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

September 24, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

*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 Goodwin was accused of a lucky break: access to 150 cartons of previously unpublished papers from the Kennedys.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.

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