GENERAL ARTICLES

Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

The Woman Behind Churchill

June 15 1943
GENERAL ARTICLES

Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

The Woman Behind Churchill

June 15 1943

Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

The Woman Behind Churchill

LONDON, 1908. Here is a description of London society at that period:

“It was a brilliant and powerful body with standards of conduct and methods of enforcing them now altogether forgotten. In a very large degree everyone knew everyone else and who they were. The few hundred great families who had governed England for so many generations and had seen her rise to the pinnacle of her glory were interrelated to an enormous extent by marriage. Everywhere one met friends and kinsfolk. The leading figures in society were in many cases the leading statesmen in Parliament and also the leading sportsmen of the turf. Lord Salisbury was accustomed scrupulously to avoid calling a Cabinet when there was racing at Newmarket and the House of Commons made a practice of adjourning for the Derby. In those days the glittering parties at Lansdowne House, Devonshire House or Stafford House comprised all the elements which made a gay and splendid social circle in close relation to the business of Parliament, the hierarchies of the Army and the Navy and the policy of the State.”

That is Winston Churchill’s own description of the social background against which he moved •—and sometimes galloped—as a bachelor. Although descended from the great Duke of Marlborough, he had no title and did not even enjoy the prefix “honorable” to his name. His father was Lord Randolph Churchill, brother of the then duke. But the English, with that sublime common sense which is their greatest characteristic, have a system of reducing close relatives of titled people to the ranks by a process of social degeneration. For example, Lord Randolph as the younger son of a Duke was given a courtesy title but his sons reverted to plain “Misters.”

So in 1908 Winston was 84 years of age. president of the Board of Trade, the famous son of a famous father, possessing little money and no title, already known as the “enfant terrible” of politics and something of a headache to all mothers with marriageable daughters.

No one felt sure of him. He mixed in society but the great families felt that he lacked reverence for social eminence. Then he had given up the Army to become a journalist which was a pretty low thing for an aristocrat to do. The

fact that he was a brilliant journalist only confirmed the suspicion that there was a taint in his character somewhere.

He had a hot temper and could be extraordinarily rude. Another thing worried the august ones. He had left the Tory party and joined the Liberals which seemed to indicate a lack of stability. On one occasion he shocked society by keeping the Prince of Wales late for an appointment.

So the duchesses paraded their daughters with only a half-hearted enthusiasm. They did not want to lose but they were rather frightened of winning.

But Churchill was not a squire of dames. Politics engrossed him, and conversation. He lived with his brother, John, also a bachelor, and it seemed that he might never marry.

Then one morning social London woke up with a gasp to read the announcement in the Morning Post, and Mayfair resounded to scratching pens: “My dear, have you heard the news? I’m told she hasn’t a penny. What is Winston up to?”

In the marriage market of London at that time (nor is the market closed today even if it is reduced in size) a man going in for a political career either had to inherit money or marry it. The role of the political hostess is a pleasant one and gives to a woman that thrill of “being in the know,” of having the great and the brilliant to her dinner table, and of feeling that she is helping to influence the destiny of her country.

There is no use denying that even today politics and society pay tribute to each other, in the Tory party at least. An ambitious politician who marries a Stanley, a Cavendish, or a Cecil will find the first part of the rocky road cleared for him— although to gain the summit he must have more than a wife and wealth.

Churchill needed money badly. He was extravagant, he kept polo ponies, he loved travel and he mixed in society. His salary as a minister was small and there was always the vagary of political life to face.

Yet his choice fell on the lovely Clementine Hozier who had no fortune and was almost unknown. She is still a lovely woman but she must have been sweetly beautiful then.

Fortunately the arrogant, irresponsible Winston had the genius to realize that not only was she the woman he wanted but the woman he needed. She possessed the quality of serenity without placidity. She had

humor but, fortunately, not wit. She was gentle, patient and singlehearted. She had character. And she

was beautiful.

London was agog for the wedding. On the Continued on page 37

London Letter

Continued from page If

eve of the great day Winston and his fiancée occupied a box at the theatre and stole the interest and applause from the actors. The cockneys liked Winston for his weird hats, his adventures in South Africa, his capacity for “making the headlines,” and they recognized in him an instinct for irreverence almost akin to their own.

Society turned out in all its feathers for the great event despite the shock they received when the bridegroom chose Lloyd George to be his best man. To titled London Lloyd George was an out-and-out revolutionary, a Jacobin, a demagogue, an agitator, a nasty little Welsh solicitor out to destroy the dignity and greatness of England.

The wedding took place at St. Margaret’s, Westminster, the House of Commons adjourning for the occasion. The bride was cheered on arrival by crowds that packed Parliament Square. She looked lovely and radiant and the sun shone on her and even the adjoining Thames murmured appreciatively as it wended its way to the sea.

Winston arrived in an open carriage with a Churchillian hat and Lloyd George in full view. I wonder if, as he enteredt, he church he had any presentiment that just opposite in Parliament he would become Prime Minister and in the Abbey adjoining he would undoubtedly be buried. Knowing him as I do I have no doubt that Churchill felt certain that all this would happen.

So they were married and after a short honeymoon settled down in a modest London house. Clementine had entered on her life’s work of being helpmate to the most difficult, tempestuous figure in British public life. Perhaps as she looked at her husband she might have had a presentiment that before their story was over they would endure together such savage changes of fortune as would not only test the character of the man to breaking point but would call on her for such patience and faith as only a great woman could give.

Not once but many times Churchill was to reel back from blows of malevolent fortune and say that there was no place left for him in public life. Not once but many times she was to calm him with her womanliness, sustain him with her faith, put in his hand the artist’s brush which has always been a source of relief and joy to him, or put his pen before him and let the alchemy of words bring surcease to his soul.

I watched Mrs. Churchill the other day in the Peeresses Gallery of the House of Lords (for, as Eden told you in Ottawa, that is where we now meet). She was listening to her husband and she also listened to the cheers that swept the chamber. She would be less than a woman if she did not say to herself with some pride: “I had to cheer him when

you cursed him; I had to keep his faith alive when you mocked him; I had to ride the tempest when you

did not care where the wind blew him.”

In the last war he was the ruler of “the King’s Navee.” His swift mind and boundless energy flashed about his admirals and fellow ministers like summer lightning. He had brilliant ideas and wrong ones. He encroached ; on authority everywhere. His memj oranda on every aspect of the war bombarded Asquith and the cabinet daily. He made powerful enemies.

At last he was fired. Although he had warnings he could not believe it. In the midst of a war he was dismissed like an office boy !

Slowly he walked from Downing Street to Admiralty House where he lived. His wife was waiting. She took him in her arms and tried to bring his fury and heartbreak to some reasonable proportion. One can only conjecture but I’ll wager anything that she did not say: “Well, Winston, you probably made mistakes and you will know better next time.”

No. Clementine is the perfect wife. She knew that what he needed then was to be told that his genius would triumph over the petty judgment of ordinary, prejudiced men. She probably knew that he had made many blunders but the perfect wife knows that honesty, like golf, needs timing.

“I will go out to the trenches,” said Winston.

No one else was there to record what happened but I will wager that she encouraged him in his project. There was no use giving him the artist’s pen or the painter’s brush at such a moment. A war was on and Winston has always been a man of war.

So off went Churchill to command a battalion in the line where he was joined by a junior major called Sir Archibald Sinclair. Even so I doubt if Churchill ever dreamed that in another quarter of a century he, as Prime Minister, would be directing a second war against Germany with Sinclair as his secretary of state for air.

At any rate Winston’s departure for France gave Mrs. Churchill a chance to look after her family and perhaps we had better seize the same opportunity of glancing at their domestic front.

Churchill Inconsolable

MRS. CHURCHILL is a woman with peace in her soul and therefore the fates decided that she would have no peace otherwise. The story of Winston’s children is full of liveliness and even tragedy.

Randolph was the first born and was followed in turn by four sisters. The first daughter was a lovely little thing and Winston raved about her with all the pride of a father and the sensitive appreciation of an artist’s love for beauty. Then, while still a child, she took pneumonia and died.

Churchill was inconsolable. It struck him a more cruel blow than any of his political disasters. Again Mrs. Churchill had to curb the grief of a mother and turn to the most wayward of all her children—her

husband. It was a long time before Churchill recovered from the tragic death of his little daughter.

The years passed by and the two older girls were ready for marriage. Diana, a red-haired, sweet little person, married John Bailey (now Sir John), the son of that old South African buccaneer, Sir Abe Bailey.

It was not a happy marriage and there was a divorce. Then fate, in the dual form of Mr. Duncan Sandys and the author of this article, took a hand. In 1934 Duncan Sandys and I fought it out for the Tory nomination of Wood Green. He was a bachelor. I was not. Wisely Wood Green decided that a married M.P. is a safer proposition than an unmarried one.

Nothing daunted, Duncan Sandys rushed into a by-election contest at Norwood as a Tory and was opposed by the irrepressible Randolph Churchill as an Independent. Diana Bailey went to help her brother in the fight.

One day she ran into Duncan Sandys and told him what she thought of him and all his works— and remember she has red hair. Sandys listened, smiled, won the byelection and then married Diana. They have two children, are very happy and Sandys the once financial secretary at the War Office is now joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply.

The marriage of Sarah Churchill was even more spectacular. She had some modest claims as an actress and had appeared in a Cochran production. Then Vic Oliver, the musical comedian, turned up and became a raging favorite.

His jokes were what the British call “blue” and what Canadians call “raw.” But he had an air about him that robbed some of them of their offensiveness. At any rate Sarah fell in love with him. Finally she went to America to marry him. Young Randolph cabled her not to do it and rushed to New York by the next boat. Again he was defeated and ended up by being best man at the wedding, or giving his sister away —it was one or the other.

Thus it will be seen that the domestic life of the Churchill’s has been almost as turbulent as their political life. The adventures of Randolph himself would have kept two parents busy but now he is married to the lovely red-haired daughter of Lord Digby, they have a baby son named Winston, and Randolph is an M.P. and a major in the army.

Yet Mrs. Winston Churchill has remained serene! I have seen her from time to time over twenty years and have marvelled at her composure and unchanging dignity. She and Winston have been married for 35 years and there has never been a whisper of another woman in his life during that time.

What is her hold on him? Sweetness alone could not keep a man of that temperament, nor could beauty. Neither could she keep his unswerving love by flattery and kindness, even though they be the very essence of a happy marriage.

The truth is that Clementine Churchill, despite her gentleness, has a strong character and an independent mind. She has never hesitated to say to Churchill, “You were less than your best today in the House” or to disagree with the line he had chosen in a political issue. She even claims the right to criticize his friends.

But where her genius has found its flowering is in the realm of tact. She never criticized when the mob was howling. She never lectured when his head was bloody. It was at such times that she was the eternal mother that is in every great woman, cherishing her suffering, wayward child, keeping his faith aflame, soothing with the softness of her hands the pain of the cruel blows.

Side by side they have walked these 35 years and they have seen the full glory of the skies in the autumn of their days. History will acclaim him through the centuries. History will forget the woman who kept him strong and brave and resolute for the hour when his country and civilization would need him.