Paul Reid of Tryon rounds out The Last Lion
by Rob Neufeld
When Paul Reid got his advance from Little, Brown & Co. to write the third volume of William Manchester’s Winston Churchill biography, “The Last Lion,” he and his wife Barbara moved to Tryon from Florida, where he was an award-winning journalist for the “Palm Beach Post.”
Reid knew the Carolina mountains. As a lad from Winchester, Massachusetts and a student at Ithaca College in New York, he and his bluegrass band, the Promised Land String Band, had taken their sound to Boone, Linville, and Deep Gap.
Russ Barenberg, Reid’s guitar-playing hero, had sat in on their sessions in New York. (Barenberg is the performer of “Ashokan Farewell,” the soundtrack theme in Ken Burns’ series, “The Civil War.”)
Writing about a group of World War II veterans in the late 1990s, Reid met and established an affinity with William Manchester, the best-selling author and former journalist, who, as it turned out, was not able to complete his Churchill trilogy. On Oct. 9, 2003, Manchester pulled out his suitcase of notes and told Reid, “I’d like you to finish the book.”
Manchester planned to edit Reid’s work, but died of stomach cancer seven months later. His notes were a puzzle of coded pages, without the section on sources included. Reid worked for eight years, covering all the research territory over again, resulting in over 1,100 pages, and a volume titled, “Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965.”
Reid presents his book at Malaprop’s Bookstore, 3 p.m. tomorrow. Following is my interview with Paul Reid.
Q: When you first met William Manchester, doing your story on the Marines, how did you bond?
A: Pretty early on, he asked me about my father. I said he went to the Naval Academy, and that I’d grown up reading military history. I think he realized: this guy is a feature writer with a strong interest in history, not just on assignment. When I visited (his area), doing other stories, or going to see my daughter at U. Mass, he’d invite me to stay over, and we’d chat…He wasn’t a lonely, old man, but he was an old man who lived alone. So we just got to be friends.
Q: He must have sensed an affinity that went beyond an interest in military history to one based on an approach to history.
A: We were talking and I said, “Bill, you should get someone to finish the book. Get a historian.” He said, “I don’t want a historian. If I wanted anyone, and I do not, I’d want a writer.” I knew exactly what he meant. I must have done 500 feature stories on all sorts of topics, and he asked if I could send up that month’s bundle of features. He liked the writing.
Q: You’ve won awards for your features. What were some of those about?
A: I did a story on the Pratt & Whitney engine for the F-22 Raptor—the biography of an engine….I did a story titled “Geraldo’s Violin.” It was about a guy whose father had been a violin maker—this guy was now about 70—and his father had not finished a violin he’d started 65 year ago, and had put it in a box. And now decades later, his son completes the violin and realizes he has a talent for it.
Q: Isn’t that wonderful? It sort of relates to you and William Manchester.
A: Yes. The unfinished story.
Q: How much of the new book did you create?
A: The first 150 pages is a synthesis—there are about 100 of Bill’s pages in there. From page 161 on, I don’t think Bill is in the book any more.
Q: That’s when you write about the German air strikes on London. Let me quote a passage in which you follow Londoners coming out onto the streets from shelters. “They rose to fires still burning, to stinking raw sewage seeping down gutters. They emerged to unexploded bombs buried up to the fins in marl and mud, just waiting for the clumsy jolt that would start the fuse softly buzzing.” I read somewhere that an old man gave you a tour of the haunted sites, and that fed your writing of that chapter.
A: That walk with the old Londoner had a definite effect. I could close my eyes and hear him. I’d been to London many times. I had sources, books and maps. But what a happy coincidence for me to have had this old guy walk me through where the planes came from at night. I could imagine, I could re-listen to what he’d told me.
Q: How has your newspaper writing experience helped your book writing?
A: The value of journalism to this type of effort is critical. When you’re making your living on deadlines, and you’ve got to get everything right—nobody wants to print a correction—and you want the reader to enjoy the story, and you have 36 hours to do it, and the next week, you’re on a whole new story—those are skills that are perfectly applicable to a project like this…(With) the demand upon yourself to keep the reader hooked, you don’t have the luxury of a one-page transition in a 15-inch feature story. You have to move from Topic A to Topic B fluidly. I told people I thought of the book as an 1,100 page feature story.
Q: That’s the William Manchester tradition, and the Barbara Tuchman.
A: Barbara Tuchman had a Bachelor’s from Radcliffe. The divide between popular and scholarly history intrigues me. If you look in the back of one of her books, it’s full of source notes…You can take “The Guns of August” to the beach. That can’t be said about a lot of scholarly books. I want a book that moves me, that makes me laugh and think, and doesn’t lecture me…I wanted my book to pass the campfire test as well as the scholarly test.
Q: It’s a big subject, but you can you name one impact that Churchill had on history that readers should be especially aware of?
A: He was full of contradictions and had a lot of faults, and that is made clear in the book. That said, I believe that his fighting alone, in England, 1940-41, against Hitler (when others favored appeasement)…Because he believed that Nazism was a mortal threat to everything held dear in Western civilization since Plato. I believe that he bought the time for the Russians to accidentally come in and for the Americans to come in to save Western civilization.
Q: One also has to be impressed by the effect that great oratory can have on history.
A: My father, when I was a little kid, would put on recordings of Churchill on our RCA Victrola (while) he flipped pancakes and fried eggs for breakfast. He’d walk around the kitchen in his Annapolis bathrobe, stabbing the air the air with the spatula in syncopation with Churchill’s words. “Listen to Winston,” he commanded. That's where it all began.
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 by William Manchester and Paul Read (Little, Brown and Co. hardcover, Nov. 2012, 1,199 pages, $40).
Paul Reid presents the third and final volume of “The Last Lion” at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood St., Asheville, 3 p.m., Jan. 5. Call 254-6734.