Lawrence Of Arabia, 'Hero' In The Middle East T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia, is one of the most well-known figures of World War I. But in Hero, Michael Korda argues he was more than just a colorful character. Korda believes his struggle to create solutions in the Middle East could have made a difference in today's conflicts.

Lawrence Of Arabia, 'Hero' In The Middle East

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Say "Lawrence of Arabia" and it's hard to keep from humming a few bars of that movie's triumphant theme, or keep an intense young Peter O'Toole out of your mind, fighting the Ottoman Turks, his French allies and his British superiors to push the Arab army onto Damascus and onto its proper place in the world.

(Soundbite of movie, "Lawrence of Arabia")

Mr. PETER O'TOOLE (Actor): (as T.E. Lawrence) All you want is someone holding down the Turkish right. But I'm going to give them Damascus. We'll get there before you do. And when we've got it, we'll keep it. You can tell the politicians to burn their bit of paper now.

Mr. JACK HAWKINS (Actor): (as General Allenby) Fair enough.

Mr. O'TOOLE: (as T.E. Lawrence) Fair? What's fair got to do with it? It's going to happen.

CONAN: That portrayal cemented T.E. Lawrence in all of our imaginations. But as Michael Korda writes in a new biography, he was more than a movie hero. He was a hero in real life and a true visionary. And, counsels Korda, as we struggle in Afghanistan and Iraq, we would do well to learn Lawrence's lessons.

Later in the hour, "Snap Judgment." We'll talk with Glynn Washington about his new radio program. But first, Michael Korda on the lessons of T.E. Lawrence. And we'd like to hear from you. What do you think we can learn from T.E. Lawrence? What is his legacy? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Michael Korda joins us from our bureau in New York. His book is called "Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia." Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. MICHAEL KORDA (Author, "Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia"): Nice to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: And I want to start in 1917, when the Ottoman Turks controlled a vital railway line that ran from Damascus down into the Arabian Peninsula, as far as Medina. The Turkish army there is seen as a dagger pointed at Mecca. The Arab armies fail in repeated assaults on Medina. Enter a young Lawrence.

Mr. KORDA: Well, enter a young Lawrence, and although we all admire David Lean's film, not necessary the young Lawrence of "Lawrence of Arabia." One of the points that I wanted to make strongly in the book is that Lawrence trained himself throughout most of his youth to be a great hero. He had in mind the liberation of Arabia. He strongly advocated it, but he also went through every possible training that he could inflict on himself to play that role. He didn't wander into the desert by accident and emerge out of it as a hero. He wandered into the desert deliberately.

CONAN: And he wandered into the desert, though, as a very junior officer, never at once - that clip, he's talking with the commander of British forces in the area, the general in command, and not intimidated by him one little bit.

Mr. KORDA: Throughout his lifetime, Lawrence was a remarkable combination of a man of extraordinary modesty and humility coupled with enormous arrogance and an absolutely uncanny ability to talk as an equal to generals, kings and presidents. Even as a youth, he never was held back the rank or by the social prestige of the person with whom he was talking. He had an almost unbelievable manner of getting his own way, even when he was an Oxford undergraduate.

CONAN: You write that he took his eyes off Medina when those were - that was the target his superiors wanted him to pay attention to and instead went around it and harried the Turkish lines of supply, the railroad line itself, and by doing so put himself in a position to then go on to accomplish the great goals that he foresaw for his Arab allies.

Mr. KORDA: He described, I think brilliantly, something which nobody else had seen, which was so long as the Arabs kept an entire division in Medina and another division protecting the hundreds of miles of single-line railway that linked Medina to the rest of the Ottoman Empire, that it was, as he put it, all flank and no front.

Hundreds of miles of flank that the Arabs could attack all the way from any direction, it required only six or a dozen Arabs and somebody who knew something about explosives to blow up the railway line. And he also worked out, which I think was brilliant for a young man of 28, that not only could he keep on blowing up the railway line and of course killing Turkish soldiers who were guarding it, but that he never wanted to cut it completely, because if he did, the Turks might withdraw their divisions from Medina and add it to the troops who were in Gaza and guarding Jerusalem and the more important parts of the Turkish Empire.

So his aim was always to inflict just enough damage to inconvenience the Turks without ever inflicting so much damage that they were forced to retreat.

CONAN: And in modern terminology, all flank and no front might be an accurate description of the situation American forces face in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Lawrence of Arabia invented this. This goes back to the Spanish against the Romans, where we get the word guerilla.

Mr. KORDA: Yes. You know, it's hard to overstate Lawrence's importance in the world of guerilla warfare. Among the people who followed his inventions were Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro. Lawrence understood instinctively, and also understood by having read so much military history, he understood instinctively how a small group of men armed with high explosives could incapacitate, isolate and keep in position a vastly stronger modern army with all its modern weapons. The Turks had howitzers. They had German and Austria-Hungarian advisers and machine guns and artillery. They had aircrafts. They had radio. They had everything that a modern army should have.

Lawrence set out to defeat their army without, if possible, ever fighting a battle with it. What is taking place, you're quite right, in Afghanistan today and what is taking place in Iraq and took place in Iraq, this is, to a very large degree, Lawrence's invention, for better or worse.

CONAN: In that clip, we heard Peter O'Toole refer to that piece of paper you should just tear up; he's referring to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, whereby Britain and France reached an agreement on which parts of the old Ottoman Empire they would take over in the event of victory. Indeed, he might have added the Balfour Declaration, which promised the Holy Land to the Jews. Those were things that he knew about, and yet he, knowing that his government was planning to take away much of the territory the Arabs were fighting for, kept on campaigning with them nevertheless.

Mr. KORDA: Yes, but that's the original guilt. Lawrence's intense state of masochism in later life, his decision to turn down all his decorations of whatever kind, his refusal to accept far greater decorations which were offered to him, his final decision to erase himself completely by joining the Royal Air Force as an aircraftsman under an assumed name, the equivalent of a private -all of this comes from Lawrence's immense guilt at having driven and helped the Arabs to fight while knowing that the French and the British would not give the Arabs what they were fighting for.

And in a sense, the Sykes-Picot agreement, which split up the Ottoman Empire, originally between the French, the British and the Russians, who were to get Constantinople, the Sykes-Picot Agreement is the original sin. When you look at the Middle East today - and you have to look at it to some degree through Lawrence's eyes, because Lawrence is one of the major creators of the modern Middle East - when you look at that today, you are seeing the consequences of not giving the Arabs what they wanted, of splitting the entire region up into relatively small and powerless states which were originally mandates or the equivalent of colonies of the British and of the French. Lawrence fought against that all during the war. He fought against it after the war, at the Paris Peace Conference. He fought against it after the Paris Peace Conference, both as a diplomatist and a peacemaker.

Mr. KORDA:...the entire region of the relatively small and powerless states which were originally mandates or the equivalents of colonies of the British and of the French. Lawrence fought against that all during the war. He fought against it after the war, at the Paris Peace Conference. He fought against it after the Paris Peace Conference both as a diplomatist and a peace-maker and in angry and outspoken letters to every newspaper in England. And he remained for the rest of his life somebody who I think was largely maimed by the failure to live up to those promises that had been made to the Arabs.

CONAN: We're talking to Michael Korda about his new biography of Lawrence of Arabia called, "Hero". What is T.E. Lawrence's legacy? How should he be remembered? 800-989-8255, email us: We'll begin with Per(ph), Per calling us from Portland.

PER (Caller): Oh howdy. You know, I think your guest just said pretty much what I was going to say. The Arabs were betrayed 90 years ago and we are still living with that betrayal. You know, one other thing that comes to mind is that, you know, after 9/11, you know, we asked - how did this happen? It's like coming into a movie halfway through and seeing one guy hit the other. But this movie actually began back in 1919 or so, and that's what we are living with. That's why a lot of people in the Middle East hate the U.S. and the British and the French because of what was done to them for 90 years.

Mr. KORDA: I think that's basically true. I also think that a point that has to be made about Lawrence is that Lawrence, apart from being a brilliant guerilla fighter and a self-trained hero, Lawrence had a very vivid picture of what the Middle East ought to be. It included the Jews.

Lawrence was able to bring Anil Faisal(ph), the leader of the Arab army, and Chaim Weizmann, the leader of the Zionists, together in 1919 and sign off on an agreement which Lawrence drafted which would have created in Palestine a joint Arab-Jewish state with total equality. And which would have in the eyes of Lawrence and Faisal and Weizmann, allowed for an immigration of at least four to five million Jews into Palestine without encroaching on Arab land rights.

Had that happened, who can say how different history might have been? The Jews might have been a part of a functioning Middle East. It would have been possible that at least three to four million Jews could have escaped from Hitler's grasp to settle in the Middle East in what is now Israel.

There are a mountain of what-ifs that could have come out of a Middle East in which there was a powerful Arab state, not separated between poor big countries like Egypt and Syria and small, incredibly wealthy oil countries like the Persian oil sheikdoms and Saudi Arabia, but a Middle East in which the wealth was integrated, in which there was a place for the Jews, a totally different future.

CONAN: Per, thanks very much for the phone call, we appreciate it.

PER (Caller): Thank you.

CONAN: More about the legacy of T.E. Lawrence and Michael Korda's new book about his life, "Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia." This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Later in the program the host of Snap Judgment joins us. That's a new public radio program that tells stories about decisions that changed people's lives.

If you have such a story, email it to us now: Right now, though, we're talking about "Hero," the story of T.E. Lawrence. The major set piece in the movie, "Lawrence of Arabia" is the attack on Aqaba, when Lawrence's Arab army assaults the port city in a surprise attack from out of the desert.

(Soundbite of Lawrence of Arabia)

CONAN: Surely the greatest camel charge ever filmed, a taste of movie heroics but we're talking about the real-life heroics of T.E. Lawrence with Michael Korda. His book is called "Hero."

You can read about T.E. Lawrence's trip through the desert for his first meeting with Prince Faisel, the leader of the Arab revolt, and an excerpt from "Hero" at our website. It's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION. What do you think we can learn from T.E. Lawrence? What's his legacy? Phone number 800-989-8255, email us You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And one of the lessons, Michael Korda, perhaps we can learn from Lawrence is that he actually negotiated his way into Aqaba and never had to assault the city.

Mr. KORDA: No, he never assaulted the city. He negotiated his way painfully from step by step through various Turkish outposts that surrounded it in the desert. Lawrence was a great believer in not using force if you could avoid using force. He did not want to spend the lives of the Arabs he rode with.

One of the differences between Lawrence and most other military leaders is Lawrence understood that the Arabs were essentially tribal raiders in which each death was a tragedy. There was no equivalent to the mass slaughter of the Western front and they would never have put up with such an equivalent. So he was very sparing of lives.

Much of his guilt - that part of it wasn't associated with his feeling that he had failed to produce to the Arabs what they deserved to get - much of his guilt was to the deaths in the war. He felt very strongly about each one of them in a very personal way and I think you have to see the remainder of his life and that curiously sadomasochistic urge of his which fascinates people as a kind of self-punishment for what took place during the war.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Silesh(ph) in Aligon, Michigan.

SILESH (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call. The question is simple. How is Lawrence perceived in the Arab world today? Is he even remembered? Alexander is remember as (unintelligible), is there an Arab name for him? I mean, in the movie they keep calling him Lawrence, Lawrence, you know, but how is he perceived in the world today, in the Arab world?

And a small follow-up is, what is his association with India? I believe in his later life he had some association with India, if any, if you could just talk about that, thank you.

Mr. KORDA: I think the Arab world has great difficulty in dealing with Lawrence partly because his importance in the Arab revolt has been overrated in England to such a strong extent. That was not something that Lawrence himself desired. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom he makes it very clear that the triumphs of the Arabs was the Arabs' doing. He was an advisor. At times he was a leader. He was a gifted strategist but he worked in concert with them. So that there's always been a certain amount of Arab and in general Muslim resentment against Lawrence's fame which was enormously magnified by the success of David Lean's movie, "Lawrence of Arabia."

Today, I think Lawrence is a comparatively unknown name in the Arab world. Lawrence also severed his relationships in the Arab world after 1921 when he went back to England. There's a wonderful scene when - not in the movie but in real life - when Lawrence negotiated Abdullah's way to becoming the ruler of Jordan, and eventually the King of Jordan, in which Lawrence then dressed as a civil servant and a diplomatist in a dark suit and a pair of boots, is standing outside Amman. And the Bedouin tribes ride in from the desert and ride up to Lawrence firing in the air and shouting out as they pronounced his name, Oorance, Oorance, Oorance, Oorance.

And a bystander of all things, a very literal-minded English policeman who was Winston Churchill's bodyguard saw this incredible scene of these wonderfully dramatic and glorious-looking people riding in on their horses and camels, shooting in the air and shouting Lawrence's name as they rode past him, and said that he stood there like a conquering hero, that he could have had an empire of his own stretching from Palestine all the way to the Persian Gulf.

I think that's an exaggeration but if a perfectly ordinary English policeman could think that about Lawrence in 1921 it gives you some idea of what his incredible fame was like in that period and what a celebrated figure he was. That's indeed one of the most difficult things to cope in Lawrence, is that his fame is really rather like that of Princess Dianas. He was, from 1920 to 1935 when he died, perhaps the most famous person in the English-speaking world without ever being visible.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And let's go to Jeff(ph), Jeff with us in Phoenix.

JEFF (Caller): My question is about the Sunni and Shia sectarian wars that are ongoing now. What was their status in that period?

Mr. KORDA: I'm not sure that I heard the first part.

CONAN: The Sunni, Shia splits about which we read so much in Iraq these days and various other places and certainly through the Gulf.

Mr. KORDA: Lawrence's relationships were mostly with Sunnis because he was leading the Arabs in what is now Saudi Arabia and in the western part of Saudi Arabia, which is predominately if not exclusively Sunni.

CONAN: Yet there were great splits among the Sunnis. You're talking about the great...

Mr. KORDA: Oh, the Sunni/Shia split was a diplomatic reality of which Lawrence was very well aware. He was for a time in Iraq. He was instrumental, I think, in putting his friend Prince Faisal on the throne of Iraq when the British created Iraq as an independent nation. And was very conscious - he and Gertrude Bell endeavored very, very, with great difficulty to find a way in which Shias could support a Sunni king. He did so successfully but it's never been a stable relationship and he was aware that it would not be.

CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much for the call. I was following up, though. There were great splits among the Sunnis. They were rivals, for example, Faisal's great rival was (unintelligible).

Mr. KORDA: Yes. And that's a great theme in the book is that theres these underlying fissures, is the best word to describe it, between Arabs. And Lawrence again and again in "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" makes the point that merely calling people Arab as a catch-all phrase is really like calling those who live in another part of the world, quote, "Europeans," unquote. What is a European? It's a German but it's also a Serb. It's a Frenchman but it's also a Hungarian. The differences are enormous - cultural, linguistic, religious, historical.

And the same is true of the Arab world. It does us no good and Lawrence was at great pains to point this out again and again. Simply to refer to these people as Arab, as if they were all one people with the same desires and with the same background, that is not true and never has been true and it was one of his great, great abilities. And I make this clear in "Hero" that he could wield together for a time tribes that ordinarily would have opposed each other or fought each other.

CONAN: Go next to Vicky(ph), Vicky with us from Sharon, Massachusetts.

VICKY (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call. I'm very, very excited about listening to this discussion and I already have my book on its way to me. My question is about the dedication in the "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" and if you've been able to come up with any new ideas about it?

Mr. KORDA: Well it's interesting you should ask that actually. In "Hero" I deal with that at some length when I'm describing the torturous and all together remarkable way in which Lawrence wrote "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," probably the most labored over book in the history of book publishing or writing. I think it's fairly clear that (unintelligible) refers to (unintelligible), his friend in Karkamish when he was an archeologist in the days before the war.

I think that Lawrence and I make this point very strongly in "Hero" that Lawrence spent his lifetime, his adolescent and his adult lifetime, ferociously repressing in every possible way his own sexual instincts until he had them completely I think almost 100 percent repressed.

CONAN: You cite his brother as saying he believes he died a virgin.

Mr. KORDA: Yes. I believe Arnold Lawrence, his brother, was correct about that. I think if Lawrence had been able to have an emotional life, and perhaps even a sexual life, that the person in his life who would have been most important to him would have been Dahum(ph), whose name was Selim Ahmed. And so the S.A. in the book, although it's - which is typical Lawrence because he was full of cunning tricks, and a kind of strange, boisterous, almost schoolboy humorous way of fooling people - I think it's absolutely clear that that preface is written to Dahum(ph) and...

ZEKE: I'm very happy to hear your discussion of that, and I often wonder why that book isn't required reading in this day. Very few people I know even know about the book, and I've been reading it for, you know, decades. And I want to thank you. I very much look forward to this new book and...

Mr. KORDA: Well, you're very kind. I think, you know, "Seven Pillars" is remarkable because, first of all, though it's not an easy book to read, I mean it goes into the category of great works literature, like James Joyce's "Ulysses," that are, you know, you recognize the greatness but it's also a difficult task to read that book.

And the same is true of "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," except - and this is very curious - except for the battle scenes. The battle scenes are written in spare, compelling prose, which had a great effect on Ernest Hemingway and which reads very often like Ernest Hemingway, although needless to say Lawrence never read Ernest Hemingway.

CONAN: Michael Korda, you say it's hard to read. How old were you when first read it?

Mr. KORDA: Fourteen. I was given my first copy of "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" when I was 14 years old, but you see, I grew up with Lawrence.

ZEKE: (Unintelligible) also. Thank you very, very much.

CONAN: Thank you for the call, Zeke. You say you grew up with Lawrence...

Mr. KORDA: Well...

CONAN: ...your uncle, you should explain.

Mr. KORDA: Yes. I should explain. I didn't grow up personally with Lawrence, but my uncle, Alexander Korda, had bought from Lawrence, whom he knew, the motion picture rights in 1935, the year that Lawrence died, and guaranteed Lawrence he would never make a film of Lawrence's life while Lawrence was alive or without Lawrence's permission if he was alive.

And as a result, my Uncle Alex had in mind a movie in which Leslie Howard would pay Lawrence and which my Uncle Zoltan would direct, because he was good at desert movies, and my father would art direct. And he had a script written for it. The film never got made, largely because the government objected to a movie about Lawrence on the grounds that it would infuriate the Arabs and the Turks, and they didn't want to do either one of those two things.

But I grew up surrounded by talk about Lawrence, surrounded by Lawrence's book. I served in the Royal Air Force, as Lawrence did. I was a motorcycle fanatic, partly because Lawrence was my example for that. So Lawrence seemed to me a very familiar figure, and I never found any difficulty in - either in reading his books or in puzzling out what he really meant, because his prose can sometimes be very difficult to penetrate.

CONAN: That's interesting - some comparisons to the struggles to make a movie about Michael Collins and Ireland. But anyway, we're talking with Michael Korda. His book is "Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's next go to Jasmine(ph). Jasmine with us from Raleigh.

JASMINE (Caller): Hi. Yes. I guess I wanted to make a couple of comments. I'm actually half Saudi, half American, and there was a question about how Arabs perceive Lawrence of Arabia. And growing up in Saudi Arabia, I remember lots of references towards him very much in the positive. And it was usually said when the Americans or the Europeans - that general term again - were there on work visas and doing business and such. And I just think we remember back in the '80s a (unintelligible) gentleman whose name was Jim Lawrence - people would give him the nickname of, oh, this is our Lawrence of Arabia because he would wear (unintelligible) and he would wear the Arab dress and he had those blue eyes. And it was very(ph) used as a term of endearment, like, oh, here is a Westerner who actually gets to know the people, who embraces the culture, who respects the differences, who integrates. And I think that is the - at least from the Arab perspective - the respect that he earned.

Mr. KORDA: I think you're very right about that.

JASMINE: I'm sorry?

Mr. KORDA: I think you're very right about that. I think...

JASMINE: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. KORDA: ...that one of the reasons that Lawrence was able to lead the Arabs is that from the very beginning he determined to lead their life. However little water they had, whatever their food was like, however difficult their life in the desert was, Lawrence shared it with them on equal terms, which no other European officer ever tried to do. And that made an enormous difference. He made himself one of them.

JASMINE: (Unintelligible) today.

CONAN: Also you suggest because the Arab head dress made him look a little taller than his five-foot-three.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KORDA: Yes, that helped. Five-foot-five.

CONAN: Five-foot-five. All right. Anyway.

JASMINE: Well, you know, as Arabs we're not that tall anyhow, at least many of us aren't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Jasmine, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

JASMINE: May I make one more comment?

CONAN: If you would make it quickly, please.

JASMINE: Yes. I also served in the military, and I think aside from the military strategy, a lesson to be learned is that, again, when you're going to a culture, learning the culture and using that culture and the terrain and everything to the advantage, as opposed to against you, say, as the Russians did in Afghanistan, you know, where Lawrence did the opposite. He really was able to use everything there to his best advantage.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the comment. Appreciate it.

JASMINE: Thank you. Bye-bye.

Mr. KORDA: I think it's a very shrewd comment, by the way. She's absolutely right.

CONAN: Finally, this email from Daniel: Your guest knows a lot about the past issues of Lawrence in the Middle East. So is there anyway to go back and correct the errors that were made in splitting up the Middle East? While we're splitting up the Ottoman Empire, there were Arab states that did emerge, as you pointed out - Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and of course Iraq.

Mr. KORDA: I think much of what Lawrence wanted to accomplish could probably be accomplished if on our side we stop treating the Arabs as if they were exotics and understood that what they fought for they failed to get from the Allies and that has colored their view of the West every since then. Not that their view of the West was particularly good before. And that the Palestinian-Jewish problem is a part of that larger whole. It's not the whole essence of the Arab grievance against the West. That would be one helpful thing, is to understand that we are teaching - dealing with people who have a rich, long civilization, but one which is radically different from ours in many ways and that we have to learn to accept, as they have to learn to accept us.

The other would be - and it has been attempted by many people - you know, more of a coming together of the smaller Arab states into a larger Arab state. Lowell Thomas used to call Lawrence the George Washington of Arabia. There's still time for that.

CONAN: Michael Korda's new book is called "Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia." You can read an excerpt at And he joined us from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. KORDA: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Up next, a new public radio show tell stories of life-changing moments on the radio. Stay with us for that. I'm Neal Conan. TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: And we're going to be talking with our next guest, Glynn Washington, in just a moment. He's the host and executive producer of "Snap Judgment." He's, however, still looking for a parking place outside of KQED, our member station in San Francisco. In the meantime, Michael Korda has been kind enough to stay behind in our bureau in New York. He's the author of the new biography of T.E. Lawrence, "The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia." "Hero" is its title. And Michael, thanks very much for sticking around and pinch-hitting, as it were.

Mr. KORDA: It's my pleasure.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you. About the effect of Lawrence's celebrity, as you pointed out early in our conversation, he was very much at home with those who might have been regarded as his social superiors in those days when that meant a great deal more than it does now. Nevertheless, he felt weighted down by the expectations of fame.

Mr. KORDA: Well, I think he felt weighted down from the very beginning of his life by the fact that he was illegitimate, one of the five sons of an English aristocrat who had abandoned his four daughters for their governess and then gone on to have five sons. He was enormously oppressed by - not only the knowledge of his illegitimacy but by a genuine and obsessive fear of sexuality. He felt in some way that the sexual desire between his father and his mother had been responsible for his father's immense loss of money, prestige, name even, because he gave up his name, Sir Thomas Chapman, to become Thomas Lawrence, and that Lawrence's pathway to a prevailing spirit of guilt and self-punishment opened up very early in his life, even while he was an adolescent.

However, set against that, he was a man of enormous charm, of tremendous good humor, of extraordinary caring for others. He was perhaps one of the most brilliant and prolific letter writers of anybody in English history and had a gift for friendship which was almost unique. His friends included almost everybody worth knowing, from Winston Churchill and John Buchan to George Bernard and Charlotte Shaw, Thomas Hardy - you name it. Noel Coward. There is almost nobody of any consequence in English life between, I would say, 1960 to 1970 and Lawrence's death in 1935 with whom Lawrence was not on friendly terms. He was extraordinary personality. Magnetic is the only word that one can use for it, even though it's much overused. But it's true.

CONAN: A friend both to Winston Churchill, as you pointed out, and to Lady Astor, the woman who once told Churchill that if he were her husband, she would put poison in his coffee.

Mr. KORDA: And he said, and if I were your husband, Madam, I'd drink it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. KORDA: Thank you.

CONAN: The book again is "Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia." Michael Korda with us from our bureau in New York.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.