Sad news from London this morning of the passing of Sir Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill, and the author of something like 40 other books—many of them big, big books, some of them about Jewish history and the Holocaust. He began his career as a research assistant to Randolph Churchill, and after Randolph died succeeded him as the official biographer, going on to write six of the eight volumes of the series—still the longest biography ever written I believe. (Gilbert also produced a one-volume biography of Churchill that still clocks in at over 1,000 pages, and a must-read if you don’t have the time or fortitude for the full eight volumes.)
In this season of honoring our heroes who have recently departed, it is worth mentioning that in the late 1970s Harry Jaffa helped arrange funding for Sir Martin to continue his work on the Churchill biography when Britain’s savage inflation had eroded the value of the publisher’s advance so badly that Sir Martin thought he might have to give up the biography.
One key to Sir Martin’s extraordinary productivity was the combination of his discipline (he sometimes wrote 5,000 words a day), and his phenomenal memory. I only met him three or four times, but the second time we met he remembered my name, where we had met, and what we had talked about.
Richard Langworth, one of America’s most eminent Churchillians, offers a lengthy reminiscence along with Lady Gilbert’s announcement of Sir Martin’s passing this morning:
From London from Lady Gilbert, 4 February 2015:
It is with an unbearable sadness that I am writing to you today. After thirty-four months of agonizingly slow but steady recovery from an hypoxia brain injury, and thirty hours of a virulent sepsis infection, the final query to Martin’s own personal history was answered last night. . .
Langworth: My relationship with Martin goes back forty-seven years to the the day my letter, asking Randolph Churchill’s assistance with research, arrived at Randolph’s house, and Martin opened it. (Decades later he still remembered.) We met fifteen years later when I invited him to speak to our Churchill tour party, the first of countless collaborations and shared interest in keeping Churchill’s “memory green and record accurate.” How much I learned from him is incalculable. . .
Each one of us recalls some little incident—many of us, as in my own case, a kind action, graced with the courtesy of a past generation and going far beyond the normal calls of comradeship. Each of us has his own memory, for in the tumultuous diapason of the world’s tributes, all of us here at least know the epitaph he would have chosen for himself: “He was a noble historian, a kind and decent man.”