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Churchill Biography That Sparked Cult Is Finally Done: Review

'The Last Lion'
"The Last Lion: Winston Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965," by William Manchester and Paul Reid. Source: Little, Brown and Company via Bloomberg

Eight years after William Manchester’s death, the final volume of “The Last Lion,” his epic biography of Winston Churchill, has finally appeared.

His friend Paul Reid took over Manchester’s notes and wrote “Defender of the Realm,” which appears with both names on the cover.

“The Last Lion” made an entire generation of American men fall in love with Churchill.

The first two stylishly written volumes -- “Visions of Glory,” which took Churchill from his birth in 1874 to 1932; and “Alone,” which covered his years in the political wilderness to 1940 -- ignited the Churchillmania that hasn’t quite crested yet.

Why was “The Last Lion” such a triumph? You have to go back to the bleakish days of the early 1980s. The culture wars were cranking up in reaction to the years of Carter malaise, when a particularly virulent form of liberal self-hatred dominated the agenda.

“The Last Lion” was an unapologetic celebration of a giant, who in addition to resisting the Nazis also happened to be an engaging bundle of talents and eccentricities.

Is “Defender of the Realm” as good as the first two volumes? Of course not. Should you buy it? Yes, because while waiting for its publication you have probably also devoured the eight volumes of the authorized biography (if not the companion collections of documents), as well as “In Search of Churchill” by Martin Gilbert (1994), “Eminent Churchillians” by Andrew Roberts (1994), “Churchill” by Roy Jenkins (2001), “Franklin and Winston” by Jon Meacham (2003) and “In Command of History” by David Reynolds (2004). Am I missing any?

Crowded Bookshelf

Why, yes, as a matter of fact. There’s “In Churchill’s Shadow” by David Cannadine (2002), Richard Holmes’s “In the Footsteps of Churchill” (2005), Carlo D’Este’s “Warlord” (2008) and Max Hastings’s “Finest Years” (2009), as well as “A Daughter’s Tale” by Mary Soames (2011), “The Churchills: In Love and War” by Mary Lovell (2011) and Barry Singer’s “Churchill Style” (2012).

I could list a further 50 titles, all well done, all worthy and all in some way inspired by the success of the two original Manchesters, which introduced and explained Churchill to a new generation of readers.

Political Football

What began as a celebration is now, as Christopher Hitchens put it, a cult. Successive American presidents have even played political football with the great man’s head, deciding whether or not to display a Churchill bust in the Oval Office.

“Defender of the Realm” concerns itself almost entirely with Churchill’s finest hours, as British prime minister during World War II. Reid, a newspaper feature writer without a book to his credit, has stitched together a very serviceable, in-depth narrative that nicely conveys the challenges facing Churchill, both without and then with allies.

This is Reid’s book, not Manchester’s, yet even this would have been impressive had it appeared on Manchester’s schedule, say in 1994 or ’95. Coming out now, this is familiar ground, worked over by more talented showmen. It remains a story worth telling.

Of course, you wonder what might have been. Manchester wouldn’t have quoted Mollie Panter-Downes, who wrote a letter from London for the New Yorker, more than 50 times, no matter how good her observations. He probably wouldn’t have described a commando raid and concluded that upon its completion, “everybody would get the hell out of town.” Or this: “The alliance was looking all hat and no cattle.”

And I don’t think Manchester would have let a sentence like this pass: “Soon after Harriman left for Moscow, Ed Murrow and his wife, Janet, began frequenting Pamela’s salon where, not yet 24, she led England’s best and the brightest in discussions that parsed the political mysteries of their age.” No.

“The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965” is from Little, Brown (1,182 pages, $40). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Joe Mysak is editor of Bloomberg Brief’s Municipal Market, and author of “The Encyclopedia of Municipal Bonds.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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