A Personal Note About "When Lions Roar: The Churchills And The Kennedys." The Story of "Great Men" and Their Sons that Fundamentally Rewrites Our Understanding of the History Between the Two Dynastic Families
“Have I not in my time heard lions roar? -- William Shakespeare
“Some people pretend to regard me as The British Lion. But I am not the Lion. I am simply the Roar of the Lion.” -- Winston Churchill.
From beginning to end, much of "WHEN LIONS ROAR: The Churchills and the Kennedys -- which fundamentally rewrites the history between these two families -- is a story about "Great Men" and their sons.
As my research began, I happened to go to dinner with Stephen Schlesinger, son of the late presidential historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who had recently co-edited his father’s journals dealing often with the Kennedys. That evening at Fordham University in New York City, we were speakers on a panel discussion about the Kennedy legacy. Afterwards, one of my own sons with a taste for politics joined a group of us for a late-night supper. Invariably, I mentioned this new book to Stephen, and he graciously shared his insights and arranged for an interview with his ninety-seven-year-old mother Marian. In particular, we chatted about a scene from his father’s journals that posed an eternal question.
The scene took place at a private Georgetown party in April 1963, shortly after President John F. Kennedy awarded honorary U.S. citizenship to Winston Churchill, recognizing the former British Prime Minister’s extraordinary life and devotion to America.
Sir Winston was too old to travel to the White House ceremony, so his son Randolph accepted the award on his father’s behalf in the Rose Garden. Joseph Kennedy, the president’s father crippled by a stroke, watched silently from a second floor window. Many who attended the solemn White House ceremony later shared drinks and laughs at a Georgetown house party -- including Randolph, then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt Jr., the namesake son of the late president, as well as others mentioned in this book such as Kay Halle, Averell Harriman, and Schlesinger himself. The historian later recorded his thoughts watching these sons of famous men.
“One wondered a bit about families,” Schlesinger observed. “Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt were incontestably greater men than Joseph P. Kennedy. Yet Randolph and Franklin Jr., both men of talent and charm, seemed to have lived lives beneath their promise and capacity; while the sons of Joseph Kennedy, endowed somewhere with a capacity for self-discipline, had risen beyond their father, and no doubt, because of him.
This eternal question – about fathers and sons, about families and fate, and our lasting impression of greatness – was posed again by Schlesinger a year later in an interview with Jacqueline Kennedy, shortly after her husband was killed. It’s one of many such questions I’ve kept in mind throughout this work.
In broadest strokes, this is a story about the Churchills and the Kennedys, two of the 20th Century’s great dynasties, and the complicated relationship between them. What started out as friendly in the 1930s, full of promise and fortune, devolved into bitterness and death by World War II, only to be followed by a surprising rapprochement and symbiotic understanding in the 1960s between the scions of these two families. No matter how far they drifted apart, the Kennedys and Churchills never seemed to lose their awareness of the other. That so much of their interaction was largely unexplored or unheeded was part of my delight in researching this book.
Politics, war, betrayal, ambition, greed, sex, religion, espionage, fame, corruption and the bonds of ancestry are all at play in this drama. Mostly, though, this is a tale about fathers and sons and the legacies they leave behind. In this male-dominated world at mid-century, we examine these powerful men, their overlapping circles of friends and associates, and the wives, daughters, and other women in their lives who loved and reviled them.
Many books are devoted to Winston Churchill, Great Britain’s leader during World War II, and John F. Kennedy, America’s president during the 1962 nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union who was later slain by an assassin’s bullets. Both men, in a sense, helped save and define the world we live in today. They embodied the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’ over four decades. Yet the political and personal bonds between these two families remained largely behind the scenes, with their papers, including Schlesinger’s oral history with Jackie Kennedy, sealed for decades in government archives.
Only now, a half-century later, do we have the vantage to put the relationship between these two families in historical perspective. The opening of former Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy’s files at the Kennedy Library allowed me to write my 2003 book, The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings, which examined how their Irish Catholic immigrant background influenced their public and personal lives. With this book, I wanted to tell another family story -- separate but parallel to the first – dealing with the Kennedys and the world of Winston Churchill, the half-American British leader.
Winston was an intellectual influence on JFK his entire life, arguably more seminal than Kennedy’s own father in matters of foreign policy, literature, personal courage and political leadership. As a young sickly boy in his Boston hospital bed, Jack Kennedy could be seen reading “The World Crisis”, Churchill’s eyewitness account of the Great War, and he referred to Churchill repeatedly as president. In patriarch Joe Kennedy’s life, Churchill also proved a formidable touchstone -- from their first amiable dealings in England during the mid-1930s, to the rancorous charges of appeasement as World War II began, to watching from a quiet White House window in 1963 as his son honored his onetime nemesis.
Although best known on opposite sides of the Atlantic, the Churchills and Kennedys often interacted on a global stage shared by many friends, lovers, business associates and political allies. These characters, some famous, some obscure, are crucial to tracing the various threads in their relationship. For instance, Lord Beaverbrook, who loyally served his longtime friend Winston during the darkest moments of World War II, also secretly arranged with his confidant Joe Kennedy to safeguard his fortune if the Nazis invaded Britain. Winston’s only son, Randolph Churchill – once perceived as more brilliant than the Kennedy sons – counted many of the same friends in London as Jack’s beloved sister Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, including Randolph’s first wife Pamela and the famed novelist Evelyn Waugh. There are women who became family friends -- like the famous Clare Boothe Luce and little-known Kay Halle who were, at various times, intimate with both Randolph and Joe Kennedy. Some men like President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his envoy Averell Harriman would get to know both families well through politics and war, while tycoons like Bernard Baruch and Aristotle Onassis would provide the money and social settings for other important exchanges between them.
By piecing together their correspondence and financial records, we realize the Kennedys and Churchills began on friendly terms – quite contrary to the common historical belief after World War II that they’d always despised each other. Their reality was far more complicated. Indeed, the two families were involved in mutual arrangements that benefitted them in ways never previously explored. The Kennedys’ initial contacts with the Churchills in England are essential to understanding the long arc of their future relationship. Masterfully in these initial dealings, Joe Kennedy showed an uncanny grasp of the subtle dynamics between fathers and sons, exploiting President Roosevelt’s eldest for his own advantage, just as he later tried to befriend Churchill’s own son, Randolph. The secret stock connection between the two families -- along with their interwoven circle of political and social friends -- casts new light on the origins of their relationship as well as the depth of their fallout as war approached.
Many other little-known insights about the Churchills and Kennedys are explored in this narrative. It delves deeper into the self-destructive Randolph -- intent on proving himself a courageous leader like his father – portraying him not simply in a series of amusing anecdotes about his drunken behavior. Rather we also see the struggle of a brilliant young man wasted by undiagnosed psychological problems, and arguably betrayed by loved ones as much as by his own excess. From a historical vantage, this story illuminates hidden arrangements with the Vatican, the CIA and Winston’s intelligence machine. Churchill’s monitoring of Joe Kennedy and other U.S. citizens deemed unfavorable to the British war effort led to a spy scandal that would haunt the Kennedys for years to come. Equally revealing, this story explored the many personal gestures between the two families –private parties and public ceremonies, the touching expressions of sympathy for tragic losses and congratulations for their triumphs – which reflected their shared understanding of each other’s grand ambitions and their joint sense of history.
No two families ever existed on a bigger world stage. They are perhaps the most glorious examples of the ‘great man’ theory of history, the capacity of one individual to make a difference in the lives of so many. They vowed to write their own histories and so often they did with their unprecedented media skills and manipulation. By examining these two families together, this book reflects so many tensions in their lives – between the diminishing empire of England and its superpower former colony, the United States; between Catholics and Protestants; between British rule and Irish independence; between the tyrannies of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia and the democratic Anglo-American ideals of our age. Their drama takes place all over the world, from 10 Downing Street to the White House, from battlefronts in North Africa, the Pacific and Cuba littered with human carnage to idyllic beaches in Palm Beach, Hyannis Port and along the Riviera, from the inherited castles of old wealth and nobility to the flashy yachts and apartments of Wall Street, Hollywood and the jet-setting nouveau riche.
This book about the Churchills and Kennedys examines a four-decade window into their world, beginning when Winston was 56 years old and out of power and young JFK seemed lost in the shadow of his father and older brother. While other works are surely more encyclopedic, this is the first to study their interactions together, allowing us a new unified insight into their relationship by comparing events and contrasting their motives. With wit, style and unforgettable determination, the Churchills and Kennedys epitomized all the blood, brains and passion that animated the mid-20th Century, the kind that drives political dynasties from one generation to the next.
-- Thomas Maier,
Long Island, N.Y.