Biography -- hefty, colorful, detailed, and possibly biased; Manchester takes on ChurchillThe Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory: 1874-1932, by William Manchester. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. $25.
A small, telling episode is omitted from the account of Winston Churchill's 1932 visit to America which ends this latest rekindling of the past in the Manchester manner. Son Randolph sent a telegram asking permission to write his father's biography for an advance against royalties of (STR)450. Churchill urged a delay, predicting thousands more in the future.
''This sensible advice was naturally heeded,'' wrote Randolph 34 years later to preface the ''colossal work'' of official biography he finally set out to write. Since his passing, the task has been continued by Martin Gilbert, and there are now five volumes of biography, taking the story to 1939, plus a dozen ''companion volumes'' - a hint of the market for Churchilliana that Churchill imagined even before the World War II years that sealed his fame. It was a market that he himself exploited to the full, depending on his extraordinary pen to support his family and his luxuries during the ups and downs of his political and military career.
Now comes William Manchester, biographer of John Kennedy and Douglas MacArthur, to stake out his part of the Churchill
market, now represented by a television series as well as other recent books. The almost 900 pages of the present volume fall short of Manchester's hefty narrative history of America from 1932 to 1972, ''The Glory and the Dream.'' But they are similarly packed with incident and quotation, skillfully stitched together - if somewhat on the bias, or at least with the author's opinions edging the recital of facts.
The first 40 pages are a tour de force of distilling the Churchill saga as a whole. The memories evoked by this preamble play off against the rest of the book, preparing for a last line of marvelous irony. It is Lady Astor's reply when Stalin inquired about Churchill before World War II: ''Oh, he's finished.''
A lesser man might have been finished.
Churchill had gone beyond schoolboy slovenliness and examination failures to mastery of history and writing. He had not let a speech impediment dampen his oratory, or an arm injury impede his polo. He benefited from the support of a loyal wife (who debated him in writing even when they were in the same room) and at times the string-pulling of a glamorous mother.
But there had been as many lows as highs in a career ranging to India, South Africa, and Europe. He had switched political parties twice (and trust Manchester to have on tap Churchill's own comment to a friend: ''Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat''). He had drawn outrage for racism and sexism, although they weren't called that then. He had received such threats over his Irish policies that for months he slept in a steel-reinforced armchair with a pistol in his lap. He had alienated Indians by trying to stamp out Gandhism, though he also spoke against the massacre of Indians by Britain's General Dyer, one of the episodes that make this book an interesting companion to the movie ''Gandhi.''
Churchill was a ''last lion,'' in part for his outdated glorying in war, although he would instruct an aide to save the life of a ladybug. He promoted British use of poison gas in World War I, though later he deplored British atrocities no less than German ones. He was blamed for allied failures at Antwerp and Gallipoli. He was savaged for returning Britain to the gold standard , cutting military expenditures to bolster social programs, making thunderously misguided speeches in contrast with the eloquence that has lingered on.
But Churchill was sometimes blamed mistakenly. He had his defenders, such as author-Arabist T.E. Lawrence, who wrote that ''several times I've seen him chuck the statesmanlike course & do the honest thing instead.'' And Manchester, in one of his own pithy phrases, notes that Churchill ''always had second and third thoughts, and they usually improved as he went along.''
In portraying the range of humanity, positive and negative, in this one protean individual, Manchester deftly mines the official biography and scores of other works. He has also conducted his own interviews, and they pay off in such nuggets as the young Churchill asking a friend about that part of the world that would loom so large in his military record: ''Where are the Dardanelles exactlym ?''
Manchester adroitly sets the biographical material in the social and historical scene of a nation in transition from being what today would be called a superpower. He departs from the tone of the official biography with an air of worldly wisdom that often crosses the line between avoiding euphemism and savoring scandal. Not even Nehru escapes, let alone British leaders of the day and Churchill's own antecedents.
The official biography itself goes so far as to say young Winston's neglect by his parents was remarkable, ''even judged by the standards of late Victorian and Edwardian days.'' Manchester, having established the mother's wanton ways, goes so far as to say her demise followed an accident caused, ''appropriately,'' by a pair of fashionable shoes.
Such a touch of sardonic amusement in a fatal episode is a measure of the outlook that gives a reader a certain uneasiness about the author's presence in other parts of the book. How far is he conveying accuracy in both letter and spirit? How far is he using the materials of a life to provide a big item for the Churchill market?
It's too bad the question even comes up in a book that offers such a rich narrative with such a riveting central figure.
One of the things Churchill published in the early '30s was ''Fifty Years Hence,'' looking ahead to our very day. It concludes with words worth noting along with the bygone urgencies of history: ''Projects undreamed of by past generations will absorb our immediate descendants; forces terrific and devastating will be in their hands; comforts, activities, amenities, pleasures will crowd upon them, but their hearts will ache, their lives will be barren, if they have not a vision above material things.''