Friday, November 2, 2012

'The Last Lion': Here at last, thanks to N.C. writer

Ever since I wrote two years ago about Paul Reid, the N.C. writer finishing the third volume of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill, I’ve received periodic calls and emails, all with the same question:

When is it going to be published?

I got my latest query last month from a fellow named Tony in Canada. When I wrote back with the answer, he told me I’d made his day – possibly even his year.

Obviously, it’s Paul Reid who deserves the praise.

“The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965,” has been eagerly awaited by fans of Manchester and Churchill for more than 20 years, and it nearly didn’t get written. The book, by Manchester and Reid, is now available.

Manchester was the bestselling author of 18 books, including “The Death of a President,” about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and “American Caesar,” a biography of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

“The Last Lion,” his Churchill biography, was his magnum opus. He had begun work on the third and final volume. But then he had two strokes. With his health failing, he reluctantly gave up the project. In a poignant 2001 account, the New York Times described the author’s ill health and his response to fans.
“I have to tell them the book is not coming out,” Manchester, then 79, told the Times. “I tell them I just can’t do it.”

Finally, months before he died in 2004, he asked Reid, his friend, to complete the book for him.
Reid has lived since 2006 in Tryon, about 90 miles west of Charlotte. The book took him five years longer to finish than he expected. By the end, his advance, which he confirmed to be about $200,000,  was gone and finances were tight. “My family sacrificed a great deal for this,” he said.

But he’s pleased with the result. So are reviewers. Four major book review publications, including Publishers Weekly, have given it starred reviews.

“The long-delayed majestic account of Winston Churchill’s last 25 years is worth the wait,” Publishers Weekly says. The book matches the quality, the review says, of works by such esteemed biographers as Robert Caro and Edmund Morris.

Reid says he’s especially flattered by that reference to Caro, Lyndon Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer.

In 2010, I met Reid at his mountain home to talk about his daunting literary undertaking.
His unlikely background made his story especially interesting. Reid, now 63, was neither a Churchill scholar nor a biographer. As a reporter at Florida’s Palm Beach Post, he had never tackled any piece longer than a few thousand words.

Now he was writing a volume of more than 1,000 pages. Fans of both Churchill and Manchester had been waiting for it ever since the second volume came out in 1988. And they had high expectations.
That was intimidating enough. Not long after he started work, Reid realized the great man’s idiosyncratic research notes would be of limited use. He would have to do a lot of research himself.
I remember thinking as I drove home from the mountains after our interview: What a challenge that guy has.
Now it looks as if Reid was the perfect person for the job.

Over the years, Reid had written several feature stories about Manchester, and the two men had become friends. Both had grown up in Massachusetts and loved the Boston Red Sox. Manchester was a master at using details and anecdotes to bring history alive. As a former newspaperman himself, he liked having a writer with a reporting background finishing his work.

And Reid, like Manchester, loved history. As a teenager, he ordered a copy of the Warren Report on Kennedy’s assassination and subscribed to the Congressional Record. He already owned about 100 books on Churchill and World War II even before he took on Manchester’s book.

“My introduction to Churchill came almost six decades ago,” Reid writes in his author’s note. “On Saturday mornings I stood next to the stove as my father, attired in his old Annapolis bathrobe and a seaman’s cap, flipped pancakes and fried eggs while reciting along to Churchill’s wartime speeches, which he played on our old RCA Victrola. ‘Listen to Winston,’ my father commanded, stabbing the air with the spatula in syncopation with Churchill’s words. I listened.”

The final volume of “The Last Lion” is 1,232 pages. About 100 of those pages are Manchester’s. The rest are Reid’s. I asked Reid recently if the task of finishing another man’s masterpiece ever overwhelmed him. Did he ever doubt he could do it?

Reid is not a bragging sort, but he’s not given to false modesty, either. He thought about my question for a moment. And then he said no.

He recalled growing up in a family where Churchill was playing on the Victrola. He talked about how he made the task of writing 1,000-plus pages manageable by approaching each scene as if he were writing a feature story.

“It was a long, winding road,” he told me. He’s not a believer in fate. But in the end, he says, it turned out that the knowledge and skills he had acquired over a lifetime “were, coincidentally, just right.”