Out from under his bed: Paul Reid speaks about Churchill, Manchester, and The Last Lion


A few weeks ago I wrote about the world anxiously awaiting the final third volume of William Manchester’s The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm:  “I know, I know,” I wrote. “It’s going to be written not by Manchester, who died in 2004, but by Paul Reid, and everyone is wondering if it will be up to snuff.  So much so it’s a wonder that Reid doesn’t just hide under his bed and refuse to write anything at all.”

Relax, everyone!  He’s fine!  Paul Reid emailed me over the weekend to say: “I have emerged from under my bed to assure you that The Last Lion is being edited, all 470,000 words, every man-jack of them composed, proofed, and sourced while I labored with just ten inches of head room.  It’s so cramped under there even the rats are stoop-shouldered.”

Then he invited me to chat:  “Please allow the phone to ring several times, as it takes me a while to crawl from under the bed, climb the ladder from the bunker to the padded room, and reach the phone.”

Chat we did, and it was great fun.

He recalled the October night when his friend Bill Manchester, in failing health, asked him to continue the series.  “We were watching a Red Sox game – the Red Sox lost, as usual.”

“The night he asked me to do it, I said, ‘Gee I don’t know, Bill.’”

Both men had been feature writers for daily newspapers, banging out articles of about 800 words.  Manchester’s advice to the budding author: “String together a thousand short feature stories and you’ll have a book.”

“If I imagined 800 pages, I would have been pretty daunted,” Paul admitted. He also said that he would have been cowed if asked to write about, say, Paganini.  However, Paul had been a World War II buff from way back:  “I knew the battles, I knew Montgomery, ‘Bomber’ Harris – my whole life, that’s been my hobby. I loved history, from my earliest memory.”

Speaking out from the bunker

“You can do it, just write,” Manchester exhorted Paul. “I’ll have my red Number 2 pencil. I’ll edit; you write.”

That was the plan.  “But he died 7 months later,” Paul said.  Then the younger author was on his own, guided by 4,000-5,000 pages of Manchester’s notes.

Manchester was “an organization guy.” But it was an organization not necessarily recognizable to anyone else.

“He had his own system for putting his notes together.” Manchester had called them “clumps” of notes, formed by taking a hundred sheets of paper, taping or gluing pairs of them together to form one long sheet, and binding them at the top to create his own “tablet.” He would tape or glue Xeroxes of speeches and official documents.  He left behind dozens of these makeshift tablets.

Manchester also had his own notation system. On the lefthand margin of the manuscript, he would jot one of at least a hundred “topic codes” (for example, De Gaulle, Nazi Germany).  A little pound sign would indicate information on Churchill’s family.

He marked the righthand side with cryptic “source codes.”  Paul cracked one early: HAR was a code for Averell Harriman’s memoir. But the others?

“I finally had a brainstorm,” he said.  He called the Wesleyan Library where Manchester did his research, and asked for a list of all the books Manchester had borrowed.  It didn’t keep any such list.  “Because I knew Bill,” Paul said he had another flashbulb moment:  Could have a list of all Manchester’s overdue books? “That ran to dozens of pages.” The code was cracked again.

“I went out and purchased everything,” including collections of Hitler speeches, Roosevelt speeches, diaries of generals.  The Bostonian’s North Carolina bunker has about 25 linear feet of World War II books.  “The war is 85 percent of the story, and that what a lot of people are waiting for.”

Manchester’s manic writing habits were famous (Vanity Fair wrote about Manchester here) – 7 days a week, for 12-14 hours a day.  Paul, however, is a bit more leisurely: he spends about 5 or 6 hours going over sources about a particular week in the war, writes for a few hours, and starts over the next day.

So what does Churchill have to say to us today? “For Churchill, courage – moral courage – was the first virtue in the Aristotelian sense.”

Paul recounted an incident where the prime minister talked to 8 and 9 year old schoolboys at his former Harrow school in 1940.  “That’s when he said, never give in, never give in, to tyranny, to evil.  These are not dark days, best days of our lives.”  This lesson, for 8 and 9 year children, Paul emphasized.

He had a system.

“There was no guile with Churchill.  He didn’t know how to be dishonest.  Stalin knew that.  He [Churchill] was a brave man, but not foolhardy man.”

Nor was he a despot, like his famous foes:  “He pursued knowledge, not power,” said Paul. His pugnacious stances were not just based on opinions, but on his wideranging study:  “He read everything – Aristotle, Plato, Thucydides, Cicero, The Aeneid, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, British empiricists,  Macaulay, and all of Gibbons, Yeats and Keats and Byron and Shelley, Longfellow and Emerson.  Everything.”

Manchester and Churchill both threaded through Paul Reid’s mind as he worked, but the final work?  “The work is not only yours, it’s you.”

Now he is close to the finish line.  He won’t prophesy exactly when the book will be out – “it’s a big project, and it will take some time.”

“Churchill would just push ahead. That’s what you have to do.”

Just like I said a few weeks ago.”

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9 Responses to “Out from under his bed: Paul Reid speaks about Churchill, Manchester, and The Last Lion

  1. jesse dawson Says:

    I have mscular degenteration and was able to get the 1st and 2nd audio volumes from the ibrary of congress. Is it possible to get paul reids 3rd volume on audio of “the last lion”?

  2. Richard Harris Says:

    I have read a number of Manchester’s books. I have always been fascinated with Churchill. When Manchester started his biography of Churchill I could not wait to see how he handled the life of perhaps the greatest figure of the 20th century. I have read Gilbert’s biography as well. I thought “Visions of Glory” could not be topped but “Alone” was even better. I was terribly disappointed when I learned of Manchester’s stroke and eventually he would not complete the final volume of his triolgy. Then I heard that the third volume was to be completed based upon Manchester’s research but that someone else would be the author. How could that writer ever hope to copy what Manchester had done. But when “Defender of the Realm” was going to be published I put in my order and having been waiting for several months to start reading. I received this volumve a week ago. I have just completed reading the “PREAMBLE”. Mr. Reid, if the Preamble is any indication of what the rest of the book will be like, has not only represented the writing of Manchester splendidly but has established in his own right, writing at least as well if not better than the master. Thank you Mr. Reid for completeing this history and biography of Churchill. Thank you again.

    Richard L. Harris

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    I would contact the Library of Congress. Good luck!

  4. chuck wilcox Says:

    Paul…It seemed not so long ago I got the chance to meet and talk with you in that beautiful courtyard in your home in West Palm Beach and you mentioned that you ahvd been asked to write this epic. Since that time in the garden, I have since retired from my government job and have been anxiously waiting and watching my Barnes and Noble notifications to see when the book would come out.

    Imagine my suprise this AM when I opened up my Palm Beach Post and saw the story behind the book. COngratulations……Im sure the PBP article doesnt begin to cover the full story of what you and your wife and family went through to get the book finished and to press.

    If you are ever back here in FL please give me a call and dinner is on me since we never got to check out those places here in Martin COunty that we joked about …Would love to hear thefull story about the story…

    Again, congratulations

  5. Lynda Duthler Says:

    I downloaded the audio version of “The Last Lion” #3 today from audible.com. It is in seven parts – 53+ hours in length. I’ve been waiting since 1988 for what I am sure will be a rare treat. Thank you, Paul Reid, for finishing Manchester’s work!

  6. Cynthia Haven Says:

    That’s more than a full work week! Well worth the wait.

  7. Susan Shepard Says:

    Dear Mr. Reid:

    I am sure to be but one of the thousands of voices to laud your achievement. I have lived with Churchill — and you — now for nearly three months, nightly digesting all that my eyes could handle before falling into sleep. I, too, am one who read Volumes I and II years ago. I thank you for your brilliant work. You have lit my life — and helped me see that amazing fact of the human race, that, now and again, a towering figure appears on the scene, and not even a microscopic review of the highs and lows, and even the feet of clay, can reduce such a figure to the status of mere mortal. It does help keep cynicism at least somewhat at bay.

    Thank you.

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  9. Robert DeSmith Says:

    Dear Mr. Reid

    You were masterful in completing Manchester’s third volume of his trilogy so seamlessly. You could not ascertain where Mr. Manchester left off and you continued with the work. Well done!

    I was curious why you failed to mention in your telling of the Sinking Of the Bismark saga that the loss of the ship’s steering control was the result of a lucky hit from a British Wasp Torpedo plane as opposed to shelling from the Prince of Wales, which you intimated. That being aside, I enjoyed reading all three volumes immensely. They add more to the Churchill legacy than any other single book about “the greatest Statesman of the twentieth century.”