William Manchester, 82, Renowned Biographer, Dies

By RICHARD SEVERO

Published: June 2, 2004: The New York Times

Telegraph, UK obit
 

William Manchester, a biographer who used his novelist's eye to fashion meticulously researched portraits of power, among them Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Winston Churchill and, perhaps most famously, John F. Kennedy, died yesterday at his home in Middletown, Connecticut. He was 82. Click the thumbnail for a copy of the rear cover of Goodbye, Darkness:

His death was announced by Wesleyan University, where Mr. Manchester had been writer in residence for many years. In frail health after two strokes in the last few years, Mr. Manchester had been unable to complete the third book of his Churchill trilogy, "The Last Lion," although his publisher, Little, Brown & Company, announced last month that a writer had been hired to help complete it.

Mr. Manchester's popular histories relied on exhaustive research. His recounting of minute detail was one of the hallmarks of his works, which were attempts to re-create in narrative form a feeling of immediacy: MacArthur's flight from Corregidor in 1942 in "American Caesar," the eccentricities of the family that fed the German war machine in "The Arms of Krupp, 1587-1968" or the microscopic reconstruction of the events of Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas in "The Death of a President."

It was his entree to the Kennedy family in the "age of Camelot," and, ultimately, the tragic end to Kennedy's term of office that brought Mr. Manchester his greatest visibility, and for a time, notoriety, in the form of a messy public feud with Jacqueline Kennedy, who sought to block the book and a magazine serialization.

In 1964 Mrs. Kennedy commissioned Mr. Manchester to produce an account of the assassination. She was familiar with Mr. Manchester's work mostly through his book "Portrait of a President: John F. Kennedy in Profile." Published two years earlier, it was an account of the president's first year and a half in the White House, one that many reviewers found to be adoring. Mr. Manchester had met and grown to admire Kennedy when both were recovering from war wounds in Boston.

Mrs. Kennedy promised him exclusive interviews with members of the family. The book agreement stipulated that his manuscript would be reviewed by Mrs. Kennedy and by the president's brother, Robert F. Kennedy, then attorney general and soon to become a United States senator from New York. As part of his agreement, Mr. Manchester would receive an advance of $36,000 but only against the income from the first printing. All other earnings would go the Kennedy Memorial Library.

"The Death of a President" was completed in 1966, and Mr. Manchester turned his manuscript over to his publisher, Harper & Row, and to the Kennedy family for review.

In the interim Mr. Manchester received an offer of more than $650,000 from Look magazine for first serial rights; his agent had obtained an agreement that payments for a serial would go to the author.

But Mrs. Kennedy balked at the serialization plans, saying that they smacked of rank commercialization, that she had not given her final approval and that she would seek a court injunction to block publication of the book.

Mrs. Kennedy's decision was a bombshell in the publishing world, and for weeks newspapers were filled with articles about her decision and speculation about the contents of "Death of a President," which had been eagerly awaited. Mrs. Kennedy did not say it publicly, but it was widely believed at the time that she feared that some passages in the book unsympathetic to Johnson might increase political tensions between him and Robert Kennedy, endangering Robert Kennedy's political aspirations.

In the weeks that followed, the Kennedy family resolved whatever problems it had with Mr. Manchester's book. Some deletions were made, trims that Mr. Manchester said were minimal.

Harper & Row published "Death of a President" in the spring of 1967. It became a best seller and later was given the Dag Hammarskjold International Literary Prize. It has sold more than 1.3 million copies in hardcover.

But critics were divided, and there were those who felt that Mr. Manchester, in his loyalty to the fallen Kennedy, had indeed been unfair to his successor, Johnson. Others complained of unnecessary detail and mawkish writing.

The tension between Mr. Manchester and the Kennedy family did not last. In 1968, when Robert Kennedy was making his bid for the presidency, Mr. Manchester accepted the honorary chairmanship of his local Citizens for Kennedy group.

Mr. Manchester wrote another book about President Kennedy, "One Brief Shining Moment: Remembering Kennedy" (Little, Brown, 1983). He also published a revised edition of "The Death of a President" in 1988. "Controversy and Other Essays in Journalism" (1976) includes his account of his dispute with Mrs. Kennedy

In the years that followed the uproar subsided, and Mr. Manchester turned his attention to other monumental subjects.

He was widely praised for his epic 1978 biography "American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964" (Little, Brown). Orville Schell, who reviewed it for The Saturday Review, called it spellbinding. Mr. Manchester's ability to present a nuanced portrait of a complicated larger-than-life figure impressed many critics and readers. He said he came to regard MacArthur as "the greatest strategist in American military history greater than Robert E. Lee."

Mr. Manchester was married for 50 years to Julia Brown. She died in 1988. He is survived by a brother, Robert, of Norman, Okla., and three children: John, of Conway, Mass.: Julie Manchester, of Bradenton, Fla.; Laurie Manchester, of Tempe, Ariz.; and three grandchildren.

William Manchester was born on April 1, 1922, in Attleboro, Mass., the first of two sons of William Raymond and Sallie Thompson Manchester. His father, a social worker, died when William was a teenager.

Never robust as a child, Mr. Manchester became a reader. He read books by Macaulay, Carlyle and Ruskin while he was still very young and wrote his first poems at the age of 7 and short stories at 11.

In 1940 he graduated from Classical High School in Springfield, Mass., where the family moved after Mr. Manchester's father died. He enrolled in the University of Massachusetts, majoring in English and supporting himself by working in the college store during the school year and taking summer work in a machine shop, at a Howard Johnson's restaurant and on a road gang.

He left his childhood frailty behind him and swam briefly for his college team. In 1942 he entered the Marines and received the Purple Heart for wounds received on Okinawa.

His experiences as a sergeant in the Marines is the subject of "Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War" (1980), in which he meditated on why he left a hospital where he was recovering from a superficial gunshot wound to return to combat, where he was again wounded, this time so severely that he almost died. He concluded that he returned as an act of solidarity with his comrades, because he wanted to uphold his family's military traditions, and as an act of love for his country values that he believed had diminished in postwar America.

Reviewing the memoir in The New York TimesBook Review, Ted Morgan said, "Manchester's combat writing is one of his book's strengths and stands comparison with the best" writing about war.

After his discharge, he returned to college and graduated first in his class in 1946. He moved on to the University of Missouri, where he received a master's degree in English, writing his thesis on H. L. Mencken. The thesis later became the basis for his first biography, "Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H. L. Mencken," which was published by Harper in 1951 to favorable reviews.

After a few years in daily journalism at The Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City in 1946, and at The Baltimore Sun as a local reporter and foreign correspondent from 1947 to 1954 Mr. Manchester became confidential secretary to Mencken in 1954. Mencken, who guided and encouraged Mr. Manchester, had suffered a stroke, and Mr. Manchester read him "the morning newspapers, the complete works of Conrad and Twain `Huckleberry Finn' twice and the prefaces of Shaw."

During this period Mr. Manchester tried his hand at fiction. His novel "The City of Anger," published in 1953, concerned corruption in a city much like Baltimore. Mencken died in 1956, and Mr. Manchester left Baltimore for a job as managing editor of Wesleyan University's publications office.

There he wrote a second novel, "Shadow of the Monsoon," set in India. Two years later he won a Guggenheim Fellowship and was made a resident fellow of the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan, a post he would hold for many years. His next book, in 1958, was "Beard the Lion," a mystery set in the Middle East, followed in 1961 by "The Long Gainer," about an academic scandal. His first work of nonfiction was "A Rockefeller Family Portrait," an approving study published in 1959.

In the late 70's, after "American Caesar" was published, Mr. Manchester seemed to sum up the theme of his writing career as a quest whose goal rarely varied.

The final major effort in Mr. Manchester's literary career was the Churchill trilogy, which began to emerge in 1983. The first volume was subtitled "Visions of Glory, 1874-1932." It was followed by "Alone, 1932-1940." Last week Little, Brown said Mr. Manchester had signed an agreement with Paul Reid, a writer for The Palm Beach Post who has written about Mr. Manchester, to finish Volume 3. Publication is scheduled for 2007, the publisher said.

"Power is the one thing that has fascinated me ever since I was a kid in Springfield, Mass.," he told People magazine. "What exactly is power? Where are its roots? How do some people get it and others miss it entirely? How do they hold it or lose it?"

William Manchester
(Filed: 03/06/2004) Telegraph

William Manchester, the American writer who died on Tuesday aged 82, turned out volumes of biography and history largely concerned with the challenges of power; as Dr Johnson remarked of Milton's Paradise Lost, no one ever complained they were too short.

Manchester achieved world celebrity with his Death of a President (1967), about John F Kennedy. He had, however, already published, among other books, A Rockefeller Family Portrait (1959). Later came The Arms of Krupp, 1587-1958 (1968); American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964 (1979); and the first two volumes, Visions of Glory 1874-1932 (1983) and The Caged Lion 1932-1940 (1988), of a proposed trilogy on Winston Churchill.

In the history corner, weighing in at four-and-a-half pounds and 1,397 pages, was The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972 (1975).

For Manchester, biography involved lengthy disquisitions on the prevailing social conditions and political background; conversely, the main themes of his history were supported by an avalanche of anecdote and detail. Yet if the resulting tomes seem over-written, they are rarely dull.

Perhaps Manchester's greatest achievement was Goodbye, Darkness (1981), an account of the Pacific War, in which he had fought as a young Marine. No one has better caught the horror of combat. Manchester had been a gangling, sickly youth, who had always funked fights at school. Now he found himself embroiled in the brutal fighting at Okinawa, where he was twice wounded and once given up for dead.

In a particularly memorable passage Manchester described the first time he killed a man, a Japanese sharp-shooter whom he had trapped in a shack. "He was a robin-fat, moon-faced, roly-poly little man...squeezed into a uniform that was much too tight.

"Unlike me, he was wearing a tin hat, dressed to kill. But I was quite safe from him. His Arisaka rifle was strapped in a sniper's harness. ... My first shot had missed him, but the second caught him dead-on in the femoral artery. His left thigh blossomed, swiftly turning to mush.

"Mutely he looked down at it. He dipped a hand in it and listlessly smeared his cheek red. His shoulders gave a little spasmodic jerk, as though someone had whacked him on the back; then he emitted a tremendous, raspy fart, slumped down, and died. I kept firing, wasting government property...

"I began to tremble, and next to shake all over. I sobbed, in a voice still grainy with fear, 'Im sorry.' Then I threw up all over myself...At the same time I noticed another odour; I had urinated in my skivvies... I remember wondering dumbly: Is this what they mean by 'conspicuous gallantry?' "

It was certainly what they meant by "a good war". After recovering from his wounds Manchester was discharged with the Navy Cross, the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts. His military ancestors, who had fought under George Washington, would have been gratified.

William Manchester was born on April 1 1922 at Attleboro, Massachusetts, the state to which his forebears had emigrated from England in the 17th century. His father was a social worker; William, though, showed academic precocity, occupying himself on his infant sickbed by perusing the works of Ruskin, Macaulay and Carlyle.

The family moved to Springfield, where William attended the Classical High School before moving on to read History at the University of Massachusetts. At the outbreak of the Second World War, the apparently weedy youth showed his mettle by volunteering for the Marines, stuffing himself with bananas and yoghurts in order to reach the required weight.

Returning from the Pacific war, Manchester went to the University of Missouri, where he wrote a master's thesis on the literary criticism of the great essayist and journalist H L Mencken, who worked for the Baltimore Sun. As a result of his contacts with Mencken, Manchester too joined the Sun, for which he became a much-travelled foreign correspondent.

He found time, however, to write Disturber of the Peace (1951), a biography of Mencken, who had become at once his mentor and his hero. Between 1953 and 1961 he also wrote four novels, which all showed his fascination with power, whether in politics or academe. At this time he was living in Connecticut at Wesleyan University, which provided a base for promising writers.

Manchester had met John F Kennedy during the war, when they were both recovering from their wounds. In 1962 he brought out Portrait of a President: John F Kennedy in Profile, a study described by one critic as "adoring". After Kennedy's assassination, therefore, Jacqueline Kennedy looked no further than Manchester for an author to provide an account of the tragedy.

But negotiations which began with gushing expressions of mutual respect soon turned nasty. The Kennedy clan seem to have feared that Manchester would transcribe rather too accurately the contempt expressed by Mrs Kennedy for her husband's successor as President, Lyndon Johnson.

The contention did not prevent Manchester from signing a contract with Look magazine in August 1966, which brought $665,000 for the world serial rights. Jacqueline Kennedy cast aspersions on Manchester's commercial motives; when, however, the book became a bestseller, the Kennedy Memorial Library profited vastly from Manchester's generosity.

The New York Times described Death of a President as "a massive, articulately organised and utterly compelling compilation of the most extraordinary amount of data". But not all the critics were impressed. Alistair Cooke, for example, wrote of the "gifted infantilism" of Manchester's idealised view of the Kennedy presidency.

Manchester's biography of Churchill, by contrast, was interesting for some of the more unflattering details of the great man's career and personality. Manchester's analysis of his financial affairs is especially compelling. Though Churchill earned huge sums from his writing in the 1930s, he habitually spent far more, so that his return to office in 1939 constituted not merely the salvation of his country, but a welcome relief from his creditors.

William Manchester married, in 1948, Julia Marshall, who died in 1998. They had a son, christened John Kennedy, and two daughters.