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Writer Chronicled Lives in Detail-Rich Portraits

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.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Jun. 05, 2004 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.

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.

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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.

“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.

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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.

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“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.”

Manchester’s extensive use of detail in “The Death of a President” and in his subsequent books was dismissed as “trivia” by some critics. Manchester, however, maintained that such detail is “crucial to all narrative drive.”

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“No one objects to the detail in Dickens and Tolstoy, because it is this very detail which brings a scene to life,” he told Publishers Weekly in 1978, the year his MacArthur biography, “American Caesar,” was published.

“It’s difficult because, unlike a novelist, you’ve got to be sure your facts are correct,” he said. “But if you describe how a man looked, what he was wearing, what the room was like, you’re setting a scene and this is very important.”

It was the richness of Manchester’s writing that made his books bestsellers, said Roger Donald, former publisher of Little, Brown & Co., who served as Manchester’s editor in the 1970s and ‘80s.

“When he writes these books, he evokes the periods so well,” said Donald. “Plus, he was a damn good historian. Frankly, most of the academic historians don’t give him credit for his research ability.”

Manchester led what he once described as a “quiet, donnish life,” and, according to Donald, the author was indeed “quiet and reclusive.”

“You had to pry stories out of Bill. He was a writer, not a talker,” said Donald. “But he could be very funny and he was really quite brilliant about contemporary politics.”

Manchester, whose family’s New England roots date to 1638, was born on April 1, 1922, in Attleboro, Mass.

The elder of two sons of a social-worker father who died when Manchester was a teenager, he moved with his family to Springfield, Mass., at age 7.

He attended public school, but he was a sickly child who was often kept at home. He’d pass the time reading books pulled from the shelves of the family library -- typically histories.

Manchester also began writing at an early age -- poetry beginning at 7, and short stories beginning at 11.

“I knew when I was very young I wanted to be a writer,” he once said. “I just didn’t know what kind of writer.”

After graduating from high school in 1940, he entered the University of Massachusetts as an English major. His studies were interrupted by World War II.

He enlisted in the Marines in July 1942. As chronicled in his 1980 memoir of the Pacific War, “Goodbye, Darkness,” he saw action with the 29th Marine Regiment. From April to June 1945, he fought in the bloody battle of Okinawa.

Following an amphibious landing behind enemy lines, Manchester received a near-fatal shrapnel wound. Temporarily blinded and his eardrums shattered, he was left for dead before eventually being rescued.

After the war, Manchester returned to the University of Massachusetts, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1946.

In graduate school at the University of Missouri, he wrote his master’s thesis on the early literary criticism of Mencken, the iconoclastic Baltimore Sun columnist.

After reading the thesis, Mencken authorized Manchester to write his biography. He also asked the Sun to give Manchester, who had put in a brief stint as a reporter in Oklahoma City, a job so he could support himself while writing the biography. The book, “Disturber of the Peace,” was published in 1951 to critical acclaim.

Manchester worked as a foreign correspondent for the Sun before returning to Baltimore to serve as an associate editor. He left the paper in 1954 and began writing novels, including “The City of Anger,” which chronicled corruption in an East Coast city.

From 1955 through 1959, Manchester served as editor in chief of Wesleyan University Press. He also returned to writing nonfiction, beginning with his 1959 biography, “A Rockefeller Family Portrait: From John D. to Nelson.”

Based on Manchester’s flattering 1962 book, “Portrait of a President: John F. Kennedy in Profile,” and his friendship with Kennedy, whom he first met in Boston after the war, Jacqueline Kennedy chose Manchester to write the authorized account of the president’s assassination.

To maintain his freedom to write the book, Manchester decided to fund the project himself and not accept any money from the Kennedy family, the government or any foundation.

To cover his expenses, Manchester agreed that he would receive royalties from the book’s first printing and fees paid for publication of excerpts in magazines. But the lion’s share of royalties would go to the planned Kennedy Library in Boston.

To guard against “any unintentional betrayal of confidences that would be revealed” to him, Manchester stipulated that Jacqueline and Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother, could review the completed manuscript and that the final text could not be published unless and until it was approved by them.

When Manchester finished his first draft in March 1966, both Kennedys found the prospect of reliving the assassination too emotionally daunting. Robert Kennedy designated journalists and former aides Edwin O. Guthman and John Siegenthaler to review the manuscript. At Manchester’s request, former JFK aide Arthur Schlesinger and Dick Goodwin, former aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson, also reviewed the manuscript.

In July, after Manchester incorporated suggested changes he deemed worthy, the book was unanimously approved for publication. Look magazine successfully bid a record $665,000 for world serial rights to “The Death of a President.”

But shortly thereafter, Manchester found himself enveloped in what he later described as a “five-month firestorm.”

Jacqueline Kennedy, as Manchester recounted in the introduction to the 1985 edition of “The Death of a President,” suddenly became alarmed over the prospect of publicity for the book.

“I thought you would write a little black book to sit on dark library shelves,” she told Manchester.

The press also picked up on rumors that Manchester’s manuscript depicted Johnson in an unfavorable light.

According to Manchester, unidentified former members of the Kennedy administration who were now working for Johnson took it upon themselves to approach Mrs. Kennedy and serve as intermediaries between her and Manchester.

These men, concerned about possible damage the book might do to Johnson’s public image, informed Jacqueline Kennedy that the manuscript included passages that invaded her privacy and that of her children.

At the urging of the intermediaries, the former first lady authorized them to demand, in her name, that Manchester make changes in the already approved manuscript.

Because Mrs. Kennedy hadn’t read the manuscript, she was unable to point out which passages were offensive. But none of the passages identified by the intermediaries dealt with his treatment of Mrs. Kennedy or her children. Instead, according to Manchester, they were political.

“In some instances,” Manchester wrote in his introduction, “they would have falsified history -- a complete rewriting, for example, of Johnson’s first Cabinet meeting, describing the new president and Atty. Gen. [Robert] Kennedy as talking amicably and harmoniously, in hearty agreement on all matters. I replied that this and the other proposed changes were untrue and, therefore, unacceptable to me.”

The same intermediaries, Manchester wrote, then persuaded Mrs. Kennedy to file suit against Manchester, asking the court to suppress publication of the book.

In the end, faced with a pending court date, Jacqueline Kennedy’s lawyers persuaded her to read Manchester’s manuscript. After an all-night session with the book, she gave her approval.

The controversy only fueled sales of the book when it was published in April 1967. It soared to the top of the New York Times’ bestseller list.

In 1968, after a check for $750,000 from royalties had been paid to the Kennedy Library, Mrs. Kennedy issued a statement to the New York Times that read in part:

“I think it is so beautiful what Mr. Manchester did ... all the pain of the book and now this noble gesture, of such generosity, makes the circle come around and close with healing.”

After “The Death of a President,” Manchester wrote “The Arms of Krupp,” a history of the Krupp family, the German steel and munitions makers (1968); “The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972" (1974); “One Brief Shining Moment: Remembering Kennedy” (1983); and “A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age” (1992), in addition to his MacArthur biography and his wartime memoir.

In a 2001 interview with Reid for the Palm Beach Post, a stroke-weakened Manchester talked about the unfinished final volume of his Churchill trilogy, his regret over never having written a memoir of growing up in Springfield, and the danger of political correctness, which he called “a poisoner of language” that “makes for bad history, bad thinking.”

But there was a recurring theme as he talked, one that dominated his dreams at night.

“I miss my wife,” he said several times during the interview. She is buried in a wooded Middletown cemetery above the Connecticut River.

“That’s where I’m going,” Manchester said. “A simple tombstone. Name, date of birth, date of death. My brother-in-law asked if I want a military funeral. No. I did my part. I fought. I was a Marine, and a good one. But that’s not who I am. I’m a writer. Eighteen books. I did my part there, too.”

He is survived by his three children, John, Julie and Laurie; three grandchildren; and a brother, Robert.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. June 13 at the Wesleyan University Chapel. Instead of flowers, donations to Wesleyan University are suggested.


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