32nd president who are hoping to find fresh revelations based on new research. In the end, this is a competent but clinical (and generally dry) synthesis of previously-published biographies of FDR. There is little new to see here and readers seeking an introduction to Roosevelt will want to look elsewhere. (Full review here)
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Best Single-Volume Biography of FDR: Jean Edward Smith’s “FDR”
Best Single-Volume Bio (Runner-Up): H.W. Brands’s “Traitor to His Class”
Best Non-Traditional Biography of FDR: Doris K. Goodwin’s “No Ordinary Time“
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Several readers have requested I share my thoughts on which supporting characters for each president seem compelling enough to warrant a biographical side-trip. Franklin Roosevelt offers interested readers an enormous circle of compelling friends, colleagues, advisers and nemeses. Among them:
– Louis Howe (close adviser to FDR)
– Harry Hopkins (close adviser to FDR)
– Frances Perkins (FDR’s Labor Secretary, first female U.S. Cabinet member)
– Eleanor Roosevelt
– Winston Churchill
– Josef Stalin
– Adolf Hitler
– Douglas MacArthur
– Dwight Eisenhower
In none of these cases do I claim to have uncovered the best biography of the individuals I have listed. But Eisenhower will be covered as part of my journey through the best presidential biographies in approximately 5 weeks!