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 Darkness; A World Lit Only by Fire; The Glory and the Dream; The Arms of Krupp; American 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”
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!
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!