The Lion is Back

The Lion is Back

“Then out spake brave Hor­atius, the Cap­tain of the Gate.” William Manchester’s inscrip­tion, quot­ing Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, a Churchill favorite, on my sec­ond vol­ume of his Last Lion, reminds me that Bill was him­self for many of us “Cap­tain of the Gate”; and that his death in 2004 bid fair to deprive us of finale of the most lyri­cal Churchill work ever written.

Not quite. Twen­ty-four years on, Lit­tle Brown has pub­lished the third and final vol­ume of this famous biog­ra­phy, sub­ti­tled Defend­er of the Realm 1940-1965 (1232 pages, in hard­bound, Kin­dle and audio editions).

The first two vol­umes of The Last Lion,Visions of Glo­ry 1874-1932 in 1983 and Alone 1932-1940 in 1988, were pos­si­bly the most cel­e­brat­ed pop­u­lar biogra­phies of our times. More than twen­ty years in the writ­ing, Vol­ume 3 was com­plet­ed by Paul Reid, who offers a faith­ful por­trait, pos­i­tive but not with­out crit­i­cism, par­tic­u­lar­ly reveal­ing on Churchill’s rea­son­ing in his wartime deci­sions over the Sec­ond Front and relat­ed top­ics of Allied grand strategy.

On a per­son­al lev­el, too, Reid is sound, cor­rect­ly por­tray­ing Churchill as enjoy­ing alco­hol but no alco­holic, and right­ly eval­u­at­ing his men­tal state, as Jim Miller writes in a bril­liant piece in The New York Times Mag­a­zine:

After study­ing Mayo Clin­ic men­tal-health pro­to­cols and con­sult­ing oth­er experts about Churchill’s prob­a­ble state of mind, Reid came to a con­clu­sion at odds with Manchester’s opin­ion that Churchill suf­fered from men­tal ill­ness. He just lived in stress­ful and depress­ing times. “I don’t know why Man­ches­ter impart­ed that dark side to Churchill,” he says. “Every writer puts some of him­self into his sto­ry. My take on the issue of depres­sion is vast­ly dif­fer­ent than Bill’s was.”

Mr. Reid also did some­thing Mr. Man­ches­ter nev­er intend­ed: He extend­ed the book beyond 1945, to a peri­od his pre­de­ces­sor told me was superfluous—a mere coda to the epic Churchill of World War II. Paul Reid pon­dered this and decid­ed to take the sto­ry to its end, with a lit­tle (though not a lot) on Churchill’s scin­til­lat­ing per­for­mance as leader of the oppo­si­tion (1945-51), his sec­ond pre­mier­ship (1951-55), and his noble, fruit­less quest for a per­ma­nent peace.

Churchill him­self said, “noth­ing sur­pass­es 1940.” The book begins there, just after he becomes prime min­is­ter, his nation and its Com­mon­wealth alone against the over­whelm­ing might of an unde­feat­ed Ger­many. The Churchill con­jured up here is a man of indomitable courage, com­pelling intel­lect and an irre­sistible will to action. Reid explains how he orga­nized Britain’s defense, worked “to drag Amer­i­ca into the war,” and per­son­i­fied the “nev­er sur­ren­der” ethos that helped earn the vic­to­ry; then how he adapt­ed to the post­war shift of world pow­er to the U.S. and con­front­ed the ris­ing threat of the Sovi­et Union.

Bill Man­ches­ter, a Churchill Cen­tre hon­orary mem­ber and twice speak­er at its inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ences (1986, 1995) was a huge­ly suc­cess­ful pop­u­lar writer with a unique, inspir­ing style. His books include his mem­oir of the Pacif­ic War (and per­son­al favorite) Good­bye Dark­nessA World Lit Only by FireThe Glo­ry and the Dream; The Arms of KruppAmer­i­can Cae­sar; and The Death of a Pres­i­dent. His descrip­tions of climacterics—MacArthur’s vale­dic­to­ry address at West Point, Churchill dur­ing the Fall of France (“Anoth­er bloody coun­try gone west”), Lee Oswald with his gun in the school­book depos­i­to­ry at Dallas—will be quot­ed as long as Eng­lish is spoken.

Paul Reid of North Car­oli­na, for­mer­ly a long­time fea­ture writer for the Palm Beach Post, was an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist but, above all, Bill’s friend. In 1998, in the midst of research for Vol­ume 3, Man­ches­ter suf­fered two strokes that left him with men­tal fac­ul­ties but the inabil­i­ty to write. Short­ly before his death in Octo­ber 2003, he asked Paul to com­plete the vol­ume, say­ing: “I want­ed a writer, not a his­to­ri­an.” It was an infor­mal con­ver­sa­tion, Mr. Reid recalls, “sealed with a hand­shake.” Two months before Bill’s death they signed a for­mal agreement.

Reid com­plet­ed the research and trans­formed more than forty tablets of Manchester’s notes, or “clumps” as he called them, to pro­duce Defend­er of the Realm. With scores of oth­ers, I had the fun to be called on to vet his man­u­script, a review process that assured him of a vari­ety of opin­ions and reduced the chance of minor errors of fact that crept into the pre­vi­ous vol­umes. Man­ches­ter fans will find much of Bill’s trade­mark pace and cadence in this last install­ment of a clas­sic: a mes­mer­iz­ing jour­ney through what Lady Soames once called “The Saga.”

In a flour­ish suit­able to a great work, Paul Reid leaves us on Jan­u­ary 30th, 1965 with the best words Lord Moran ever wrote about his cel­e­brat­ed patient: “The vil­lage sta­tions on the way to Bladon were crowd­ed with his coun­try­men, and at Bladon in a coun­try church­yard, in the still­ness of a win­ter evening, in the pres­ence of his fam­i­ly and a few friends, Win­ston Churchill was com­mit­ted to Eng­lish earth, which in his finest hour he had held inviolate.”

Bill Man­ches­ter would like that.

2 thoughts on “The Lion is Back

  1. Richard, nice bal­anced review. Man­ches­ter and Reid’s writ­ing are so dense, I find I need to read anoth­er book or two between chap­ters to keep my san­i­ty. Nonethe­less, I wish Reid had devot­ed a lit­tle more time and space to Churchill lat­er life regard­less of what Man­ches­ter want­ed. Now that Churchillians have this long await­ed bio on their shelves, we must pon­der the fate of Jim Muller’s res­ur­rec­tion of The Riv­er War. May it hap­pen in our lifetime!

  2. Paul Reid writes: Thank you Richard, for host­ing this dis­cus­sion over the years, and for your sup­port and advice dur­ing the eight years that I worked on Defend­er of the Realm. And thank you to the read­ers of your web­site, for their sup­port, and…their patience!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *