August 14, 2001
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Ailing Churchill Biographer Says He Can't Finish Trilogy
By DEXTER FILKINS
MIDDLETOWN, Conn. -- Several times a month the phone rings at the New York offices of Little, Brown, the publishing house, with each of the callers posing an insistent and nearly identical question. When, the queries go, will William Manchester finally finish the third and final volume of "The Last Lion," his hugely successful biography of Winston Churchill? "The only question we get more often is, 'Will you publish my manuscript?'" said Ryan Harbage, an assistant editor at Little, Brown.
Mr. Manchester, whose first two volumes rank among the most popular biographical works of recent years, receives similar calls and letters at his home in Middletown, a quiet university city about 90 miles north of Manhattan. And it stings, Mr. Manchester says, each time he delivers the answer.
"I have to tell them the book is not coming out," he said in an interview at his home. "I tell them I just can't do it." Felled by two strokes after the death of his wife in 1998, Mr. Manchester, who is 79, says he has tried several times to kick-start the writing of the final Churchill book, of which he has completed 237 pages. He is skeptical of his publisher's suggestion that he finish the book with a collaborator, and he says he has finally surrendered to the conclusion that his body is too feeble and his mind too diminished to carry on with the project.
"Language for me came as easily as breathing for 50 years, and I can't do it anymore," he said, seated on the couch in his den. "The feeling is indescribable." Once able to write and work for days on end without sleep, Mr. Manchester says he now needs a full day to compose a letter to a friend. The author of 18 books, including "The Death of a President" and "American Caesar," Mr. Manchester now struggles to follow the plots of the television dramas he has begun, for the first time in his life, to watch.
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.
"I try not to think about it," Mr. Manchester said, his partly completed manuscript on the coffee table. "There is nothing I can do." Mr. Manchester's enfeeblement cuts short an ambitious literary enterprise, begun nearly 25 years ago, that spawned an enormous and nearly cultlike following. The first two volumes, "Visions of Glory" (1983) and "Alone" (1988), total 1,729 pages. Together they sold about 400,000 hardback copies, said Roger Donald, the former publisher of Little, Brown and Mr. Manchester' s editor for years. The hardbacks and the paperback editions are both still in print. When the United States Navy commissioned the guided-missile destroyer Winston Churchill two years ago, it installed signed copies of each of Mr. Manchester's Churchill volumes in the ship's library.
Mr. Manchester's Churchill stood apart in a crowded field. Richard M. Langworth, the editor of Finest Hour, the quarterly journal of the Churchill Center in Washington, says Churchill biographies number about 650, including Martin Gilbert's eight volumes and more than a dozen memoirs that Churchill wrote himself. Mr. Langworth attributes the success of "The Last Lion" to Mr. Manchester's stirring prose.
"He has brought more people to Winston Churchill than all the others combined," Mr. Langworth said.
While reviews of the first two Churchill books were often at odds - Time magazine named "Alone" one of the best nonfiction books of the 1980's, while a critic writing in The New York Review of Books described it as "hackneyed, coarse and hyperbolic" - their popular success fueled enormous anticipation for the third book.
As the years passed, the expectation spawned a kind of collective vigil, with fans speculating on the book's arrival date and the reasons for the delay. Even today Little, Brown reserves a spot for Volume III on its Web page, informing readers that Mr. Manchester is "hard at work" and imploring them to "stay tuned" for an announcement. The Amazon.com message board teems with comments from Manchester fans wondering what has become of the last installment.
Mr. Manchester's illness seems to mean an unfortunate end to an extraordinary literary career. He rose to national prominence in the mid- 1960's, when he was chosen by the family of John F. Kennedy to write an account of the president's assassination. In the months before the book's publication a bitter and public dispute erupted between Mr. Manchester and the president's widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, who objected to portions of the work. The dispute was settled when Mr. Manchester agreed to delete or modify several passages that Mrs. Kennedy had found objectionable. "The Death of a President" sold about 1.3 million copies in hardback.
By the time he fell ill, Mr. Manchester had completed about 100,000 words of the third Churchill volume, "Defender of the Realm." It picks up where Volume II left off, with Churchill about to become prime minister of Britain in May 1940 as France was collapsing before the Nazi onslaught. It fades out with Churchill rallying his countrymen during the Blitz.
Mr. Manchester pronounces the part of the manuscript he has completed "in pretty good shape," and indeed it is written in his signature dramatic style. A section on the fall of France closes with Charles de Gaulle, then a member of the French government, rushing aboard a departing British airplane as his French colleagues prepared to surrender.
For Mr. Manchester the decision to give up "The Last Lion" contains personal and historical ironies. As a young man he sat at the bedside of the ailing H. L. Mencken, the American polemicist who was the subject of Mr. Manchester 's first book, "Disturber of the Peace." Like Mr. Manchester, Mencken had suffered a stroke, although Mencken's was more severe. Mr. Manchester says he read to his friend and mentor nearly every day in the last year of his life. Mencken died in 1956.
Unlike Mencken, Mr. Manchester can still read and retain information. In casual conversation he recalls events from long ago with great exactness. In vivid detail, for instance, he described lying in a cave on the shores of Okinawa 56 years ago, a marine exhausted after a battle, watching the Japanese kamikazes crash into the American ships offshore.
But he says his memory is no longer the vast storehouse that it once was.
And he says he can no longer summon the energy, mental or physical, to engage in the more strenuous activity of writing. As a result, Mr. Manchester says, he has not visited his office at Wesleyan University here, where he is professor emeritus of history, for three years.
"I used to write, be able to think, a dozen paragraphs ahead; I would jot down little symbols to remind me what was coming next," Mr. Manchester said.
"I couldn't write fast enough." Holed up in his office, Mr. Manchester says, he would often work for 50 hours at a stretch, pausing occasionally to have one of the small containers of yogurt he kept in a tiny refrigerator there.
"I would work all day, all night, all the next day, all the following night and into the third day," Mr. Manchester said. "I would look up at the clock, and it would be 3:30 in the afternoon, and I would say, 'Oh boy, I've got three more hours to write.' I just loved it." But now when Mr. Manchester sits down to compose a sentence, he sees only confusion.
"I can't put things together; I can't make the connections," he said, pounding out his sentences with tightened lips, shaking his head as he spoke. "I just can't do it." Today, paralyzed in his left leg from the strokes, he walks with the aid of a cane or his nurse. He swims three days a week at a local pool. He has just completed reading "The Heart of the Sea," a nonfiction book about a disaster aboard a 19th-century whaling vessel. Some of his old Marine buddies dropped by, and he recently sat through a showing of the movie "Pearl Harbor." "The historical errors are just outrageous," he said.
There is still some chance that a version of the third volume of "The Last Lion" will ultimately be published. Earlier this month, after Little, Brown' s publisher, Michael Pietsch, trekked to Middletown, Mr. Manchester agreed to consider collaborating with another writer to finish the book. Mr. Manchester says he has received about a dozen inquiries from would-be collaborators but has so far refused them all.
On some days, he says, his incapacity to write plunges him into a nearly fathomless despair, while on other days, he is able to fight his despairing thoughts to a standstill.
"My wife is gone, and I can no longer write," Mr. Manchester said. "If I believed in the power of prayer, I would pray every day that he carry me away."