Philip Ziegler, biographer of Britain’s powerful and pivotal, dies at 93

Philip Ziegler, a prolific biographer and historian who unspooled tales of British power and prestige including former prime ministers and the royal intrigue of Edward VIII and his decision to leave the throne for love, died Feb. 22 at his home in London. He was 93.

His literary agent, Caroline Dawnay, said Mr. Ziegler had cancer.

Over more than four decades, Mr. Ziegler showed a restless curiosity with subjects ranging from London during the World War II air-raid blitzes to the horrors of the bubonic plague in medieval Britain and across Europe. Yet his gaze was mostly on his homeland and the personalities and institutions that helped shape it.

His own life gave him a grounding in the rarefied worlds he chronicled — as well as the forces that have molded Britain’s modern identity. Mr. Ziegler attended the elite schools Eton and Oxford. He then served in the British foreign service during an era when Britain’s colonial power was unraveling, and returned to Britain on the cusp of the social and economic upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s.

“The biographer’s first responsibility is to the truth and to the reader,” Mr. Ziegler said in a 2011 interview. “If he is not prepared, in the last resort, to hurt and offend people for whom he feels nothing except goodwill, then he should not be writing a biography.”

Some of the subjects he explored had built-in name recognition: the Barings banking empire (“The Sixth Great Power,” 1988); the founder of the Rhodes scholarships (“Legacy: Cecil Rhodes,” 2008); and Lord Louis Mountbatten (“Mountbatten,” 1985), a member of the royal family and naval officer who was killed in a bomb blast by the Irish Republican Army in 1979.

Other lives he examined were less prominent yet offered windows into the vanities of Britain’s social swells and blue bloods. His 1981 biopic “Diana Cooper” recounted the life of a beguiling aristocrat who was the inspiration for author Evelyn Waugh’s character Algernon Stitch in his 1938 satire on journalism, “Scoop.”

In 2004, Mr. Ziegler’s “Man of Letters” chronicled maverick British publisher Rupert Hart-Davis, who edited the first edition of the collected letters of Oscar Wilde that shed new light into the libertine writer. Mr. Ziegler’s 1999 biography “Osbert Sitwell” revisited the life of a minor British poet who cast a wider celebrity as a magnet for artists and iconoclasts.

“Even after Ziegler decides that ‘Osbert is worth a book,’ he says this is ‘not so much for what he did as for what he was,’” reviewer Adam Kirsch wrote in The Washington Post. “Sitwell himself would have bitterly resented this judgment, but Ziegler shows that it is more or less correct.”

Mr. Ziegler earned widespread praise from reviewers for his exhaustive research and reader-friendly storytelling over more than 20 books. Some reviewers, however, took issue with some of Mr. Ziegler’s work as failing to probe deeper into the minds and motivations of his subjects.

“Readable and judicious as it is, the book is not without lapses,” London Observer reviewer Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote of Mr. Ziegler’s 2010 book “Edward Heath,” on the British prime minister during a time of labor and economic tumult in the early 1970s.

Writer Christopher Hitchens complained of “Ziegler’s dull consensus prose” in a review of Mr. Ziegler’s 1993 biography “Wilson,” on another former British prime minister, Harold Wilson.

In many books, Mr. Ziegler’s research delved into royal family connections. He became something of an insider for the project on Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne in 1936 rather than end his relationship with a divorced American woman, Wallis Simpson. His decision divided the nation — love versus duty — and became an open wound within the monarchy as Edward and Simpson took up self-exile in France.

Buckingham Palace had kept its files on Edward and the abdication from scholars and others. In the late 1980s, the palace was looking for an official biographer, and Mr. Zeigler was picked on the strength of his previous biographies.

He was the first time anyone outside the royal confines was allowed to look over the records, which included diaries and correspondence with Queen Mary and Edward’s brother, who became George VI after the abdication. It was critical access, Mr. Ziegler said, to give the credibility to the book, “King Edward VIII: The Official Biography” (1990).

“Human memory is terrifyingly fallible,” Mr. Ziegler said, “and I have learned over the years not to expect precise dates or records of conversations when interviewing people who knew my subject.”

A New York Times review of the book asked: “What does an official biographer do with a soap opera subject?”

“If he is Philip Ziegler,” wrote reviewer Zara Steiner, “he turns the story of Edward, Prince of Wales, then King and finally Duke of Windsor, into a book of such compelling interest and frankness that it is difficult to put down.”

If a wealth of material helped expand Edward’s story, then the opposite proved true with the famed actor Laurence Olivier.

Mr. Ziegler said he had piles of documents and hours of taped interviews on Olivier’s life, work and loves, including his marriage to actress Vivien Leigh. But Mr. Ziegler felt he could never fully understand Olivier or define the source of his genius onstage and screen.

“He was always acting,” Mr. Ziegler said, and would “edit himself out” of their discussions.

“Up until now, anyone I’ve written about I’ve felt I was chipping away, poking away, going deeper and deeper and, in the end, I would come through to somebody real,” Mr. Ziegler said at a 2013 book event shortly after the release of “Olivier.”

“With Olivier, I always came out the other side,” he added, “and realized that I had failed to engage completely.”

Philip Sandeman Ziegler was born on Dec. 24, 1929, in Ringwood, a Hampshire village about 10 miles from the English Channel. His father was an army officer and his mother a homemaker.

Mr. Ziegler served in the British army during World War II and graduated from Oxford’s New College in 1951 with a degree in jurisprudence. The following year, he joined the Foreign Office and served in diplomatic posts in Vientiane, Laos; Paris; Pretoria, South Africa, and Bogotá.

In 1967, gunmen broke into their Bogotá home and fatally shot his wife, Sarah Collins. Mr. Ziegler, who was wounded in the attack, resigned from the diplomatic service to take a job at the publishing house William Collins, which was then run by his father in law.

While in the diplomatic corps, Mr. Ziegler tried his hand at a novel. It was “atrocious,” he said. He turned to nonfiction. He published his first biography in 1962, “Duchess of Dino,” about Dorothea Courtland, a mistress of 19th-century French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand. In 1969, Mr. Ziegler’s account of the plague, “The Black Death,” became a top seller despite being seen by some medieval scholars as lacking academic depth.

He rose to become editor in chief at Collins and left in 1980 to concentrate on writing.

Mr. Ziegler married Mary Clare Charrington in 1971; she died in 2017. Survivors include a son and daughter from his first marriage; and a son from his second.

Mr. Ziegler often described himself an obsessive researcher. Only a fraction of what he gleaned made it into print.

“Ideally the biographer should know everything about his subject and then discard 99 percent of his information, keeping only the essential,” Mr. Ziegler said in 2011. “Of course, one can never hope to discover anything approaching ‘everything,’ but one can find out a great deal.”

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