Picks and Pans Review: The Last Lion
by William Manchester
As these biographies remind us, few human beings have had lives that—if presented as fiction-would have seemed so utterly preposterous as Winston Churchill’s. The two books also prove that disparate approaches to Churchill’s drama-and melodrama-laden life can each be fascinating. Gilbert’s work (Houghton Mifflin, $40), which covers Churchill’s life from 1939 through 1941, is the sixth volume of the authorized biography, so the author had access to the private Churchill papers. They, on occasion, provide amusing historical asides: After giving a speech in 1940 in which he compared the alliance of the U.S. and Britain (“Like the Mississippi, it just keeps rolling along”), Churchill rode back to his Downing Street residence singing Ol’ Man River. Still, Gilbert is most concerned with recording Churchill’s public actions and the reasons for them. He achieves that end admirably, and such is the intensity of those years in British history that Gilbert’s dry, straightforward approach seems perfectly appropriate. Manchester’s book (Little, Brown, $25) is more stylish, and the author is far more interested in the quirks of Churchill’s personality. Churchill was, after all, the son of a politically powerful father who died a pitiful death from the effects of syphilis; his publicly adulterous mother once described the teenage Winston to a friend as “slouchy and tiresome.” Churchill’s military and political careers were full of abject failures and dizzying successes. He was subject to terrible fits of depression, given to racism, selfishness and a perhaps not totally unconscious arrogance. After he and his valet quarreled on one occasion, Churchill complained, “You were rude,” The valet replied, “You were rude, too,” and Churchill paused, then answered, “But I am a great man.” Manchester’s book, the first of two planned volumes (it covers Churchill’s life only up to 1932), adds little to the vast documentation of its subject’s life. It is gossipy, colorful and overwritten. It is full of such strange analyses as this: that because he usually had at least one round table in each of his homes, Churchill was enthralled with the tales of King Arthur. As he proved in his biographies of John F. Kennedy and Douglas MacArthur, however, Manchester has a way of reprocessing information so that even the most flamboyantly outsize historical figures seem human and, at odd moments, touchable. The heroic Churchill is in these pages, but so is the little boy writing forlorn letters to the father who all but ignored him and the romantic who once courted Ethel Barrymore and ended up with a lovely 57-year-long marriage to the woman whose pet name for him was Pig. This is an altogether absorbing popular biography.