For Jean Edward Smith ’54, the process of writing a biography is regimented. Once his research is completed, he adheres to a strict writing schedule: Get up at 5:30 a.m., be at the desk by 7:30 a.m., and write until noon. “Seven days a week, 48 weeks a year,” Smith says, and “in three years, you will have a 1,300-page manuscript.”
That practice has served him well. Smith has written 12 books, including four biographies, one of which, on Ulysses S. Grant, was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize. He says his fascination with biography springs from childhood, when his grandmother read biographies aloud to him. “I write about people I admire,” he says.
His latest project is FDR, published by Random House this month. Born in Washington, D.C., three weeks before Roosevelt’s election to the presidency in 1932, Smith felt he needed a surefooted publication history before undertaking a book about a man who was a hero to him as a child and to whom he now refers as a “master politician” and an exceptional leader who saved the United States from economic oblivion and military defeat.
Rather than attempting to uncover groundbreaking material about the 32nd president, Smith’s book brings crucial facets of Roosevelt’s life and career into sharper relief. One of the most illuminating aspects of FDR is the depth of the relationship Smith reveals between Roosevelt and his mother, Sara. In Smith’s view, it was from Sara that Roosevelt acquired his “unquenchable confidence.” After the death of Roosevelt’s father, James, Sara assumed personal and financial control of the estate while nurturing her son’s career, first moving to be near him at Harvard Law School, and later taking an active role in organizing for his gubernatorial and presidential campaigns.
Though previous biographies have traced Roosevelt’s marital complexities, Smith’s work takes a broader look at the important relationships between the president and the women in his life, including his wife, Eleanor, as well as his longtime lover, Lucy Mercer Rutherford, and his dedicated secretary, Missy LeHand. Smith also gives a clear-eyed assessment of the triumphs and failures of Roosevelt’s presidency, from saving the banking system in 1933 to forcibly removing Japanese-Americans from their homes in 1942.
Smith, who majored in politics at Princeton, will continue to examine the American presidency in his next project, a biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower. As for what contemporary leaders might learn from Roosevelt, Smith cites the president’s capacity to connect with people as among his most relevant leadership skills. FDR’s radio fireside chats, he says, are a perfect example. “He brought the country along with him,” Smith says, fostering political gravitas while establishing an intimate relationship and understanding with the American people.