Historian and documentary screenwriter Geoffrey C. Ward’s The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, the companion to a PBS series of the same name, takes readers on a fascinating journey through the lives and careers of Theodore, Franklin Delano, and Eleanor Roosevelt, supplementing the text with hundreds of photos and other documents.
Was there a particular event that drew you to research the Roosevelts?
I’ve been interested in F.D.R. since boyhood. My parents were staunch Democrats for whom he was a hero. I contracted polio at nine and I think I saw in his struggle to move beyond his handicap as something to emulate. When I was 10, I wrote an earnest letter to Eleanor asking a question about her late husband’s decision to run for a third term. She wrote back within a week, carefully answering my question as if I were an adult. I was hooked. My interest in Theodore grew afterwards.
My paternal grandfather, who cast his first vote for Theodore Roosevelt considered F.D.R. a lightweight, a pale imitation of the Great Man. My father, who cast his first vote for Franklin Roosevelt, thought T.R. had been a shrill perennial adolescent. This book—and the film from which it grew—is meant to show that they were both wrong.
What’s it been like to spend three decades researching these subjects?
For me, the Roosevelts are perpetually fascinating. This is my fourth book that touches upon the family and, who knows, there may be more before I’m through. Of the three subjects in the book, F.D.R. intrigues me the most because he was so maddeningly elusive. Trying to figure out what was on his mind at any given moment is something like a life’s work.
What can you tell us about the forthcoming PBS series?
Writing the script for the PBS series was a dream assignment. Ken [Burns] and I had been talking about doing something Rooseveltian for nearly 30 years, and I finally came up with the notion of doing all three Roosevelts as part of the same film, something no one has ever done on-screen before. Although Theodore and Franklin belonged to different parties, much more united the Roosevelts than divided them; all three shared TR’s view that government, at its best, is simply “us... you and I.”
What’s your favorite Roosevelt anecdote?
I really don’t have a favorite, but the book contains scores of anecdotes. It’s richly illustrated, and the captions tell as many stories as the text does. The book is obviously closely related to the series, but it is not a glorified program—it’s a full-scale, standalone book in its own right and contains scores of stories and images for which we had no room in the film.