William Manchester, one of America’s most noted writers and historians, died June 1 at his home in Middletown, Conn., less than two weeks after his publisher announced that an agreement had been reached to help him finish the final volume in his biography of Winston Churchill: The Last Lion, Volume III.
Manchester, professor of history emeritus at Wesleyan, was 82 years old and had been in declining health after suffering two strokes.
The author of 18 books translated into 20 languages, Manchester first acquired an international reputation in 1967 with his account of the assassination of President Kennedy, The Death of a President: November 1963, which he had written at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy.
His other books include Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and his biography of Douglas MacArthur, American Caesar, nominated for a National Book Award.
Manchester had expressed doubt that his Churchill trilogy would ever be completed. The first two volumes, Visions of Glory: 1874?1931 and Alone: 1932?1940, were published in 1983 and 1988, respectively, but poor health had prevented him from completing the third.
On May 21, Little, Brown and Co. announced that, with Manchester’s consent, Paul Reid, a feature writer at the Palm Beach Post, would help complete the final book about Britain’s World War II leader.
[Editor’s Note: Arthur Wensinger, professor of German studies emeritus, recalls his friendship with Manchester.]
We both came to Middletown in 1955, Bill to AEP as an editor, I to the German Department at the college. We knew each other only socially at first, at parties with the Lockwoods, Winslows, Knapps, Thompsons, Reeds, Boyntons, Gomez-Iba?ezes, Coleys, Greens, Burfords, McAllesters, Viggianis, Seases?the other names of 45 years ago. But it was not until I was living at 10 Wesleyan Place that I saw more of him and Judy at Ruth and Joe Peoples’ nonstop evening open house at that address.
Our friendship ripened very gradually, though it was never what I would call a really close one, more of a collegial intimacy. Still, more often than not, if the two of us were at a gathering, we would find ourselves sitting together? me mostly listening to him. He fascinated me with his profound occupations and preoccupations, his talk of his books and the men he wrote about, his invasions and absorptions of their personae. It was a kind of utter commitment that I rarely, if ever, saw in another? And I much enjoyed his gossip about the high and mighty.
What he saw in me, I do not know. Was it the Mencken in Bill’s past and his strong attraction for German history and culture? Along the way, and especially later when he was working on the Krupp family history, he would exploit my knowledge of the language and its literature. It can also have been his interest in my (tenuous) connection with the Marine Corps: my uncle Walter W., a lifetime Marine, a general who among many other ventures led his regiment in the invasion of Iwo Jima. Bill could “identify.”
And there were other little connections. As a newspaper man, Bill was once inordinately amused by a rare piece of ephemera I had kept from my time in Munich in 1948, an issue of the Muenchener Merkur that had, uniquely, picked up the Chicago Tribune’s notorious blooper about Dewey defeating Truman. He had never heard of it and absolutely had to have a photocopy of it for his office. That was one of the very few small favors I was ever able to do for him. It doesn’t begin to compare with the inscribed copies of his books that he regularly sent me, some with that cartoon self-portrait sketch.
It was hard to know what one could do for Bill Manchester. He was a most guarded man; he had to keep that massive encyclopedia and that trove of serial archives delicately balanced in his mind, lest it should spill over?which, of course, it did on occasion. Then he took his retreats. The last time I saw Bill was about a week and a half before he died. He asserted that he was quite ready; it was an unequivocal assertion. Driving home after not quite an hour with him, I pulled over and, I’m not sure exactly why, wrote down a few things he had said, some of them verbatim:
“After all those other things, now the doctors told me I have stomach cancer, inoperable. I will not have chemo or radiation just to eke out a few more undignified weeks of life.
“Have you heard that I’ve decided to go with this fellow from Florida? He’ll work on the third volume. He seems good for the job. I have quite a few pages already written, he’ll work in my Olin office?It’s not an act of final desperation. I’ve already turned down others who did not seem right. I want that trilogy finished.
“My house goes to Wesleyan, you know?they have been good to me. But there is a string attached. It is for the use of faculty only. It’s a nice place. John [Martin, the architect] did well by us. Now it’s for someone else.
“I am prepared for death and not afraid of it. I have been close to death before and seen a lot of it.” Some people claim, he said, that you can help a person die. “You can’t. It is something you must do by yourself.”
And this, verbatim: “I am unencumbered by any notion of an afterlife?. If there is one for me, it will be in my books.”
He was very tough, no sentimentality. I had said I would stay for ten minutes, but it was now almost an hour. It was clear that it was time for me to go. He had a surprisingly firm handshake. I asked if I might return for another visit. The last thing he said was, “You can come back any time you want,” and he said my name. But I didn’t go to see him again.