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Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia

Michael Korda comes from a larger-than-life family—his uncle was the colorful film mogul Alexander Korda—and perhaps this is why, as a novelist, memoirist, and biographer, he has been drawn to world-altering people and events. His biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower (“Ike”) was a bestseller, and other books have depicted the Kennedys and their circle; Ulysses S. Grant, and various high-lifers in publishing and the arts. But perhaps none has cut such a brilliant swathe through history as his most recent subject—T.E. Lawrence, known both in his own time and ours as “Lawrence of Arabia.” Born in 1888, he was a brilliant scholar and military tactician, prime mover in the Arab revolt against Turkish rule, and by 1921, according to Korda, was probably “the most famous living person in the world.”

“I found myself constantly in Lawrence’s path,” notes Korda. And his sweeping and detailed portrait maps a complex, self-created life. The book's title, “Hero,” was “meant to be both iconic and ironic.” Lawrence, who was classically educated, consciously modeled himself on such epic heroes as Ajax and Agamemnon, and dreamed of military glory. This was a common enough romantic longing among young men in post-Edwardian England, but he was driven by more urgent circumstances. He had intuited correctly that he was illegitimate (his father, a wealthy Irish peer, had run away with the family governess). As a result, he felt an urgent need to distinguish himself in public, and extinguish any glimmer of sexuality in private.   “He set out to create a persona as if he were creating an object totally divorced from himself,” says Korda (pictured at right). “And the irony is that he succeeded too well. He created such a successful Lawrence, such an heroic Lawrence, such a famous and celebrated Lawrence, that he couldn’t escape—it’s Frankenstein’s monster.”

Michael Korda (Photo by Lars Lonninge)

Lawrence would have found some way to make his mark at any time, but history seemed almost to bend to his will. As the First World War drew miserably on, the British came to see the Middle East as a fulcrum of power, and Lawrence became one of the leaders of a revolt that he hoped would create a modern Arab state. In the end, both he and his Arab comrades (whom he would help place on the thrones of the newly created Iraq and Jordan), were betrayed by the Allies' hunger for territory. “What we live with today,” says Korda, “is a reflection of the failure of those promises.”

But even while Lawrence struggled to create a tolerant utopia in the region (he crafted an agreement for a joint Jewish/Arab state years before the slew of jaded politicians who have come adrift there) the American journalist Lowell Thomas was busy making him into the first modern media sensation, touring the world with an extravaganza called “With Lawrence in Arabia,” that helped to establish the image of a glamorous guerilla leader in flowing robes. This is the figure that we meet in David Lean’s 1962 epic, “Lawrence of Arabia,” in which the very picturesque Peter O’Toole stands in for Lawrence (who was dark, five foot five, with an unnaturally large head).

Korda admires the film’s swashbuckling energy, but points out that it displayed a very narrow slice of Lawrence’s life: the two sensational years between 1918 and 1919. And missing, too, were some of the things that made him extraordinary—not just the ferocious courage, but an uncanny gift of friendship with all walks of life and a dynamic, lyrical writing style that graced his famous memoir “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and thousands of detailed personal letters. Missing, too, were some of the darker aspects of his character—a masochistic strain (this was a tortured soul in need of torture, says Korda) and a correspondingly cruel one.

The one man wasn’t the other in disguise, Korda insists. Lawrence isn’t either a Boy Scout or a pervert, but a creation that “was a life’s work,” a “puzzle at which people are still nibbling.” And what he clearly was was something that seems to be an increasing rarity in our duplicitous, spin-doctored, time: a man who saw what needed to be done, and did exactly what he said he would do. 

Click on the link above to listen to WNYC's interview with Michael Korda.