Rachael Le Goubin | Staff Photographer
Ken Burns and Geoffrey Ward present clips from their upcoming documentary “The Roosevelts” during the last of Burns’ Week Seven lectures in the Amphitheater Friday.
The Amphitheater saw its last day as a makeshift movie theater at 10:45 a.m. on Friday as Ken Burns and Geoffrey Ward continued their screening and discussion of “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.” Their 14-hour documentary series on the lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt will broadcast in two-hour episodes over seven consecutive evenings on PBS starting Sept. 14.
Friday’s 34-minute clip reel included footage from the second half of the series, episodes four through seven, which encompassed the 1920s through the 1960s.
Theodore Roosevelt’s death in 1919 concludes the third episode, but, Burns said, “the ghost of Theodore Roosevelt does not abandon this film for one moment.”
The fourth episode opens with Franklin Roosevelt as the Democratic Party’s candidate for vice president in 1920, when he “was obliterated in the Republican landslide of that great sterling example of presidential greatness, Warren G. Harding,” Burns said, tongue in cheek.
“It was not unreasonable to suspect, though, because of the extraordinary performance that he gave in that campaign, that he would more than likely have been the standard bearer for the Democratic Party in 1924, in which case he probably would have been obliterated in the ‘Calvin Coolidge revolution.’ But something intervened in the summer of 1921,” Burns said, referring to the onset of Franklin Roosevelt’s polio at the age of 39.
Ward commented on this period in the footage, having endured the onset of polio himself at the age of 9, six years before the vaccine was announced in 1955.
“It really is true that it haunted him every day of his life,” Ward said. “And people need to understand what a handicapped person can do. He never conquered polio, yet he did not allow it to conquer him. And to watch him struggle with it in this film is to see an absolutely extraordinary human being.”
The fifth episode opens on March 4, 1933, the date of Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential inauguration.
“I don’t think I need to say anything more,” Burns said.
The sixth episode sees Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt “trying to work for justice in a complicated world in the workplace on the eve of World War II,” Burns said. During this period, the clip showed, black Americans made strides in the workforce as the burgeoning war effort created manufacturing jobs.
This military industry’s rescue of the U.S. from the Great Depression was largely the doing of Franklin Roosevelt’s willingness to “break bread” with the wealthy industrialists who he saw as “economic royalists,” Burns said.
“The stimulus that finally took us, unequivocally, out of the Depression, was the armaments in the face of, and at the beginning of, World War II,” Burns said. “As much as we celebrate — quite correctly — the Greatest Generation, as Tom Brokaw puts it, who landed at Normandy, we need to focus on two other extraordinary things that won the Second World War: Soviet sacrifice and American manufacturing. That’s what made the difference.”
The final moments of the seventh episode, Burns said, serve as “literally, the coda of the film,” a way of resurrecting Theodore Roosevelt and encapsulating the ethic that he passed down to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
In that last scene, the series’ narrator, Peter Coyote, recounts 1939 reminiscences by Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt about their childhood visits to Sagamore Hill, Theodore Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay, New York, from 1885 until his death.
When the children went swimming, Coyote narrates, “Uncle Ted” insisted that they run down the steep dune to Oyster Bay, an endeavor that meant “the sand went down with you, and you were darned lucky if you didn’t end up halfway down, going head over heels. And climbing back up, Eleanor recalled, you slipped down for every two you took. But you kept at it. And eventually, the fear was worn away.”
Q: I don’t know how to make this a smaller question, and I think it’s an important one so I’ll ask the whole thing. It is interesting the American public chose to elect as their president a crippled man to lead the country through one of this nation’s most crippling periods. May I ask our guests to comment on what this said about the American consciousness then and compare that to their understanding of America’s self-awareness now?
Geoffrey Ward: It is a good question. I don’t think people thought of him as crippled. I think part of his magic was that they thought he was lame. That of course he’d had this terrible thing, his character had been improved by it, and certainly when you see him close up on the newsreel screen, what you get is strength and optimism and sort of a radiant American “we can do anything.” So I don’t think it’s quite fair. I think what Ken said before about his not being able to be elected today is really true, because CNN and Fox News and MSNBC and everybody else would compete to see who could get the most emotional footage of him being carried in here. In those days, the press did not feel it needed to do that. The White House discouraged that and it didn’t happen. Now we know too much.
Ken Burns: It’s an interesting paradox. We once again with the arrogance we in the present unintentionally impose on the past that idea that somehow, because we’ve survived so far that we know more than them, that we live life fuller than them, which is bunk. We somehow think that that more information is better, when in fact Franklin Roosevelt held more news conferences than any other president. Those intelligent newspaper men, unfortunately, not women, saw him nearly every day and understood a lot of what went unspoken but also understood more of the mechanics of leadership than we do now in an era of “gotcha” journalism. So we think more is more. More actually turns out now to be less. The discretion of the other time is not some manifestation of simpler times, it’s a political necessity to shield Franklin Roosevelt’s public from the realities of it. But it turns out to have been a benefit to the republic and all of us here, if you ever plan to fly out of LaGuardia Airport, go through the Lincoln Tunnel, cash a Social Security check, hike in a national park, go on the Skyline Drive or the Blue Ridge Parkway, ride the elevated trains in Chicago, enjoy electric power in the Tennessee Valley or in the Northwest of the United States, read in hundreds of libraries and attend lots of educational institutions, then you’re the beneficiary of Franklin Roosevelt.
GW: It’s also nice to be speaking English and not German.
Q: Let me just dig at that for one second, because I think it’s really interesting to think about the antipathy of the wealthy class, and it is they who own the newspapers. So how did that restraint, how does that get translated when there is such violent kind of reaction to his leadership?
GW: Because he was a master of relations with the reporters that covered him. He did 998 press conferences, once a week, twice a week sometimes. He knew them all by their first names, and they reported what he wanted them to report. And the publishers in those days didn’t interfere very much with the news part of the news. And that’s somewhat different today. He liked to say that he was a newspaper man because he ran the Harvard Crimson for awhile. That was the kind of sort of crazy identification with everybody that both the presidents Roosevelt liked to do. Some of it a little shaky, like that one.
Q: Does your documentary deal with FDR’s potentially anti-Semitic attitude, culminating in his refusal to allow the boat St. Louis to dock in the United States and resulting in the loss of some 700 Jews sent back to Germany?
GW: That is an enormous topic. It is not FDR who turned them away, it is Congress and the laws that we had, which he didn’t think he could change. And if you look at polls at the time, it would have been very difficult to change. This is a huge and very complicated topic. I don’t think he was remotely anti-Semitic. I think he had class feelings the way all of those people at that time did. I don’t think he was anti-Semitic at all. His belief was that Hitler was a madman, that he was the jailer of Europe, and that the way to beat him was to destroy him, which we did.
KB: And let me refer to those polls. 85 percent of Protestants, 75 percent of Catholics and 25 percent of Jews said no more people. None coming to our shores. And he is desperately trying to figure out how to politically, with an isolationist country and an isolationist Congress, move by fits and starts his country into war and the full prosecution of that war, and he did it masterfully, and he is saddled with something that quite correctly should be blamed on the Congress of the United States. And in our film, you will see a withering criticism from Eleanor Roosevelt about all of this with regard to the sort of intentions of the United States, having looked back across — something we feel today — across an immigrant history in which the energy those immigrants had, the blending with those immigrants, have made us a stronger alloy.
Q: There are a couple of questions about Eleanor Roosevelt and relationships. One is, is it true that Eleanor had a love affair with a woman, and how do you deal with that in the documentary? And the other has to do with a relationship with Sara and pointing out that the directors of “Sunrise at Campobello” made Sara the heavy to provide dramatic tension. Could you comment on those?
GW: Sure, let me start with the latter part. “Sunrise at Campobello” is a wonderfully moving play and film. Mrs. Roosevelt went to see it at its premiere on Broadway, in part because her kids had invested in the play. And she was very nice to everyone in the cast and she congratulated Ralph Bellamy on what a wonderful job he’d done as her husband. And on the way home, she said to the people in the cab with her, “That was a wonderful play. It had no more to do with me or my life than the man in the moon.” And she said, “It was especially unfair to my mother-in-law. We had our difficulties, but she was never petty.” I could spend all day defending Sara Delano Roosevelt, I will not do that. But she’s a very complicated, it’s a very complicated relationship. She was a very tough mother-in-law and one of the great mothers in history, I think. On the other, it is perfectly true that Mrs. Roosevelt had a very close relationship with Lorena Hickok, and that Lorena Hickok was in love with her. We can’t really know beyond that except that I do know, because I’ve spent a lot of time in the archives, that Mrs. Roosevelt had friendships with men and women that produced very fulsome, very loving correspondence. Partly because of what I think you heard yesterday, which is that she made these terribly strong friendships based on things she could do for these people. There are a lot of them. And they lasted as long as she thought she was being useful to them. And then they would sort of die away. And you can make cases that all of them were romances, which is ridiculous. I don’t think any of them were romances in the sense, physical romances. But that’s my opinion, there are lots of other people. We present it very neutrally.
KB: And the facts. I mean, she spent the last years of her life living in the house of a man who she said she had loved as she had loved no other person, a doctor named David Gurewitsch, and then watched him court and marry a young woman named Edna Perkel and Edna Gurewitsch is in our film, and the three of them figured out how to cohabitate and it was completely platonic and it was like that with Joseph Lash before David Gurewitsch and was like that with Earl Miller, first a bodyguard that had been assigned to her, as well as the female friends that she had who in some cases were also females committed to other females. So I think Geoff is absolutely right, that we’re talking about someone who had extremely powerful emotional relationships with people across the board and that there is absolutely no evidence in this essentially I think very closed down physically and emotionally person with regard to sexuality, any evidence to the contrary.
Q: So does all the work you’ve done on this, does it inform your judgment as to why the Roosevelt dynasty ended with the death of Eleanor?
GW: I think children of presidents, as FDR himself said, what did he say, ‘It’s a hell of a life.’ Or something like that. The sons of presidents very rarely, and daughters of presidents, very rarely amount to anything near what their parents did. I think its a terribly difficult…
KB: They’re thinking George W. Bush. He rests his case.
GW: Yeah, exactly.
Q: Let’s move on to violin music. This questioner asks what is the violin music in the background of the clip we saw of Episode Seven.
KB: It is a wonderful, wonderful piece of music that, I want to get it right. We discovered it very very late in the editing process and it sort of struck us a lot like the “Ashokan Farewell,” only different. It is called “The Black Isle” and it is by two folk music composers who live very close to us in New Hampshire across the river in Vermont, Becky Tracy and Keith Murphy. I wanted to get it right. “The Black Isle” is just an amazing tune, and we heard it, it was very late in the process of editing and it became that piece of music that sort of takes us home in this.
Q: It is said that FDR was aware of the idea that, if his presidency failed, his could be the last presidency. What do you think of that thought?
KB: It’s in our film, and we think pretty strongly about that. I think that that’s true. There was all of, George Will actually articulates this quite well, that the word in 1933 “dictated” or “dictatorship” or “dictatorial” did not have the unambiguous pejorative connotations that it had today. That many people clearly in Italy and France — I mean in Spain and Germany and Japan, had already made the decision that a more central oppressive central government was the way to go. And Franklin Roosevelt had to dance between the necessities of an essentially isolated country protected by those two oceans and two relatively benign neighbors to the north and south and make a dance, a pas de deux to war, and we would make the difference. On Sept. 2, 1945, more than 50 percent of all the manufacturing in the world took place in the United States and that’s a testament to his you could say dictatorial powers, but he did so utterly democratically.
Q: A large question about how do you go about assembling a team capable of creating such a piece of work?
KB: I just call Geoff.
Q: That’s sure a good start. How many people are involved, and are there other editors involved?
KB: This film credit if it had gone on would quite correctly thank 200 or 300 people. But these are handmade films by about a dozen people, and it begins with Geoff and me, the co-producers Paul Barnes and Pam Tubridy-Baucom, a couple of associate producers, and then the editors and their assistants. And that little tiny family spends most of the time together working on this for the five or six or seven years that it takes to do it. And it’s that family, there were three editors; Paul Barnes was also an editor, Tricia Reidy and Erik Ewers each had an assistant central to the film and that kind of nuclear family moved along through most of the stages of this. It’s not to diminish the cinematographer Buddy Squires with the magnificent time lapse of the day and the life from Franklin Roosevelt’s bed at Campobello, or the rich sunsets there. It’s not to take away from the folks, Susanna Steisel primarily, who did yeoman’s service, finding a database of over 25,000 still photographs out of the 2,200, 2,300 that we ended up using in the film that would be the grist for the mill or those devoted to the archival research of the footage. But mostly that’s done by us and the film is moved along most significantly in writing, in talking about that writing, in changing the writing, in adding the talking heads, in beginning to add the images, and each pass of the film, you fall down one step as you gain two, and gradually the fear is worn away.
Q: So we know that you’re working on Vietnam of course. What are the other ideas, films, that you have in the works?
KB: There are films already in the works. Before Vietnam you’ll see two of ours, one in which Geoff and I are serving as co-writers and I’m serving as executive producer and senior creative consultant called “The Emperor of All Maladies” about the history of cancer that will be out next spring, that has a producer and director outside Florentine Films, our organization. We are, Sarah, my daughter, and David McMahon, her husband and I are making a film about Jackie Robinson and we are shooting right now with Dayton Duncan, the man who worked with me on the national parks film, on a history of country music. And then Geoff and Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein who are involved in Vietnam, once Vietnam is over, that comes before country music and after Jackie Robinson, we’ve already begun filming a biography of Ernest Hemingway. But i’m serving as executive producer on a film about two of the three righteous gentiles at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, a Unitarian universalist minister named Waitstill Sharp and his wife Martha who helped get refugees out of Czechoslovakia and France on the eve of and in the first year of the second world war. And we’ve got several other projects in the works. God and funding willing is the way we like to say that. But we’re busy. And in fact, beyond those three or four other films that are knocking in, and we’re very confident we’re going to do them, we’ve sat down with PBS to begin to map out what the 2020s would look like.
Q: Just to remind you, it’s spelled C-h-a-u… We at Chautauqua dedicated ourselves to the exploration of the best in human values, and ladies and gentleman, you’ve just had two of the greatest guides we could find for such an exploration. Ken Burns and Geoff Ward.
—Transcribed by Quinn Kelley