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Born in Paris, France, he received his education at Choate Rosemary Hall and Princeton University, editing The Daily Princetonian and later serving as a Princeton trustee. He served as a paratrooper in World War II.
After the war, Attwood wrote for the New York Herald Tribune and soon was transferred to the Paris bureau of the international edition. His first book, The Man Who Could Grow Hair, or Inside Andorra, was a memoir-based series of tales of his adventures in post-war Europe.
Attwood married Simone Cadgene in Paris in 1950 and the couple eventually had three children, Peter, Janet, and Susan. He published a memoir of their impressions of the changes in America upon returning, titled Still the Most Exciting Country.
Adlai Stevenson enlisted Attwood to serve as a speechwriter and advisor in both of his presidential campaigns, in 1952 and 1956, and to write other speeches in 1960. When John F. Kennedy became the 1960 Democratic nominee, Attwood joined the Kennedy campaign. Stevenson and Attwood were close friends and collaborators for years. Attwood accompanied Stevenson on a trip around the world sponsored by Look magazine, writing the regular articles about Stevenson's travels that appeared in that magazine.
Early in his presidency, President Kennedy appointed Attwood to serve as Ambassador to the West African country of Guinea. He was forced to return to the States after a near fatal case of polio (which gave him a permanent limp), but recovered and returned to Guinea for a time.
In 1963, the Kennedy administration desired to negotiate détente with Fidel Castro and to negotiate the beginning of normalized relations after the 1964 campaign. Attwood claimed he served as a secret liaison and was due to report to the president when Kennedy returned from the trip to Dallas during which he was assassinated; and that the Johnson administration discontinued this effort.
Attwood served a second appointment as ambassador during the Johnson administration, to Kenya. He published a book about the relationship of Kenyan politics and communism, The Reds and the Blacks.
Attwood had long worked with Cowles Communications, mostly in various editorial roles at Look. In 1970, he became editor of Newsday, the Long Island daily newspaper. He started Newsday's New York edition.
Upon retirement in 1979, Attwood focused on writing, and serving the Town Council in his hometown of New Canaan, Connecticut. After covering the Geneva Summit between Reagan and Gorbachev in 1987, Attwood published his final book, The Twilight Struggle: Tales of the Cold War, which chronicled his unique view of the Cold War from its beginning to its presumable end.
Attwood died from congestive heart failure in New Canaan on April 15, 1989.
The Public Library in Attwood's hometown of New Canaan annually hosts the Attwood Memorial Lecture, which features speakers who reflect his own passions for the intersection of journalism and politics. Speakers have included Art Buchwald, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Jonathan Alter.
Books by Attwood
- The Man Who Could Grow Hair Alfred A. Knopf, 1949.
- Still the Most Exciting Country Alfred A Knopf, 1955.
- The Decline of the American Male (contributor to essay collection with other Look editors) Random House, 1958.
- The Reds and the Blacks Harper & Row, 1967.
- The Fairly Scary Adventure Book (children's book) HarperCollins, 1969.
- Making It Through Middle Age Atheneum Books, 1982.
- The Twilight Struggle: Tales of the Cold War HarperCollins, 1987.
- Time, Be Prepared.
- William H. Attwood, recorded statement, November 8, 1965, John F. Kennedy Library Oral History Program.
- Plummer, Brenda Gayle. Rising Wind: Black Americans and U.S. Foreign Affairs, 1935-1960, p. 390