Manchester: Literary lion with roots in Baltimore

Writer: After two strokes, the respected historian and biographer is ambivalent about completing another book.

May 10, 2002|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. - The words, always chosen with precision, still come freely. When there is a lengthy pause in his slightly slurred speech, it is not because he is having difficulty finding the right one. It's more complicated than that.

The wit remains intact, still sharp enough to leave either tiny nick or deep laceration. Of President Bush, who two weeks ago hung the prestigious National Humanities Medal around his neck: "Not as smart as his wife." Of television news anchors: "Boobs whose IQs are slightly below their body temperatures." Of the notoriously slow elevator he was waiting for in his wheelchair last week while on a rare visit to his office at Wesleyan University: "They should," he grumbled, "issue a timetable for this thing."

And the memory - God, the memory - it seems as strong as ever. Given a choice of chiseling something into granite, storing it in a powerful computer (infernal contraptions, in his view), or filing it in the brain of William Manchester, the last might be the most foolproof.

Ask the 80-year-old historian and author of 18 books when something happened - whether it was the day he met H.L. Mencken or his first day as a reporter on Baltimore's Evening Sun - and you don't get an answer like, "In the 1940s." You get "June 2, 1947, in the dining room of the Maryland Club," or "Sept. 15, 1947, and I was delighted to find a parking place right in front of the building."

What's missing, after two strokes, is not Manchester's recall, his vocabulary or his caustic, sometimes cantankerous wit (more than a little Mencken rubbed off on Manchester), but his ability to do the long-term mental planning needed to ply his trade.

He has little problem telling a story, but the man who has churned out sweeping histories, thick as phone books, and painstakingly chronicled the lives of Krupps and Rockefellers, of Winston Churchill, Douglas MacArthur, John F. Kennedy and Mencken feels he no longer can write so much as a chapter.

"Writing used to be as easy for me as breathing," he said last week, having been hoisted from his wheelchair to his couch by his live-in housekeeper. "I used to be able to carry an astonishing amount of information around in my head. While I was writing, I would make notes about what I would be writing in 20 minutes."

Partially paralyzed, Manchester, who once wrote in marathon sessions of up to 50 hours, subsisting on yogurt and quick naps on his office couch, tires quickly now. A letter to a friend might take all day. Finishing his third and final volume on the life of Churchill - 250 pages of which he completed before his strokes in 1998 - seems, to him, an unachievable task.

"It's a matter of making the connections that are necessary," he said. "I can't do that anymore. I get frustrated."

To the despair of his publisher, Little, Brown, and the disappointment of many fans, Manchester said last year that he would be unable to complete the final Churchill book. Little, Brown has since trotted out several possible co-authors to take over the writing.

Manchester, who compares that to "having someone else raise your child," has not approved any of them, though he has not yet rejected the latest candidate.

He remains undecided on whether the book will be completed, even as a joint effort. "I have no interest," he says at one point, sitting in the living room, an unsipped glass of cranberry juice at his side. But, a few hours and a nap later, he doesn't rule out the possibility.

Manchester's first stroke came less than six months after his wife, Julia, died of a heart attack on the eve of their 50th anniversary. "It has been nearly four years," says Manchester, "and I still dream about her every night."

Articles about their engagement and her death are tacked on the bulletin board in the kitchen of his 11-room stone house, along with a list of his medications, emergency numbers and foods to avoid.

In his living room, sunlight pours in from large windows, fading the spines of the hundreds of books on shelves that line one wall. His more prized possessions - a signed photo of Jacqueline Kennedy, his wife's pottery, his first editions - are kept clear of the rays.

In his study, little used now, the Mencken memorabilia include a box of unsmoked "Uncle Willies" given to him by the legendary social and literary critic. A manual typewriter sits in a corner - replaced by a word processor, but still on standby.

In his bedroom, a bowl of uneaten popcorn rests on his bed, along with a bullhorn. He uses it to call his housekeeper, though lately he has taken to calling her on her cell phone if she's on another floor.

He rises at 10 a.m., turns in early in the evening and spends too much time watching television - but then, in his opinion, any television is too much:

"Since my wife's death and my incapacity, I've watched a lot. It's just appalling, the factual errors - even on the History Channel. It was a better world when people got their information from the printed word."

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