The Roosevelts: An Intimate History on PBS

Category: Television


Ken Burns’ latest effort is a seven-part film exploring the lives and accomplishments of the Roosevelt family, notably Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor. The Roosevelts: An Intimate History includes the beginning of the family, their lives, and the childhoods and adulthoods of the three most famous members of that influential family.


Since the lives of the family members intersected, this is not a film that is separated into three parts: Teddy, FDR, and Eleanor. It is a complete history of their entire lives and a history of the country.


Teddy Roosevelt was a very popular president, however before he ascended to the White House, his life was full of other experiences, including his first marriage, the birth of his first daughter, and on one fateful day, the deaths of both his beloved mother and his wife. Too mired in grief, Theodore sent his daughter to be raised by his sister, until years later when he married his childhood sweetheart and they started their own family. It was then when Teddy retrieved his first child.


The Roosevelts 1Many people think of Theodor Roosevelt as a big, strapping man, but as a child he was a very sickly kid, suffering from severe asthma. He loved animals, and he loved killing them. And, the little TR was a taxidermist who decorated his room with all kinds of dead animals, especially birds. That’s a different image of the man than the one most of us have in our minds.


After the deaths of his mother and wife, Theodore Roosevelt did not remain in the New York State Assembly. He went out west to the Badlands and became a rancher. He also wrote several books.


In the meantime, Franklin Roosevelt was growing up, as a young boy doted on by his mother Sarah. Sarah married James Roosevelt even though the age difference between them was great. When he became ill, Sarah and Franklin cared for the aging man.


Then there is Eleanor. She was Teddy’s niece and a distant cousin to Franklin. She was born a Roosevelt. Her contributions to this country are, in many ways, as important as those of the male members of her family.


The Roosevelts ddThis Ken Burns film includes interviews with historians, including Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough, who described the two presidents as “exceptional.” There are photographs of the Roosevelt family, films, interviews, and amazing tidbits, including a photo of young Theodore with his brother Elliot looking out a window at the funeral of President Abraham Lincoln.


Recently, filmmaker Ken Burns along with writer Geoffrey C. Ward spoke with journalists about this film and the Roosevelt family. Burns began, “Let me just briefly say that, for 30 years, Geoff Ward and I have found the Roosevelts, all of them, irresistible, deeply flawed, inspirational, complicated human beings central to an understanding of the national narrative that we call an American history.”


Ken Burns’ admiration for the Roosevelt family was clear. “Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., was something really very new in the world, which was a philanthropist, a genuine philanthropist devoting not only money but time to doing that and had thought that he would seek public office, did not succeed,” Burns explained. “The bosses had sort of kept him from winning election. It sort of in a way killed him. He died shortly thereafter, but I think that sense of obligation, genuine obligation of putting your actions and not just your money where your mouth is was inherited by his son Theodore, and certainly that was the case with Franklin whose own father James also instilled that sense of obligation.”


Burns emphasized the point that these people were truly dedicated. “And this is really the difference here, that these are well‑to‑do people who could have spent their lives in luxury and comfort, as many of their own relatives did, but instead spent themselves in public service. It wasn’t checkbook politics. It was actual, dedicated public service. And to just give you an idea of how much they spent themselves, if you can imagine the oldest photograph of TR that you can think of, he looks like he’s 85 years old. He died at age 60.”


S17201 Editorial use onlyWard described the film as “braiding” their lives together, a term which Burns agreed is the perfect word for this very complex undertaking. Their personal lives, their professional lives, their illnesses, the history of the country, the fashions, and the estates at Oyster Bay and Hyde Park all combine in this very intricate and interesting history of one of America’s most famous families.


I asked the filmmakers whether Eleanor would have been an historical figure in her own right had she not married Franklin. “I don’t think we’d be talking about her,” Geoff Ward answered. “It’ll get me in trouble with some people, but that’s my view. I think it was very important that she was a Roosevelt to begin with. And then, being the wife of FDR gave her a platform and made people welcome her. She was a very shy person but she was sort of invited in because she was Franklin Roosevelt’s wife. And then, you couldn’t stop her. By then she was absolutely and independent and astounding person.”


Ken Burns added, “I think that she would have continued in a very small and probably unnoticed way … the passionate commitment to help others less fortunate than themselves.” He explained that she would take Franklin to the settlement houses while they were dating to show him how other people lived.


The Roosevelt family is a very interesting group and Ken Burns has done an excellent job in telling their story.


Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts: An Intimate History premiers Sunday, September 14, 2014 on PBS and continues nightly for the rest of the week, with the final episode on Saturday, September 20.


About the Author Francine Brokaw has been covering all aspects of the entertainment business for 20 years. She also writes about technology and has been a travel writer for the past 12 years. She has been published in national and international newspapers and magazines as well as internet websites. She has written her own book, Beyond the Red Carpet The World of Entertainment Journalists, from Sourced Media Books. Follow her on Twitter Like her on Facebook