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Joseph E. Persico dies at 84; historian, biographer of FDR

Joseph E. Persico dies at 84; historian, biographer of FDR
Joseph Persico, shown in 1995, wrote about military history, espionage and the intrigue of those who pulled the levers of power behind the scenes. (Jim McKnight / Associated Press)

Joseph E. Persico, a historian and biographer whose books on subjects ranging from the Nuremberg trials to the life of Gen. Colin Powell combined dogged research with a novelist's narrative skills, died Aug. 30 at a hospital in Albany, N.Y., after a long illness. He was 84.

A speechwriter for Nelson A. Rockefeller before he turned full-time to writing books, Persico was particularly interested in military history, espionage and the intrigue of those who pulled the levers of power behind the scenes.

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Three of his 12 books plumbed the political and personal life of Franklin D. Roosevelt. They include "Franklin & Lucy (2009), an examination of the president's long affair with Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd. "Roosevelt's Centurions," a detailed history of Roosevelt's World War II commanders published last year, was his last and most ambitious book.

His work reached the best-seller list and the TV screen. His 1994 book "Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial" was made into a two-part miniseries that aired on Turner Network Television in 1999 and starred Alec Baldwin and Christopher Plummer. His collaboration with Powell, "My American Journey" (1995) reportedly sold more than 1 million copies.

The son of glove makers, Persico was born July 19, 1930, in Gloversville, N.Y., and graduated with a bachelor's degree in English and political science from the New York State College for Teachers in 1952 (now the University at Albany, SUNY).

He served in the Navy during the Korean War, then worked for the U.S. Information Agency before becoming a speechwriter for New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller in 1966. When Rockefeller became vice president under President Gerald Ford in 1974, Persico went with him to Washington.

In 1977 he quit politics to write full time. His first biography was "The Imperial Rockefeller: A Biography of Nelson A. Rockefeller" (1982), which Newsweek praised as "the most personal portrait to date … full of useful insights and punctuated by very funny anecdotes."

Persico also wrote "Casey: From the OSS to the CIA" (1990), a portrait of CIA director William J. Casey. Persico had nearly unlimited access to Casey's files, family and friends, resulting in what Daniel Schorr, reviewing the work for the Los Angeles Times, called "a fascinating warts-and-all picture, sympathetic but not sycophantic."

His collaboration with Powell was widely praised as a highly readable account of the four-star general's early life and military career, released at a time when he was rumored to be considering a run for the presidency. "Reading this skillful narrative … you will cheer Mr. Powell on as he shoots up the Army's career pole, accumulating medals and stars all along the way," Ronald Steel wrote in the New York Times.

Persico said his shortest writing assignment was his toughest: He was chosen to write the words etched into an 18-foot-long granite slab at the entrance to the National World War II Memorial in Washington.

He settled on seven words: "Here we mark the price of freedom."

Persico displayed a prototype of the carved stone in his home in Guilderland, N.Y.

He was married for 56 years to Sylvia LaVista, a textile artist. She survives him along with daughters Vanya Perez and Andrea Holder; a brother, Richard Persico; a sister, Annabelle Townson; and five grandchildren.

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