When I was in law school nearly thirty years ago, the mantra was “Read the statute, read the statute, read the statute.” Of the many skills required to be a good lawyer, they told us, most important was the ability to read, re-read, then read it again. This is also true for writers of narrative history. “Turn every page,” counsels the dean of American historians, Robert Caro.
Caro, of course, is legendary for transforming a mountain of papers, interviews, and documents into a version of Lyndon B. Johnson that reveals the Shakespearean complexity of a man who attained the pinnacle of power and was bedeviled by tragedy.
Only a small fraction of LBJ’s papers, which have been housed at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library since 1987, tell of his longtime friend and trusted advisor, Anna Rosenberg. These few boxes filled with letters, photos, and newspaper clippings provide the basics: Anna was a businesswoman of renown who came into the orbit of the Roosevelts, faithfully served FDR in peace and war, and later overcame a smear campaign by Senator Joe McCarthy to serve as Assistant Secretary of Defense.
Today’s technology allowed me to stitch this outline into a rich narrative that became The Confidante. My research took me from Ann Arbor to Yale, Budapest to Binghamton. Finding Anna Rosenberg required cross-referencing the papers of figures like mentor Bernard Baruch, fellow New Dealer Frances Perkins, Eleanor Roosevelt — with whom she shared a passion for social justice — and Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson. With every (digital) page I turned, the three-dimensional figure of Anna Rosenberg came more and more to life.
Newspaper articles from a century ago reveal that Anna was schooled in the bare-knuckled politics of New York City by Belle Moskowitz, the de facto Chief of Staff for Governor Al Smith, and Tammany boss Jim Hagan. Long-defunct magazines from the late 1930s to the mid-fifties never failed to mention her colorful hats and even more colorful language. In an interview about her recollections of Eleanor Roosevelt, Anna deviated from her subject to tell the story of how she learned of the atomic bomb project by way of a letter. “It was indiscreet [of the Secretary of War] to write such a letter,” she remarked. Indiscreet or not, FDR’s trust in her was so great that he let Anna in on a secret so tightly kept it was not even known by his own vice president, Harry Truman. Just a few years before she died, Anna was on TV, telling ABC’s Diane Sawyer that she had burned the letters FDR sent her.
Long-defunct magazines from the late 1930s to the mid-fifties never failed to mention her colorful hats and even more colorful language.
Perhaps the biggest surprise I found was in the Proceedings of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, dated 1946. Within those pages Anna recounted meeting “ragged, ageless” survivors of a newly liberated concentration camp. It now made sense, I thought, that President Truman assisted displaced French Jews.
That it took reading every page of dusty, dry meeting minutes to discover that Anna was one of the first Allied women to bear witness to the concentration camps is not surprising. Anna was never one to trumpet her own experiences. Not that she didn’t want to be found. She parried with newspaper reporters and smiled for magazine photographers. But she played the game so as to advocate for an expanded democracy and to give credit to the leaders of the war effort. She didn’t want to insert herself into history.
There are a number of reasons for her reticence, starting with the unfortunate coincidence that she shared a surname with the notorious Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. She also never went to college. In America then as now, where one has gone to school can confer power and prestige. Rather than the posh trans-Atlantic accent taught in that era’s boarding schools and thee-ah-tah classes, Anna spoke all her life with a slight Hungarian accent, tinged with a bit of the Bronx. While she was not insecure, Anna’s lack of credentials bothered her. “My consciousness of how little I know,” she admitted in an address at Yeshiva University, “has caused me to spend my life in thrall to all of those who have mastered the learning of the arts and sciences.”
In 1954 she refused Eleanor Roosevelt’s urging that she begin work with a biographer. She turned down the major publishing houses that sought her memoir, and she never wavered. “That’s a book that will never be written.” Her devotion to Franklin Roosevelt was at the heart of this refusal. Part of what allowed her to rise in the world of politics was that she “learned the valuable lesson of never repeating an intimate White House conversation.” Anna found the avalanche of so-called “me-and-FDR” memoirs distasteful. “I’m never going to write a book, and thank God, I’ve stuck to that. Everyone who comes out of Washington writes a book.”
The deeper I delved into her life, the more it amazed me that her story had remained unsung. Now, seven decades after she reached the height of her popularity as a stylish civilian woman in a top Pentagon post during wartime, there is finally a book about her. She was intelligent, witty, loyal, hardworking, and patriotic. But this is just a short list. For the full measure of the woman who shaped major US policies for a quarter-century — who was trusted and admired by labor leaders and titans of industry, soldiers and generals, and some of the greatest presidents in modern American history—you’ll have to turn every page.
Christopher C. Gorham is a lawyer and teacher of modern American history at Westford Academy, outside Boston. He has degrees in history from Tufts University and the University of Michigan, where he studied under legendary labor historian Sidney Fine. He has a J.D., summa cum laude, from Syracuse University College of Law, where he served on the editorial staff of the Syracuse Law Review. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post and online journals..