Doris Kearns Goodwin
"The Art of Biography"
Conversations with Concordians

March 18, 1989

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer

Lyndon Johnson - somehow he always dominates no matter where you try to get away from him, but he is also first in time chronologically. I think the biggest problem I had in writing the biography on Lyndon Johnson was how to distance myself in time and space from a personal relationship which I had with this president when I was 23, 24 years old, and also from the era of the 1960's which I'd be writing about and had just lived through, so that I could somehow reach perspective and judgment.

It was especially hard with President Johnson because he was in fact probably the most formidable, the most powerful, the most frustrating, the most irritating character I ever met in my whole life, so that to distance oneself from him is harder than normally the problem you'd have in distancing yourself from your own subject. Even the physical stance he adopted when you'd talk to him, you would stand next to him, he was about six feet four, and he would actually tower over you and breathe upon you so that you could hardly breathe. Your head would be right in his stomach almost. It was his way of making you feel a sense that he had control over you, and his sense of power was so finely tuned that I remember at times being ultimately frightened by my own willingness unconsciously to fall into his sway. For example, when I first started going to the ranch I had originally been a White House fellow and assigned eventually to Lyndon Johnson, then I went down to the ranch to help him on his memoirs. When I first went down he made me feel especially special because he had a tendency whenever any important person visited the ranch to drive around the ranch in his car, it could be the Prime Minister of Britain, or of Germany, or the king of such and such, and he liked to show him where he was born, show him the blue bonnet flowers, show him the jumping antelope that were on the ranch. When I first went, to make me feel special, he would always put me in the front of the car and then he would put this dignitary in the back of the car, so he kept saying to me, "Doris, look at the jumping antelope, look at the blue bonnets," and you'd feel so incredibly special.

Then I remember one weekend I couldn't go to the ranch because I had some family obligation. He got furious, so the next time I went down there I was seated in the back of the car; and I remember Dean Rusk was there that weekend, and he was in the front of the car, and he was saying, "Look, Dean, look at the jumping antelope, look at the blue bonnets." Well, I felt so terrible. It was awful. I thought I had been exiled to Siberia, and it was that horrible feeling. I just said, "What is the matter with me, I don't even want to see these stupid antelopes anymore. I have seen these blue bonnets a thousand times."

This is a measure of this man's power, that he can play such psychological games, that you feel like you've been exiled simply because you are ten feet, less than that, one foot from this man. I think it was really that day that I decided that under no circumstances (he was still President then) would I ever work for him full time because I had a sense that if you did work for him full time that you would lose any independence you had and you weren't strong enough against this will. So I insisted on working part time and continuing to teach at Harvard at that time, and that meant that every weekend when I went to visit him, at least I was going home on Sunday night, and it meant a certain measure, at least a little bit, of my own power over this man.

But when I watched him write his memoirs it was such an interesting insight I think into the whole process of memoir writing, another form of biography. In a certain way it was a very sad process because his presence intruded into all the people (there were about four or five of us helping him with his memoirs), and it was written in really under the worst of circumstances. First he was having a terrible time adjusting to private life. On one hand he was a man who should have had everything in the world to be grateful for now that he was in his retirement. He was a wealthy man; he had three or four cars; he had several houses; he had boats. He had this incredible swimming pool that had telephones that came by on floating trays and sandwiches that would came by on floating waterproof plates. In fact, it was so filled with gadgets, you couldn't even swim in it; but that was the size of it, he loved that it was a technological feat. He had the opportunities to travel anywhere in the world; he had servants.

Yet, as I watched him struggling with the hatred of writing his memoirs, I realized that he was a man who had been so immersed for so many years in action and in work, and in power and success that he had almost no internal resources left to commit himself to anything else in his retirement now that the presidency and power was gone. In fact, he could barely get through the days. The whole way he worked on the memoirs was more a matter of forcing all of us to come up with drafts. I was working on his chapter on civil rights and a chapter on economics, and then he would edit it, and then he would want it re-typed, meaning that the secretaries had to stay there round the clock just because it gave him a semblance of that kind of frenetic activity that he had once had at the White House. It made no sense. The thing wasn't due for another year. In fact, I met the other day the librarian, who is head of the National Archives now. He was down at the Johnson Library at that time, and we were just laughing at those days and nights when we felt we were fighting World War II, when it was simply Lyndon Johnson needing to feel like he was doing something important.

There was a real sadness in him in those days. He would wait in the morning to get reports on what had happened the day before on the ranch, so that he could wake up well; but it wasn't anything that had really happened except how many eggs had been laid or how many cows had been given certain medicine. He had five or six Mexican field hands, and he made them into his White House staff, so he was driving them with the fury of a warrior in a certain sense. He would go to bed at night wanting to know how many people were going to the Lyndon Johnson Library. He so desperately wanted more people to go to that library than were going to the Kennedy Library here in Boston. He was a man who had never learned to use the muscles of recreation, of travel, of sports, of reading or of writing, so that there was no way he was able to call on those muscles at the end of his life. As a result, the memoirs became a very painful process, and it really became almost like bargaining and politics put into the form of writing.

For example, I had these wonderful long sessions with him where he would talk pretty openly, and he had the best language. He was a very colorful talker. For example he gave me this great image of Wilbur Mills at one point in which he predicted that Mills (this is before Fanny Fox was found in the Tidal Basin), he was still very powerful in the Congress at that time, but Mills had an obsession with never letting any bill come out of his Ways and Means Committee until he was sure it would pass the whole House because he never wanted to (as Johnson said) lose face. So Johnson said to me one time, "You know the problem with that man, someday he is so concerned about losing face that he is not going to watch out from his behind, and he is going to lose his ass someday." Well, it was so perfect, especially given what happened, and I wrote it all down, and I thought, "This is great, it's a great metaphor." Then he looks at the thing all written, and I remember the editors, the publishers liked this whole metaphor that he had in it. "I can't say that," he said, "This man may be Speaker of the House someday. I have got to pull it back." So that is what he did with the whole process. He had this vision that he had to be a statesman, and as a result his whole language got flattened and there was no life to it at all.

At another point, I remember, he hated Bobby Kennedy, so he told me all these wonderful things, horrible things about Bobby Kennedy. I wrote them all down, and then he saw them and said, "I can't say those things." He said, "Well, maybe I can keep those in. I know what I'll do, I'll put a good paragraph in on Jackie and that will somehow balance." So the words meant nothing to him. He wasn't a man who could get any pleasure from words. All the words had always been action and the effect that it had on an audience, and as a result he was denied his natural language; and the memoir reads like a brief, a brief of a man who knew that he wasn't loved anymore and was trying desperately to make history realize that he had been an important character.

Well, for myself, the rich load of materials that I had in all this unused stuff that he wouldn't put into the memoirs I knew would someday make an extraordinary biography on him. I was very lucky to have that material in front of me. There were probably hundreds of hours that he had spent talking to me about his early life. Even after he finished the presidential part of the memoirs, he started thinking about writing one on the Senate. That was even more fascinating because his years in the Senate were probably him at his mastery. Then he went back even further in time (it was almost as if he was living his life backwards) to talk to me about his parents and his grandparents and his early childhood.

I am not sure in those days when he talked to me at such great length if I ever fully understood the nature of what our relationship was. In later years, as I have heard it, more of the tales that I didn't know at the time of his womanizing I probably would have been a lot more frightened at the time being only twenty-three or twenty-four. I remember even once being afraid when he told me one day he wanted to have a big discussion about our relationship, and he said he was going to take me out for a picnic, and it all boded very ill. He had this red checked tablecloth and a bottle of wine, and we went to Lake LBJ, and he said, "Now I'd like to talk to you about our relationship today." All I could think of was when I was in high school I had this friend who I wanted to be my friend only, and he kept wanting to be my boyfriend. His name was Moose, and he always took me to this particular place to talk about our relationship; so all I kept thinking of was Moose as I went with President Johnson. Anyway, we get to the lake, and he started off boding ill. He said, "More than any other woman I have ever known," and then he said, pause, and I thought, "Oh God, here it comes," and then he said, "You remind me of my mother." Anyway, I don't know whether that was just his great line or whether it was true that he saw his mother as an intellectual who had been stymied by life and not able to be a writer the way he thought she would, and somehow he imagined that I was leading that kind of a life. Whatever it was, it meant that he talked to me a lot about his past.

The problem was I had all this material, and to tell you the truth I wished then, when I was twenty-four or twenty-five trying to write it, that I had been fifty. In some ways I would love to have been given that, now with hopefully the greater wisdom that I have, because I knew that few presidents had talked to someone like that. I also didn't know then any of the techniques of historical research. I had gotten my degree in political science, so we were taught more analysis, and luckily I pulled back from some of the stuffiness of my graduate training to at least let his words come through. Even so, when I look at the book sometimes I realize how much of it I had really skewed into what was then my own need, which was I wanted tenure at Harvard and the book was what earned it; so it became more using him and fitting this incredibly big man into a scheme of analysis that I brought with me from political science.

Had I to do it over again, I would just want him to emerge because those stories were so invaluable. I probably would write it backwards if I had to do it over again, talking about this young person, myself, at the ranch and how he started unfolding his life backwards in time from the presidency, to the Senate, to his childhood, almost as if looking for the clues of his personality through his own unfoldings.

The other thing about him that was difficult as a biographer was that his stories, as I have said several times before, were fascinating; however, they were often not true, I discovered. My favorite story that I always tell, that I will continue to laugh at every time I think about with him, is one time when I was swimming with him in this obstacle-laden pool when he was still President, and Hugh Sidey, the reporter for Time-Life, had written an article that day on a speech Johnson had just given to the troops going to Vietnam, and in the speech Johnson had said something about the fact that his great great-grandfather had died at the battle of the Alamo and so he knew the pride these young men felt; and Sidey said it was a wonderful speech, the only problem was that he didn't have a great great-grandfather who died at the battle of the Alamo. He just wished he did so much that he kind of made him up; and so I said to him, "How could you do that?" He said to me, turns to me dripping all over, he says, "Oh these journalists, they are such sticklers for detail. Why, as a matter of fact they make you remember the color of the wallpaper the first time you ever made love and forget to ask you about the experience itself." Then he went on to tell me how his great great-grandfather had really died at the battle of San Jacinto; and for a wonderful half hour as we splashed around he told me why that was much more important in the history of Texas than the battle of the Alamo. I thought he was probably right by the time he finished that Sidey was a stickler for detail until several years later when I did my biography on him. I was doing research on his past and discovered that his great great-grandfather hadn't died there either. He had somehow been a real estate trader, and he had died at home in bed.

Once I realized that, as a biographer (I didn't know I was a biographer then, I was really just writing about this incredible material), luckily and intuitively I came to the realization that psychological insights would be the best frame to bring to that biography because then you could tell all of his stories; and even if they weren't true, it wasn't so important as long as you could say underneath this is why he said what he was saying. That can often be a clue to personality, what somebody believes about themselves, even more importantly than whether it is true or not. It is their image of themselves. I was lucky enough as I was teaching at that time at Harvard, Erik Erikson took an interest in this project and really tutored me on psychological studies, because I had really not been a psychology major or anything, and just kept bringing all these books for me to read. Then I joined a seminar at Harvard that went over the work chapter by chapter and was really able to produce a book that (as I say, I hope if I had written it at fifty I'd be prouder of it) it least allowed Johnson to come to some sort of life as a character if not as a historical figure in his own right, and in some ways he overran his historical era in a lot of ways.

What I wish if I had it to do over again as well as doing it in a different framework is that I had done more research into the world of Texas. I think somehow as an Easterner that world of Texas seemed so remote to me. I remember that everytime I'd go to the library and pick up a book on cowboys, I would feel I'll never understand this world. It was not the myth of America that I have ever felt the most comfortable with. I have always felt more comfortable with the immigrants. I think all of us historians and biographers have certain things that you feel more at ease with. As a result he strides through the book, but the context really isn't one that I developed in a way that I think I put all my effort into in the next book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. Nevertheless there are times when I think about him knowing, if he imagined and he were still alive, that my next book had been on the Kennedys, he would have thought it was the ultimate betrayal. In fact, I can just hear what he would have said, "Well, you only wrote 400 pages on me and you wrote 1000 on them." That is the way he would actually think about it.

I think in so many ways the desire to write about the Kennedys grew from this first experience with Lyndon Johnson. For one thing I suppose when I saw that sadness in him in those last years of his life and his inability to really get solace from his wife and his children, though they loved him and they were extraordinary, especially Lady Bird, the classiest, most dignified person I think in public life in some ways that I have met, it was as if the hole in him was so large that she couldn't fill it. His need for the applause of millions couldn't be satisfied by any one or two people, and it was such a sense of a searing experience for me to watch that, that the question I brought with me to the next book on the Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys was an interest less in any one of the individuals in that family than in asking the question: What was it about this family, the Kennedy family, that seemed to exist over such a period of time and operate as a shield for them and wondering to myself, even though they had an equal ambition and an equal drive for success, had they brought in themselves as human beings because that family had stayed alive. That is the question I really brought to "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys."

It was because of that interest that I decided to go back in time over three generations to look at the story of the families' creation and development instead of, as I say, any one individual. In a certain way that decision to go back in time and start with 1863 with John Fitzgerald, Rose Kennedy's father's birth, created just the opposite problem from the Johnson biography because this meant that so much of the story was going to have to be told from the perspective of a century ago, or five decades ago, that the challenge was how to create closeness and intimacy on the part of the reader and give the feel for the context and reach below the documents to render the daily lives of the characters so that they could come alive.

It took years of research before I had done enough historical context research that I felt comfortable that I could bring the reader into this. As I say, I hadn't done that with Johnson because I wasn't a historian at that time. I think I made the transition in the Fitzgeralds & Kennedy book to realize that history is what I love above all else. I think from now on all of my biographies will have that deep kind of context in it, in part because you just learn so much. It means that while you are writing it you are just not going over and over again with your own analysis of this person. You are learning all the time and learning about hundred years of history that went into the Kennedy book. I think I learned more in that period than I had through all my Ph.D. at Harvard.

What I realized is that by doing as much documentary research this time as I could before I went out to interview the Kennedy family members, that I would be able to have some check on their memory because I was still aware very much of the problem of memory from Lyndon Johnson, and it turned out in all sorts of funny ways to be true with the Kennedy family, too. Interviewing Rose Kennedy from the time she was 88 to 92, her memory would be remarkably acute for certain things, but I would sometimes have to bring her actual documents to make sure that she wasn't remembering something wrong too. We all do it in human life, and I think it is probably true that people who talk a lot to the public and tell stories a lot remember it even more wrongly because whenever the story has a good effect, then they tell it that way again rather than the way it actually happened, so that by having that mixture of the documents that I could bring to her and her memory and the fact that she was an old woman wanting to remember her early girlhood brought a certain special tension to this book that I think really helped it a lot.

I suppose my most special memories are not even the interviews with her as much as all the documentary stuff that suddenly brought some understanding alive. I can still remember finding for the first time in the Boston Public Library these old city maps really and plot plans that were kept in a sort of a rafter up in one of the rooms in the BPL, and I had been trying to bring to life, until I found these, what it must have been like to live in the immigrant quarters of the North End of Boston. I had read all the statistics how it was more crowded there than in the streets of Calcutta, and I had known about how terrible the sanitation was. They were general statistics, and I wanted to be able to describe the actual tenement houses that Fitzgerald had grown up in. I knew which houses they were because I was able to go to the North End now and see them, often still existing or at least the frame is still there. They are those thin tall houses, just like much of Boston is built on, three stories high.

One day when I found these old plot plans and these old maps in the Boston Public Library, what they were was exactly telling who was living in those tenement houses in the 1860-70's when I wanted to do it. Somebody had done a census, I guess, and it was actually telling painters, the name of them, their children. I looked and one of these townhouses, that now would have one family in it, I realized had twenty-six families or eighty-one people in it. The only way that was possible, I finally began to read some more, was by cardboard partitions between the rooms, so that a room this size might have had four families in it. I am not sure that I still fully understood. I don't know if you can ever enter into that kind of poverty if you haven't experienced it, but that finding helped much more by being able to look around a space and picture a whole family trying to have any kind of privacy which would have been impossible in that house, helped me so much more than any of the general statistics that I had been searching would have been able to do. I can still remember that day when I found it, knowing that I understood something. I mean, that is what is so exciting about this whole process. I just say, "I think I understand something today."

Similarly, not long after that I went into St. Stephen's Church, which still exists now on Hanover Street in the North End. If any of you have ever seen it, it is an absolutely beautiful church, and it was restored by Cardinal Cushing to look as it did in 1863. As soon as I walked in that church and realized how beautiful it was and how incredible the experience must have been for the immigrants living in those terrible tenements to be able to walk into the beauty of that church, I think I understood again more than I could have how magic the church must have been for these people at that time and age. I realized that when they walked into that church they had privacy which they didn't have in those tenements; they had beauty; they had a beautiful smell, whereas the sanitation wasn't picked up on their tenement houses so they finally went into that beautiful incense smell; and everything gave them another world that they contrasted with the daily world they were living in and had to make it even more special. Again, I can remember that day when I knew something was understood inside my own soul in a certain way.

Or also, when I found out that John Fitzgerald was a newsboy at the age of fourteen, Rose's father, which was a very common occupation back then which was not just a job like we might think about it today. Often the newsboys supported their entire families, and he was stationed at the corner of Beacon and Park Street right across from the State House. He had told Rose and she had told me that he still remembered those first weeks when he was there because it opened that world of Beacon Hill to him for the first time. He was so taken by the fur-hatted coachmen and by the ladies coming by with their fur muffs and men in these tall silk hats, and then he'd look into the houses, the townhouses up there, and he would see chandeliers and see diningroom tables and people sitting around them. It became a world that he craved essentially for the rest of his life. He then told his daughter Rose about it, and when she is 90 she is telling me the same details because they had stuck in her mind. I think it was part of that ambition that helped to propel him from being a child of 13 in that slum of the North End, the only one who graduated high school, eventually went on to Harvard Medical School, dropped out and became a politician, the first Irish immigrant child to be the mayor of Boston. Everytime I go by Beacon and Park Street even now I keep picturing him there. That's where you begin to get a little nutty when you do this kind of work. My family used to tease me all the time which decade was I in.

I suppose in some ways the most extraordinary part of it was the 150 cartons that was made available to me through Senator Kennedy which had belonged to Joe and Rose Kennedy. For that was what made me imagine what it must be like to be a historian. They were completely unsorted, uncataloged; they had been in the attic in Hyannisport for over 50 years. Just timing was so fortunate that they were sent to the Kennedy Library about two years after I had started work on this book, the librarians there, who had become my friends, had peeked in them. They weren't allowed to work on them because until the Kennedy family turns them over to the library, government time cannot go to cataloging them, and the Kennedy family still hasn't done that. But they had peeked in them, and they said to me, "These are fabulous. You've got to somehow get access to these."

I was lucky enough that it was 1980 at that time and Senator Kennedy was running for the presidency. His mind was on the future rather than the past, because otherwise the Kennedy family can paralyze themselves by having group meetings all the time. I think if any of his sisters had gotten into the act, they would have told him, "No way, don't open these up until we go through them." That's what they were waiting for. Well, no one in the Kennedy family had grown up with that kind of historical interest. They are such activists themselves that it is hard to picture them even now sitting for five or six years as I did looking through these papers. They always thought somebody might come along, so they kept holding back. Luckily Senator Kennedy said, "Oh, well, strings attached on the other end that he would have to see what I wrote.

Much later, as I will describe to you, when the book first came out I think that Eunice Shriver and several of the Kennedy sisters were upset with some of the early controversy that was in the newspapers; the newspapers always play up the most controversial parts of it. They started yelling at Teddy, and then he started telling me, "Now they are going to be mad, but don't worry about it for a while. Once they read the book, I think it will be all right." I remember about a month later I got seven or eight books in the mail from Sarge Shriver, and I was sure, knowing that Eunice was upset, that they were being sent back in protest. I opened it up, and inside there was a letter from him asking me to autograph them for his wife and all the children. They tend to not read books on themselves, which probably is all to the best; but because this one dealt with their own heritage, the Fitzgerald side, which they knew very little about, they started reading that; and by the time they got to the rest of it where there might have been parts they were angry at, they had at least read the whole thing so they weren't angry at me overall.

What was terrific about these cartons was that Joe and Rose had a sense of their own destiny from the time they were probably six or seven years old because they had saved everything from their report cards in high school to thousands of letters to their children, letters to their old boyfriends and girlfriends, ticket stubs, dance cards. I can still remember the day I came across these two huge cartons, and I opened them up and inside were Gloria Swanson's income tax statements. That's when I knew the Kennedy family had not had the time to go through these, because that certainly would have been gone from there. What was great about reading them uncataloged is they fell in the boxes the way they do in real life.

For example, I can still remember the day that I was reading the mortgage folder for the Bronxville house that the Kennedy's had bought in 1928 or '29, and out of it came this hand-written letter which was essentially a death threat to Joe Kennedy. It was written by a man who had bought into a pool. In the 1920's before the Securities & Exchange Commission they had all these pools that the big guys on the top would buy into. They would open up this presumed new company to a stock. All the people unsuspecting from the outside would buy into it. As soon as the price went up, they would get out, make their money, and these guys would be left losing all of their money. This guy had put his life savings into this pool. Joe Kennedy had gotten out along with his friends, so he was writing him a hand-written letter saying, "I just want you to know why you will be found with this knife in your back," and he said, "You have your Roals Royces," r-o-a-l-s royces, "and your servants and your houses, and I've got nothing; and I am sorry I have to do this, but I have to do it." As you see that letter sitting there in its hand-written form in the original and imagine in your mind what did this mean to the Kennedy family -- Did Joe understand what he was doing when that happened? To me it was a symbol of that world of the '20's which was so patently unfair to the ordinary stockholder, and I also wondered whatever happened - did he get security? Did they find this man?. Those mysteries would never be answered, but somehow just seeing it sit there made you feel for a moment like you were back in time with these people.

Just one funny aside, I can remember one time when I was down at Palm Beach interviewing Rose Kennedy, and she had taken a nap and the place was really quiet, and I had about this time spent about six years doing research on this book (the book took ten years altogether), and I was thinking of all the mountains of cartons (I had at least thirty cartons of my own by this time filled with stuff), and the house just didn't seem to me alive in part because she was there alone and she was sleeping. I kept trying to picture in my mind what it would have been like, say in the 1930's when Joe Jr. and Jack were alive, when Rose and Joe were there; and I started like in Damn Yankees, suppose the devil came to me and said, "Okay, I'll let you see this family as it was for a day if you'll give me all your cartons."

Once I saw that church, as I say, I knew it's where I wanted to open the book. For anybody writing, I am sure as you all know, the hardest thing is that first paragraph. I can still remember in high school sitting there forever trying to get the first line. Well, it is true no matter how many times you write. The first paragraph of each chapter, the first paragraph of a book is even worse; and as soon as I saw that church and knew I could recreate the baptism, I knew I had the beginning of the book. It all fed into itself then because I found a theologian at BC (Boston College) whose field was nineteenth century liturgy of the Catholic church, so he was able to describe what the baptismal ceremonies were like then. In the old days you had to have the baby exorcized before you could even bring him into the church because you couldn't have an unexorcized child into the church. I was able to find maps that showed what the stores were that the father would have taken this young kid on before he got to the church. I knew what the weather was like. I had the archdiocese files that told me who the godparents were. Suddenly it brought the reader into that way of life.

Well, then I faced the problem of how do I end this book if I had this wonderful, I thought, way to open it, how am I going to end it. I knew that I wanted to end it at the inauguration, but I wanted it to not just be a public ending at the inauguration, so I decided to look for something that could make it work. One day I was in the library and behind a glass case I realized was the original bible that had been used by John Kennedy at his inauguration, and I asked them if I could look at it. They said that I could only look at it a month later when they took it out for cleaning. It came out every few months for cleaning. So that day I went into the library, and it was so wonderful because when I opened it up it had a gold cross in the center, a leather bible, and inside, as often was the case in those days, they had written the names of all the births and deaths of the people in the family. It was almost like a ledger of the whole three generations that I had been chronicling starting with the thirteen kids of Fitzgerald's family and then ending with the nine kids of Joe and Rose. I knew somehow through that bible and looking at all the people who died before they had a chance to live, looking at those who never had their ambitions met, that I could tell the story of what this meant, that this Catholic kid was being elected president of the United States.

Then I had an even better thing, I thought, because I talked to Eunice Shriver in my interviews, and she was telling me about the scene at the inauguration when she was watching Jack right after he takes the oath of office. Everybody takes their top hats off and tips it to the new president. She was standing right behind her father. She saw her father taking his top hat off to his son, and she said she just felt weak inside because this was such a patriarchal family that the idea that the father was tipping his hat to his son just really struck her as something incredibly strange. But before he could do that she saw Jack take his hat off and tip it to his father, and I knew then that that told so much about the drive and the ambition that had made this whole thing possible. So I decided to end it there. It almost made it come full circle, from the baptism at the very beginning. Also, I think there was the reality that the book was by that page 900 pages long, and nobody was going to hold it if I went any further in the inauguration. So much for that.

Now let me tell you a little bit about the new book, which is really only about three months old, and I am very excited about it. It is a very different kind of challenge. I was drawn to this topic of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and I am dealing with the American homefront part of World War II, not the battles that were fought abroad, but rather the whole mobilization for the war that we did here, which in some ways was the most colossal job in history, people say. Ten million people called to arms, but behind them were men and women in factories and mines who produced more weapons, more equipment, more supplies than any nation on earth. In fact, it was our production here that won the war for the allies. Stalin toasted Roosevelt saying, "American production is what won this war." There is a great comment I found in Albert Speer's memoirs in which he said he remembers the first time he saw a picture of women in the factories in Life magazine on the cover, he knew they were going to lose the war, because they had not mobilized their whole population behind the war the same way in which we had. So knowing that it is about the fiftieth anniversary of World War II and also knowing that we have a lot of concerns about our own productivity in this country vis-a-vie Japan these days, it seemed to me a wonderful chance to look back at a time when this country was in fact the most productive nation on the face of the earth, and I knew there were lots of people with great memories. For so many people it was the highlight of their lives.

One time I was on the Good Day show talking about "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys" when it came out in paperback, and they asked me what I was going to do next, and I mentioned that I was hoping maybe to do this. Well, the next day I got a call from a woman who ran a day care center for the Kaiser Shipyard in Washington on the other coast. She told me how there were a thousand kids that went to that day care center, and how they all learned. It was like a Headstart at the same time, and how proud, they had the best teachers in the country. I thought, my God we are sitting fighting day care today, and here was an example of it back then and it really worked. In fact, it was wonderful, they had three shifts of women going to work in those factories, and they provided all the food for the kids. It turned out if you had the day shift, when you went home you were given a dinner to bring home to your whole family. Any of us would give anything for that, I thought when she had told me that.

I remember talking to a woman who said she remembered when she was a little girl during the war, that all the little girls used to take umbrellas and try to fly off the roof to imitate parachutes. It showed how it melded into the memories and the imagination of people at that time. I talked to another woman who was about five or six years old during World War II and her father ran the telephone lines between Churchill and Roosevelt (the hot line that went between the two of them), so he was away a lot of the time, and she remembers her first image of her mother who had long flowing hair but always kept it up in a bun. She was outside trying to fix the car which wasn't working, and she was furious she couldn't get it to go. She pulled her hair out and she got it to work, and she is convinced that may be the beginning of a lot of women's lib because even the women who weren't working in the factories were doing things around the home that they wouldn't have been doing because the men were away and their kids are seeing their mothers function in all of these ways. It was just a wonderful insight, so that I saw on the part of the social history of it that it would be so fantastic to be able to interview people.

But I knew that in order to make it come to life for the reader, I didn't want it to be just a social history, that I wanted it somehow to be biography too, because it is that combination of biography and history that I love so much. So I thought I had to find somebody to focus on, and I was thinking of maybe of Edward Kaiser, the guy who ran the shipyards. I guess I didn't think about Roosevelt at first because I thought so much has been done on him that I can't do anything new, but I kept coming back to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and thinking I've always wanted to write about them.

So I went to the Hyde Park Library and I had lunch with the director of the library, and I just sort of embarrassingly asked him, I said, "Well, what if I did a book on this, has there been millions of things done on it?" He looked and he said, "I can't tell you, but nobody has done this." It was such a great day. For some reason all the historians who have written about them have concentrated on the battles, especially because they are probably male historians and the battles seemed to be more interesting to them. There have been social histories on this done. Even the book on Eleanor and Franklin, the great book by Joe Lash, has only a couple of chapters on the World War II part because he was running down by the end of the book just as I know I ran down on my own Fitzgerald and Kennedy book at the end. So once I knew that, then I had to figure out how to deal with them. The more I started looking at their papers in the library, the more I realized that it was perfect.

Eleanor wanted the war to be fought in such a way that it could bring about triumphant democracy and social reform at home. While we were fighting facism abroad, she hoped to use the war to begin ending segregation in the South, to stimulate small business versus big business, and to plan idealistically for the post-war period. She was the unadulterated liberal. Franklin wished for some of that, but he was faced with hard decisions. For example, if he moved too fast on integrating the blacks in the armed forces, which he didn't do and she wished he had done, he knew he would lose the South. If he lost the South and he lost the congressional votes, he could lose the war; and he felt that he couldn't do that, that the war had to come first, and that you had to worry about this social reform later; but he did certain things which I'll describe to you. When faced with the idealism of the post-war planning, he felt it was too much like Woodrow Wilson, that if we stimulated America to fight for some great reforms, it could all collapse. Instead he felt it was enough to fight for our way of life, even if it meant refrigerators and houses after the war, which was indeed what it meant for a lot of people. But he thought that was enough, that democracy was in the thing itself, so you constantly see their letters back and forth with each other fighting over these two issues.

It is also a period in their life when their own personal relationship is going through enormous tensions because in some ways she must be pretty irritating to him every night coming to him saying, "Why aren't you doing more about the blacks?" or "Why aren't you doing more about this?" At one point I found this incredible memo where she asked him, she said a lot of people were using their homes for convalescent homes, didn't she think he should use Hyde Park and give up his own home. He finally had to write, "A President needs a place to go to relax." I have interviewed enough people that say that at night when she kept coming in (and she was right about so much of this), it must have been tiring when he was dealing with Churchill and Stalin during the day and to have to face Eleanor at night.

So probably it is not a surprise that it's during this period of time that he turns once again to Lucy Mercer, the woman he had been in love with many years before, had given up because Eleanor had threatened to divorce him unless he gave up Lucy Mercer. She starts coming back into his life during these war years. Eleanor knows nothing about it until when he dies. Lucy is there when he dies, and then the whole story became known to Eleanor.

Eleanor, meanwhile, at this time had a relationship with a woman who was living in the White House named Lorina Hickcock, which I am just beginning to understand; she had been an AP reporter. About six or seven years ago when her letters to Eleanor came out in the public, it caused a huge stir because the letters were so sensual. If not necessarily a physical relationship between the two, they certainly showed a sensual relationship. Eleanor would write her saying, ever since she had met her, "I kiss your picture every night before I go to bed." Then the other woman would write back saying, "I remember the northeast corner of your mouth where I kissed you last and I can't wait to do it again." And again, that is one of those things as a biographer, the more I've got to figure out what their relationship was, especially since this woman is living in the White House while Lucy and Franklin are over here on one side. I am not even sure it was necessarily physical, but it was real, and it was a love affair, and it matters; and that is what is more interesting to me than whether or not they had a physical relationship or not.

But this whole drama of Eleanor and Franklin, Lucy and Lorina, and then the children of Eleanor and Franklin, I want to be telling at one level; but then the real key and the thing I have got to figure out is how to connect it to this overexuberant society that is producing all this for the war. I have only figured out a few ways, and I will just tell you one of them that I have figured out. For example, in 1941 A. Philip Randolph was threatening a march on Washington because the blacks were getting a terrible deal in the defense industries, and it was even worse for the blacks then than it had been during the depression because they saw all the rest of the country getting employed and they were not because of the discrimination in the unions and all these factories. So he threatened to bring 100,000 people to Washington. This was really the seed of the later march on Washington in 1963, and the President was very upset about this because it would look terrible abroad if this were to happen. He didn't know what to do, so Eleanor intervened, and here is where she was so incredibly helpful. She decided to tell him that she thought he should have a meeting with Randolph and see what they could do. The meeting was held, and at the meeting with Eleanor's help they decided as a compromise that he would call off the march if Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order, the first one since Lincoln's time, in setting up the Fair Employment Practice Commission, which would have certain powers to hopefully force some of these factories to open up to the blacks. So he did that, and that executive order was issued that month. Well, it had a very tortuous history, and it didn't do as much as it should do, but it did do certain things.

One of the things it did which I found out and which is wonderful in the end because it connects to Franklin and Eleanor, several years later in 1944 it determined that the whole Philadelphia Transit System was white. They didn't have a single black trolley car driver, so they brought hearings and they threatened to bring a certain amount of pressure against the Philadelphia Transit System. So finally the system decided to open up, and it hired its first black trolley car drivers. Well, I found one of those black trolley car drivers. He is wonderful. He still lives in Philadelphia; William Barber is his name. It was great because when I talked to him, he has been a trolley car driver for forty years since then, everything was in terms, "Well, I walked to 18th and Market, and then I went to 70th and Market," it was all the geography of Philadelphia, that is the way he talks. He described to me what it was like that first day when he went to report to work to go into training to be a trolley car driver. He said, "I went out to the corner at about five in the morning. There were a whole bunch of people there," because all the people were going to the defense industry by public transportation in those days, and he said, "I got to the corner and there were no trolleys, and I didn't know what was wrong. No one did; so we all disbursed. I went back home, put the radio on, and I found out that the whole system had gone on strike because of me."

For four days the whites refused to go to work, the whole city was paralyzed, no one could get to the war plants, production was declining, so Roosevelt finally sent in the troops to operate the transit system and threatened that any white who didn't go back to work would be drafted the next day. Well, they went back to work, and it worked, and he became a trolley car driver. He told me in the early days how tough it was, that people would spit at him, but finally he was accepted, and that was his job for the rest of his life. Then he told me that he remembers the day that he heard that Franklin Roosevelt died, and on that day he said he had tears in his eyes, and he looked in the mirror at the back of the bus and everybody was crying too. Somehow, if I can figure out those ways of showing the relationship between the two, how it affected policy, and then affected the people out in society at large, then I think that is the way the book will come alive.

It is true that the great pleasure in writing biography is looking into other people's lives, I suppose for me the equally great pleasure is that letting those other people's lives reflect back on your own, because I think I have learned so much from these people that I have read about. From watching Lyndon Johnson in those early days unable to live a life that had any coherence because he had never had any balance of play in it or anything he enjoyed doing except for power and politics, it made me frightened of that kind of narrowness that I think took me away from Washington back up here where it was more possible to build a more balanced life. From watching the Kennedys continually struck down time after again by sudden death, it makes you realize the importance of just enjoying your daily life, what you are doing with your own family right now, in a way that you know abstractly, but somehow when a death occurs in your own family you would feel that, these deaths you live with so closely that you feel it as well. I can already see watching Eleanor Roosevelt's incredible capacity for friendship exhibited by these thousands of letters she wrote to friends is something that I think so few people today are capable of doing in this frenetic society we live in, especially for women trying to combine work and family, friends are too often the luxury that is ignored. Somewhere you keep learning, and for that I guess I'll always be grateful, and I will probably be doing this the rest of my life.

Text mounted 26th September 2012. RCWH.