By Juliet Nicolson, Evening Standard, 03 September 2007
According to Anne Sebba’s meticulously researched biography, the ‘most beguiling Churchill of them all was not born a Churchill’, yet it is Jennie Jerome who should be credited with her elder son’s eventual unparalleled position in the history of British politics.
Jennie Jerome was the dazzling, smouldering-eyed daughter of an ultimately never-quite-rich-enough Manhattan wheeler-dealer. Together with her two almost equally lovely sisters, Jennie was one of several American heiresses who married into Victorian and Edwardian English aristocracy – women often viewed with scepticism by the British Establishment as ‘a cross between a red Indian and a gaiety girl’. Jennie became engaged to Lord Randolph Churchill, the unsurpassable glamour of Blenheim behind him, after a 48-hour coup de foudre .
As Sebba describes in her often moving book, based on a mass of new family archive material and interviews with Jennie’s descendants, the life of Jennie emerges as a story of courage and beauty, of money and men. Men, frequently second-raters, were the acolytes of Jennie’s life, the flat backdrop against which she blazed in full, three-dimensional glory. Sebba describes how ‘women admired her but men fell in love with her’ (a possible 200 of them, including, it was rumoured, the Prince of Wales, who rated American women highly, for being ‘not as squeamish as their English sisters’).
But Randolph was not up to scratch as successful husband material, struggling with a political career (although Jennie went out of her way to give it encouragement) and persistent illness caused by the syphilis he had probably caught before his marriage. Jennie spent much of her time thinking up ways to pay off her husband’s debts, keep her sons financially afloat (Winston inherited his mother’s extravagant tastes) and yet splashing out on endless delicious designer frocks for herself.
The diversity of her enterprise was impressive, including launching and editing a magazine, writing articles, and even a play, promoting the founding of a National Theatre, and running a hospital ship in the Great War. None of these schemes were successful money-makers but her resilience, whether in the face of ill health, the loss of a lover or failure in business, was startling. On the day of her death, Winston wrote to her old friend Lord Curzon, that ‘wine of life was in her veins. Sorrows and storms were conquered by her nature’.
Eventually lovers and her second and third marriages, to men as young as her sons, all took second place to her passionate support and ‘steadfast faith’ in Winston’s blossoming career. She was her father’s favourite child and the pivot of the lives of her husbands and lovers. For Winston also, she shone ‘like the evening star’, and when he stood for the Oldham by-election, she drove through the streets on polling day dressed entirely in blue, her carriage ribboned and rosetted. She caused a sensation.
Jennie’s end was a sad, unglamorous one, after a fall on sky-scraper high-heeled shoes of post First World War fashions, resulting in a ghastly sequence of gangrenous infection, the amputation of a leg and her death in 1921. But as Sebba demonstrates, it waws as a mother that Jennie grew to excel, an excellence for which she will be remembered.