Flexner, James Thomas

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Flexner, James Thomas

(b. 13 January 1908 in New York City; d. 13 February 2003 in New York City), writer, art historian, and award-winning biographer of George Washington.

James Carey Thomas Flexner was the son of Simon Flex-ner, a pathologist, bacteriologist, and first full director of the Rockefeller Institute; and Helen (Thomas) Flexner, a member of the English department at Bryn Mawr College and an aspiring writer. He also had an older brother. Flexner gained an appreciation for self-made men from his father, with whom he eventually coauthored a book on the history of medicine in America, while he derived his love of literature and art from his mother.

Flexner attended the Lincoln School, a laboratory school founded in 1917 for experimentation with progressive education methods associated with Teachers College, Columbia University. Small in size and hampered by a form of dyslexia, Flexner was at first a self-admitted pariah at the school but eventually shone as a poet and editor of a literary magazine. In his senior year he took a leave of absence from the Lincoln School to tour Egypt and western Europe. In Italy he explored the museums and galleries of Florence with the famous art historian Bernard Berenson, the husband of his mother’s first cousin and a significant influence on his later work in art history. Flexner graduated from the Lincoln School in 1925 and entered Harvard University. Majoring in English, he published some poetry and started a novel but did not take any courses in art history during his undergraduate years. He graduated from Harvard with a BS magna cum laude (with high honors) in 1929.

After his graduation Flexner began working as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, reporting on everything from art shows to the Democratic political machine known as Tammany Hall. Working at the Tribune, however, left Flexner little time for his own writing. In 1931 he took what he thought would be a part-time job as the executive secretary of the Noise Abatement Commission of the New York City Department of Health. Flexner left the position after six months because, as he put it in his autobiography, “[he was] more interested in understanding people’s predilections than changing them.” In 1932 he sailed back to Europe with the idea of completing his first novel.

Flexner returned from Europe a year later, however, with a still-unfinished manuscript. His next novel made the rounds of New York publishing houses without success. At this point his father suggested that he write short biographies of eminent physicians who had pioneered discoveries in medicine. Seizing on his father’s suggestion, Flexner published Doctors on Horseback: Pioneers of American Medicine in 1937. The book was well received by both critics and the general public. Established as a writer, he married Agnes Halsey on 28 September 1939 and moved near New Haven, Connecticut. That same year he published America’s Old Masters, which focused on the lives of several notable eighteenth-century painters: Benjamin West, John Singleton Copley, Charles Wilson Peale, and Gilbert Stuart.

Flexner’s writing career continued to flourish in the 1940s as he alternated between group biographies and books on the history of American art. In 1944 he published Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action, a study of the lives of the inventors James Rumsey, John Fitch, and Robert Fulton. Flexner’s efforts to stimulate interest in American painting resulted in First Flowers of Our Wilderness (1947), the first of a three-volume history of American painting. Flexner moved back to New York City at the end of World War II in 1945. By the end of the 1940s he had divorced his first wife. He then married Beatrice Hudson, a singer, on 2 August 1950. The couple had one child, born in 1953.

In the 1950s Flexner continued to pursue his twin interests in biography and art history. His biographical works in this period included The Traitor and the Spy: Benedict Arnold and John André (1953), the story of the complex relationships among Benedict Arnold, Peggy Shippen, a Philadelphia heiress who became Arnold’s second wife, and John André, who had been a friend of Shippen in Philadelphia. In 1959 Flexner published Mohawk Baronet: Sir William Johnson of New York, a biography of an Irish immigrant who became the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the decades preceding the American Revolution. Flexner’s art books of the 1950s included The Pocket History of American Painting (1950) and The Light of Distant Skies, 1760–1835 (1954), his second volume on the history of American art.

In 1961 Flexner was approached by Little, Brown and Co., a publishing house in Boston, to write a one-volume biography of George Washington. He agreed, provided that the company in turn would publish his third volume on the history of American painting. That Wilder Image: The Painting of America’s Native School from Thomas Cole to Winslow Homer appeared in 1962 and won Flexner the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians. But it was the biography of Washington, expanded to four volumes published between 1965 and 1972, that became Flexner’s lasting claim to fame as a historian. Seeking to break away from the image of a superhuman hero that had dominated many earlier studies of the first president, Flexner presented Washington’s life as the triumph of reason over emotion. Thus in his first volume, George Washington: The Forge of Experience, 1732–1775 (1965), he highlighted the young Washington’s relationship with Sally Fairfax, the wife of his best friend, George William Fairfax. Washington had had an intense though unconsummated affection for Mrs. Fairfax before turning to military matters and affairs of state. Flexner won the National Book Award for biography and a special Pulitzer Prize citation for the final volume of his life of Washington, George Washington: Anguish and Farewell, 1793–1799 (1972).

Flexner later published a one-volume life of the president, titled Washington: The Indispensable Man, in 1974. This shorter biography became the basis of a television miniseries, George Washington, which aired on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in 1984. The series received a Peabody Award as well as high ratings. A sequel, George Washington II: The Forging of a Nation, aired on CBS in 1986. Sandwiched between these television projects were Flexner’s biographies of Alexander Hamilton (The Young Hamilton, a Biography, 1978); a Revolutionary War Tory (States Dyckman, American Loyalist, 1980); and his own parents (An American Saga: The Story of Helen Thomas and Simon Flexner, 1984).

In 1996 Flexner published the story of his own life, Maverick’s Progress: An Autobiography. In it he recounted his running battles with academic historians who he believed had dismissed him unfairly as an untutored amateur. In a career that spanned over sixty years, Flexner wrote twenty-six books, all in print as of the early 2000s. He made significant contributions to the history of medical science as well as to the history of American art. His biography of Washington remains the most popular multivolume study of the great leader. Throughout Flexner’s life, he wrote with a clarity and grace that many an academic historian might envy.

Flexner’s full-length autobiography, Maverick’s Progress: An Autobiography, is an accessible, informative, and entertaining account of both his personal and professional life. Some of the magazine articles and other shorter pieces collected in his last book, Random Harvest (1998), contain autobiographical reminiscences. An obituary is in the New York Times (16 Feb. 2003). The Archives of American Art, a research repository affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, has several interviews with Flexner in its oral history collection.

Rubil Vãsquez Morales