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Starred Review. Independent biographer Smith (1996's John Marshall: Definer of a Nation and 2001's Grant) crafts a magisterial biography of our most important modern president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Scores of books have been written about Roosevelt, exploring every nook and cranny of his experience, so Smith breaks no "news" and offers no previously undisclosed revelations concerning the man from Hyde Park. But the author's eloquent synthesis of FDR's complex and compelling life is remarkably executed and a joy to read. Drawing on the papers of the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library as well as Columbia University's oral history collection and other repositories, Smith minutely explores the arc of FDR's intertwined political and private lives. With regard to the political, the biographer seamlessly traces Roosevelt's evolution from gawky, aristocratic, political newcomer nibbling at the edges of the rough-and-tumble Dutchess County, N.Y., Democratic machine to the consummate though physically crippled political insider—a man without pretensions who acquired and performed the jobs of New York governor and then United States president with shrewd, and always joyous, efficiency. As is appropriate, more than half of Smith's narrative deals with FDR as president: the four terms (from 1933 until his death in 1945) during which he waged war, in turn, on the Depression and the Axis powers. As for the private Roosevelt, Smith reveals him as a devoted son; an unhappy husband who eventually settled into an uneasy peace and working partnership with his wife and cousin Eleanor; an emotionally absent father; and a man who for years devotedly loved two women other than his wife—Lucy Mercer Rutherford and Missy LeHand, the latter his secretary. This erudite but graceful volume illuminates FDR's life for scholars, history buffs and casual readers alike. Photos not seen by PW. (May)
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For those needing an introduction to historical figures who have been the subject of thousands of books, the one-volume biography is a sensible start. Smith's sound synthesis initiates them into FDR's chronology and into themes historians have perceived within it. His ebullient charisma prompts many writers, including Smith here, to seek out the formative influences on FDR that engendered in him the self-confidence to persevere through personal and national crises. Smith accordingly elaborates on the only child's closeness to his mother, his education at Groton and Harvard, and his initially meteoric ascent in politics, halted by polio in 1921. Smith highlights this as the cynosure for thinking about FDR's life: his famous resolve to defeat the disease and walk again, whether born of courage or self-deception, reflected a certain mysteriousness of personality noted by all who met him. With its ensuing narrative on FDR's comeback in 1932, launch of the New Deal, and decisions about war and peace, Smith's portrait will ground readers in FDR's controversies and historical stature. Gilbert Taylor
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