BOOK REVIEW: ‘FDR’ by Marshall University Professor Jean Edward Smith is a Highly Readable, Informative Biography

Editor’s note: I (David M. Kinchen) reviewed this biography in May 2007 and I’m posting it because I will soon post a review of Professor Smith’s new biography of Eisenhower, just published by Random House


Reviewed By David M. Kinchen


Four years ago, I read and reviewed Conrad Black’s 1,280 page biography of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

I figured the controversial Canadian-born media magnate’s excellent biography, published in 2003 by PublicAffairs, a New York publisher that is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year (2007), would put an end to future one-volume biographies of one of our greatest presidents.

I didn’t reckon with the indefatigable Marshall University professor and independent biographer Jean Edward Smith, who was a 2002 Pulitzer finalist for his biography of U.S. Grant (it was named a New YorkTimes Notable Book) and who has written the definitive biography of MU’s namesake Chief Justice John Marshall.

Lord Black of Crossharbour is currently on trial in federal district court in Chicago on fraud charges in connection with Hollinger Inc., his now broken-up-into-little-pieces media empire – which at one time included the Chicago Sun-Times, the Jerusalem Post and 400 other publications– and his latest biography, a reportedly often sympathetic 1,168 – page account of Richard M. Nixon, will be published later this month in Canada by McClelland & Stewart and soon after by an American publisher.

Both the Smith biography, “FDR” (Random House, 880pages, $35.00, black and white photos, bibliography, notes, index) and Black’s are valuable resources for the general reader. I don’t think the latest one makes the earlier one obsolete. More is better when it comes to biographies.

I quickly noted that Smith included Black’s book in his bibliography. A lavish lifestyle – and few are more lavish than Lord and Lady Black’s – and the arrogant behavior that rich people display all too often shouldn’t detract from the obvious writing talents of Conrad Black.

A sidelight: I donated my review copy of Black’s biography “Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom” to the Summers County Library. It had been checked out only one time before I checked it out this past weekend to work on this review – and that was more than three years ago!

I’m guessing that few readers in this seemingly post-literate era share my love and appreciation of a good biography. Professor Smith’s “FDR” is definitely an outstanding biography. He captures the qualities of FDR (1882-1945) that made him an American icon and that rarity, a rich, aristocratic man beloved by the poor.

On my 1938 birth certificate from Van Buren County,Mich., my father’s occupation is listed as “WPA fruit hauler.” The WPA – Works Progress Administration – was born three years before I was – in 1935 – and is eloquently described by Smith.WPA workers built the Timberline Lodge on the slopes of Mt. Hood in Oregon – the setting for the Stanley Kubrick movie version of Stephen King’s “The Shining.”

A branch of the WPA, the Federal Writers Project, kept many hungry and talented writers going at a time of limited options and resulted in the outstanding American Guide Series. Other WPA offshoots benefited artists and actors.

Our small farm was a subsistence operation, but we sold milk, eggs, chickens, strawberries, potatoes and other products of the farm during the years of FDR’s presidency. Both of my parents were solid Democrats– Chicago natives who supported FDR down the line. He gave the nation hope when it was needed most, as both Smith and Black demonstrate eloquently in their biographies.

As governor of New York from 1928 to 1932, FDR gave those who were looking a taste of what his presidency would be, Smith writes.Not for a minute did anyone doubt that his being stricken with polio in 1921, after attending a Boy Scout jamboree, would keep him from the presidency.

Smith writes that many of the figures of FDR’s presidency, people like his friend and Dutchess County neighbor Henry Morgenthau Jr., later to become Treasury Secretary in FDR’s presidency, as well as his political adviser Louis Howe (a man whose advice would be sorely missed when FDR made poor choices in his second term), Jim Farley and future labor secretary Frances Perkins were all present in Albany or working with Tammany Hall in New York City.

After graduating from Harvard in 1904, Roosevelt began studying law at Columbia Law School, passing the New York bar exam in 1906 without finishing law school. FDR never planned to be a full-time lawyer, leaving that to his partner and political adviser Basil O’Connor, but his study of law served him well – except when he misjudged the American public and Congress during his ill-fated attempt to enlarge the Supreme Court in 1937.

Professor Smith debunks the notion that the Supreme Court was uniformly opposed to FDR’s New Deal measures; rather, the court objected to the hasty legal drafting behind the creation of many programs and agencies. This is a contrarian point of view, surely to be questioned by those who take the opposite position.

In any case, FDR’s normally well-tuned ear regarding public opinion failed him miserably. Smith’s description of FDR’s “hubris” on pages 377-389 is one of the finest passages in an eloquent biography – nothing less than outstanding!

Smith: “As a lawyer he should have known better; as a politician he should have been more cautious; as president he should have had a firmer grasp of the constitutional separation of powers.”

Smith points out that while the Supreme Court had rejected six New Deal measures since 1933, it had also upheld many important New Deal measures and presidential powers. Most importantly to those of us who depend on Social Security for much of our retirement income, the high court upheld the Social Security Act 7-2 in 1937.

The failed attempt to enlarge the court with FDR yes-men effectively ended the New Deal as part of the Democratic Party platform, Smith writes. Spending was cut and FDR’s “hubris” – as Smith calls it – extended to his relations with Congressional leaders he should have been cultivating.

His errors of judgment contributed to the 1937-38 recession, which many argue was ended – along with the Great Depression – only with the defense buildup prior to Pearl Harbor. My father morphed from his “fruit hauling” occupation to working in a defense plant in St. Joseph,Mich.

Naturally, Smith covers FDR’s marriage to his distant cousin Eleanor in 1905 and the next 40 years. It was an odd marriage, but what marriage isn’t? There must have been something going with the two, because the marriage produced five living offspring — four sons and a daughter, Anna. All four sons, Smith notes, served in harm’s way during WW II. The sons, in order of birth (Anna was the first born) were James, Elliott, FDR Jr. and John.

Smith notes that FDR never trusted Eleanor as much as he did his secretary Missy LeHand and Lucy Mercer, who came into FDR’s life in 1914 when he was assistant secretary of the navy in the Wilson administration and the impoverished but socially prominent Lucy Mercer was hired as Eleanor’s social secretary.

Both Lucy and Missy were in love with FDR and he returned this love, as I somehow don’t think he did with Eleanor, who had her own life and friends. Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd was with FDR when he died on April 12, 1945 in Warm Springs, GA.

Smith discusses Eleanor’s friends Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman at Val-Kil, her house in Hyde Park, NY. She also had a “lasting, loving relationship” with New York State Police sergeant Earl Miller that Smith says lasted throughout her life. She lived almost two decades more than FDR, dying in 1962.

Along with other readers and critics, I have issues with Roosevelt’s handling of the Holocaust, as well as the horrendous crime of the Japanese resettlement fueled by what I consider to be violent West Coast – especially California – racism.

Smith deals with both issues in the book, blaming the failure to rescue European Jews fleeing the Nazis on an anti-Semitic Department of State headed by Cordell Hull. This begs the question, since Hull was FDR’s choice to head the State Department.

I looked in vain for an index entry for Hiram Bingham IV (1903-1988), a career State Department diplomat who in 1939 was posted to the US Consulate in Marseilles, France,where he, together with another vice-consul named Miles Standish, was in charge of issuing entry visas to the U.S.

According to Bingham’s biographers, Bingham and Standish cooperated with Varian Fry in issuing visas and helping refugees escape France. Among those helped were famous authors and artists: Leon Feuchtwanger, Franz Werfel, Alma Mahler Werfel, Heinrich Mann, Golo Mann (son and brother of Thomas Mann), Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Andre Breton, Andre Masson, Nobel Prize winner Otto Meyerhof, Konrad Heiden and Hannah Arendt.

Bingham also sheltered Jews in his Marseilles home, and obtained forged identity papers to help Jews in their dangerous journeys across Europe. He worked with the French underground to smuggle Jews out of France into Franco’s Spain or across the Mediterranean and even contributed to their expenses out of his own pocket.

For his efforts, Bingham was hounded out of the State Department in 1945. He has been honored by Israel and with a commemorative U.S. postage stamp last year. In 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell praised Bingham’s ‘constructive dissent’ and presented a posthumous “courageous diplomat” award to his children at an American Foreign Service Officers Association awards ceremony.

Why all the information about Bingham? Because it shows that something could have been done to save refugees from Nazi Europe – Jews and Gentiles alike – that wasn’t done because FDR put up with racist cabinet members.

Of all people, FDR would have known this, Smith hints, since he served in the administration of Woodrow Wilson, who resegregated the federal government after his inauguration in 1913. Smith discusses Wilson’s racism, which extended to the Japanese, who asked for a declaration of human rights at the Paris peace conference, only to be rebuffed by Wilson.

Smith fails to mention FDR’s refusal on June 4, 1939 to allow passengers of the German ocean liner St. Louis permission to unload in Florida. Immortalized in the excellent 1976 film “Voyage of the Damned” directed by “Cool Hand Luke”director Stuart Rosenberg, the liner sailed out of Hamburg in the summer of 1939 carrying 917 Jewish refugees, mostly wealthy, seeking asylum from German persecution just before the onset of the Second World War

According to the Wikipedia entry, ”the ship then tried to enter Canada [but] was refused once more.The ship sailed back to Germany, whereupon various European nations each agreed to admit a small number of its passengers, the vast majority of whom ended up perishing in the Holocaust as most of the host countries came under Nazi occupation at some point during World War II, which started only a few weeks after the ship’s return to Hamburg.”

I’m surprised that this infamous incident wasn’t even mentioned in a footnote in Smith’s otherwise outstanding biography. He does mention the racism of the State Department under Hull.

Professor Smith deals forthrightly (Pages 549-553) with Roosevelt’s signing in February 1942 of Executive Order 9066, which sent 80,000 American citizens, the Nisei, and 40,000 older Issei, who had been barred from American citizenship by racist1924 legislation, into what were effectively concentration camps. I’ve been to the site of Manzanar on the barren eastern Sierra slopes in California, one of the camps where loyal Americans of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned.

Smith notes that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover opposed the order, calling it “utterly unwarranted.” Later liberal icon U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren — in 1942 California’s attorney general — was among those “clammering” for removal of the Japanese. Smith notes that Warren later apologized in his 1977 memoirs.

All told, with my objections noted, Professor Smith has produced an outstanding biography,elegantly written, carefully documented and sure to be on everybody’s shortlist for top prizes. Dare I say “Pulitzer finalist?”

Publisher’s website: www.atrandom.com

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