A Roaring Conclusion the Final Volume of the Late William Manchester's Epic Biography of Churchill Is Ably Finished by Paul Reid

By Carpenter, Mackenzie | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), December 9, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Roaring Conclusion the Final Volume of the Late William Manchester's Epic Biography of Churchill Is Ably Finished by Paul Reid


Carpenter, Mackenzie, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


"THE LAST LION: WINSTON SPENCER CHURCHILL, DEFENDER OF THE REALM, 1940-1965"

By William Manchester and Paul Reid.

Little, Brown ($40).

Winston Churchill-philes are a voracious lot. We can never get enough of the 20th century's greatest leader, the man of so many brilliant words who -- to put it simply -- saved Western civilization from the forces of evil. We will greedily devour any book that comes our way about this pugnacious, mercurial, heroic World War II leader. But for much of the past two decades, we've been feeling a little -- hungry.

Now, finally, comes the feast: The conclusion of William Manchester's "The Last Lion," brought to fruition by Paul Reid, enlisted as collaborator and co-author before Manchester's death in 2004. This third and final volume, "Defender of the Realm," picks up in 1940 as the once-reviled Churchill at last strides out of the political wilderness into greatness and history.

As such books go (and there are about 650 Churchill biographies out there), Manchester's have always been regarded as the best of their kind. The first two volumes -- "Visions of Glory: 1874-1932" (1983) and "Alone: 1932-1940" (1988) -- were best-sellers. Anyone who remembers how she felt after finishing "Alone" -- exhilarated by Manchester's addictively readable prose and deep understanding of his subject -- will feel sated, at last.

And yet "Defender of the Realm," as wonderful as it is, doesn't really seem to be written by the same William Manchester who enthralled readers with "The Death of a President" -- the authorized account of John F. Kennedy's assassination -- and 17 other highly regarded books, including "The Glory and the Dream," an early 20th- century history, and "American Caesar," a biography of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Then again, the first 200 pages or so of this enormous volume (1,100 pages) contains many of Manchester's writerly touches: Many horrors lay ahead for Britain in 1940, the book notes on page 37, but the spring that year "was that rarity, a genuine idyll, a blessed time of crystal-clear air, of radiant mornings, gentle twilights, and of soft, balmy evenings, when a delicate bluish moisture fell on orchards and gardens."

Then, on page 164, the sights and sounds of a Luftwaffe air raid: "the odd crumping of the discharged bombs, their whistling as they fell, the stench of cordite, and, later, the odor of gas escaping in the shattered buildings -- and then the buildings burning in the quenchless flames of hell."

If that isn't William Manchester's writing, I'll eat my hat.

Then again, we'll never really know, and therein lies a tale: After four years of writing the second volume of "The Last Lion," the 66-year-old author was exhausted. He took a break and wrote a terrific history about the Middle Ages ("A World Lit Only by Fire"), even as he struggled with writer's block.

By 1998, after the death of his wife, Manchester was crippled by two strokes. His publishers tried to get him to complete "The Last Lion," but it was too late -- he had completed the research but had neither the strength nor focus to continue. He auditioned other authors -- Pulitzer Prize-winning author Diane McWhorter ("Carry Me Home") was briefly considered but discarded after Manchester decided she wasn't sufficiently worshipful of Churchill.

He decided to tap Mr. …

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