The leadership of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965), during World War II made him unforgettable to Americans. This excerpt from “WHEN LIONS ROAR: The Churchills and the Kennedys,” by Thomas Maier (Crown) helps explain why his memory endures.
Mark Twain, the longtime bard of the Mississippi, introduced Winston Churchill to a crowd of wealthy Americans packed inside New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel ballroom in December 1900—one of those rare meetings of historic figures that occurred so often in Churchill’s life.
“I was thrilled by this famous companion of my youth,” Winston recalled of Twain, a literary inspiration. “He was now very old and snow-white, and combined with a noble air a most delightful style of conversation.”
Winston expected to be lionized by Twain but instead had his tail tweaked. The twenty-six-year-old celebrated British war correspondent was on a lecture tour, picking up handsome fees to talk about his bloody adventures and headline-grabbing writings on imperial conflicts around the globe. By contrast, Twain, at age sixty-five, loathed the chest-beating of war—especially the jingoistic, romanticized accounts of farm boys ground up and left for dead on the battlefield. Twain feared his nation might someday become an empire like Great Britain. The night’s verbal swordplay between the old American and the young Englishman reflected so many differences between the Crown and its former colony.
Within no time, Twain whittled Churchill down a peg or two. Although his friendly introduction wasn’t a tar-and-feathering, Twain made plain how wrongheaded Churchill had been about the British Empire pestering those poor indigent people in places like India and South Africa. Churchill “knew all about war and nothing about peace,” Twain told the standing-room-only audience, many of whom seemed to agree with him. As an account of the evening by the New York Times explained, “War might be very interesting to persons who like that sort of entertainment, but he [Twain] never enjoyed it himself.”
Graciously, Twain ended this battle of wits by proclaiming he’d always favored good relations between England and the United States. He even touted the night’s guest speaker as a product of such amity. “Mister Churchill by his father is an Englishman, by his mother he is an American—no doubt a blend that makes a perfect match,” Twain declared. “England and America, we are kin. And now that we are also kin in sin, there is nothing more to be desired.”
Churchill’s encounter with Mark Twain appears in the former’s 1930 autobiography, My Early Life, certainly one of his most revealing books. On display in it are the conflicting themes of Winston’s life: his tortured relationship with his famous father, whose legacy he strove to exceed; his sense of being half-American despite an unswerving loyalty to the British Crown; and his fascination with war, both as an adventurer-writer and a statesman-politician who deeply understood the power of words.
While war and peace provided a backdrop for his 1900 lecture tour, commerce remained Churchill’s frontline concern. He had been elected recently to Parliament, but without a steady source of income. A seat in the House of Commons then didn’t pay any salary, and Churchill depended on his writing assignments for a living. An agent convinced him he could earn a tidy sum by lecturing in America. “I have so much need for money and we cannot afford to throw away a single shilling,” he confided to his mother.
America always held a special affinity for Churchill. Five years earlier, he had visited his mother’s New York cousins and been mightily impressed by the young nation’s restless energy. “Picture to yourself the American people as a great lusty youth—who treads on all your sensibilities and perpetrates every possible horror of ill manner—whom neither age nor just tradition inspire with reverence—but who moves about his affairs with a good hearted freshness which may well be the envy of older nations of the earth,” Churchill described to his brother in a note echoing Alexis de Tocqueville. In New York, he met Congressman William Bourke Cockran, an Irish American friend of his mother’s and a riveting public speaker, upon whom Winston modeled his own rhetoric. “You are indeed an orator,” Churchill told Cockran. “And of all the gifts there is none so rare and precious as that.” Winston learned to argue convincingly rather than divisively, to persuade rather than condemn.
Although British at heart, he described himself as “a child of both worlds.” His mother, Jennie Churchill, grew up the multi-talented daughter of Leonard Jerome, a Wall Street speculator and racetrack operator (his initial fortune made in Rochester, New York, publishing the newspaper house organ for the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party). In describing the aggressive tycoon Jerome, Churchill biographer Roy Jenkins later said “there was a touch of Joseph P. Kennedy about him.” Jennie wed Lord Randolph in Paris after an abrupt romance that produced Winston’s premature arrival eight months later, on November 30, 1874.
Friends such as Violet Bonham Carter thought of Winston as half-American—both “an aristocrat and yet our greatest Commoner.” This potent cross-Atlantic combination of genes seemed a key to Churchill’s compelling personality, what the British historian A. L. Rowse called “the strength of the two natures mixed in him—the self-willed English aristocrat and the equally self-willed primitive American—each with a hundred-horsepower capacity for getting his way.”
Winston was amused by those who traced his American roots to the Iroquois or to America’s 1776 Revolutionary leader against the British. “It certainly is inspiring to see so great a name as George Washington upon the list,” Winston said of one published genealogy. “I understand, however, that if you go back far enough everyone is related to everyone else, and we end up in Adam.”
Winston Churchill’s American lecture tour in 1931 appeared a great success, as many enjoyed this visiting Englishman’s wit and speaking style. “Some of his epigrams, so it is wickedly asserted by his enemies, are carefully prepared in advance, and even practiced before a mirror,” declared a New York Times editorialist. “But their sting and point are nonetheless delightful.” On December 13, 1931, though, the Churchill bandwagon came to a screeching halt. That evening, Winston planned to go to bed early at the Waldorf Astoria, his Manhattan hotel. Instead, at nine o’clock he received a telephone call from Bernard Baruch, inviting him to his home on Fifth Avenue to meet with two mutual friends. Into the night, Churchill took a taxicab. Along the way, he realized he didn’t have Baruch’s precise home address, only a general idea of its location from an earlier visit. At one point, Churchill bounded out of the cab toward the sidewalk. He looked left but not to the right. When he turned, he saw “a long dark car rushing forward at full speed.” The driver hit the brakes, but too late. In a lingering split second, Churchill, then fifty-seven, thought to himself, I am going to be run down and probably killed. He fortunately wasn’t—another near miss in a life lucky enough to rival any cat’s. His heavy fur-lined coat seemed to cushion some of the blow. But the automobile took its toll, smacking Churchill’s head to the pavement with “an impact, a shock, a concussion indescribably violent,” and dragging him for several yards. “I do not understand why I was not broken like an eggshell,” he later observed. In the middle of Fifth Avenue, a boulevard of American ambition, Churchill lay prostrate, bleeding and in pain, as police and a crowd rushed to his aid.
“A man has been killed!” someone cried.
While being picked up and carried away by rescuers, this fallen stranger was asked for his name.
“I am Winston Churchill, a British statesman,” he moaned.
By the time he arrived at Lenox Hill Hospital, Churchill felt sharp pain yet realized he would survive. Baruch and Clementine soon stood at his bedside. “Tell me, Baruch, when all is said and done, what is the number of your house?” he uttered, a sure sign he’d get well and that his quick wit never needed a crutch.
This almost-deadly car crash derailed Churchill’s lecture tour, which he needed most urgently to pay his bills at home. Instead, he spent the next several weeks mending, and mulling over his future. “You will find me, I am afraid, a much weaker man than the one you welcomed on December 11,” he wrote to Randolph, back in England. Clementine conceded to her son that Winston had suffered “three very heavy blows” in recent years, leaving him without either political power in Parliament or much of his personal savings on Wall Street. “The loss of all that money in the crash, then the loss of his political position in the Conservative Party, and now this terrible injury—He said he did not think he would ever recover completely from the three events,” Clementine wrote. The prospect of a diminished life seemed more unbearable to Winston than if he had been killed on the street. It marked the darkest period in his “wilderness years,” an agonizing time when he felt pushed aside from his countrymen and good fortune.
By February, Churchill had recovered enough to travel and fulfill most speaking engagements in the United States. His loyal circle of friends and patrons rallied to his cause, deciding to buy him a Rolls-Royce “to celebrate his recovery” and deliverance from oblivion. “We think there is a certain appropriateness in the presentation of a motor car to a man who has been knocked down by a taxi-cab!” wrote Brendan Bracken to Baruch. Though his career seemed over in England, Churchill’s popularity among Americans stayed intact. Some in the press pondered if Winston, born to an American mother, would ever consider running for president. “I have been treated so splendidly in the United States that I should be disposed, if you can amend the Constitution, seriously to consider the matter,” he joked.
Old Glory and the Union Jack draped the streets of Jefferson City, Missouri—the perfect symbolism for a 1946 visit by President Harry Truman and the man who Truman said had saved Western civilization.
In an open-air limousine convertible, Winston Churchill sat beside Franklin D. Roosevelt’s successor while thousands of Missourians waved and greeted them at the train station. The two grinning politicians were surrounded by dour security agents (standing guard on the running boards) as the limo drove through the state capital on March 6, 1946. After a long train ride from Washington, the seventy-one-year-old former British prime minister was careful not to exert himself too much. When asked that year about his secret of success, the old warhorse advised, “Conservation of energy—never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.”
Only months after being turned out of high office, Churchill journeyed to a college gym in nearby Fulton to give one of the most significant speeches of his career. With the American president’s blessing, his clarion call for Anglo-American resistance to the Soviet Union’s “Iron Curtain” (his metaphor for the spread of communism dividing up Europe) would launch the decades-long Cold War. But this address in Fulton, entitled “The Sinews of Peace,” also provided another turning point in Churchill’s long life. Instead of retirement, he chose vigorous, almost defiant engagement. Rather than fade away with his glorious victories of the past, he decided to embrace, almost prophetically, the future of the postwar world with its atomic dangers. He would reinvent himself once again as a world statesman, his voice both familiar and brand new.
Not everything about this trip was high stakes, however. On the ride to Missouri, Truman and Churchill demonstrated their personal diplomacy with a card game.
“Mr. President, I think that when we are playing poker I will call you Harry,” Churchill announced.
“All right, Winston,” Truman replied.
For more than an hour, they played with a handful of aides and reporters aboard the Ferdinand Magellan, the specially made presidential train car with a thick concrete floor to protect against explosions. Churchill’s pile of chips dwindled as he lost each hand, downing sips of drink along the way. When the former prime minister, wearing one of his siren suits, excused himself for a momentary bathroom break, Truman quickly issued an executive order.
“Listen, this man’s oratory saved the western world,” Truman commanded the group, which included a young reporter named David Brinkley. “We are forever indebted to him. We’re not going to take his money.”
“But, Boss, this guy’s a pigeon,” cried one of the players, Harry Vaughan, the president’s military aide.
The president wouldn’t allow anything to trump this special relationship. As if a matter of national security, the card sharks were defanged. Winston’s fortunes suddenly turned for the better, Brinkley recalled years later, after “Truman ordered us to let him win.”
Before the evening aboard the presidential train ended, Winston displayed his considerable understanding of American history and wondered aloud about fate. “If I were to be born again,” he mused, he wished to become a citizen in “one country where a man knows he has an unbounded future.”
Truman’s entourage asked what nation that might be.
“The USA,” Churchill declared solemnly, “. . . even though I deplore some of your customs.”
Puzzled, the Americans wondered what Yankee habit so appalled him.
“You stop drinking with your meals,” Winston replied.