Jean Edward Smith, a scholar who was one of the most admired biographers of his time, the author of smoothly written accounts of several presidents, including Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower, that became prizewinning bestsellers, died Sept. 1 at his home in Huntington, W.Va. He was 86.
He had complications from Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, Christine Smith.
Dr. Smith, a Washington-born political scientist who spent seven years as an Army officer, was a faculty member at the University of Toronto for many years and later taught at Marshall University in West Virginia. His first books were on German politics, but beginning in the 1990s, he became a prolific chronicler of the lives of major figures in U.S. history, and was praised by historians and everyday readers alike.
In 2012, Columbia University historian Henry F. Graff called Dr. Smith “indubitably America’s most distinguished biographer.”
His 2001 study of Grant, the Civil War general who later served two terms as president, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and helped raise scholars’ estimation of Grant’s effectiveness as president.
Grant was a failure in business — “He was too tenderhearted to be a rent collector, and too candid to sell real estate,” Dr. Smith wrote — but something of a genius as a military leader who proved to be the Union army’s greatest general. As a president, Dr. Smith wrote, Grant was underestimated by patrician historians and by defenders of the Confederacy, who resented his efforts to promote voting rights for African Americans and to eliminate the Ku Klux Klan.
Dr. Smith’s 2007 biography of Roosevelt, titled simply “FDR,” won the Francis Parkman Prize of the Society of American Historians as the year’s best book on American history.
“He is that rarest and most welcome of historians, one who addresses a serious popular readership without sacrificing high scholarly standards,” Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley wrote in his review. “He conveys the full flavor and import of Roosevelt’s career without ever bogging down in detail.
“In sum, Smith’s ‘FDR’ is a model presidential biography.”
Dozens of writers and historians have attempted to the tell the story of Roosevelt’s life, but Dr. Smith approached it as something of a sociological puzzle.
“The riddle for a biographer,” he wrote, “is to explain how this Hudson River aristocrat, a son of privilege who never depended on a paycheck, became the champion of the common man.”
He determined that Roosevelt had “an incredible capacity for making people feel at ease and convincing them their work was important.” Even under great duress, he could remain “serene and confident, unruffled and unafraid.”
Dr. Smith’s 2012 biography of Eisenhower also led to a reassessment of his presidency, once dismissed as a staid period of conformity. Instead, Dr. Smith pronounced Eisenhower second only to Roosevelt as “the most successful president of the 20th century.”
He showed how Eisenhower’s experience as the top Allied commander in Europe during World War II made him wary of military engagement, writing, “War was neither a board game nor a seminar exercise for armchair intellectuals.”
“The greatest virtue of his biography,” Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote in the New York Times about Dr. Smith’s book, “is to show how well Eisenhower’s military training prepared him for this task: like Grant, he made what he did seem easy. It never was, though, and Smith stresses the toll it took on Eisenhower’s health, on his marriage and ultimately in the loneliness he could never escape.”
Dr. Smith was not always complimentary toward his subjects. He wrote disparagingly of both President George H.W. Bush and his son, President George W. Bush, for launching hasty, poorly planned wars, seemingly as vanity projects. He was particularly scathing toward the younger Bush.
“Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush,” Dr. Smith wrote in a 2016 biography. He praised Bush’s initiatives to combat AIDS in Africa and to shore up the economy after the 2008 financial crash, but he left little doubt of what he thought of the legacy of the 43rd president.
“Whether George W. Bush was the worst president in American history will be long debated,” he concluded, “but his decision to invade Iraq is easily the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.”
Jean Edward Smith was born Oct. 13, 1932, in Washington. His father was a barber at the U.S. Capitol, and his mother was a secretary at the Justice Department. He developed an interest in history, his wife said, from his grandmother, who read books aloud to him.
Dr. Smith graduated from McKinley Tech High School in the District, then from Princeton University in 1954. He was an Army artillery officer, primarily in Germany, and in 1963 published his first book, “The Defense of Berlin,” about events leading up to the building of the Berlin Wall. Columbia University accepted the book as a dissertation and awarded Dr. Smith a PhD in 1964 in the field of public law and government.
He taught at Dartmouth College before joining the faculty of Toronto University in 1965, eventually becoming a dual citizen of Canada and the United States. After 35 years, he moved to Marshall University, which was named for 19th-century Chief Justice John Marshall. Dr. Smith published a well-regarded biography of Marshall in 1996 and held the university’s John Marshall professorship in political science.
During his 12 years at Marshall, where he taught both graduate and undergraduate courses, Dr. Smith wrote several books, composing in longhand on legal pads. He was also a visiting scholar at Columbia and Georgetown universities.
Among his books was a 1990 biography of Lucius D. Clay, a U.S. Army general who was a key figure in the Berlin Airlift after World War II and in developing the government and financial system of West Germany, the democratic half of the divided postwar German state.
Dr. Smith’s final book, “The Liberation of Paris,” about how Allied forces drove Nazi occupiers out of Paris in 1944, was published in July.
Survivors include his wife since 1959, the former Christine Zinsel, of Huntington; two children, Sonja Bauer of Washington and Christopher Smith of San Francisco; and four grandchildren.
Dr. Smith was reluctant to rate presidents, but he believed that Franklin Roosevelt — “too talented to be confined by the circumstances of his birth” — was the most gifted natural politician in U.S. history.
Even when entertaining Britain’s King George VI, he had the common touch, He served hot dogs to the king, but Roosevelt’s mother cautioned him against making cocktails, noting that there was only one proper beverage for royalty.
“ ‘Mother says we should have tea,’ Roosevelt told the King,” Dr. Smith wrote. “ ‘My mother would have said the same thing,’ His Majesty replied — at which point FDR reached for the martini shaker.”