William Manchester: the sad end of a great writer

September 1, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

William Manchester was a magnificent writer and historian whose subjects were amazingly interesting. He made them more so.

Manchester is the author of the three-volume biography of Winston Churchill (referred to in a number of previous posts including here and here), The Last Lion.

Manchester reached the peak of prominence in the 1960s when he was designated by the Kennedy family to write about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. Manchester was given access to the Kennedy family to conduct his research, but once he wrote his manuscript, controversy ensued. Robert Kennedy did not like the way he portrayed Lyndon Johnson, and Jacqueline Kennedy objected to some of the passages about her. She sued to stop publication of the book.

Negotiations with the family led to Manchester’s cutting some passages of the book, and when Death of a President was published in 1967, it was a best-seller.

Manchester loved to write and could do so for days on end — literally. He once wrote for three days and nights, breaking briefly to eat small cups of yogurt from a refrigerator in his office. In all, he produced 18 books with a writing style noted for bringing a subject to life and imbuing a story with dramatic flares. His first two volumes of the Churchill biography were wildly popular and gained something a cult-like following.

While writing the third, however, Manchester suffered the death of his wife in 1998 and then two debilitating strokes. In 2001, he announced that he would be unable to finish the third volume. The New York Times article about this announcement, quoted below, tells the sad story.

Most frustrating, he says, is the loss of his subject: the grand and tumultuous figure of Winston Churchill, whose life and times Mr. Manchester brought into dramatic focus, has slipped away without a proper finish. For the 20-plus years that the pairing lasted, Mr. Manchester and Churchill seemed a nearly perfect fit: the eminent, enthusiastic biographer chasing the brilliant and relentless wartime leader. Source: Ailing Churchill Biographer Says He Can’t Finish Trilogy – The New York Times

Manchester finally asked Paul Reid, a friend and writer in Florida, to finish the last volume. Manchester died at the age of 82 in 2004.

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