NEW YORK (Reuters) - In the late 1990s, Paul Reid, then a journalist with The Palm Beach Post, became close friends with acclaimed author and historian William Manchester after covering a reunion of Manchester’s Marine friends from World War Two.
Manchester was struggling to get the third and final volume of his Winston Churchill biography off the ground. The first two installments, released in the 1980s and coming in at close to 1,000 pages each, were critical and commercial successes.
In 2003, Manchester who was in failing health, grappling with writer’s block and unable to find a collaborator to his liking, gave Reid the toughest assignment of his life: write the final volume, with Manchester editing.
But less than a year later, Manchester died, leaving Reid with more than 5,000 pages of often opaque notes and an almost impossible legacy to fulfill.
Finally, on November 6 - almost 30 years after the first installment - the final volume was published, with Reid sharing credit on the book jacket with his late collaborator.
Reid, 63, spoke with Reuters about the book, “The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965”:
Q: What did you think when Manchester asked you to write the final volume?
A: “I knew Bill for about five years and he had mentioned some people had auditioned ... he didn’t like talking about it and I didn’t push him. I just wanted to be a friend to an old ill man. I never saw it coming at all. When he asked me in October 2003, for a couple seconds I didn’t know what he was talking about. I thought, ‘Maybe he wants me to read (novelist) Elmore Leonard to him,’ because he was reading (his book) ‘Maximum Bob.’ I was flabbergasted when he asked me.”
Q: Did you try to mimic his writing style?
A: “No. Bill’s writing style was formed in mid-20th Century. Like Stephen Ambrose or the official naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison, they saw black hats and white hats and heroes and villains and we tried to do something different. If someone said that I did a good job it would be on the storytelling, I hope. That’s what Bill Manchester did beautifully. But the style, the pace, cadence - no, I didn’t try to imitate him.”
Q: Did you feel prepared and did you find anything out about Churchill that previous biographers had not?
A: “Well, my old man went to the Naval Academy, so I felt comfortable with that and World War Two. If Bill Manchester had written two volumes of a three-volume biography of Mozart, I’m not the guy. When I started I realized, however, that it was like an onion, peeling the layers away. I had felt pretty knowledgeable, but realized quickly that I wasn’t.
“As to the second question, there are no earth-shattering revelations. I did develop perspectives that are not new, but I realized they were worth articulating. The first is that Churchill never believed the Germans were going to invade. He wanted to keep Britons on their toes and he wanted to convince the Americans that the Germans were coming.”
Q: Churchill was danger-prone and made many military mistakes. How does he compare to modern statesmen in terms of leadership, courage and recklessness?
A: “He wanted to be in all places at all times and nothing went right. Try to imagine a modern statesman who gets the big picture and messes up the small picture over and over again. He would put on his tin hat and get in his armored car and drive around London during the blitz, which was really reckless.
“I don’t think modern leaders can indulge those inclinations. The president or the UK prime minister might fly into Afghanistan unannounced with about a dozen F-16s hovering around. Churchill would’ve flown in and then got in an armored car and gone out to Kandahar. Churchill was reckless, but in his recklessness he inspired his country. I’ll stop there because I’m certainly not advocating recklessness.”
Q: Would you like to write more historical biographies?
A: “I definitely would. Who? I don’t know. I have nothing definitive in the near future, but people have said the story of the story - of how the book came about and the story of the writing - for younger writers, might be worth writing about. I hate to say memoir, but a book about the book. It was a real honor. Bill Manchester entrusted me with a mandate to not let him down, don’t let Churchill readers and fans down, and that’s what I tried to do over the last eight years, because if I didn’t get it done, it wouldn’t get done. I just tried to do my duty.”
Editing by Patricia Reaney, desking by G Crosse