The Last Lion: A Churchillian Share of Determination

December 19, 2012

Blog post by Linda Armstrong Cross, Harvard Extension School director of PR/media relations.

Winston Churchill fans waited more than two decades for the publication of the third and final volume of William Manchester’s Last Lion biographical series. But it wasn’t Manchester who ultimately finished the task last month. It was former journalist and Harvard Extension School graduate Paul Reid, ALB ’90.

Paul Reid, author of "The Last Lion"

The two writers became friends after Reid wrote a story about Manchester. In failing health, Manchester asked Reid if he would help finish what he had begun. Seven months later, Manchester passed and Reid was left with the enormous charge of completing the last Churchill installment on his own.

It took eight years, but Reid persevered. The newly published The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 has been well received, reached number five on the New York Times Best-Sellers List, and is even on Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s current reading list.

You can watch a 90-minute interview with Paul Reid on CSPAN from November 27, 2012.

Reid spoke about following in Manchester’s footsteps and how Harvard Extension School gave him the tools to successfully complete such a daunting assignment.

You are being lauded as a worthy successor to William Manchester. What do you think William Manchester would have thought of this final volume?

I tried to tell a story that would pass the “campfire test.” That is, it would hold the attention of a bunch of folks sitting around the old campfire. That’s what Bill Manchester did best—he was a storyteller.

There are stylistic differences. Bill developed his writing style almost 50 years ago, when many popular historians saw black hats and white hats, and took a linear and sometimes too simple a approach to the story. Stephen Ambrose comes to mind, and even the official naval historian of the war, Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison. There’s no doubt who Morison is rooting for in his depiction of the Battle of Midway.

Bill did write about 100 pages, and these pages formed a cornerstone. They told me how big the entire edifice should be and how significant certain events and people were in Bill’s eyes.

That’s all a long way of saying that I think Bill Manchester would be satisfied. I think he’d say the book passes the campfire test.

How do you think your version differs from what William Manchester would have written?

It differs in voice. I did not try to imitate Bill. But in putting the subject—Churchill—in his times, and in explaining those times and relationship with events and people, I think Bill and I would have been in agreement.

Bill believed in leaving no stone unturned. That’s why the first two books came in at 900 and 700 pages. He wanted me to be thorough and precise, to not sacrifice clarity for the sake of brevity, and to not be verbose for the sake of hearing myself.

We all know how the war ended. Bill’s goal was to introduce drama, foreshadowing, and perspective into the story. If I’ve done that, I’ve succeeded.

How difficult was it for you to take over where William Manchester left off?

The Last Lion book cover

I laugh about this now, but when I first began I was just enough of a thick-headed Bostonian of Scottish-Irish descent to think, “I can do this.” I’d loved history all my life, especially World War II history. I read Churchill’s memoirs as a teenager. My thinking at the beginning of this project wasn’t hubris, but a sense of certainty, which of course derived solely from my imagination.

About three years into The Last Lion project I thought, “I have to do this. Failure is not an option.” And about seven years in, I thought, “Well I’m almost there. I’ll finish this yet.”

It’s the old story of, “If I knew then what I know now ...”

Did your education at Harvard Extension School play a role in your success as a journalist and ultimately, as William Manchester’s heir apparent?

Absolutely. It had been 20 years since I first attended college. The Extension School reintroduced me to writing under deadlines, research, expository writing, rhetoric—all skills I took away to journalism. I had never sold a piece of writing before attending the Extension School. I had been in manufacturing, and Harvard Extension School prepared me for a career change to writing.

What were your most inspirational courses at Harvard Extension School?

Several come to mind, but most memorable of all was Sanford “Sandy” Kaye’s creative writing class. There were about a dozen students. Each week we’d write something a few pages long, make copies for Sandy and the class, and then critique the work the following week. The criticism was fair and honest, and enlightening.

I thank Sandy in the author’s note in The Last Lion, and can say with certainty, no Sandy Kaye, no Last Lion, period.

Now that you have completed the Churchill biography, what’s next?

I have another book project in mind (history, but not World War II). And, I’d like to teach nonfiction writing, perhaps journalism, to college students. I’d tell them, as Sandy Kaye told us, chase your dreams, work hard, but first and foremost, love what you do.

Interested in writing?