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Manchester, William Raymond

MANCHESTER, William Raymond

(b. 1 April 1922 in Attleboro, Massachusetts), reporter, historian, and biographer best known for his controversial and award-winning book The Death of a President: November 20–November 25, 1963 (1967), which examines the days surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Manchester was the first of two sons of William Raymond Manchester, a social worker, and Sallie E. R. Thompson Manchester, a homemaker. After graduating from high school in 1940, Manchester attended the University of Massachusetts, majoring in English. World War II interrupted his studies, and he served with the U.S. Marine Corps from 2 July 1942 until 24 October 1945, achieving the rank of sergeant. He was decorated with the Purple Heart. After discharge Manchester returned to his studies and graduated with a B.A. in 1946; he was the class valedictorian.

Following graduation Manchester enrolled at the University of Missouri and completed an M.A. in English, devoting his thesis to the life and works of H. L. Mencken, the newspaper columnist and essayist. Working on the thesis necessitated a correspondence with Mencken that grew into a friendship. The thesis was the basis of Manchester's first book, Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H. L. Mencken (1951). After graduating in 1947 Manchester, with Mencken's support, went to work at the Baltimore Sun, initially as a police reporter. Manchester married Julia Brown Marshall, a newspaperwoman, on 27 March 1948; they had three children.

At the Sun, Manchester was promoted to Washington correspondent, then foreign correspondent, traveling in England and throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, interviewing a number of heads of state. In 1953 he was a war correspondent with the French in North Vietnam. Manchester left the Sun in 1954 to serve as a confidential secretary to Mencken, who had become an invalid due to a stroke. After Mencken's death, Manchester relocated to Middletown, Connecticut, to work as the managing editor of Wesleyan University Press.

Manchester wrote four novels, but only the first, The City of Anger (1953), was well received. With the biography A Rockefeller Family Portrait: From John D. to Nelson (1959), Manchester was more successful, but it was his Portrait of a President: John F. Kennedy in Profile (1962) that achieved critical success. In The Writer's Voice (1973), Manchester comments on the importance of finding the right questions to intrigue the subject of an interview. His first interview with Kennedy was supposed to last for ten minutes; it took three-and-a-half hours. The fact that Kennedy enjoyed Manchester's company and respected him as a historian was important to the Kennedy family in the selection of who would write a historical account of the president's death.

Following Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, it became apparent to the Kennedy family that one complete and undistorted record of the event would be preferable to several historically inaccurate accounts. Manchester was not their first choice for the project. It was Theodore H. White, who wrote about Kennedy's campaign in The Making of the President, 1960 (1961), but he declined. Their next choice was Walter Lord, the author of A Night to Remember (1955), about the sinking of the Titanic, and Day of Infamy (1957), about the attack on Pearl Harbor; Lord said he would think about it. On 5 February 1964 Manchester was asked to write the book, and he jumped at the opportunity. Before beginning the project, Manchester was required to sign a memorandum stipulating that both the president's wife, Jacqueline, and his brother Robert had the right to review the manuscript, and that it would not be published without their approval.

In researching the book, Manchester conducted more than 1,000 interviews. Marina Oswald refused to be interviewed, but Jacqueline Kennedy spoke with Manchester for ten hours. Using a tape recorder, he was able to extract information, facts, thoughts, and emotions still fresh in people's minds. He read a year's worth of Dallas newspapers to research the attitude of Texans toward Kennedy. Writing in longhand, working 100 hours a week, massing detail upon detail, Manchester built his book. On 8 March 1966 the first draft was completed, and the problems began. Rather than reading the book themselves, Robert and Jacqueline Kennedy had others read it on their behalf. A legal battle ensued that finally ended with two out-of-court settlements: one with Look magazine, which had purchased the rights to serialize the book for $665,000 (the highest bid to date for serialization rights to a book), and the other with the book's publisher, Harper and Row. Claiming breach of contract, the Kennedys did not want the book published in any form. Nevertheless, after Manchester deleted 1,600 words from the text (about seven pages), the book was published on 7 April 1967.

Some critics were disturbed by the massive accumulation of detail and Manchester's idolization of President Kennedy, but the public loved the book. It sold 1.3 million copies. The reviewer Eliot Fremont-Smith of the New York Times wrote, "As a historical document the value of The Death of a President cannot seriously be challenged. Never before has the family of a slain leader been so willing to serve history as the Kennedys have." Manchester donated the bulk of his profits from the book to the Kennedy Library.

Following the publication of The Death of a President, Manchester resumed work on a previous project, a biography of the Krupps, The Arms of Krupp, 1587–1968 (1968). Since childhood Manchester had been intrigued by men of power, which was apparent in his choice of biographical subjects. Notable examples, in addition to his books on Kennedy and Mencken, are American Caesar: Douglas Mac-Arthur, 1880–1964 (1978), The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Volume 1: Visions of Glory: 1874–1932 (1983), and The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Volume 2: Alone: 1932–1940 (1987). The planned volume three on Churchill was not written. After the death of his wife in 1998, Manchester suffered two strokes that affected his ability to write. In an interview Manchester said, "Language for me came as easily as breathing for fifty years, and I can't do it any more."

Manchester's book on the assassination of President Kennedy recaptures the events of the 1960s. It brings to life not only the facts but the emotions shared by those glued to their television sets or on their knees in churches and outside U.S. embassies around the world. The book is history, but it is also a reflection of a nation in mourning.

Full coverage of The Death of a President, both the writing of the book and the legal problems with the Kennedys, is covered in John Corry, The Manchester Affair (1967). A discussion of Manchester's writing techniques is in George Garrett, ed., The Writer's Voice: Conversations with Contemporary Writers (1973), conducted by John Graham. Reviews of The Death of a President are Eliot Fremont-Smith, "At Last, the Whole Book—And Worth Having," New York Times (3 Apr. 1967), and Tom Wicker, "November 22, 1963," New York Times (9 Apr. 1967). More recent biographical material is Dexter Filkins, "No End in Sight," Sydney Morning Herald (11 Oct. 2001).

Marcia B. Dinneen

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