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Writer Chronicled Lives in Detail-Rich Portraits

June 02, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

William Manchester, the eminent popular historian and biographer best known for his detail-rich and highly readable books chronicling the life of Winston Churchill and the death of John F. Kennedy, died Tuesday at his home in Middletown, Conn. He was 82.

Manchester, professor emeritus of history at Wesleyan University in Middletown, had suffered two strokes in the late 1990s.

In a literary career that spanned five decades, the onetime Baltimore Sun foreign correspondent wrote 18 books, including popular histories on the Middle Ages and mid-20th century America; biographies of H.L. Mencken, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Rockefellers and others; four novels, and a World War II memoir as a twice-wounded Marine Corps veteran of the fighting in Okinawa.

"It would be impossible to find somebody writing narrative popular biographies that doesn't have a debt to William Manchester," biographer Douglas Brinkley recently told The Times.

Brinkley, director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies and a professor of history at the University of New Orleans, said Manchester was a "conscious literary stylist" who realized that history was like telling stories in front of a roaring fire.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 05, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Manchester obituary -- The obituary of historian William Manchester in Wednesday's Section A stated that he entered the University of Massachusetts after graduating from high school in 1940. The campus was called Massachusetts State College at the time.

"He understood that there's nothing wrong with writing history as being a page-turner," Brinkley said.

Manchester already had seven books behind him, including "Portrait of a President: John F. Kennedy in Profile," when Jacqueline Kennedy selected him in early 1964 to write the authorized account of President Kennedy's assassination in Dallas less than three months earlier.

Published in 1967 after a high-profile literary controversy in which the president's widow filed, then withdrew, a suit to prevent the book's publication, "The Death of a President" became an immediate bestseller.

The result of exhaustive research and interviews, the 710-page book not only told readers what happened during the days leading up to and after the assassination but, as writer Jerzy Kosinski noted, it told you "how it felt while it was happening."

Essayist and critic Clifton Fadiman agreed. "Its supreme value for the general reader can be stated simply: 'You are there,' " Fadiman wrote. "The detail is so dense and well-arranged that the days, the hours, the very minutes seem to become part of one's experience."

Manchester lived to write. A pipe-smoking, bookish man given to reading German history for relaxation, he was fond of quoting his friend and mentor Mencken, who said, "Writing does for me what milking does for a cow."

Manchester, who in his prime was known to write around the clock for two days straight, continued working into his mid-70s.

But in 1998, Manchester's wife, Julia, died of a heart attack as the couple prepared to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Manchester's second stroke, soon after his wife's death, put an end to his writing career.

The stroke left Manchester paralyzed in his left leg and robbed him of the physical and mental stamina required to complete the final installment of his most ambitious literary endeavor: "The Last Lion," a three-volume biography of Winston Churchill.

Manchester began digging into Churchill's life in 1979. The first two volumes, "Visions of Glory: 1874-1932" (1983) and "Alone: 1932-1940" (1988), were bestsellers.

When he was forced to set aside the manuscript for the final volume, "Defender of the Realm," Manchester had written 225 pages of manuscript. But he was not close to completing what he envisioned would be more than 1,000 pages chronicling Churchill through World War II and beyond.

"I can't put things together; I can't make the connections. I just can't do it," a frustrated Manchester told the New York Times in 2001.

As someone for whom "language came as easily as breathing for 50 years," he said, the feeling of no longer being able to write "is indescribable."

In the ensuing years, Little, Brown & Co., his publisher, sent him books by other historians with the hope that he'd choose one as a collaborator. Manchester found none to his liking.

Less than two weeks ago, however, the publishing house announced that Manchester had signed an agreement with Paul Reid, a prize-winning feature writer for the Palm Beach Post, to help him finish the final Churchill volume. Reid, who had interviewed the author several times in recent years, was chosen after writing a 60-page sample chapter, using Manchester's detailed outline and notes.

Manchester's two published Churchill volumes joined a crowded field of some 650 biographies of Britain's wartime prime minister, but many believe Manchester's books stand out from the rest.

"In terms of writing, he's in a class by himself," said Richard Langworth, editor of Finest Hour, the quarterly journal of the Churchill Centre in Washington, D.C.

"People that don't ordinarily read history will pick up William Manchester and read him cover to cover," said Langworth. "He was a great writer, a great stylist."

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