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James Flexner, 95; Acclaimed Biographer of George Washington

February 18, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

James Thomas Flexner, award-winning biographer of George Washington and an eclectic author whose subjects ranged from steamboats and spies to American art, has died. He was 95.

Flexner, whose four-volume work on the nation's first president was turned into two television miniseries starring Barry Bostwick as Washington, died Thursday in his New York City apartment of natural causes.

The Washington work, with volumes first published in 1965, 1968, 1970 and 1972 and reissued in 1982 on the eve of the founding president's 250th birthday, earned Flexner the National Book Award and a special Pulitzer citation. The volumes were "George Washington: The Forge of Experience," "George Washington in the American Revolution," "George Washington and the New Nation" and "George Washington: Anguish and Farewell."

Subsequently, Flexner wrote a one-volume abridgment, "Washington: The Indispensable Man," published in 1974.

Robert Kirsch, former Times book editor who described the four-volume study as brilliant and meticulous, called the 1974 volume "the most convincing evocation of the man and his deeds written within the compass of one book."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Flexner obituary -- An obituary of James Flexner, a biographer of George Washington, in Tuesday's California section misidentified Alexander Hamilton, the first U.S. Treasury secretary, as Andrew Hamilton.

Kirsch and other critics particularly praised Flexner for adhering to a careful middle course between what Flexner called the "goody-goody" image of Washington as a marble statue and unflattering efforts to pulverize that idol.

When the first volume of the Washington work appeared, historian and critic Pierre Fourrier, in reviewing it for The Times, said: "In this, as in most of his works, Flexner appears to be giving a tactful lesson in writing to other historians. His prose is translucent. It allows the light of the facts to shine through without obscuring the narrative. Yet his research is scrupulous; his theories are invariably supported by common sense. His tone is bright.... In a word, Flexner has style."

Britain's Economist noted that with the Washington series, Flexner had set a high standard of "literary elegance, psychological penetration and historical scholarship."

After the television miniseries were shown in 1984 and 1986, The Times' television writer Howard Rosenberg noted: "Both productions were based on -- but didn't live up to -- James Thomas Flexner's acclaimed biography of Washington."

Although Flexner accomplished his goal most appreciably by humanizing Washington, he steadfastly sought to personalize history and to document historic personalities from his first book, the 1937 "Doctors on Horseback: Pioneers of American Medicine," which included his father, through his last, the 1996 autobiography "Maverick's Progress." All 26 of his books remain in print.

The son of educator Helen Thomas and Dr. Simon Flexner, who found a cure for spinal meningitis, Flexner began thinking of himself as a writer when he was a child, despite struggling with dyslexia. Overcoming the problem -- in a flash of insight as he sat in New York's Central Park trying to read a story by Beatrix Potter -- he went on to graduate magna cum laude from Harvard.

After several years as a reporter for the now-defunct New York Herald-Tribune, Flexner used family connections to spend time in Europe acquainting himself with art, which would inform his histories of 18th century and 19th century American painting and artists.

Flexner hoped to be a novelist, but finally settled into writing about history and the people who made it, only to have his books paid such compliments as: "a work that has all the elements of a superior historical novel," as Kirsch wrote of the 1959 "Lord of the Mohawks: A Biography of Sir William Johnson."

In addition to writing about political figures like Washington, Andrew Hamilton and Benedict Arnold, artists Gilbert Stuart, John Singleton Copley and Winslow Homer, and topics as far afield as that of "Steamboats Come True" in 1944, Flexner daringly delved into subjects as personal as his own family.

After he wrote "An American Saga: The Story of Helen Thomas and Simon Flexner" in 1984, the Washington Post said: "A history of one's own family is always open to criticism: Motives are suspect, judgment can be clouded. But Flexner is never self-serving, and he is remarkably candid about his parents without ever being disloyal.... It takes both a scholar and an artist to skillfully plait together the many strands of American history, scientific discovery, family traits, and social customs which came together in the marriage of Helen Thomas and Simon Flexner. Flexner has succeeded with flair and integrity."

Despite the generally favorable reviews of his books, Flexner believed that he was disparaged for refusing to specialize and for having too little background in some of the topics he tackled. Professional historians, he wrote in his autobiography, considered him guilty of "heresy, presumption and insanity."

Widowed since 1998, Flexner is survived by his daughter, Helen, of Berkshire, England.

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