I was bemoaning the recent fallowness of the blog to a friend earlier this week. With the semester in full swing I haven’t had the time over the past ten days or so. Last night however a friend and I ventured up to the CUNY Graduate Center to watch Geoffrey C. Ward give the annual keynote for the Leon Levy Center for Biography. The Levy Center was founded by David Nasaw in 2007. While attending the Graduate Center in 2005 I took a class on the Gilded Age with Professor Nasaw in which I learned a great deal. At the time he was just about to release his biography of Andrew Carnegie. I can’t say I really know Professor Nasaw and I doubt he would remember me–I haven’t spoken with him in thirteen years for one thing–but as I understand it he founded the Levy Center because he believed that academics were not receiving professional credit for writing biographies. If that is indeed the case, and I suspect it is, I imagine it’s because tenure and promotion boards see biography as esoteric, which is misguided and unfortunate.
Ward is the author or co-author of sixteen books but focused his keynote on his two-volume biography of FDR and his exposé of his great-grandfather Ferdinand Ward. This was of course the swindler who cheated Ulysses S. Grant and so many others in the ponzi scheme that took down Grant & Ward in 1884. Geoffrey Ward told the audience that while working on the book he concluded that his ancestor literally had no conscience and was probably a sociopath. Franklin Roosevelt however proved more inscrutable. Ward explained that when he began researching Roosevelt he wanted to know if the polio that touched Ward’s own life had taken away any of FDR’s optimism or indomitable spirit. Ward never found the answer during his research and writing but the answer may have appeared, he explained, in the diaries and letters of Margaret Suckley that turned up after her death in 1991 at the age of 99. In those pages Roosevelt confessed to his friend and confidante the depression and frustration to which he occasionally succumbed due to his physical impairment.
Ward gave a thoughtful presentation and had the audience’s attention. On the way out of the auditorium we ran into a mutual friend and the three of us talked on the Fifth Avenue sidewalk about the talk. I mentioned FDR’s public persona and compared it to the presentation of self of none other than Duke Ellington My friend look quizzical and so I repeated it. Strange as the comparison may seem, Roosevelt and Ellington in their individual ways presented impenetrable public versions of themselves. Of course everyone does this, especially public figures, but few are able to hold the visage together as tightly and for as long as Roosevelt and Ellington. Many people in their inner circles thought they understood the two men, when in reality the president and jazzman rarely gave all of themselves to any one individual. They both were, and to an extent still are, enigmas wrapped in puzzles. Geoffrey Ward collaborated with Ken Burns on the Jazz documentary twenty years ago and spoke of Ellington’s public countenance. This is entirely speculation on my part but I strongly suspect that when Ward was discussing Ellington he was comparing him to Franklin Roosevelt.