Ken Burns was in a car driving in rural Minnesota when I reached him on his cell phone. The reception wasn’t that great, and he warned me that his battery was dying. I quickly got to the point. I’m calling about your Roosevelt project, I said. “It’s a diamond in the can,” he replied. Or that’s what I heard. Turns out he said, “It’s done and in the can.” As for the diamond, he said, “That’s up to you to judge.”
Based on Burns’s track record when it comes to long-form documentary filmmaking, his seven-part, 14-hour documentary on the Roosevelts—Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor—will be another gem, “a factual Downton Abbey,” he says. Airing this fall on PBS, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History explores the public achievements of this remarkable family, the creation of National Parks and the digging of the Panama Canal, the New Deal and the defeat of Hitler, and the postwar struggles for civil rights in America and human rights around the world.
What distinguishes Burns’s ambitious project is the way he intertwines the personal lives of the three central figures: how they influence each other, their triumphs and transgressions, and what their struggles tell us about the nature of leadership and the development of character. In each, says Burns, there is a very human “war between obvious strengths and obvious weaknesses,” along with a riveting backstory about rivalry, love, and loyalty. Franklin forever trying to match the fantastic exploits of his fifth cousin, the swashbuckling Theodore, marries his niece, Eleanor, and in spite of, or because of, their complicated relationship, she becomes one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, says Burns, summing up the narrative with elevator-pitch brevity.
The Roosevelts spans the century from Theodore’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962, and through the course of two presidencies, asks age-old questions about the role of government and the nature of heroism, says Burns. But when Burns appears on stage at the Women in the World Summit, the excerpts he will preview will be about Eleanor and how she became such a force of nature at a time when few women achieved such stature outside the home. Called “granny” by her mother, she was incredibly insecure about her looks and her abilities, and according to Burns, only found relief from her mother’s disparagement when she attended boarding school outside London.
“She has her uncle’s restlessness, she has to keep moving,” he says. “This combined with the betrayal send her into a world of work and activity.”
Award-winning actress Meryl Streep portrays Eleanor in the readings and writings that tell her story. Burns calls Streep “a magician” in the way she transforms herself into the former First Lady simply through her voice. Joining Streep are Paul Giamatti as the voice of Theodore Roosevelt and Edward Herrmann, two-time Emmy Award nominee for his performances as Franklin Roosevelt, as the voice of FDR.
Her husband’s betrayal of their marital vows with Eleanor's social secretary Lucy Mercer, discovered by Eleanor in 1918, made their marriage more of a political partnership. In that context, when I asked Burns if his documentary delivers on its promise of “An Intimate History,” he responded this way: “I don’t believe that Eleanor is a lesbian, if that’s what you’re asking, but she had deep, deep relationships with couples, with individual women, with Earl Miller (her bodyguard) and later David Gurewitsch (her physician). She moved in with him and his wife, and it was completely chaste. She was drawn to people who loved her and who she could love in return.”
Without my asking, Burns raised Eleanor’s position on Prohibition—she favored it, and says he “gives her a pass” on the issue because her father died a hopeless alcoholic. “He went crazy and jumped out of the window of their town house.” Her younger brother also died of alcoholism, Burns says, all of which explains her support for Prohibition, a misguided public policy enshrined in a constitutional amendment in 1919 and repealed in 1933. “It was an understandable lapse in judgment for a woman who was right on every issue,” says Burns.
Burns’ principle collaborator for the last 35 years is writer Geoffrey Ward, an authority on FDR who attributes his interest in the 32nd president in part to the fact that he too is a polio survivor. When Daisy Stuckley died in 1991 and left behind a trunk load of letters she exchanged with Franklin, Ward edited the resulting book, Closest Companion, which provides insights to FDR’s inner life, “something she [Eleanor] had very little interest in and access to,” says Burns. FDR addresses his infirmities in the letters, revealing how tired he is, letting down his guard in a way that is rare for someone who kept up the front he did, never permitting photographs of himself in his wheelchair.
“Because of his paralysis, he couldn’t like Eleanor and Teddy out run his demons,” says Burns. “He had to be surrounded by adoring people.”
When Burns pioneered his first long-form documentary, a ten-hour series on the Civil War in 1990, he was told that nobody would watch a project of that length in the age of MTV. Some 40 million people tuned in, and the nation was hooked. “Now we’re in a new mode,” where people can watch over time or in a “big gulp,” says Burns, noting happily, “I’ve come back in fashion.”
Trends come and go, but Burns’s signature brand of filmmaking endures. He’s currently working on seven films at once. Ticking them off, he says the Roosevelts and the history of the Gettysburg address are done. Then there’s the history of Vietnam, country music, and Ernest Hemingway, along with the history of cancer based on the book, The Emperor of All Maladies.
Asked what brought him to rural Minnesota in March, he said he was meeting with someone in the hope of getting some photographs never before seen, and he had promised to be discreet. All he would say is that they relate to Vietnam, country music, or Hemingway, a range available to few documentarians, and a testament to Burns’s success at bringing to life the great figures and events of the past.
Watch the Women in the World Summit live on The Daily Beast starting Thursday, April 3 at 6:30PM EST. The Women in the World Summit interview with Burns is made possible by Bank of America.