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A Churchill Trilogy--Interrupted

Having suffered two strokes in recent years, William Manchester still has hope of finishing third volume of series.

August 22, 2001|KEVIN CANFIELD | HARTFORD COURANT

For three years William Manchester has known that without help, he won't be able to complete the final volume of his definitive biography of Winston Churchill. But he has not entirely given up hope that readers will get a look at the last book in the series.

Manchester, who has been in poor health since suffering two strokes in recent years, says he's not optimistic about finding a collaborator to help finish the trilogy's third book--"It's like asking a mother to let someone else raise her baby"--but he is at least considering the idea, at his publisher's request.

Little, Brown, which published the first two of Manchester's "The Last Lion" books, has declined comment on the news that the series may not be completed. But Manchester, 79, said in a phone interview from his home in Middletown, Conn., that the publisher intends to send him books written by other historians in the hope that he agrees to work with one as a collaborator.

The last, best hope for completion of "The Last Lion" series may have been lost this summer, however, when former New York Times columnist Russell Baker decided against working with Manchester.

"The only person I considered seriously was suggested by my agent," and that was Baker, Manchester said. "Russell and I were reporters together at the Baltimore Sun. We both started in September 1947, and then we went abroad as foreign correspondents, and we're still good friends. But, like me, Russell is old [in his mid-70s], and he doesn't have the energy."

A former Wesleyan University history professor, Manchester wrote several of the nation's most revered nonfiction books, among them "The Death of a President," his account of John F. Kennedy's assassination. He had long been considered a dean of American historians by the time the first of "The Last Lion" books, "Visions of Glory: 1874-1932," was published in 1983. The second book in his Churchill series, "Alone: 1932-1940," came out in 1988.

His work on the biography of the wartime British prime minister has been the consuming professional passion of the last quarter of Manchester's life. He began preparing to write the series in 1979, completing the research for all three books by the early '80s.

"All the research was complete on the third volume," Manchester said. "The notes were organized. Everything was done except the writing."

Though he has written close to 240 pages of the final volume, Manchester said it is not close to being finished. He said it would have to be in excess of 1,000 pages to take Churchill through World War II and beyond.

Churchill was a figure who, to an extent, altered the course of Manchester's life. "I was a teenager in the 1930s when pacifism and isolationism were very strong, but I was very much in favor of fighting Hitler, so I admired Churchill," he said. "I joined the Marines because the Marines had been the first Americans to fight the Germans in World War I."

Manchester spent three years in the service and was wounded twice on the Japanese island of Okinawa in 1945. In 1953, Manchester was a young reporter shipping off for an overseas assignment when he met Churchill.

"I was going abroad as a young correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, and by chance my stateroom was next to the prime minister's suite. It was room number M101. By chance, his personal secretary had read the first edition of my first book [the H.L. Mencken biography 'Disturber of the Peace'] coming over on the ship. He arranged the meeting, and then I had dinner with Churchill on the Queen Mary."

Word that he might not complete the series has become an international story, but Manchester says it has been an open secret for some time. Readers have asked often in recent years when the last book would be published, and Manchester said he has told each of them that he does not believe that will happen.

Largely bedridden, Manchester said he still reads, but hasn't done any serious writing since 1998, when his wife, Judy, died and his serious health problems began.

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