Thursday, March 26, 2009


Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $35, 458 pages, illus.

Toward the end of “The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience,” author Kirstin Downey calls her biographic subject Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “closest friend for decades,” and by then the reader is prepared to believe it.

Frances, as Ms. Downey always refers to the dowdy, matronly first female Cabinet member, early on recognized the “complicated” (read “duplicitous”) character of her boss and learned how to get her way with him.

Beginning when she was an adviser to Roosevelt during his time as governor of New York, Ms. Perkins made a practice of conferring with him for about an hour every 10 days and making the same point to him three times (”Here’s what I’m going to tell you … “). She knew he read a lot of fiction and loved a good story and that in order to communicate the underlying social and economic issues to the public, he needed to know not just the point, but the story behind it.

Once the story was fixed in FDR’s memory, Ms. Downey says, Ms. Perkins would recommend action, FDR usually would agree, legislation would materialize, and another piece of the New Deal would be in place.

The story of Ms. Perkins turns out to be, in the sympathetic hands of Ms. Downey, a remarkably good read, surprisingly full of dramatic twists despite that motherly hat and low-profile manner.

Christened “Fannie,” she changed her first name to Frances and, after telling the press that certainly she would use her married name, Mrs. Paul C. Wilson, in public life, she never did. She also subtracted two years from her age so as to be the same age as Roosevelt. And she left the Congregational Church for the Episcopal, which sponsored a convent retreat where this powerful woman known for being rather talkative reveled in silence for days at a time.

Ms. Perkins had solid academic credentials - from Mount Holyoke, Wharton School of Finance and Commerce and Columbia University - and hands-on experience in social reform from Chicago to New York, not to mention political dealings with Tammany Hall and the labor unions. Yet in Washington, Ms. Perkins decided to sit at official functions with the wives of other Cabinet members, not with the men, “to avoid jealousy.”

At the same time, she was not timid in dealing with men or women. On her very first day at the Labor Department, she arrived at her office to find her predecessor still ensconced. He was dispatched within a few hours, along with the cockroaches in the desk drawers, attracted by lunches left there by black workers who were not permitted to eat in the department’s cafeteria. She immediately desegregated the cafeteria.

Five major participants in her story are pictured on the cover of the book: Jane Addams, the iconic social reformer who inspired the idealistic Ms. Perkins at Hull House; Mary Harriman Rumsey, the wealthy widow in whose Georgetown home Ms. Perkins lived when she first moved to Washington; Al Smith, for whom she worked in Albany, N.Y., and whom she truly admired; Roosevelt, who would never accept her oft-proffered resignation, making her and Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes the only two Cabinet members to serve throughout his presidency; and Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom Ms. Perkins had an ambiguous but respectful relationship. (They were not close friends, and Ms. Perkins rather resented the adulation Mrs. Roosevelt attracted.

Ms. Downey, a distinguished journalist who recently researched U.S. economic history on a Nieman fellowship at Harvard, weaves Ms. Perkins’ sad personal narrative - her husband and daughter both suffered from mental illness, and money was almost always tight - with a solid history of the New Deal and Ms. Perkins’ role in it.

A tireless advocate of better and safer working conditions, shorter workdays, child labor laws, Social Security for the elderly, unemployment insurance and massive public works to create jobs for the unemployed, Ms. Perkins was indeed FDR’s conscience and prod.

She didn’t get all of what she pressed for, particularly health insurance, of course, and many other people would later claim credit for a primary New Deal accomplishment: creation of the Social Security program in 1935. Several people close to the process, Ms. Downey says, gave the credit to Ms. Perkins. “I don’t think that President Roosevelt had the remotest interest in a Social Security bill or program. He was simply pacifying Frances,” said an assistant to Sen. Robert F. Wagner, who joined the Social Security Board soon after it was created.

Ms. Perkins herself credited the Great Depression with enactment of the program: “Nothing else would have bumped the American people into Social Security except something as shocking, so terrifying, as that Depression.” One of her lasting regrets was that she was not allowed to participate in running the program.

Ms. Perkins must have had substantial gumption and charm (as well as the need for money) to accept a teaching job at Cornell in her late 70s and, subsequently, an invitation from 20 outstanding students - Allan Bloom and Paul Wolfowitz among them - to live in Telluride House with them. Ms. Downey’s interesting book humanizes Ms. Perkins and the administration she served.

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean.

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