American history, biographies, book reviews, Charles Neu, Colonel House, Edward House, Woodrow Wilson
Colonel House: A Biography of Woodrow Wilson’s
by Charles Neu
Oxford University Press
Published: December 2014
“Colonel House: A Biography of Woodrow Wilson’s Silent Partner” by Charles Neu is the product of a deep four-decade interest in his subject. Neu graduated from Northwestern University and received a PhD from Harvard University. He has taught at Rice University and is currently Professor Emeritus of History at Brown University. His next book “The Wilson Circle: President Woodrow Wilson and His Advisers” is due out February 2022.
Anyone exploring the presidency of Woodrow Wilson will encounter, and be fascinated by, Edward M. House (1858-1938). Known honorifically as “Colonel House” he was a wealthy Texan with a penchant for political advice whose national career was launched after meeting Woodrow Wilson. House acted as his presidential adviser and close confidante for nearly a decade…until Wilson’s second wife helped catalyze the dissolution of their relationship toward the end of his presidency.
Neu’s biography carefully documents the major moments of House’s life with a decided emphasis on his years spent dishing out political advice – first to Texas gubernatorial candidates and later to Wilson. Neu’s research relies extensively on the “House Papers” at Yale University, memoirs of House’s contemporaries and interviews with several people who knew him personally.
Because of the nature of the relationship between Wilson and Colonel House, this book is almost as much about the Wilson presidency as it is about House’s life during those years. And because House was so consumed by his role in Wilson’s orbit there is relatively little in the narrative pertaining to the Colonel’s personal life or family members.
Anyone with an interest in Wilson’s presidency will find this book riveting since it provides a unique behind-the-scenes perspective on those years. And readers wishing to observe the diplomatic machinations of World War I (or the ensuing Paris Peace Conference) from an advantaged perch will also find the narrative especially enlightening.
Readers familiar with Robert Caro’s series on Lyndon Johnson will also see hints of that author’s talent for investigative prowess embedded in these pages…but without Caro’s famous verbosity. And among the many moments of merit are a chapter cementing House’s relationship with president-elect Wilson, countless pages documenting House’s meetings with European leaders on Wilson’s behalf and portions of the story which explain House’s falling out with President Wilson.
Finally, this impressively detailed account of Colonel House’s life is uncommonly balanced for a biography that relies so heavily on a subject’s diary and letters. One can be certain that House would have preferred a less objective appraisal of his strengths and weaknesses from his biographer.
But readers seeking a spellbinding tale of diplomacy and sagacious political advice are likely to leave this biography feeling disappointed. Neither Colonel House nor Woodrow Wilson are lively, colorful characters and Neu’s writing style does not noticeably animate them or the often serious scenes about which he writes.
In addition, little seems to be known of House’s early years. The first two decades of his life are captured in just a few pages and he meets and marries his wife within a single paragraph. And for all the effort directed at his public career, his personal life receives almost no attention. In the end, Colonel House comes across as an intriguing but sterile two-dimensional figure whose persona is never fully revealed.
Overall, Charles Neu’s biography of Colonel Edward House is a methodical, well researched and judicious review of the life of Woodrow Wilson’s most important political adviser. Although this book is consistently excellent as history it is never fully satisfying as literature. But whatever its imperfections may be this seems certain to be the definitive biography of Edward M. House for the foreseeable future.
Overall rating: 3½ stars