Martin Blumenson, a leading historian of World War II who wrote the Army's official account of the D-Day invasion and was perhaps the foremost authority on the life of Gen. George S. Patton Jr., died April 15 of cancer at his home in Washington. He was 86.
Mr. Blumenson parlayed his early experience as a historian attached to Patton's 3rd Army into a lifelong career, as the author of more than 20 books. His fascination with the mercurial general was tempered by a thorough and evenhanded approach that did not excuse the flamboyant warrior's many flaws.
Martin Blumenson "was first rate -- none better," says historian Harry J. Middleton of the LBJ Library.
At the invitation of Patton's family, Mr. Blumenson spent years combing through the general's letters and personal records, editing two volumes of papers that explored the depths of Patton's character. His biography, "Patton: The Man Behind the Legend, 1885-1945," won plaudits for its multidimensional portrait of the general. He wrote biographies of other World War II commanders, as well as accounts of the French Resistance and military campaigns in Europe and North Africa.
"He is recognized in the very top rank of military historians," said Harry J. Middleton, director emeritus of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin. "He was first rate -- none better."
Mr. Blumenson spent more than 20 years as an official historian of the Army, compiling authoritative accounts of the European theater of World War II. He never met Patton, but after the war he earned the trust of the general's family, which allowed Mr. Blumenson to examine his private records.
The two volumes of "The Patton Papers" appeared in 1972 and 1974 and totaled nearly 2,000 pages. Rather than compile a loose collection of miscellaneous items, Mr. Blumenson shaped them with a perceptive, compelling internal narrative that was described in the New York Times as a "sympathetic and flawlessly crafted biography."
He showed how Patton's boundless ego proved to be both his greatest gift as a general and his greatest flaw as a human being. Mr. Blumenson concluded that Patton was probably dyslexic as a child, may have suffered brain injuries from his athletic exploits and was a notoriously bad speller. Patton felt useless in peacetime and longed for the action of combat.
"I would just as gladly fight for any country against any country, except this one," Patton wrote. "War is the only place where a man realy lives."
Mr. Blumenson considered Patton a brilliant military tactician -- though perhaps not as brilliant as Patton thought himself -- but darkened his portrait with a full accounting of the general's moral ambiguity. Patton's racist and anti-Semitic views, Mr. Blumenson showed, were not all that different from those of the Nazis he was fighting.
Among other things, Mr. Blumenson refuted the popular notion that Patton carried pearl-handled pistols -- they were ivory.
"I never carry pearl," Patton wrote. "It is unlucky."
Martin Blumenson was born in New York City on Nov. 8, 1918, and grew up in New Jersey. He received bachelor's and master's degrees from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania and, in 1942, received a second master's degree in history from Harvard University.
An expert pianist, he performed at Carnegie Hall in his youth, led dance bands in New Jersey and played in New York jazz clubs. He continued to play piano through much of his life.
During World War II, Mr. Blumenson was assigned to a history unit and eventually made his way to Patton's 3rd Army headquarters in Europe. He stayed in France after the war as a civilian historian and as a musician performing in nightclubs. He met his wife in France and often spoke French at home with his family.
As an Army Reserve officer, Mr. Blumenson was recalled to active duty during the Korean War and moved permanently to Washington in 1954.
Among his 23 books were two volumes about German Gen. Erwin Rommel, official histories of the battle for Italy and the Normandy invasion, and a volume on the ultimate Allied triumph in Europe. He also wrote biographies of Gens. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1972) and Mark Clark (1984), and "Vildé Affair: Beginnings of the French Resistance" (1977). His final book, "Heroes Never Die" (2001), was a collection of essays about military commanders of World War II.
Mr. Blumenson was best known, however, for his groundbreaking work on Patton. In his 1985 single-volume biography, "Patton: The Man Behind the Legend, 1885-1945," he wrote that Patton's "swashbuckling and color, his flamboyance and profanity . . . were all part of his image, and his image in large part was responsible for his victories."
Reviewing the book for The Washington Post, Rory Quirk wrote, "It is unlikely that anyone can or will equal this thoughtful and credible assessment of one of the great military personalities of this century."
After leaving the Army's history department in 1967, Mr. Blumenson worked briefly in the Johnson administration as an adviser to the anti-poverty program. Since 1970, he was an independent scholar and writer who often taught and lectured at colleges, including George Washington University, the U.S. Military Academy and the Army and Navy war colleges. In 1995, he received the prestigious Samuel Eliot Morison Prize for his contributions to military history. He was a member of the Harvard and Cosmos clubs.
His wife of 55 years, Genevieve Adelbert Blumenson, died in 2000.
Survivors include a son, John J-G. Blumenson of Toronto.
At the time of his death, Mr. Blumenson had an unfinished manuscript on his desk -- a new book about Patton.