James Thomas Flexner received the Academy’s Gold Medal for Biography in 1988 at the age of eighty. His life spanned nine-tenths of the 20th century and spilled over for a couple of years into the unhappy century of the 21st. He was born on January 13, 1908—a birth date shared, though in other years, with such notable contributors to American cultural life as Horatio Alger and Sophie Tucker. So much for astrology.
Jimmy has told the story of his long and lively life in his rich, racy, and readable memoir, published in 1996, Maverick’s Progress. Following his admirable example, I too began a memoir. When Jimmy used to ask me how it was coming, he would very often add, “How are you handling your love affairs?” I would reply that I was modeling myself on his treatment of this delicate subject in Maverick’s Progress, a book to be read for other reasons as well as for its ardent romantic interludes.
Jimmy was born in this city and after Harvard, class of ’29, he began his writing career in the Great Depression as a reporter for the late, still lamented, New York Herald Tribune. He came to history as, so to speak, a non-professional, or rather as a gentleman scholar, a familiar 19th-century type, less familiar in the 21st century. He had no Ph.D., no academic post, no monographic bibliography, nothing to qualify as an historian but acute intelligence, discriminating judgment, a loving curiosity about the past, a passion for research, a talent for portraiture, and great literary flair.
As a non-pro, he was not intimidated by the conventions and priorities of the historical guild. He wrote about what interested him and what the guild had overlooked and neglected. He thereby opened up—so to speak, created—new fields for historical investigation: the history of American medicine and the history of American painting.
Jimmy came from a medical family. His father Simon Flexner was a noted pathologist and bacteriologist and director of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. Jimmy’s first book was Doctors on Horseback: Pioneers of American Medicine in 1937, and he followed this by a study, written in collaboration with his father, about his father’s teacher, William Henry Welch and the Heroic Age of American Medicine.
In the meantime, encouraged by Bernard Berenson, Jimmy indulged a hobby of his own by beginning a series of books about American painting and painters—an impressive three-volume history—along with books about John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, and Winslow Homer. He soon turned to another neglected field—the history of American invention with special notice of Robert Fulton in Steamboats Come True (1944).
By this time he was thoroughly hooked by the personalities and problems of the early Republic and he began work on his majestic 4-volume biography on the dominating figure of George Washington. The four volumes were later condensed for slow readers in the one volume Washington: The Indispensable Man. He also wrote about the young Alexander Hamilton and the Revolution’s anti-hero Benedict Arnold.
He set forth his historian’s credo in his introduction to Washington: The Indispensable Man:
To find again the American ideals we have lost, we may not return to our national beginnings with the blinded eyes of idolatry or chauvinism. Let us examine deeply every flaw, every area, where George Washington and his fellow founding fathers were untrue to what they professed. Let us examine Washington not as the spotless figure delineated by infantile fantasies or by self-seeking wavers of the flag. Let us determine without prejudice exactly what happened, exactly how men behaved. If we do this, we shall, so I am profoundly convinced, find, in the dark valley where we often stand, inspiration.
His contribution is immense to our understanding of the American past, especially to the origins of the republic and to the nation’s medical and artistic development, and therefore to our understanding of ourselves. And his contribution to the delights of life was also immense. With his generous nature, his genial wit, his merry heart and his kindness to the young, he was the most beloved of men.
I have no doubt that his spirit is hovering over us all, watching the proceedings with that familiar endearing expression, quizzical but benign—and very likely watching in the august company of George Washington and his supporting cast. For James Thomas Flexner was in fact a founding father manqué.