William Manchester

Controversial biographer of Kennedy and Churchill

William Manchester was a Second World War hero who came home from the Pacific to establish himself as a reporter, magazine writer, novelist and biographer. He wrote lives of Churchill, of H.L. Mencken, the Rockefeller family, three novels, and a book about the origins of the Renaissance. For many years, he was writer in residence at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.



William Manchester, journalist and writer: born Attleboro, Massachusetts 1 April 1922; Reporter, Daily Oklahoman 1945-46; reporter, foreign correspondent and war correspondent, Baltimore Sun 1947-55; Managing Editor, Wesleyan University Publications 1955-64; Lecturer in English, Wesleyan University 1968-69, Fellow, East College 1968-86, writer in residence 1974-2004, Adjunct Professor of History 1979-92 (Emeritus); married 1948 Julia Brown Marshall (died 1998; one son, two daughters); died Middletown, Connecticut 1 June 2004.



William Manchester was a Second World War hero who came home from the Pacific to establish himself as a reporter, magazine writer, novelist and biographer. He wrote lives of Churchill, of H.L. Mencken, the Rockefeller family, three novels, and a book about the origins of the Renaissance. For many years, he was writer in residence at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

But he will be remembered certainly for the fierce controversy he aroused with his account of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, The Death of a President (1967); and possibly for an interview he recorded in 1964 with Kennedy's widow, Jacqueline, which may not be published for many decades, in which, helped by chain-smoking and liberal jugs of iced martinis, she made what are said to be startling revelations about her life with the President and his death.

Manchester began his obsessively detailed research, including his 10 hours of interviews with Jacqueline Kennedy, in 1964. But by 1967, when excerpts of his book began to appear in Look magazine and drafts of his manuscript circulated from hand to excited hand in Washington, President Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy were at daggers drawn. Johnson was mired in paranoia about Kennedy's desire to succeed him in the 1968 election. Kennedy could not forgive Johnson for succeeding his brother. Manchester's account of the resentments felt by the Kennedy aides and hangers-on after Johnson's swearing-in became the cause of a heavy calibre political row.

The feud was made even more bitter by the underlying cultural clash. The Kennedy people despised Johnson and his crowd as ill-educated boors. The Johnson people resented the Kennedy crowd as arrogant snobs. And under all this there bubbled the never quite pacified dislike of North for South, Confederate Texas for abolitionist Massachusetts, Austin for Boston.

Into this raging quarrel Manchester blundered, apparently unaware of how his account would be received. His manuscript was, as the historian Arthur Schlesinger put it, "long, deeply felt, and greatly over-written". Great offence was given to Johnson. As Schlesinger wrote to Manchester himself, the book presented the assassination as a "conflict between New England and Texas, decency and vulgarity, Kennedy and Johnson".

Manchester's own editor thought Manchester had been so carried away by his feeling for Kennedy, about whom he had already written Portrait of a President (1962), a biography dipped in something between admiration and saccharine, that his narrative had become a "fairy tale in which the Texans in their polka-dot dresses and bow ties are seen as newly arrived scum - plucked from the dung-heap by magical Jack".

Johnson claimed to have discovered 46 factual errors in the book, but what he disliked most was the way he himself was portrayed. Instead of walking, he "heavily lumbered", and when he sat down to make a phone call from the bed in the presidential cabin on Air Force One, Manchester had him, not sit, but "sprawl". Worst of all, in Johnson's eyes, was the scene with which Manchester opened his book, in which Johnson bullies Kennedy, who according to Manchester believed "all killing was senseless", into shooting a deer on his ranch. In the final draft the scene was given less prominence, but it still laid bare what Manchester himself admitted to Jackie Kennedy was his "bias" against the Texan.

"All of it," Johnson summarised angrily, "makes Bobby look like a great hero and makes me look like a son-of-a-bitch and 95 per cent of it is completely fabricated."

The Kennedy faction was deeply divided. Bobby Kennedy, who had demanded and used the power to authorise publication, thought the book was a mistake. The Washington community assumed that it was a deliberation attempt to knife Johnson. If that had been either Manchester's or Kennedy's intention, the plot backfired. Johnson emerged from what might have been a damaging episode unharmed; it was Robert Kennedy who was diminished, both in the polls and in reputation.

Jackie Kennedy had at first volunteered to be interviewed by Manchester, and then came to feel that, under the influence of sentiment or gin, she had gone too far. She was particularly worried about how the world would react to two love letters she had written to her husband. However, she relented, and became friends with Manchester again after he supported Robert Kennedy for president in 1968, and donated the royalties from his book to the Kennedy library in Boston. To this day, the tapes of the interview lie in box sealed with lead by court order for a century, on a shelf in vaults of the library.

Until the seals are broken, there will continue to be speculation about what the tapes reveal. Some have suggested that Jacqueline Kennedy revealed unknown secrets about her husband's assassination. Others think she was indiscreet about her marriage and her husband's infidelities. After her death in 1994 only Manchester knew what was in the tapes, and their secrets die with him until 2067.

William Manchester was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts in 1922 and was educated at Springfield high school, at the University of Massachusetts and at Dartmouth College. He served in the US Marine Corps during the Second World War and was awarded the Purple Heart for bravery in 1945.

After the war he worked briefly as a reporter in Oklahoma, then as a reporter, foreign correspondent and war correspondent in Korea for the Baltimore Sun. His first biography, Disturber of the Peace (1951), was of H.L. Mencken, the peppery editor of the Sun. In 1968 Manchester published a history of the Krupp family of arms manufacturers ( The Arms of Krupp), and in the 1980s he published two volumes of The Last Lion, a projected three-volume life of Winston Churchill - these were published in the UK as The Caged Lion (1988). After Manchester suffered a stroke in the late 1990s, the third volume remained unwritten.

In 1995 he intervened in the controversy over the Churchill family's sale of Sir Winston's papers to the nation. "Authors are forever being told," he said, with what sounded like personal feeling, "that they should give their work to society." Writing, he pointed out, is very hard work, and "the labourer is worthy of his hire".

Gordon Harrison

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