Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

I'm about half way through PBS's The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, which is a 7-part, 14-hour Ken Burns film about Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt.  I recorded the lot when it was broadcast last month and am watching roughly a part a week, in two settings per week, travel schedule permitting.   It's fascinating and wonderfully done, as expected.

I read Doris Kearns Goodwin's book No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II awhile ago, and Peter Collier's The Roosevelts: An American Saga, both of which I enjoyed a lot.  Plus, last year I visited Theodore Roosevelt's Sagamore Hill property (the house is being renovated so was closed to the public) and FDR's Hyde Park home.  I'm no where near an expert, but I find the Roosevelt family to be compelling and a portal to a better understanding of the early 20th century.

I like the Ken Burns style of documentary--the stills with voice-over narration of quotes and as we move into the age of film/video actual clips.  Paul Giamatti does a reasonably good job as Teddy Roosevelt, and Edward Hermann does FDR really well, having played him for TV movies in the 1970s. Meryl Streep, however, is so Eleanor that it is almost spooky.

I also really like the experts who weigh in with perspective and analysis--Doris Kearns Goodwin is my favorite (so articulate and insightful), Geoffrey Ward is good (although he seems to be caught up emotionally in the story--he seemed on the verge of tears talking about FDR's pain post-polio), George Will is uniformly irritating and I tend to take his analysis with a grain of salt (looking for the hidden agenda, I confess), and Clay Jenkinson, David McCullough, and Jon Meacham are all good and credible.

I have to say, though, one of the main things that strikes me about the Roosevelts this time around is that despite their incredible fortitude, brilliant instincts, courage, and charisma, the three individuals profiled were remarkably bad and selfish parents.  FDR, while he was battling back after polio, was absent from home for months at a time, seeing his children infrequently; Eleanor moved into her own stone cottage and talked a lot about the need for a "life of her own" and stopped trying to connect with her children, conceding the fight to FDR's mother, Sarah; and Theodore insisted that his sons live their lives modeled on his own.  I find this maddening.  I think the children of these giants paid the price of their parents' greatness.


  1. I very much want to see this. I hopefully will get to it within the next several months.

    The issue of neglecting children and family sometimes pops up among great historical figures. I remember being struck as to how badly Benjamin Franklin treated his family.

  2. I have to agree with your analysis, especially in regards to childraising. So sad to see the kids' lonely faces. Franklin's son said it so well during the time FDR had polio--he knew that his father "was engaged in a struggle to reestablish a meaningful life for himself." But it is terribly sad that having children around him wouldn't have been a source of strength and comfort. It seems that Eleanor and Franklin's children grew up to be compassionate people, nonetheless; not so sure about Teddy's who seemed rather spiteful and combative!

    Also, although the three Roosevelts had tremendous influence in the 20th century, they are in many ways 19th-century figures in their own upbringing, coming from a time and a social class where parental involvement in childrearing was tangential at best, with the main care left to nurses and then nannies. It must have seemed normal to them, although Eleanor seems conscious of lacking a strong maternal connection.

    You are so right about Meryl Streep!! Spookily accurate. It was hard not to think one was hearing Eleanor read her own letters aloud. Her intonation, perfectly attuned to the style of letter writing then, was impeccable. Peter Coyote is a splendid narrator, too. Enjoy the rest of the series!

    1. >But it is terribly sad that having children around him wouldn't have been a source of strength and comfort.

      Absolutely--and what really got me were the images of FDR playing with the kids in the pool at Warm Springs while his own children were languishing without his attention.