Paul M. Zall dies at 87; Huntington Library scholar examined lives of early American leaders

Paul M. Zall, a research scholar at the Huntington Library in San Marino and a professor at Cal State L.A. who examined the lives and humor of early American presidents and leaders, often using their own words, has died. He was 87.

Zall died Dec. 16 of natural causes at his home in South Pasadena, said his son Andy.

“No one at the Huntington was more helpful to me,” said Ronald C. White Jr., a fellow at the library.

White, who has written three books about President Lincoln, including 2009’s “A. Lincoln: A Biography,” said Zall over the years shared with him notes and expertise, an example of his “generosity of spirit. He was a tremendous encouragement.”

Zall’s books included “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: A Genetic Text,” in 1981 with J.A. Leo Lemay, which they edited from Franklin’s manuscript.

“As a boy he was fascinated by Franklin, he was sort of his hero,” Andy Zall said.

“Franklin’s autobiography has been reprinted but never exactly the way he wrote it. The alterations reveal a man who turned out to be the con man of the Western world,” Zall said in a 1974 Times story about the scholars, called “readers,” who use the Huntington’s vast collections of American and English history and literature for research.

“It is true that he was a magnanimous man and that everything he did was for the good of the country. However, he liked to picture himself as a poor boy, and we can see him in the manuscript working to create exactly the image that came down to us.”

Zall said he and Lemay planned to publish Franklin’s work along with corrections, erasures, tiny additions and other editing.

He said Franklin’s manuscript was “so fragile now we hesitate to open it. The ink is fading, and maybe in five years it’ll be gone. That’s why I am working so hard to get the transcription accurate.”

Paul Maxwell Zall was born Aug. 3, 1922, in Lowell, Mass. He was headed to the University of Pennsylvania until he was drafted into the Army Air Corps in 1942.

He graduated from Swarthmore College with a bachelor’s degree in 1948 and earned a doctorate in English literature from Harvard in 1950.

Zall taught at Harvard, Cornell, Oregon and Washington and was a technical editor at Boeing in Seattle before joining the English department at what is now Cal State L.A. in 1957. Later he also taught American studies. He became a professor emeritus in 1987.

Among his many other books are “Abe Lincoln Laughing” in 1982; “Founding Mothers: Profiles of Ten Wives of America’s Founding Fathers” in 1991; “Wit and Wisdom of the Founding Fathers” in 1996; “Lincoln on Lincoln” in 1999; “Franklin on Franklin” in 2001; “Jefferson on Jefferson” in 2002; and “Washington on Washington” in 2003.

“Our perception of Lincoln is really based on [Carl] Sandburg’s work. . . . He romanticized Lincoln,” Zall told National Public Radio in 1992.

Lincoln was “always on. That is, when there was an audience, he was on. In solitude, he was a very mournful character.”

Zall said he did the Franklin project as a labor of love “to repay my GI Bill. I would not have been able to go to college without it, and I’ve always wanted to pay it back somehow.”

Along with his son Andy, Zall is survived by his wife of 61 years, Lee Weisz; sons Jonathan and Barnaby; nine grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

A memorial is being planned.