To Goodwin, biographies need fact, not fancy No Ordinary Historian

THE BALTIMORE SUN

*TC Doris Kearns Goodwin has written books before, best sellers about presidents and power that received glowing reviews.

But the publication of "No Ordinary Time," the story of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II, is Ms. Goodwin's first experience of being treated, in her words, "as an ordinary historian." She couldn't be happier.

This time, there are no qualifiers or malicious gossip from critics. Her first book, an acclaimed 1976 biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, sparked rumors -- never proven -- that she was having an affair with the ex-president. With the second, "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys," published in 1987, Ms. Goodwin was accused of a lucky break: access to 150 cartons of previously unpublished papers from the Kennedys. (Husband Richard Goodwin was on John F. Kennedy's staff and a key figure in Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign, critics carped.)

"I must admit, it was both a positive and a negative," she says now, her stockinged feet drawn up under her in an overstuffed chair in a Washington hotel suite. "If I had to choose between having those assets and knowing there are some people out there who would comment on it, I would still choose it. But one of the great pleasures of this book is to know I'm not open to that charge."

Yet there is a certain irony to Ms. Goodwin's brush with gossip, for it is conspicuously absent from her books. Not for her are the anonymous sources, idle speculation or the rhetorical stretches used by some writers. In "No Ordinary Time," a reader accustomed to less rigorous biographers notices the absence of such tricks as "Perhaps he was thinking . . ." or "It seems fair to conclude . . ."

Nothing is fair to conclude, Ms. Goodwin says firmly. If it cannot be proved, it cannot be used. She chides in print, writing of her sources in "No Ordinary Time": "Details . . . can only emerge from research. To remedy gaps in knowledge by fabricating details, even those which may seem inconsequential, is to shift from nonfiction to fiction and is a betrayal of the historian's trust."

In "No Ordinary Time," Ms. Goodwin declines to reach the conclusion, aired in Blanche Wiesen Cook's 1992 biography of Mrs. Roosevelt, that the first lady had an affair with Lorena Hickok.

"It always comes up. Was Eleanor a lesbian?" she says. Ms. Cook "had no more evidence than any of the rest of the scholars had. She did not produce new evidence. She simply went from the evidence everyone else had to saying, 'Why not? Why not assume an affair?' . . . I'm sure she's going to come after me, because I am now one of the people who doesn't want to agree with her. Her feeling seems be if you disagree with her, you don't like Eleanor."

Ms. Cook, through her publisher, did not respond to a request for her thoughts on "No Ordinary Time." But the author of "Eleanor Roosevelt," Volume 1, a book that also was widely praised when published two years ago, has made herself quite clear on the subject.

"I do not flinch from the possibilities of pleasure, satisfaction and lust in Eleanor Roosevelt's life," she wrote in response to one critic.

Ms. Goodwin not only declines to speculate on the nature of Eleanor's relationship with Lorena Hickok, but on Franklin Roosevelt's relationship with his secretary and "second wife," Missy LeHand. The prurient holds no allure for her.

Nor does she feel obligated to find something new, although "The Kennedys and the Fitzgeralds" was notable for its new material, including the circumstances of Rosemary Kennedy's lobotomy, ordered by her father and kept secret for years from her mother. "Some historians think the way to make a new contribution is to overturn what was there before, to come out with a new theory or to expose something that hasn't been exposed before," she says. "I really have a different understanding of the biographer's role."

The importance of research

It all comes down to research, and one gathers that Ms. Goodwin's idea of a really good time is poring over documents. "No Ordinary Time," researched over five years, is a 636-page book with 633 footnotes and uncountable attributions. It draws on 86 interviews, the published and unpublished papers of the various principals, oral histories, press accounts and a bibliography of more than 300 volumes.

The result is a lucid, authoritative voice. When Mrs. Goodwin writes, as she does in her opening chapter, that President Roosevelt lulled himself to sleep by imagining himself as a boy in Hyde Park, walking up a hill with his sled, the reader can be sure this anecdote is carefully sourced. (Footnote No. 13, an interview with the president's daughter-in-law.)

One of the most valuable documents in researching the book, Ms. Goodwin says, were the White House Usher Diaries. These were her base -- pages and pages of day-by-day chronologies, detailing who came and went, who ate and stayed, in the hotel atmosphere of the 1940s White House.

The diaries led to the personal interviews, a rich source of vivid details. As Ms. Goodwin writes in her note on sources, a White House butler provided her with "the unforgettable image of Winston Churchill standing in his long underwear, demanding 90-year-old brandy."

Given her passion for research, it's not surprising Ms. Goodwin has attacked biographers who don't meet her standards.

Guessing's not for her

She had little patience for "The Last Brother," the Joseph McGinness biography of Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, which she says borrowed heavily from her Kennedy book. The book became almost as scandalous as the subject's life when it was revealed that Mr. McGinness guessed at the senator's innermost thoughts, undeterred by the fact he had not interviewed Mr. Kennedy.

Ms. Goodwin also criticized Nigel Hamilton's "Reckless Youth," a John F. Kennedy biography, in part because he published an unnamed relative's speculation that Joseph Kennedy Sr. ordered daughter Rosemary's lobotomy to keep secret his sexual abuse of her.

Ms. Goodwin did not set out to become a biographer. She received a doctorate in political science from Harvard, then became a White House fellow. There, she met President Johnson, who recruited her while she was in her 20s to write his memoirs after he left office and changed the course of her career.

He also changed the course of her life. When Ms. Goodwin saw how lonely and empty Johnson was after giving up the presidency, she realized there were certain satisfactions one could not gain from work. Working on the Kennedy book, she made plenty of time for her two sons and stepson. She even coached Little League.

Her new book moves from biography to history and back again. To read "No Ordinary Time" is to learn not only of the Roosevelts' lives, but of landmark moments in domestic and foreign policy.

"Enthralling," Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in the New York Times this week. "Mrs. Goodwin's narrative remains seamless despite the way it threads back and forth between the personal turmoil of the characters and the remarkable advances the country underwent in its industrial production, its racial relations and the role of its women."

It started out differently

L It was not the book Ms. Goodwin originally planned to write.

Although intrigued by Mrs. Roosevelt, she felt she had little to add to the existing biographies. Instead, she decided to write about the home front during World War II. This idea led her back to the Roosevelts and life in the White House during the 1940s.

Other histories may have maps or family trees to help its readers; Mrs. Goodwin needed a floor plan of who slept where in the

White House. The floor plan, originally sketched by one of the Roosevelt grandchildren, is included in "No Ordinary Time" and speaks volumes about the Roosevelts' unusual marriage.

The couple's sexual relationship ended after Mrs. Roosevelt discovered her husband's affair with Lucy Mercer in 1918. FDR's room was next to Mrs. Roosevelt's, but without a common entrance. Lorena Hickok's room was across the West Sitting Room. Missy LeHand's suite was on the third floor.

The Roosevelt book done, Ms. Goodwin now plans to write a book with her husband on the history of presidential decision-making. It is their first literary collaboration, although they have always read and critiqued one another's work.

The new book will provide a kind of respite to what Ms. Goodwin calls "the odd configuration of my life right now." While she is on the road promoting "No Ordinary Time," she also is on television, appearing in Ken Burns' "Baseball" series on PBS. Meanwhile her husband, as played by Rob Morrow, is the pivotal figure in the movie "Quiz Show" -- the congressional lawyer-investigator who pushed for the hearings into the quiz show scandals of the 1950s.

A book, television and a film -- the American touchstones of fame. The Goodwins even have a passing acquaintance with O. J. Simpson, from a brief stay in California. (Their home is in Concord, Mass.) "We lived two doors down from him. His dog bit one of our sons," Ms. Goodwin says. "I could go on 'Inside Edition.' "

Doris Kearns Goodwin on "Inside Edition"? Now that would be extraordinary.

EXCERPTS

Selected passages from "No Ordinary Time" (Simon & Schuster, $30).

* How FDR fell asleep. "On nights filled with tension and concern, Franklin Roosevelt performed a ritual that helped him to fall asleep. He would close his eyes and imagine himself at Hyde Park as a boy, standing with his sled in the snow atop the steep hill that stretched from the south porch of his home to the wooded bluffs of the Hudson River far below. As he accelerated down the hill, he maneuvered each familiar curve with perfect skill until he reached the bottom, whereupon, pulling his sled behind him, he started slowly back up until he reached the top, where he would once more begin his descent. . . . Thus liberating himself from his paralysis through an act of imaginative will, the president of the United States would fall asleep."

* On Eleanor Roosevelt's relationship to Lorena Hickok: "To be sure, the letters possess an emotional intensity and a sensual explicitness that is hard to disregard. Hick longed to kiss the soft spot at the corner of Eleanor's mouth; Eleanor yearned to hold Hick close; Hick despaired at being away from Eleanor. . . . Yet the essential question for the biographer is not whether Hick and Eleanor went beyond kisses and hugs, a question there is absolutely no way we can answer with certainty."

* On FDR's proposal that the couple "renew" the intimate aspect of their marriage, dormant since Eleanor's 1918 discovery of his affair with Lucy Mercer: "When the time came to answer, Eleanor, in characteristic fashion, never mentioned the proposal directly. Instead, she opened the conversation with an impassioned plea for a new war-related assignment that would allow her to move about the country and travel. It must have been immediately obvious to Roosevelt what his wife was trying to say . . . Franklin's attempt to forge a new bond between them had come to a gracious but definite end."

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