Writer Ellen Feldman discusses historical fiction.
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GUEST: Ellen Feldman
Title: “Fact + Fiction = Faction”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this program relates to a rather heated exchange that I’ve been having for some time now with my now 13 year old grandson, Alexander, concerning what I’ve considered the liberties taken by a number of major television programs and Hollywood films that have dealt with important historical events and personalities of the past.
Indeed, a couple of years ago, rather dismayed by what must seem to him like his academic Grandfather’s pickiness, Alexander finally blurted out, “But GaGa, you must understand that this is what we call “historical fiction.”
Well, I did understand. A generation ago … then as well as now using the title “Fact plus Fiction equals Faction”, I had at some length discussed the matter with distinguished journalist Mike O’Neill and then again with David Wolper, Hollywood’s best known documentarian and docu-dramatist. And now reading The New York Times Sunday Book Review a couple of weeks ago, I just knew that I had again found my perfect guest.
For there in The Times was this major, quite extraordinarily enticing reviewing of Lucy, writer Ellen Feldman’s absolutely wonderful new W.W. Norton novel based on the relationships between Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer Rutherford, who we come to know as FDR’s great love. There with the President even at his death in Warm Springs, GA in April 1945.
Now Ms. Feldman’s historical novel is a truly wonderful read and absolute delight which is not irrelevant to our evaluation today of that puzzling and often elusive combination of fact and fiction, referred to by some as “faction”. Indeed, I would like my guest today first to expand upon what I consider a particularly crucial comment in The New York Times Review, “In her acknowledgements, Feldman wisely makes the point that in historical fiction the emphasis must be on the noun rather than the adjective. On fiction rather than historical. Yet she quotes historians and journalists and various people who knew the Roosevelts and their circle in epigraphs to each chapter, abruptly shifting the readers perspective back and forth and suggesting that the adjective ‘historical’ is indeed being treated very seriously.”
Now that’s not a criticism. But it is a subject that I think we have to discuss. In that mix, historical and fiction. How do you know, as a reader where to put the emphasis? Or where the writer … where Ellen Feldman … has put the emphasis.
Feldman: I put the emphasis on the history. I stayed very close to the facts. I researched the book thoroughly. I stayed close to the facts. I agree with you about liberties taken, especially in television and movies … that they go too far and I don’t approve of that. I wrote this as fiction because it’s a love story. And you have to go beyond the historical evidence for a love story. A love story goes on in the hearts and emotions of people, not in the Cabinet Room or the Map Room or anything like that. The early draft of this, in fact, were stultifyingly dull history …
Heffner: I don’t believe that for a moment.
Feldman: Yes, they really were because I was sticking so close to the facts, I was writing very accurate history and losing sight of a grand … FDR’s favorite word … one of his favorite words … love story. And it was only by getting a bit away from that and trying to plumb the minds and emotions of these characters … as characters, as individuals … not as historical icons, icons that we’ve come to worship that I became to feel that this came to live somewhat. When I do take liberties, and I agree unless you read it with me sitting on your shoulder telling you “that’s a liberty”, you don’t know. I’m very careful.
And I’ll give one example. At the … it’s a very small piece of information that’s new in this book. At the end Lucy Mercer Rutherford, then a widow, goes to visit FDR’s grave at Hyde Park. Eleanor Roosevelt was on the premises at the time. A noted Roosevelt historian told me that the guard called Eleanor and said, “May Mrs. Rutherford visit the grave? And she said, ‘Yes’.” Now I tried to track the … he could not remember where he had read this … I tried to track it down, I went to Wilderstein, where the diaries were of the cousin, Daisy Suckley(CHECK SPELLING). All that I could not … I found the evidence that she went, I found the evidence that Eleanor was on the premises, but I could not find that Eleanor said “please admit her.” I wrote it that way, nonetheless, because everything else I knew about Eleanor said that she would have let, have let Lucy Rutherford visit the grave. And that’s the kind of liberty I took here.
Heffner: Now that’s interesting. I had the pleasure and the honor, in reverse … both of coming to know Mrs. Roosevelt years and years ago and it fit perfectly …
Heffner: … I just made the assumption that that’s the way it went. You don’t take the kind of liberties because you’re reading … let’s say you did take a liberty there … but you’re a very careful writer … you’re a very careful researcher, you’re a very careful person generally … and I can believe you, I can trust you … can’t say this about much historical fiction and now let’s move away from movies and television.
How does the reader know what is fact and what is fiction.
Feldman: I might answer that, Dick, with saying how does the reader know in history and biography how accurate things are? There’s a wonderful biography of one of the characters covered here, I won’t mention which one it is. And there’s a story that involves Lucy and I found it very out of character with the Lucy I was coming to know. So I called the biographer and I asked where she had gotten this information, and she said … she mentioned a letter … I and said, “well, I’ve seen that letter, but I don’t trust the letter writer. And have you found any other substantiation?” And she said, “No, I just went on the letter.” So I might argue that how can you, you know … how far can we trust a lot of historians? And a lot of biographers?
Heffner: I think that’s a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful response. You … talking about plumbing depths … you are getting to something that I think very few people deal with. And that is the question, “what is history?” After all, Charles Beard said it is essentially an act of faith.
Heffner: And this is your act of faith.
Feldman: Yes. I was … the nicest thing that has happened recently … just yesterday … I got a letter from Lucy Mercer’s niece … and I was terrified about how she would react to this book, because I’m writing about a stranger … whom she knew and loved. And she said she had read it twice and I came…captured the essence of her Aunt. And it was a wonderful as any review to me.
Heffner: You must be in some kind of shock having put down the writing a year ago …
Heffner: Having absented yourself; having withdrawn from Hyde Park and from other venues where you lived and worked with FDR and Lucy and Eleanor. Does it feel that way to you?
Feldman: Oh, it’s this great sense of loss. One of the wonderful things about working on this book … I mean there were so many wonderful things, is that all three of the characters were so admirable, which is one of the reasons I started to write the book. And they were role models to me in a funny way. When something would happen in my life, I’d say, “Oh, what would Eleanor do now?” Or, “How would Lucy handle this?” Or especially, “How would FDR …”. I miss that. Most people that people write about … that fiction writers about … are not quite so admirable. And this was a wonderful experience. And they’re still with me, but not as intensely, obviously.
Heffner: Do you think any the less of any of the characters for what you know about them now?
Feldman: No. The funny thing is that I know … I know the unpleasant things about them, but I respect them more. Because I… unless you can see the many facets of a person, you can’t write fiction or history or biography, I think. And as Lucy says in the book, “you can’t love someone unless you can accept the, the flaws as well as the admirable aspect.”
Heffner: What do you mean “Lucy says in the book.” No one says in the book …
Feldman: I’m sorry [Laughter] … well, yes, this is a problem. But I think that’s what Lucy saw. I think that Eleanor Roosevelt could never forgive Franklin for not being as perfect as she wanted him to be, as she thought he could be. And I think Lucy’s attraction … one of Lucy’s attractions for Franklin Roosevelt was that she accepted him in all his, his fullness, his … as I said, flaws, his selfishness and his greatness. And I think this is why she loved him.
Yes, I know I put the words in her mouth, but I believe she said them.
Heffner: I wonder what’s going to happen five years from now when you and I talk about this, and you say, “Well, Lucy said …”
Heffner: … or “Eleanor said …” how can you disassociate yourself from what you know, because you wrote it that way … the characters said, did, believed, thought.
Heffner: How do you deal with that?
Feldman: It’s difficult. And sometimes I have to catch myself … you caught me up this time, but sometimes I have to catch myself up, thinking, “no, wait a minute … I’m not … I believe that this happened, but I’ve put words in their mouths.” In fact, when this book really took off for me, as I said I was having a lot of trouble … I was writing draft after draft of really accurate, but stultifying history. And one day I was typing and I put words in Franklin Roosevelt’s mouth and I stopped and I said, “I can’t do that. I, I…you know, I can’t put words in that man’s mouth.” I said “unless you’re willing to take the risk of that, you can’t write this book.” And the words I put in his mouth, or in Eleanor’s or in Lucy’s I believe are in keeping, as I said, with other things I know about them. But I did make that leap, and I think for points of view of technical history, yes, I have to pull back and say “now I went a little far in one direction with this, and perhaps we can, we can only rely on the diary I had that said that Lucy went to the gravesite and not the Eleanor said she might be able to go … you know, gave her permission to go.
Heffner: Do you think that there is anyway that you can assume that your readers, except old fogies like myself, and I hope they are legion in number …that you can help but assume that your readers are going to deal with the book … it’s called a novel … but deal with the book as history? As fact?
Feldman: I, I think they will.
Heffner: Do you want them to?
Feldman: Well, because I think it is so close to fact. As I said, historians take liberties. Or make assumptions.
Heffner: How many wrongs can make a right?
Feldman: I don’t … I think that if readers come away with the picture of Lucy and Franklin and Eleanor from this book, I think it will be very close to accurate. I also think that since younger readers tend not to know about these three characters at all …
Feldman: … I’d rather have them closer to the truth than have no truth at all. I, I’ve noticed an interesting thing. FDR’s capital has gone down a bit. And ER’s capital has gone up in the last decade, maybe two. I don’t know. And I think there are good reasons for that. I think one, one reason is the feminist movement. But I think a lot of young people know almost nothing about Franklin Roosevelt. From one movie they think that he was so angry at Pearl Harbor … and I know you don’t want to deal with movies … that he stood up … that he got out of his wheelchair. That’s, that’s terrible. They should know that he could not walk. And I make that clear in the book. And I think … I would not be unhappy if younger generations took this as history.
Heffner: Well, they … I’m so interested in what you say about FDR’s stock having gone down. Eleanor’s stock having gone up, and I’m sure you’re correct about the assumption that this … there is a connection with the feminist movement. We had a young lady, when our children were young … in our household for a while and I remember there was a picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt … it was the one painted at the time of his death, being painted at the time of his death … and this young woman looked at the picture and didn’t know who it was. And I said .. or my wife said, “That’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt” and she said, “Oh, yes, that was Eleanor Roosevelt’s husband.” And that’s a long time ago. So I think she has survived in a sense … in feeling for her much more than … or much better … than FDR did.
Heffner: And how did you get started on FDR, Eleanor, Lucy?
Feldman: I think I probably came to Eleanor first. As a young woman Eleanor was everyone’s heroine. Of my generation certainly, young, young girls growing up thought “What, what an astonishing woman, wanted to be like her.” I then began to learn about Franklin … admired his politics and his policies, so much. But I have a confession to make about this … my Mother hated FDR. She was an FDR-basher and it was a very nice form of adolescent rebellion. Very safe and great fun. And then as I got older I just read more and more about them and when I discovered Lucy I was a little miffed … how could anyone do this to Eleanor? And then …
Heffner: What happened to that feeling?
Feldman: Eleanor was the hardest obstacle to get around writing this book. Because every time I tried to look for Lucy, who’s a very private character, there was Eleanor doing wonderful things. And it was only when I … there is not much written material on Lucy. Only when I began to interview members of her family and they’re older now, but they do remember her vividly, that I began to get a feel for this woman.
And she’s not as easy to admire as Eleanor because she did do as much. She was, as I said, a private woman, she took care of her husband and her stepchildren and her one daughter, but she … and Franklin. And she made people happy. She had a glorious gift for, I think, joy and bringing happiness to others. And that’s rare and admirable.
Heffner: Was it the happiness she brought to FDR that attracted you so much to her?
Feldman: That’s what made me like her. I think I was attracted to her because I was interested in the story. But that’s what finally made understand what she had done to Eleanor and what he had done to Eleanor and really come to admire her greatly for this.
Heffner: What he had done to Eleanor. Explain yourself.
Feldman: I believe there was an affair when they were young. Not when they were older. I think that Franklin and Lucy when they were older were wonderful friends and still loved each other deeply. I think when he was a young man before he was stricken by polio, he fell in love with Lucy, she fell in love with him and I do believe there was an affair.
I don’t condemn what he did … people can’t help where they fell in love, with whom they fall in love. And he was a very rigid, proper, religious man. He believed seriously in God…seriously? …he believed in God. And he broke laws of man and God that he … in which he believed because he loved Lucy. And he hurt Eleanor deeply.
I don’t …perhaps I frame that too strongly before. I don’t blame him for this. I’m a novelist, I’m not a judge. And I think you have to understand how all three people found themselves in this plight. And all three conducted themselves very, very well once they did.
Heffner: You say you’re a novelist. Are you a historian?
Feldman: Yes. I write non-fiction articles, history articles for American Heritage magazine. I do a lot of research. I think I do as much research as a lot of historians. I, I’ve tend to portray things … I tend to think in fictional terms and I tend to portray a story like this, as I said, in fictional terms. But I have, you know, concrete historical articles … lots of citations, that sort of thing.
Heffner: Yet you feel that it is fiction that enables you better to capture a human event, an episode that involves human emotions.
Feldman: Yes. I do. I also think, I studied history, I have degrees in history. And I always found reading novels of the period, whatever period I was studying at the time very, very useful, for getting a deeper and more, I think, subtly nuanced appreciation of what was going on at the time.
Heffner: Obviously Arthur Schlesinger feels that that’s what you’ve done here.
Feldman: Yes, I’m very happy to say that he does. I was, I was, I was very worried about giving this book to certain historians, Roosevelt scholars, because they could very easily have said, “No, you know, you’ve taken too many liberties.” Or “We don’t respect this.” And two whom I respect very much, Arthur Schlesinger you mentioned and Jeffrey Ward who has written wonderful biographies of Roosevelt, both took it very seriously and liked it. So, that was, that was validation for me.
Heffner: Ellen, may I just go back to the point you made about historians and their, on occasions, their willingness to take liberties. Is this a general perspective on your part. Is it something you see frequently?
Feldman: I don’t think I see it frequently. And I, perhaps I don’t’ see it frequently because I don’t know enough … if I read history widely, I don’t necessarily know that much about the particular subject. Occasionally I, I do see it more and more. With, with evidence, a historian was to spread out the evidence and then take one more leap. And I, I find it distressing. I prefer that they tell us … you know, you can spot the leap sometimes. Sometimes you can’t. And if they’re taking liberties I wish they would say “I speculate on, on how this might have happened.”
Heffner: Well, when I …fifty years ago when I first did my Documentary History of the United States and I quoted Charles A. Beard, and I quote him always at the beginning of each school year to my students. I find that the notion that history is record is an act of faith is anathema …
Heffner: … to many people. It is, it is not acceptable, it can’t be. And the distinction between history as something written and history as actuality escapes so many people
Feldman: I think that’s true. I think people think if they’re reading a history, if a history of some subject has been written, that is factual, accurate … exactly on the mark. And it’s not. It’s all of our interpretations; it’s always tinged by hindsight. You read history of particular era … written 20 or 30 years ago, and you read something written now. And you see that it’s tinged by the way we live now.
Heffner: Which do you think has … what an unfair question …
Feldman: [Laughter] …more unfair …
Heffner: I’ll ask it anyway … more unfair questions. Novel? Historical Novel? Does it bring you as much, more than … let’s say Oliver Stone’s JFK. Where, where does truth lie?
Feldman: I …
Heffner: … Does he … excuse me … because he begins by saying … now he says it and then you don’t hear about that again … “This is after all one interpretation of what happened to JFK.”
Feldman: Yes. And I think that’s a fairly liberally interpreted, interpreted version of what happened to him. I don’t think … I don’t know the research there, I don’t think he stayed that close to the facts. And it also has to do with conspiracy theory there. And I think then we really go pretty far a field, and that gets very fictional. I think the truth lies … lies somewhere in between …I think it’s also what you’re trying to get at. If you’re, you’re talking World War II or the Depression and various policy matters, various strategic matters, then I think you need the concrete history with lots of footnotes. If you’re talking, as I’ve said, about a love affair or a love triangle which this is, then I think you have to go into their minds, speculate on what they were feeling and, and hope you’re getting at it there. In that way.
Heffner: How do you come away from this. I know this is … in a sense we’ve addressed this before. But I’m so fascinated by the question of FDR … my President …
Heffner: … do you not have to come away with some … you, you said “what he did to Eleanor.” I picked you up on that.
Feldman: I’m going to regret those words, I can see. [Laughter]
Heffner: Well …
Feldman: He hurt her is what I meant. He hurt her deeply.
Heffner: Well, then what does that lead you to think about him?
Feldman: I still think he was an extraordinary man. He wasn’t perfect. I, I also think it’s entirely possible that no one could have … Eleanor was a very … I don’t want to say “warped”, she was a wonderful woman … her childhood was tragic and she was, she was shaped by that. I don’t think anyone could have made Eleanor happy on a personal level. Perhaps that a 2003 psychiatric interpretation. But I think it’s true. I think that he hurt her more than she had to be hurt. I don’t’ think he set out to do that. I think he was tortured by what he was doing.
Heffner: He was tortured by his relationship with Lucy.
Feldman: Yes. And his betrayal of Eleanor. Just because these were earlier times does not mean that affairs did not take place … and I think many people were casual about them. An historian was saying to me just the other day … that we were talking about Alice Roosevelt Longworth and Senator Borah. And much went on in those days that we know about …
Heffner: You suggest that.
Feldman: Yes. Yes. And I don’t think that Franklin was of that ilk. I think he took his marriage vows seriously. I think he took … I think he always loved Eleanor. I think to the end of his life he loved her. But I think he needed another kind of love as well. And, and that doesn’t make me think less of him. It makes him, as I said, more human.
Heffner: What are you going to do in the future? Bill Clinton?
Feldman: None of them.
Heffner: Why not?
Feldman: I don’t … this is a particular story … I don’t want to tell the story in other forms of Presidents who led, perhaps, you know … other kinds of lives. I would … the one thing I know I can’t do … I am so much in love with Franklin Roosevelt … I’d love to do Franklin and Missy LeHand; Franklin and his daughter Anna. All of that. But I know I can’t.
Heffner: Ah, but, but …you touch on something and thank you for doing so. I don’t have to do it. You touched then on Franklin Roosevelt’s relationship with other women … I don’t mean his daughter.
Heffner: Now, how does that fit into this picture you’ve just given us of FDR?
Feldman: Franklin was a flirt. He was not, as one biographer called him “a bottom pincher”. He was not a sexual rake. He loved women, he loved their company, he loved to tell stories and to relax with them. And as I say he flirted with them. He was dynamic. Even after he was stricken with polio, he was very vigorous and that smile and he was a big man in spirit. And women adored him. And he enjoyed this.
And his, his relationship with Missy was very, very close. I will not speculate on how close. But she … she … for two decades, from the time he was stricken with polio until she was stricken by a stroke in ’41, she spent more time with him than Eleanor did. She was at his side at all times. She adored him. And that was a wonderful relationship. I don’t, I don’t begrudge the man these things.
There’s also the point that he was President and the book opens with an epigraph from Arthur Schlesinger about Lucy’s giving so much pleasure to Franklin, and if, in fact, she did, during World War II, the nation owes her gratitude. And I think that’s true. I think that we can’t judge larger than life people, like Franklin Roosevelt … this is a dangerous thing to say … I think by, by small concepts.
Heffner: Well, I think you’ve done a wonderful job of judging all of them by a very large concept. And that is what we experienced as a nation. And Ellen Feldman, I don’t often say this, but I hope everyone watching goes out and buys and reads Lucy because I’m going to re-read it and re-read it. I’m sure of that. And thank you very much for joining me today.
Feldman: Thank you, Dick.
Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.