Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project

by Susan Rubenstein DeMasi, Publisher: McFarland & Co., 2016
Reviewed by: Harvey Smith

The world of the New Deal seems like an alternative universe compared to today’s public policies of climate change denial, privatizing of education, rolling back health care benefits, increasing homelessness, threats to publicly funded media and arts, and the increasing gap between rich and poor. The people-centered policies of the New Deal remind us that there is another way. There was a time when policy-makers did not succumb to greed, callousness and denial of basic human needs. Quite the contrary, they moved deliberately and vigorously in the opposite direction.
Much has been written about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the two key figures of the New Deal. The relatively recent biography of Frances Perkins, Kirstin Downey’s “The Woman Behind the New Deal,” finally gives an in depth look at the key architect of FDR’s social policy. Susan Quinn’s “Furious Improvisation” brings to light the dynamic role of Hallie Flanagan in bringing the performing arts to all Americans. Now Susan Rubenstein DeMasi’s new book “Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project” tells the story of the director of New Deal’s massive literary project.
Jerre Mangione’s earlier work, “The Dream and Deal,” described in detail the workings of the “Federal Writers’ Project” and to some extent the role of Henry Alsberg. However, DeMasi’s book tells the complete life story of another amazing figure from the pantheon of New Deal innovators and reveals the depth of Alsberg’s lifelong commitment to human rights and journalistic truth. As it turns out his New Deal work was in a sense the coda to a life of a very dedicated activist, one who was not afraid to confront death defying challenges.
Alsberg was an early champion of the rights of refugees and political prisoners. He worked in Europe during and after World War I. This was long before someone doing such work could rely on the support of an organization like Amnesty International. He sometimes traveled under great risk, working both as a humanitarian and a journalist.  Alsberg hoped to push the world to take action. It’s a sad commentary that so many years later others, like contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, must do the same.
As director of the Federal Writers’Project, Alsberg organized the massive
program of recruiting writers to do the unique guidebooks for every state and some cities and to chronicle and preserve critical American histories like the slave narratives. Like Hallie Flanagan he faced down the right-wing backlash of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Similar to Bayard Ruston in a later period, he had to hide the fact that he was gay and live under threat of exposure, perhaps stifling efforts to move on to even greater achievements and limiting him to working more behind the scenes.
Thanks to Susan DeMasi for bringing to light the moving story of journalist and human rights advocate Henry Alsberg. His artistic and radical life was an adventure, and her recounting moves along like one.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life

by Robert Dallek–This book is Robert Dallek’s newest on one of his favorite subjects, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was released on November 7, 2017. 

• Named a Best Book of the Year by The Washington Post and NPR
• A one-volume biography of Roosevelt by the #1 New York Times bestselling biographer of JFK, focusing on his career as an incomparable politician, uniter, and deal maker.
• “We come to see in FDR the magisterial, central figure in the greatest and richest political tapestry of our nation’s entire history” —Nigel Hamilton, Boston Globe
• “Meticulously researched and authoritative.” — Douglas Brinkley, The Washington Post
• “A workmanlike addition to the literature on Roosevelt.” — David Nasaw, The New York Times   
• “Dallek offers an FDR relevant to our sharply divided nation.” — Michael Kazin
• “Will rank among the standard biographies of its subject”— Publishers Weekly

In an era of such great national divisiveness, there could be no more timely biography of one of our greatest presidents than one that focuses on his unparalleled political ability as a uniter and consensus maker. Robert Dallek’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life takes a fresh look at the many compelling questions that have attracted all his biographers: how did a man who came from so privileged a background become the greatest presidential champion of the country’s needy? How did someone who never won recognition for his intellect foster revolutionary changes in the country’s economic and social institutions? How did Roosevelt work such a profound change in the country’s foreign relations?

     For FDR, politics was a far more interesting and fulfilling pursuit than the management of family fortunes or the indulgence of personal pleasure, and by the time he became president, he had commanded the love and affection of millions of people. While all Roosevelt’s biographers agree that the onset of polio at the.age of thirty-nine endowed him with a much greater sense of humanity, Dallek sees the affliction as an insufficient explanation for his transformation into a masterful politician who would win an unprecedented four presidential terms, initiate landmark reforms that changed the American industrial system, and transform an isolationist country into an international superpower.

     Dallek attributes FDR’s success to two remarkable political insights. First, unlike any other president, he understood that effectiveness in the American political system depended on building a national consensus and commanding stable long-term popular support. Second, he made the presidency the central, most influential institution in modern America’s political system. In addressing the country’s international and domestic problems, Roosevelt recognized the vital importance of remaining closely attentive to the full range of public sentiment around policy-making decisions—perhaps FDR’s most enduring lesson in effective leadership.
– Amazon Review


The Last 100 Days: FDR at War and at Peace

BOOK REVIEWSby Dr. David B Woolner
Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian
The Roosevelt Institute 
Senior Fellow Center for Civic Engagement
Bard College
Professor of History
Marist College. Reviewed by Christopher Breiseth

On December 14th, I attended a book signing/lecture by David B. Woolner at the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, NY. His book, THE LAST 100 DAYS: FDR AT WAR AND AT PEACE appeared in book stores that day.
An audience of 150 people attended Woolner’s talk which was filmed by C-SPAN. My closest colleague during my years as president-CEO of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, David had sent me a desk copy which I had the opportunity to read before this premier event. It is terrific.
The work establishes a symmetry between the first 100 days of the Roosevelt Administration, when the domestic New Deal legislation began a redefinition of the relationship between the American people and their government, and FDR’s last 100 days when he led the Allies against Nazi Germany to the edge of victory and secured commitments from Stalin to establish the United Nations and to enter the war against Japan.            Acknowledging the President’s deteriorating health as a factor, which has increasingly drawn the attention of historians, Woolner charts on a virtual daily basis the efforts of FDR to pursue with laser like focus his war and peace objectives. Even as his body gave way in early April of 1945 at Warm Springs, he was still managing the relations with Churchill and Stalin and preparing for the opening of the United Nations in San Francisco.
Woolner’s coverage of the Yalta Conference and its importance in shaping the post war world I believe will become the dominant interpretation of that crucial moment. I have read many books about Franklin Roosevelt but I have never felt closer to the man – and the leader – than when reading Woolner’s book.
The very favorable book jacket blurbs are written by Ken Burns, David Reynolds, Jonathan Alter and E.J. Dionne. The one dimension of Woolner’s success I feel they missed is his masterful control of the world diplomatic scene – David is a diplomatic historian – against which to appreciate Roosevelt’s own mastery of the war and his preparations for the peace.
The book is published by Basic Books and costs $32.00 in hardback.


Mon., Nov. 6, at 7 PM
Adobe Rose Theatre, 1213 Parkway Dr., Suite B, Santa Fe, NM 87507
A Benefit for the National New Deal Preservation Association
www.brownpapertickets.com, to reserve tickets (Santa Fe, NM) An 80-year-old Sinclair Lewis play about the election of a totalitarian president and the manipulation of the press will be brought back to life in Santa Fe, one of many communities throughout the country staging revival performances of It Can’t Happen Here!

The New Mexico Chapter of National New Deal Preservation Association (NNDPA), a non-profit group, is putting on a dramatic reading of Lewis’ semi-satirical play, based on his same-titled novel, on Monday, Nov. 6, at 7 p.m. at the Adobe Rose Theatre. Tickets are $15, and can be purchased at www.brownpapertickets.com, or by calling the NNDPA office at 505-690-5845. All proceeds will benefit the NNDPA.

“Given the current political climate, this groundbreaking play is quite timely,” said NNDPA Executive Director Kathy Flynn. “It was performed in 21 U.S. theaters in seventeen states on October 27, 1936 in productions sponsored by the Federal Theater Project, a program of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). Fast forward to 2016 after the U.S. presidential election when interest in the play was revived and again performed nationwide. After seeing it in Albuquerque in October 2016, our board wanted to bring it to Santa Fe and is excited about the cast being put together to share the relevant plot.”

Former Lensic Executive Manager, Bob Martin will direct the reading with participation from an unusual cast of prominent Santa Feans and local actors. Some of those on the cast list include Martin, Pen La Farge, Hollis Walker, Monica Sosaya Halford, retired New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Patricio Serna, and Jennifer Graves.

Flynn founded the NNDPA in 1998 to promote nationwide the identification, documentation, preservation and education about the many New Deal programs in visual and performing arts, literature, crafts, structures, infrastructure and environmental projects created between 1933-43. To date, the NM Chapter has raised over $500,000 to catalogue and help restore more than 150 New Deal art pieces, monuments, and buildings in New Mexico.

New Deal Grandchildren Speak



A Panel of direct descendants of major New Dealers will discuss the importance of their grandparents’ legacy to the 21st century at the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York, at 4 p.m., Saturday, August 19th, 2017. Participants will include James Roosevelt, Jr., David Wallace Douglas, Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall and June Hopkins.

This special gathering will be jointly hosted by the FDR Presidential Library  and the National New Deal Preservation Association.  The Panel, to be held in the Henry A. Wallace Visitor and Education Center, will be moderated by Christopher N. Breiseth, board member of the NNDPA and former president and CEO of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute.

At the reception following the Panel, other members of the families of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry A. Wallace, Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins and Frank Walker will be recognized.

At 3 p.m., before the Panel, the NNDPA will present the Kathy Flynn Preservation Awards.  Randall Wallace, grandson of Vice President Wallace, will give a concert at 7 p.m.

The FDR Library staff is excited to collaborate with the NNDPA for this program and expects a large audience, with possible national broadcast of the Panel.

All events are free and open to the public.

May 18th 2017 – Museum of the City of New York – Revisiting New York’s New Deal

Revisiting New York's New Deal

To register and for more information mcny.org/newdeal – Use code LND for $10.00 tickets!

Reception to follow. The Living New Deal Map will also be available for purchase after the event.

May 11th 2017 Roosevelt House – The New Deal in New York City

Roosevelt House Logo

Roosevelt House

Thursday, May 11, 2017
6:00 p.m.
Roosevelt House
Roosevelt House’s latest exhibit celebrates the vast range of projects funded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Whether brick-and-mortar or jobs in the theater, arts or education, thousands were employed, the city transformed, and morale boosted. Hundreds of these projects can be found on the new map published by the Living New Deal, which will be featured in the exhibit and during the panel discussion.
This special discussion will feature Owen Gutfreund (moderator), Hilary Ballon, Ira Katznelson, William Leuchtenburg, and Richard Walker.