The Roosevelts: An Intimate History by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns
Written as the companion book to the documentary series that aired in the fall, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History was an informative read. It succeeds in doing exactly what Ward and Burns advertised in the forward: it shows the interconnectedness of the entire Roosevelt clan. However, I cannot truly compare the book and the documentary. I ran it in the background while working on my conference presentation last fall. I saw bits and pieces, but not the whole twelve hours in its entirety. I plan to order it on Netflix over summer break. So my review below covers only the book.
This biographical study begins with the birth of Theodore Roosevelt (commonly known as TR) in 1858. The first part of the section covers him, his parents, and TR’s siblings. One interesting point from this section I hadn’t realized was the involvement of the Roosevelts in the Civil War. TR’s father was a true northerner, but his mother was a southerner! That led to some interesting family dynamics! You’ll need to read/watch to learn why; I won’t spoil it. We also see both of TR’s marriages; the birth of all of his children; and are introduced to Franklin, Eleanor, and their parents and siblings. For those that need a refresher, FDR and Eleanor were born sixth cousins. FDR was fifth cousin to TR and Eleanor was TR’s niece. Growing up, TR’s younger relatives, including FDR and Eleanor, often visited his home, Sagamore Hill, to play on its grounds. However, it would be much later when FDR and Eleanor connected in the romantic sense. There was also a strong focus on TR’s roles leading up to and during the Spanish American War.
The next section follows TR’s presidency, FDR’s college education, and FDR and Eleanor’s courtship. Major focuses including the most important of TR’s legislation, such as the purchase of the Panama Canal Zone, and the politics of the era. Another is the family FDR and Eleanor create. This section, more than any other, is chalk full of political cartoons. These not only add a visual interest, but the context of each in explained making the section a valuable tool. The section ends with TR’s African safari and directly leads into the next. The following section covers TR’s third run for the presidency and subsequent trip to explore the Amazon; FDR’s run for governor of New York; and World War I. In the latter, FDR served as the undersecretary of the Navy, a position TR also held before the Spanish American War. All of TR’s boys also found ways to serve.
The fourth section of the book starts the year after TR died. It mainly follows FDR’s struggle with polio and the economic changes that led to the Great Depression. Readers will also see how Eleanor begins to have a life of her own, uncharacteristically stepping out of her husband’s shadow. While FDR recovered, Eleanor took the struggle of women to heart. As the section closes, FDR just completed his first run for the presidency. As part of that campaign, we see how TR’s Republican offspring and widow did what they could to thwart their Democratic cousin, a trend that would continue until World War II was well underway. The section that follows covers all of FDR’s New Deal legislation and Eleanor’s campaign to better the lives of women, the poor, and African-Americans. Finally, the second to last section covered the World War II years with a strong focus on FDR’s relationship to Sir Winston Churchill and Eleanor’s visits to the troops and other related efforts, including pushing to allow African-Americans in combat. The military roles of all the Roosevelt boys, both FDR’s children and TR’s sons and older grandsons, were also addressed. The last section followed Eleanor’s final years, including her work to draft and pass the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In all, the book provided a good overview of the lives of TR, FDR, and Eleanor, their families (especially Sara Delano Roosevelt), and others close to them (ex. Daisy Suckley and Missy LeHand). However, it was just an overview. Often, I found myself wanting to learn more, something that can be supplemented by the biography of FDR and Eleanor’s autobiography I already own (still need something else for TR, though). Still, it provided a way to connect all the families together that I am not sure a biography strictly of one or two people could since all of their parents and children and some of their grandchildren were also profiled.
The book was filled with wonderful visuals. I already mentioned the political cartoons above. There were also hundreds of historic photos, excerpts from manuscripts and newspapers, photos of campaign items, maps, and more. Each was accompanied with a description, and if handwritten, also a transcription. Those visuals made the book! No other adult-level book could compare; most only have a couple dozen visuals. In fact, I probably spent as much time, if not more, examining the visuals and their captions as I did reading the main text. It was interesting to see the changes in FDR at the end of his life and how much Kermit Roosevelt looked like his father, TR. Changes in women’s fashion could be seen when looking at Eleanor and her mother-in-law. And the pictures of the houses, rooms, and other buildings provided a context to understanding not only the opulence of the eras covered but also how and where those covered lived. More than anything, the visuals are what made this book great! And it would be a good companion to have on hand when reading a biography of any member of the Roosevelt family, not just the big three.
My finished copy of this book was a kind gift received at a recent conference.