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Doris Kearns Goodwin, 1999

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By Dottie Witter

For someone who grew up with the "sin of Roy Campanella" on her, Pulitzer-Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin seems to have turned out all right.

Speaking at the 1999 Speaker Series in October, she credited her childhood of recounting baseball play-by-plays for her father as teaching her to tell a story and keep someone's attention.

An avid Brooklyn Dodgers fan, she was excited Roy Campanella was coming to town in 1950, and was horrified he would be speaking in a Protestant church.

"Somehow when you are young you think if you ever set foot in another church, you'll be struck dead," she said. "I had the sin of Roy Campanella on my soul."

A train wreck the next night was the answer to her prayers since catechism class taught that if someone were dying and no priest was available, any lay person could baptize them and they would go to heaven and her sins would be wiped out.

"So at 7-years-old I joined others heading toward the train station, hoping that I could find a dying person to baptize," she said. Unfortunately for her, a dozen priests were on the scene.

In her first holy confession, she told the priest of her sin, then confessed to wishing harm to others, specifically various New York Yankee players since the Brooklyn Dodgers had never won a World Series.

"Thank God I had a baseball-loving priest during my first confession," she said.

Baseball continues to play a major role in her life, and many fans recognize her name from her commentary on "Baseball," the PBS series. "Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir," chronicles 1943-57, from the year of her birth to when the Dodgers left Brooklyn.

For this book she tracked down all of the neighborhood children of her childhood. "I know now it wasn't simply baseball they were talking about, but their remembrances of their childhood, their families, their neighborhood, their days long since gone," she said.

She was surprised at their detailed memories, and also discovered that by reading old copies of the weekly hometown paper that it evoked memories from the polio epidemic to "duck and cover" under their school desks to escape the effects of an atom bomb.

Lyndon Johnson

Kearns was, in fact, a 24-year-old White House intern when she met Lyndon Johnson. At an event for the fellows, she danced with the president and he told her he wanted her for his White House personal fellow. But this young Harvard woman had been active in anti-war demonstrations against Johnson. "I had written an article which, unfortunately, came out the day after the dance, with the title 'How to Dump Lyndon Johnson.'" She expected to be "dumped" from the program, but Johnson just said to bring her down for a year and if he couldn't win her over, no one could.

Johnson chose her to help him on his memoirs. "In terms of stories, he's the best storyteller I've ever known. Colorful, vivid, detailed anecdotes. There was a problem with these stories that I discovered- half of them weren't true," she said.

Since Johnson had a reputation for the ladies, she thought talking about non-existent boyfriends would help to keep their friendship at a healthy distance. Then one day he told her he wanted to discuss their relationship, and took her to Lake Lyndon Johnson.

"There was wine, cheese and a red checked tablecloth, all the romantic trappings, and he looked at me and said, 'Doris, more than any other woman,' and my heart sank, 'you remind me of my mother.' He managed always to surprise me."

On Johnson's Texas ranch was a gift warehouse, and every time someone visited, he got to choose a gift from a higher and higher shelf, just like at an amusement park.

Kearns' first gift was a certificate that showed she had flown on Air Force One. As she made it to higher shelves, she received a "scarf with LBJ embroidered on it about 500 times" and a watch that said "Do unto others as others do unto you."

"Finally, when I had been working for him for about a year, he said I could choose from the top shelf, I had become one of his most intimate friends. And he was so excited when he gave me this gift, which, unlike the others, was wrapped. And he said to me, 'You will think of me every morning and every night when you open this wonderful gift.' And I opened it up, and inside was the largest electric toothbrush I had ever seen in my life. On one side was the official presidential seal, and on the other side was his smiling face. And I thought, my God, this man is right. I will think of him every morning and every night. So there was never any sense of getting a grasp of this extraordinary figure."

Documenting Johnson's stories made a big impression on her.

"That book was based mainly on his memories, and I found out through research that many of them were not true, and it made me realize that if I were going to become an historian after this book, I would have to dig into the stuff of history more: the written documents, the letters, the diaries, the things that really give you a factual basis for the memories people have are often faulty toward the end of their lives," Kearns said.

The Kennedys

Joe and Rose Kennedy "had a sense of their own destiny" and had saved everything, she said. More than 150 cartons of materials stored in the Hyannisport attic for more than 50 years had been sent to the Kennedy Library.

"The family allowed me to have access to this material, and I must say it was unbelievable how important they thought they were even when they were young," she said, citing all those check stubs, movie tickets, dance cards and other memorabilia that had been carefully saved.

She decided to go through the materials so she would have a check on "faulty memories." She used an old report card to prod a memory for Rose, whom she interviewed when Rose was still "young"-89 to 92.

"You know," Rose said, "no one thinks of me as smart, they just think of me as the wife of Joe and the mother of these boys, but I almost beat out Old Tom" as class valedictorian."

"And then a memory she hadn't really talked about much came pouring out. Her greatest happiness as a young girl was that she had been accepted to Wellesley College. She would have gone there in 1908," Kearns said.

For Rose, Wellesley, filled with Suffragettes, labor organizers and settlement workers, would have been a life-changing experience in many ways, Kearns said. But it became the biggest regret of her life when, at the last minute, her father, Boston Mayor John Fitzgerald, sent her instead to a secular college because the Boston Cardinal was furious.

"Luckily for her, the Sacred Heart education grounded her in her faith, which, given the way her life turned out would be so essential to surviving," Kearns said. "But at 90-years-old, she still remembers the sense of betrayal that her father put his political ambitions ahead of her needs as a young girl. Somehow that report card stirred all those memories."

Kearns undersold figure how to bring up Joe Kennedy's affair with Gloria Swanson to Rose. "Somehow with a 90-year-old woman in her own house you don't just bring up, well, what about your husband's affair with Gloria Swanson," she said. "One day at lunch she said to me, today I'd like to talk to you about Gloria Swanson."

As it turned out, Rose and Gloria's versions widely differed with Gloria claiming an affair under Rose's nose on the S.S. France, and Rose remembering her husband being kind to poor Gloria whose husband had left her.

Kearns discovered a letter in the Kennedy Library written by Joe to Gloria while on the S.S. France, saying the Kennedys were on their way to Europe and hoped her trip last week was fine, that they would meet in Paris.

"They were never even on this boat together. I found myself thinking what am I doing if nobody's memory is right at all," she said. "Somehow Rose must have seen Gloria talking about it on some show, because she thought she was on that boat, too. I thought, thank God for libraries and thank God for documents."

The most "chilling" letter was from Joe Sr. to his favorite son, Joe Jr., on whom the family's political dreams rested. Joe Jr. found it hard to accept that younger brother John was a hero after PT-109, and kept volunteering in England for more missions.

"There's a letter that shows his father senses what his son is doing. So he writes to him just before Joe Jr. dies and said, 'Joe please come home. I love you so much. P.M. tempt the fates. You've done all you need to do, just come home.'"

Joe Jr. never returned from his final mission. "They said that Joe Sr. never recovered from the loss of that child," Kearns said. And history changed when the hopes of the family rested on the next son, John.

One thing Rose told Kearns had a haunting quality. "Rose Kennedy could say to me when that she was absolutely certain if her children had the choice in coming back, they would still choose the exact lives they had been given to lead, because although their lives had been shortened in term of the years they had been allotted, had been full of productivity, adventure, celebrity, and excitement," Kearns said.

Eleanor and Franklin

Kearns received her Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for "No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt." At the end of the book, she realized she home just end with the death of FDR, but had to follow through for a few months on Eleanor, who was reeling from the realization that her husband's mistress Lucy Mercer had re-entered his life during the last year, and that her daughter Anna had been a party to it.

Everywhere Eleanor went, people told her how much they loved her husband, how much better their lives were because of his leadership. "Somehow the depth of their emotion got to her, and she was able to reach within herself, and forgive him for being with Lucy at the end of his life. And eventually go to their daughter Anna and forgive her, too."

In Kearns' judgment, the Roosevelts never meant to hurt each other. They simply both had needs their marriage Roosevelt fulfill. "They understood that, and it seems to me that if they understood that, then it was may responsibility as an historian to try and bring it back to life in all of its beauty, glory and sorrow," she said. "It seems to me that the responsibility of an historian in that setting is not to stereotype, not to label, not to accept as belief the part of the story that might have dramatic gossip qualities, but rather to try and understand and empathize with people in terms of what they needed," she said. Kearns' affinity for Eleanor Roosevelt was evident when she talked of how Eleanor had broken so many of the "rules" of her day, including such things as traveling and speaking to the press.

"She made a very simple rule that only female reporters could come to her press conferences. Suddenly all over the country, newspaper editors were hiring their first female reporters. So a whole generation of female reporters got their start just because of Eleanor Roosevelts' press conferences," she said.

Her best source for what had been happening in the White House was the White House Usher's Diary, practically a minute-by-minute chronology of the occupants.

House guests also are listed in the Usher's Diary. "And that's when I discovered there was this incredible residential hotel quality of the White House during those years," she said. Guests like Winston Churchill, a princess, and friends came and spent weeks and months.

In a radio interview, Kearns said she was trying to figure out which rooms everyone had stayed in. First Lady Hillary Clinton offered her help, and invited Kearns to a state dinner and overnight stay in the White House. One night, Kearns, her husband, Bill and Hillary Clinton walked through every room on the private floor from midnight to 2 a.m. "placing" all the guests.

As it turned out, Kearns and her husband had been given Winston Churchill's bedroom. "There was no way I would sleep. I was certain Churchill was sitting in the corner, smoking a cigar," she said.

Her writing

Kearns has a nightmare that someday all of the presidents will be lined up telling her she got everything wrong. "There will be Kennedy, Roosevelt, Johnson and Abraham Lincoln. But the worse thing is, Johnson will say how come the book on the Kennedys is twice as long as what you wrote about me," she said.

The luxury of being a biographer, Kearns said, is that it makes you contemplate the questions that come from your own life choices.

"In the end, I shall always be grateful for these intertwined loves of history and baseball which have somehow led me to spend a lifetime of looking back into the past, making me believe every now and then that the past really is alive with us, that the people we have loved in our families and the public figures we have respected in our history, really can't be gone so long as we pledge to tell and retell the stories of their lives."

Kearns is concerned about what future historians will use when they try to write about today and lack the letters and other documents because of technology.

"It really does give you an emotional window into the lives of these people who lived so long ago. People can't keep diaries as they used to, they can't write letters as they used to, that whole era of the telephone is going to be lost for those people except maybe email will be saved by young people as they go along."

She saves praise for newspapers. "Some of my favorite details, in fact, came from newspapers, which are in some ways the first draft of history," she said.

Watch Kearns Goodwin

VIDEO: Doris Kearns Goodwin on Writing Out Loud


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