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Awards & Honors: 2001 National Humanities Medalist

William Manchester

William Manchester’s connections to World War II—from his fascination with its great military leaders to his experiences as a soldier—have shaped his formidable literary career.

“The friendships I made in the Marine Corps were longer lasting and more fulfilling than any I’ve ever made in my life,” says Manchester, a veteran wounded twice on Okinawa. The Manchester family has a legacy of service. Eighteen Manchesters served under General George Washington. William Manchester’s father was a decorated World War I veteran, and his brother was a fellow World War II marine. Near the end of the war, William Manchester was shipped stateside to recover, where he met another wounded soldier named John Fitzgerald Kennedy. They formed a friendship that lasted until Kennedy’s death. Manchester went on to write an account of his friend’s assassination at the request of the Kennedy family. Manchester’s book, The Death of a President, sold 1.3 million copies. It became a best-seller and James Michener declared it “a book that will be used by historians for the next two thousand years.”

Manchester’s life has been showered with awards. He was valedictorian at the University of Massachusetts. He received the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, and two Purple Hearts for his time as a marine. From four decades of teaching and writing at Wesleyan University, he produced eighteen books that reveal his gift to evoke history--plain, simple, alive, and jumping from the page. His characterizations compel readers to understand past events and appreciate lessons learned over time.

The first two volumes of his Churchill biography, The Last Lion, Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory, 1874 - 1932 and The Last Lion, Winston Spencer Churchill, Alone, 1932 -1940 provide insights into the enigmatic leader. “Churchill,” he writes, “was not a public figure like, say, Roosevelt, who thought and spoke in the idiom of his own time. He was instead the last of England’s great Victorian statesmen, with views formed when the British lion’s roar could silence the world.”

Manchester wrote poetry at age seven, short stories at age eleven, and found Shakespeare at age fifteen. He took up theater in high school, but decided not to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts when his father told him, “Actors are bums.” Later, in the middle of an already established literary career, Manchester shared his views on actors who had portrayed two of his biographical subjects. He said, “Actors who have tried to play Churchill and MacArthur have failed abysmally because each of those men was a great actor playing himself.” Manchester’s biography, American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880- 1964, won critical acclaim for its powerful depiction of the general. Among his other works are Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H. L. Mencken, The Arms of Krupp, A World Lit Only by Fire, and his wartime memoir, Goodbye Darkness.

By LFL