The Wars of the Roosevelts by William J. Mann

William J. Mann has recently wrote a masterpiece on one of America’s most powerful political families in the first half of the Twentieth Century – the Roosevelts. The Wars of the Roosevelts: The Ruthless Rise of America’s Greatest Political Family  is a deep look at Presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, their spouses, siblings, and children.

Here is a good summary from the publisher:

The award-winning author presents a provocative, thoroughly modern revisionist biographical history of one of America’s greatest and most influential families—the Roosevelts—exposing heretofore unknown family secrets and detailing complex family rivalries with his signature cinematic flair.

Drawing on previously hidden historical documents and interviews with the long-silent “illegitimate” branch of the family, William J. Mann paints an elegant, meticulously researched, and groundbreaking group portrait of this legendary family. Mann argues that the Roosevelts’ rise to power and prestige was actually driven by a series of intense personal contest that at times devolved into blood sport. His compelling and eye-opening masterwork is the story of a family at war with itself, of social Darwinism at its most ruthless—in which the strong devoured the weak and repudiated the inconvenient.

Mann focuses on Eleanor Roosevelt, who, he argues, experienced this brutality firsthand, witnessing her Uncle Theodore cruelly destroy her father, Elliott—his brother and bitter rival—for political expediency. Mann presents a fascinating alternate picture of Eleanor, contending that this “worshipful niece” in fact bore a grudge against TR for the rest of her life, and dares to tell the truth about her intimate relationships without obfuscations, explanations, or labels.

Mann also brings into focus Eleanor’s cousins, TR’s children, whose stories propelled the family rivalry but have never before been fully chronicled, as well as her illegitimate half-brother, Elliott Roosevelt Mann, who inherited his family’s ambition and skill without their name and privilege. Growing up in poverty just miles from his wealthy relatives, Elliott Mann embodied the American Dream, rising to middle-class prosperity and enjoying one of the very few happy, long-term marriages in the Roosevelt saga. For the first time, The Wars of the Roosevelts also includes the stories of Elliott’s daughter and grandchildren, and never-before-seen photographs from their archives.

Mann does a superb and thorough job of covering Theodore, his children, Franklin, and Eleanor. He also provides much detail into Theodore’s brother Elliot. However, he does not delve as much into Theodore’s second wife Edith or Franklin and Eleanor’s children. I am curious to know why – was there not as much information or did Mann have to draw a line somewhere because the book would be two volumes?

In any case, Mann shows the cut-throat nature of the family as each person (Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor) rose in political power. I was stunned to learn how cruel Theodore and his siblings were when dealing with their brother. Elliot clearly needed help, but neither Theodore nor his siblings were willing to help. They were more concerned about protecting the family name. Mann provides numerous examples of how the family poorly treated the other “black sheep” of the family, as Elliot was considered.

Just as shocking was how Franklin and Eleanor ignored their children and focused their energies on Franklin’s political career. Neither spent an inordinate amount of time with their children. Mann lays it all out for the reader to absorb and analyze.

Mann shines a well-deserving light on Elliot’s illegitimate son Elliot. Although the son was abandoned by Theodore and the rest of the family, Elliot prospered out of poverty.  His life is a true inspiration and a great example of American prosperity from hard work.

It seems that Mann is a little lighter in his criticism of Franklin and Eleanor than of Theodore. It is not blatant, but more nuanced. For example, he does not seem to focus on Franklin and Eleanor’s shortcomings as much as he does on Theodore’s.

Although it is a thick volume at 530 pages, Mann’s writing is excellent and the book is a quick read. Great work on the Roosevelts.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.