In 2003, five years after Paul Reid wrote a newspaper article about William Manchester and his old Marine Corps pals, the historian asked The Palm Beast Post reporter a question: was he ready for a life-changing assignment?
The first two volumes of The Last Lion, Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill, had been published in 1983 and 1988, but the author’s toils on the last book in the trilogy had faltered after he suffered a pair of strokes. Another writer would have to take over.
In the years since their first meeting in 1998, Reid and Manchester had become close friends. Other names were floated—among them, New York Times columnist Russell Baker—but after a time Manchester decided that Reid, a World War II buff himself, should finish the epic project. The request left Reid “flabbergasted,” he says, but he agreed to take it on. He completed his first chapters in early 2004. Manchester died a few months later.
Reid would work on the book for almost another decade, and the result, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-65, is more than 1,200 pages long, a comprehensive work that follows its subject from the Battle of Britain through his death a quarter century later.
Speaking from his home in Tryon, N.C., Reid, 63, discussed the challenges that came with inheriting such a huge project. (The interview has been edited for length.)
In 2003 Manchester decided he wanted you to finish the book. What was the conversation like? What did he tell you about why he’d chosen you?
I was completely flabbergasted. He had told me over the previous couple of years, “Nobody is going to finish it, nobody could finish it.” Bill was very melodramatic, and he was saying, “I seek nothing but eternal sleep, I’m ready to go.”
I had suggested over the years—and then finally I dropped the subject—that Bill find someone to finish the book. He said, “Having someone take over this would be like a mother giving away her child.” He liked to repeat his lines just like Churchill did. And I said, “Bill, if the mother doesn’t give the child away, then they’re both going to die.”
He did say once that he didn’t want a historian, he wanted a writer—and he emphasized writer. And that was it. But I knew—he didn’t have to explain. He was a former feature writer, a reporter—the key was to tell a good story.
After the night he asked, I woke up the next morning and thought, “Jesus, did I get this right?” It surely surprised me.
Manchester knew that you were a World War II buff, and that you were deeply interested in Churchill long before you met him.
I had read the first two volumes, plus a lot more Churchill biographies and World War II history. It’s been an abiding interest of mine since I was a little tiny kid. That’s part of the reason that I wanted to do those feature stories on Manchester.
What exactly did he hand over to you in terms of notes and other material?
Imagine a 50-page, 8 1/2 x 11 tablet. Then take another one and tape the bottom of the second one to the top of the first one. Now you’ve got a double—100-page, in effect—tablet. He would Xerox things from books, and transcripts of interviews. He’d cut and paste, and glue them onto these tablets.
You call these “clumps” in the book’s author’s note. How many of them were there?
There were about 5,000 8 ½ x 11 pages—there were about 50 clumps.
Wow. So when he gives it you, what are you thinking when you see all this material?
When he asked me, he sent me home that weekend with maybe four or five of these clumps, and six or seven books to do this audition on the Blitz. I’m not a swollen-headed guy, but I thought, “I can do this.” It took me about five months, I think, and I did about 60 pages. He asked for 25, but his agent [Don Congdon] wanted at least 60. Bill gave his agent absolute veto power, and come March (of 2004) or so, they said they liked it. And Little, Brown [his publisher] liked it.
So you’d passed the audition.
Yeah. We signed up a collaboration agreement, and a couple weeks later the publisher’s agreement. And then Bill died.
Which meant you were on your own.
And then ultimately I had to reinvent the wheel.
What do you mean?
Well, what I understood at a certain point—about two years in—was: I can’t do this with those notes. I had them put on disk—well, (that took up) 50 disks. I had a computer guy turn the disks into Word documents—and then I had 50 Word documents. I’d do a word search for de Gaulle and it would appear 1,000 times. I couldn’t collate—the notes weren’t strictly chronological, or by topic. So in one clump you might de Gaulle in 1941 in June, and then three clumps later you’d find De Galle again, a week later.
Manchester painted this picture of a melancholic Churchill, and I didn’t find that, as I told my editor early on. I said, ‘I’ve got to go with what I’ve got to go with.’
It was both linear and kaleidoscopic, if that makes any sense. There are 50 clumps and each one has 100 pages, and it just was too much. So in essence what I did was to reproduce his sources by buying the speeches, the diaries, the memoirs on Amazon, used. I’d do one scene, if you will—let’s say it’s the week of the invasion of the Soviet Union by Hitler, June 1941. I’d go through all my sources, the same ones that Bill used, just for that week. I knew what Goebbels was scribbling in his diary that week, I knew what [Gen. George] Marshall was doing, I knew what Hitler was doing. And from that I’d write a four-, five-, six-page scene, and then move on to the next one.
You mention in the book that supplemented your research by talking with people like John Keegan, the British historian, and Churchill’s grandson. How did these conversations help you?
Winston S. Churchill, the grandson, was good. He lived in Palm Beach, I lived in West Palm Beach. I met him several times as this was developing, and e-mailed and chatted over the years, and he was good on some details on his grandfather. It was the grandson who told me that, from Pearl Harbor onward, Churchill kept a wary eye cocked on the Soviets. He knew, Churchill did, that that was where the next problem was going to come from. Of course he’s banging his grandfather’s drum—I had to verify that with other sources, but that was the case.
I spoke with Churchill’s daughter, Lady Soames, three, four or five times. She wrote me a nice seven-page letter answering a bunch of questions I had about details—Christmas presents, little things like that.
What did Keegan tell you?
He was getting on [Ed. note: John Keegan died in August], and he was encouraging, and he said, much the same as Bill and other people—and I knew this going in—“It’s a biography, Mr. Reid, not a history of World War II. But get your history right or else you’ll hear about it for the rest of your life.”
Along with the clumps, Manchester left you with about 100 written pages, is that right?
He had about 200 typewritten pages double-spaced, which turned into about 100 pages. They’re not linear in the book, but they mostly fall together. His 100 pages might begin around page 35 and they might go to about page 140, 150. His pages went up to September of 1940, the start of the Blitz.
So you have the clumps and the research you did to supplement them. And then you sit down and write for the next seven years or so?
Pretty much from June ’04 to the galleys coming in, in June 2012. Eight years.
What was typical day, if there was such a thing?
Well, we had moved from Florida to the foothills of the Blue Ridge here (in North Carolina). I had, I think, five pine farm tables arrayed in a big giant U in a particular room, and I had all my sources and books on them, and Bill’s clumps, but the clumps saw less and less use. And I had notes—for this week, must do: Churchill’s 65th birthday.
How long did you expect all of this to take?
Bill Manchester had told me and Little, Brown and his agent that it would take two years, maybe three. I think if Bill was young, healthy, at the top of his game, he would’ve been looking at four or five years, as he did with the other two volumes. So at about the three- or four-year point, I thought I was about halfway or more through, and it turned out that was about right.
Did you ever feel like you wouldn’t finish?
No. At a certain point my editor and I were exchanging 100 pages at a time, and he was very complimentary and encouraging. He told me, “Quit with the metaphors, Paul.” Manchester and Churchill both loved metaphors, and we finally made an agreement, Bill (Phillips) and I: Just write this in a 21st-century voice, if you will, versus Bill Manchester’s mid-20th century voice. There are some stylistic differences. Some of my paragraphs are shorter than what Bill might’ve done.
Did you and Manchester come at any subjects from a different angle?
On Churchill’s drinking and his so-called depression, Bill Manchester and I are on opposite ends. Manchester painted this picture of a melancholic Churchill, and I didn’t find that, as I told my editor early on. I said, “I’ve got to go with what I’ve got to go with.” But I did find him to drink more than Bill Manchester did. Churchill’s family, they say, “He sipped one weak scotch and soda all day.” Well yes he did, supplemented with beers and wine and Cointreau and Champagne.
The book’s about 1,200 pages. Did you always know it would be this long?
It’s only 1,050 of text. In volumes one and two they doubled up Bill’s endnotes so that there are two columns on each page. If they had done volume one, endnote-wise, like they did this one, it might’ve been 1,000 pages.
It’s longer, no doubt about it, but it was the part of the story that Manchester readers were waiting for, I couldn’t do a 600-page finish up job. It had to be what it was. And I cut 35,000 or 40,000 words.