By Stefan Kanfer
November 27, 1978 12:00 PM

Books by William Manchester seem to have only one thing in common: William Manchester. Disturber of the Peace was about the iconoclastic H.L. Mencken; The Death of a President concerned the tragedy of John F. Kennedy; A Rockefeller Family Portrait followed the rise and sprawl of one of America’s wealthiest families; The Arms of Krupp was an indignant exposé of the German merchants of death who prospered before, during and after the Third Reich; The Glory and the Dream unreeled the history of the U.S. from the Depression upward. His new book is about a five-star general dead for more than a decade—Douglas Mac-Arthur, the man called An American Caesar.

“But the books do have something in common besides their author,” insists Bill Manchester. “Power. It’s the one thing that has fascinated me ever since I was a kid in Springfield, Mass. What exactly is power? Where are its roots? How do some people get it and others miss it entirely? How do they hold it or lose it? It’s all over my new book. To the end of his life, General MacArthur symbolized power.”

The MacArthur who emerges from this 793-page tome is not the strutting martinet of legend. Manchester never discounts the arrogance and thirst for attention: “It’s the orders you disobey that make you famous,” the general used to say—then came down like a dive bomber on anyone who disobeyed his. But in back of the corncob-pipe swagger and imperial style, the biographer discovers a conflicted and gifted strategist. The aging general who never commanded more than 12 percent of American fighting troops abroad put the Japanese on the defense immediately, Manchester points out. From the time MacArthur left the Philippines until he retook them two years later, his men suffered fewer than 28,000 casualties; more than twice that many fell on the Anzio beaches. “I will not take by sacrifice,” he said, “what I can achieve by strategy.”

According to Manchester’s scrupulous account, the secular ruler of postwar Japan was a liberal and enlightened man. At 70, when General MacArthur took charge of U.N. forces in Korea, he engineered one of the century’s great wartime maneuvers—the amphibious raid on Inchon—and then came too close to the Manchurian border. Result: the military defeat and personal humiliation that he had avoided for a half century.

“He was a hell of a general,” Manchester concludes. “I will always wonder what the Battle of the Bulge or the Normandy invasion would have been like if he had been in charge.”

For those who find this heroic history a bit too revisionist, Manchester replies: “No one could have been more surprised at the real MacArthur than I was. I had good reason to suspect him. I was at great pains to find the truth about a man who could cause controversy even when he was sleeping.”

Those pains were a literal matter. Manchester was discharged from the Marines in 1945, after the battle of Okinawa. A sergeant, he was a 100 percent disability case as a result of shock and shrapnel wounds. “For a while,” he recalls, “I was blind and partially deaf. The medics said I had a ‘traumatic lesion of the brain.’ I never did find out what that meant. All I knew about was the hurt.”

Once recovered, he sought a career in another kind of warfare: the battle of the writer vs. the blank page. As a reporter, then a foreign correspondent, for the Baltimore Sun, he fell under the spell of Mencken, that paper’s most famous editor. Manchester’s biography of his boss drew the peculiar lightning that has followed his work ever since. In a sulfurous review of the book, for instance, Mencken’s onetime collaborator George Jean Nathan complained that a certain description of the sage of Baltimore as a “stoop-shouldered, bowlegged, rotund little man” amounted to wanton meanness. Manchester later claimed that the description was originally written by Nathan himself in a 1917 story.

The bolts took a little longer in the case of Kennedy. A 1962 account of the young President was so adulatory that its subject suggested just three word changes before publication. After the assassination, the family remembered JFK’s fondness for Bill Manchester’s work. They suggested the shy, wounded-looking journalist as official historian of the presidential tragedy. They were to regret the decision. Jackie objected to the book because it invaded her privacy and revealed too many unflattering glimpses of Lyndon Johnson as a gross and impudent power broker. Bobby Kennedy tried to suppress it—unsuccessfully. The upshot was anxiety, misery, hostility, notoriety, recognition—and one of the most thorough and thoughtful chronicles of America’s days of wrath. Death of a President exhibited what were to become the Manchester trademarks: unflagging energy, hundreds of interviews, monuments of detail and pounds of manuscript. Serialization in Look magazine brought more than $600,000, and Book-of-the-Month Club and paperback rights made it worth a million plus. Manchester could not have been more miserable. At one time he was hospitalized with a 104° fever, caught in the crossfire between Kennedys, publishers and lawyers. The author remembers paddling at a Cape Cod beach and wondering, “What if I drowned now? Would it end all the bickering about the book?”

Probably not. The skirmishes and backbiting were not to cease until author and publisher contributed $750,000 in royalties to the John F. Kennedy Library. “All the pain of the book,” purred Jackie, “and now this noble gesture of such generosity makes the circle come round and close with healing.”

Nevertheless, people never forget where they buried the hatchet, and though the author later backed Bobby in his ill-starred presidential campaign, Manchester and the Kennedy family maintain a distant relationship today. Controversy remains as much a part of Manchester’s life as it was of MacArthur’s.

To research The Arms of Krupp, the author says, “I went to work in an unmarked office deep in the National Archives in Washington. My phone there was unlisted; yet 48 hours after I moved in, it rang. The caller was a Krupp agent—just checking.” When the book came out, the state of Bavaria was so furious it banned the German version. Lawsuits—all of them bootless—began anew. Through it all, Manchester tried to keep his cool. “I lost control of myself only once,” he remembers, and that was while researching the book near a cemetery at Buschmannshof, Krupp’s concentration camp for children. “I discovered that tiny bodies lay under stone markers bearing only the numbers that Krupp had assigned to them. Some had sunk into the ground; others had toppled over. In a mindless rage I hunted through the village for the caretaker. But he was away, and so I took the more sensible course of righting the stones myself.” In a typical Manchesterian gesture—”I am a certified maverick,” he maintains—he dedicated his book to those juvenile victims.

The gestures continued. After Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, the maverick walked into a police station in his hometown of Middletown, Conn. and surrendered a .45-caliber automatic he had owned since World War II. “I’ve lost two friends by assassination in the past five years,” he told the officers. “I want to do anything I can to encourage people to turn in their guns.”

There were the small tugs of conscience: While an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts, Manchester had checked out Six Plays of Clifford Odets. Thirty years later he found the volume in his own library, overdue 29 years, five months and 10 days. He toted up the fine—$505.69—and quietly paid it: another Manchester gesture.

At 56, the social worker’s son, earner of six figures almost every time he turns out a book, has stopped making such whimsical moves. In a sense his whole life has become something of a rare gesture in a time of rapid change. Separation and divorce have riven many of their friends’ marriages, but William and Julia (“Judy”) Marshall Manchester celebrated their 30th anniversary this spring. They remain close to their children. John, 28, is a guitarist in Livingston Taylor’s band, which recently toured with Linda Ronstadt. (“I don’t know where he gets the musical talent,” claims his father. “Neither his mother nor I have any, although I have been known to play a harmonica on key after two or three martinis.”) Julie, 21, is a computer programmer for Raytheon in Norwood, Mass. The youngest, Laurie, 15—”the writer,” claims her father, after examining her term papers—is the only one at home now. The Manchesters have lived in Middletown since 1957. There, in a book-filled study he calls “The Cockpit,” the superjournalist turns out more work than Norman Mailer put together.

Workaholism has its rewards: The children now have trust funds; beat-up station wagons have long since given way to new models; the old Federal house has been exchanged for a more congenial, tidier place on two acres near Wesleyan University. But the incessant morning-through-afternoon schedule, with time off for research and almost none for vacation, has left its mark. The years of physical trauma have etched lines on a face that can no longer hide past battles. In tight corners, his blood pressure can rise to dangerous levels, so he has forsaken the publicity tour that is part of every best-selling author’s life. The eyes have grown more hooded and the mouth, in rare repose, is melancholy.

Attacked by the MacArthur haters as he once was by Kennedy lovers, Manchester is content to cling to the supports that have aided him in the darkest times: his family and his work. That work now numbers thousands of pages (3,598 in the past decade) and millions of words. Even his pleasure trips have a vocational air; his recent tour of Asia was to revisit Pacific battle areas of World War II for LIFE magazine.

And after that? “I think I’ll get back to an old love—novel writing.” Fiction is not Manchester’s long suit, but he banged out a few plot-boilers in the old days. None were as implausible as the story of the little innocent from Springfield, Mass., the kid who used to wonder about a strange human attribute and finally tracked it to its source.

The autumn wind bites, and Manchester draws his swivel chair close to the old Corona manual. He gazes out the window at the bare trees and begins again. The smile breaks; despite the sniping and the lesions, he now has what he always desired. Not fame; the reputation has long since been established. The money? That is tax fodder today. But there is something else, something the author feels about the dead men he has brought to life, and the fictive characters he is about to move around on his own stage. About his own battles with ill health and sorry memories. About the ability to live and write the way his mind and sensibility dictate.

Something that the others had, and that now belongs to William Manchester.