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DAVID GRUBIN AND CURTIS ROOSEVELT : The Newest Deal on FDR

October 09, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States who led the country through the Depression and World War II, lived such a complex life that historians are still analyzing it.

PBS' documentary series "American Experience" kicks off its new season with "FDR," a 4 1/2-hour profile of the chief executive who changed the concept of the presidency.

The documentary, produced by Emmy Award-winner David Grubin ("LBJ"), offers new insights into Roosevelt's character, including the fact that, although he was born to wealth, his overprotective mother, Sara, controlled the family money. The film also details the emotional and physical hardship Roosevelt endured in hiding his disability after being stricken with polio at age 39.

'FDR" explores the major role his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, had on her husband's life and how their marriage was altered after Eleanor learned about FDR's affair with her secretary, Lucy Mercer.

Besides using footage and stills, "FDR" features interviews with family members, friends and first-hand witnesses, including Curtis Roosevelt, FDR's grandson who lived at the White House with his sister and mother Anna; niece Eleanor Roosevelt; granddaughter Eleanor Seagraves; FDR biographers Geoffrey Ward and Doris Kearns Goodwin, and White House butler Alonzo Fields.

Times Staff Writer Susan King recently sat down with Grubin and Curtis Roosevelt, now 64, to discuss the legacy of FDR and the documentary 'FDR."

Mr. Roosevelt, what did you think of the documentary?

Curtis Roosevelt: I've been extremely critical of literally everything that has been on screen. I was more than a little questioning what this effort would be. If I can be objective in this situation, I think it's quite extraordinary, the balance this documentary has achieved, not missing anything. I guess there's another aspect to it--it's got the right tone, a realistic tone. I guess what made me feel best is, this is the man that I knew.

David Grubin: What you're trying to do is bring the man alive. You're always afraid, especially with so many achievements as President, that the man will get lost in the presidency. Our aim was to try to understand the kind of man this was and what qualities he brought to the presidency, what made him one of our great Presidents, what qualities of leadership.

He really seemed to love being the President.

CR: FDR loved politics. He loved the game of it.

When we moved into the White House, I didn't have a feeling I was moving into some place into which we didn't belong. That I could feel at home in the White House immediately, it's a direct reflection of FDR's feelings that he had moved into the place to which he felt he was rightfully entitled.

Do you think Roosevelt is this century's greatest President?

DG:: I think he will be the great President of our century, certainly he was President longer than any man will ever be, and he met the two great challenges of the century.

CR: If you look at just the cold statistics, our country never got out of the Depression until the war. Yet, the difference in the attitude toward life, the sense of hope, even if you were still without a job--that is what FDR gave (the country). Sometimes when people talk to me, particularly academicians, in facing the stark facts of what the New Deal did and didn't do, in many instances it didn't achieve its objective. But it gave people a sense of life and hope which they didn't have before.

It's amazing to see the great lengths Roosevelt went through to create the illusion he could use his legs.

CR: There are a number of elements of the 'crippledness' of my grandfather, I learned from the film. As a child we never questioned it. He was always in a wheelchair, and that very awkward moment from wheelchair into chair, to chair into wheelchair ... it had to be done right or he'd have been on the floor. We were not shooed out, but guests would come in after FDR was seated at the table and guests would leave before he was shifted into his wheelchair.

Where did you find that remarkable footage of Roosevelt "walking"?

DG: No professional photographer would take a picture of Roosevelt walking or attempting to move in that way. That was taken by an amateur in 1933. FDR was at Vassar at some kind of event. This is the only piece of film that exists where you can really see what it took for him to move around without crutches, because he felt crutches would inspire pity. So he developed this illusion of walking, which you can see how effective it was when you look at the footage at his inauguration. He appeared to be walking because he's completely covered and from that angle, no one knows he's pressing on his son's arm and thrusting his body forward and not using his legs at all.

Could you talk about Roosevelt's relationship with his mother, Sara? I think audiences will be surprised to learn that she really controlled the purse strings.

CR: When FDR's father died, in his will, my grandfather was left a small endowment. The rest of the estate went to my great-grandmother who held that estate until she died in 1941, three years before her son died. She was very generous with FDR whenever he needed (money), but on the other hand, he did have to ask.

But that relationship was very special. It was really a loving relationship in spite of the fact she irritated the hell out of him because she was quite opinionated.

"American Experience: FDR" airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. on KVCR and 9 p.m. on KCET and KPBS and concludes Wednesday at 8 p.m. on KVCR and KPBS and 9 p.m. on KCET.

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