The Verdict of History – Cherchez La Femme

Winston Churchill died on January 24, 1965, fifty years ago next month. Extraordinarily, it was exactly the same date as his father’s death in 1895 and one that Winston himself had predicted for his own death. I was there, like thousands of others, queueing to pay my respects on a freezing January day, a day I will never forget.

But, however sure Churchill himself may have been of the day he’d leave the world, his success while in it could never have been predicted with the same certainty. Other than by his mother, the American society beauty, Jennie Jerome, who was unwavering in her support and belief in her son’s destiny.  Jennie, however, died in 1921, twenty years before her son became prime minister and led Britain to victory over the Nazis in World War Two. Yes, he was born into a world of privilege and money – his ancestor was the 1st Duke Marlborough and his grandmother, the 7th Duchess, lived at Blenheim, Britain’s most magnificent palace. Yet his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was merely the second son so inherited neither money nor dukedom while his mother, although often described as a dollar princess, had neither dollars nor did she become a princess. Winston had to make his own way in life and his brief period in office as Home Secretary (1910-11) was justifiably considered a failure, ending with a controversial visit to the siege of Sydney Street.  A few years later, as 1st Lord of the Admiralty, he was largely responsible for the disaster at Gallipoli and the intense criticism was so great that his wife, Clemmie, said afterwards she thought he ‘might die of grief’ It was Jennie who then went to visit him at his home in the country bolstering his fragile belief in himself and persuading him he still had a rosy future in politics. It was Jennie who, in 1895, after his violent and abusive father died when Winston was 20, sent him to meet the Irish American orator William Bourke Cockran, on whom he was to model his own style.

Throughout Winston Churchill’s long period in the wilderness, (1929-39) when he faced scorn, criticism and derision, if he continued to believe in his ‘lucky star’ and have courage that it was his ‘destiny’ to lead-it was only because his mother had so fiercely instilled this faith in himself. And in 1940, aged 65, he became Prime Minister and single-mindedly pursued the fight against Nazi Germany. Although he lost the first post-war election in 1945 as Britons believed they had been fighting for a new world and did not want a reminder of the old, twenty years later, when he died, there was a national outpouring of love and gratitude, as if pent-up emotions that had not been expressed since 1945, could now be released. It was a chance for many of those born after the war, baby boomers just like me to learn for the first time about who was Winston Churchill, saviour of the nation?

I grew up in a family which considered Churchill close to God and one of my first adult memories was being given a day off school on a snowy and bitterly cold January day in order to wait in line, one of 321,360, who wanted to pay my respects to this God-like figure by walking around the coffin containing his body at the lying in state in Westminster Hall. For many, including my father who had crossed the channel in a tank on D day plus one, this was an opportunity to re-connect with those with whom they had served and fought and seen injured for the last five or so years. For many, the war years had not been discussed in the intervening 20 years as jobs had to be found, relationships repaired and the business of life taken up. Of course I couldn’t fully understand any of that at the time. And yet I can remember what I was wearing on that day – my school tweed coat. I didn’t have another because in 1965 one winter coat was all any child possessed. And I remember the solemnity of the day, an emotion that survived for the next 40 years which, I accept, fuelled my desire to write a biography of Jennie, a woman largely dismissed in the intervening years as a socialite, a mongrel, a woman who used her son for her own vainglorious ends, a woman who had 200 lovers. And more.

However, reputations come and go, the mother’s as well as the son’s and seventy years after the end of World War 11, many now criticise Churchill as a warmonger (unjust), as a disastrous peacetime politician (just), a man who had supported the fickle pro-German British King, Edward 8th (foolish), and a father who was unable to bestow the love and understanding his children so desperately craved (both just and unjust). Winston Churchill was a politician who might have been consigned to the dumpbin of history had it not been for those critical five years from 1940- 45. But what five years.

And as I examined his mother’s life the more I realised that hers was the vital formative influence propelling him towards political leadership, instilling in him the belief that, as a half American, he was uniquely well placed to make a compelling speech addressing both Houses of Congress, summoning up his mother’s memory cherished across the ‘Vale of Years’ to strengthen Roosevelt’s resolve to bring the USA into the War. It was she who encouraged him to make speeches that can hold the attention of a room, she who acted as his personal tutor sending him a constant stream of books including Henry Fawcett’s manual of Political Economy, Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Plato’s Republic.  It was she taught him to appreciate art as well as humour. She who told him how hard he must work as ‘for a man life means work if he means to succeed’.  Without Jennie, Winston would have remained a half formed thing, more Blenheim and bluster without substance and grit. But without Winston the events of the 1940’s are too appalling to contemplate.

So, half a century following the great man’s death, as reassessment justifiably takes its toll, surely it is to the mother one should turn first and raise a glass in thanks to Jenn

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