Pare Lorentz wants a new deal.
"Pitiful" is what the 77-year-old award-winning filmmaker calls the $25,000 budget for the FDR centennial. Especially since Congress voted last year to spend $120,000 to publish a book titled "Herbert Hoover Reassessed." All that, Lorentz grumbles, "for the man who created the Depression!"
Lorentz, head of the U.S. Film Service under FDR and in town this week for the centennial celebration, has a remedy. Since 1947, he has been amassing the 3,700-page manuscript he calls "The Days of Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Chronicle," which is still unpublished. The mighty tome combines a day-by-day history of FDR's life with a parallel roster of major news events and more than 5,600 photographs. "There's no chronicle like this in existence," says Lorentz.
He began 35 years ago when, on the strength of his photo-history, "The Roosevelt Year: 1933," he contracted with Harper & Bros. for a shorter book on FDR. But when he saw that the market would be glutted with "quickie" accounts, he was determined to produce a comprehensive volume. By 1955 he had finished, after spending $185,000 of his own for research. Several publishers turned him down: "I don't belong to the American League or National League of historians."
In 1979, Sen. Jennings Randolph (D-W.Va.) and Rep. Jim Wright (D-Tex.) sponsored a joint resolution asking $1.8 million to publish the chronicle for the centennial, but nothing came of it. The bill has been reintroduced and the sum reduced to $500,000, but "the chances of getting action on it are slim," says a Jennings aide.
Lorentz is not surprised. The FDR legacy, he feels, has fallen victim to "gentlemen in the back rows and bowels of this government who take orders from the utilities" and other bastions of big business and "don't want to say anything good about Roosevelt."
Born near Clarksburg, W. Va., Lorentz began as a writer and editor for Fortune, Newsweek and Vanity Fair. By the early '30s, he was writing a political column for King Features in Washington, where he first met FDR at a press conference. He was immediately impressed. Roosevelt was supporting a doomed bill to construct the St. Lawrence Seaway, and "he turned to the journalists and said, 'You know it's going to be defeated. But I want you to know that I intend to bring it up again later in this adminstration. And then I'm going to bring it up again in my second administration!' "
Not long thereater, Lorentz was fired from King Features after "I did a column that said, 'There's a bumbling guy down here with dandruff on his suit named Henry Wallace who's going to end up being the strongest man in the Cabinet.' " But by 1934, Lorentz's book had come out, and aided by an administration official who was a former colleague at Vanity Fair, Lorentz was hired to make movies, including "The Plow That Broke the Plains" (1936) and "The River" (1937).
In 1938, FDR named him head of the film service, and "said to me, 'I'd like you to make about 30 movies of two or three minutes each.' " Lorentz replied, " 'That would be meaningless. I have another idea. Let's make a two-hour movie about the Depression.' FDR's eyes got real cold and gray. I'd seen that look before -- he took it as a personal rebuke. He asked me, 'How are you going to end it?' I said, 'I dunno, Mr. President -- how are you going to end it?' " The film, titled "Ecce Homo," was never finished.
Lorentz later joined RKO as a producer, served as an Air Force officer in World War II, and in 1943 married Elizabeth Meyer, daughter of Washington Post owner Eugene Meyer. He made many more films and founded a video consulting firm in New York.
He hopes that New York foundations can provide support for his chronicle, "but no matter what my bitterness about the government," he says, "the whole thing is going to go in the FDR Library at Hyde Park."