Articles

Churchill’s Stage-Struck Daughter

Green-eyed Sarah Churchill finds that being her famous father's daughter is both a help and a handicap in her checkered career behind the footlights

McKENZIE PORTER March 15 1950
Articles

Churchill’s Stage-Struck Daughter

Green-eyed Sarah Churchill finds that being her famous father's daughter is both a help and a handicap in her checkered career behind the footlights

McKENZIE PORTER March 15 1950

Churchill’s Stage-Struck Daughter

Green-eyed Sarah Churchill finds that being her famous father's daughter is both a help and a handicap in her checkered career behind the footlights

McKENZIE PORTER

TOWARD the end of 1945, just when everybody thought she was cured, red-haired, green-eyed, 35-year-old Sarah, third child of Britain’s Winston Churchill, caught that old foot-light fever again.

During four years in uniform, for between 12 and 20 hours a day, she had pored over aerial pictures in the secret headquarters of the RAF Photo-Intelligence Wing, and the only breaks she’d had from her slide rule, her microscope and her columns of figures were two flights, one to Teheran, one to Yalta, as one of her father’s aides at those historic conferences.

People said that at last she was really behaving like her father’s daughter.

In 1936, when she was 21, she had scandalized

half Britain by waggling her legs in the chorus of a London revue and pained her parents by a runaway marriage in New York to its star, Vic Oliver, a Vienna-born comedian 16 years older than herself. For three years she played with third-rate repertory companies in the English provinces while her husband remained a smash hit in the West End.

In 1941 she had left the comedian forever and vanished—friends say thankfully—into the vast anonymous ranks of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. It seemed as if during the war Sarah Churchill had developed a new stability and was ready, like her sisters Diana and Mary, to settle with some eligible young man in the quiet dignity of English upper-class domesticity.

But when the war ended, and she had nothing

better to do while awaiting demobilization, she produced an amateur play in the officers’ mess.

Bingo!

Off she whirled again on the old routine, seeking auditions, shivering in dingy dressing rooms, yawning on Sunday train rides, kidding reporters and mingling with the ragtag and bobtail of a profession which many still associate with rogues and vagabonds.

Winston Churchill chewed his cigar and sardonically christened her “The Mule.” But he didn’t disapprove . . . much.

Her public was divided. There were prudes who had acquired from the newspapers the completely wrong idea that she was a fast woman. There were cynics who laid she was trading her father’s name lor money or notori ty. There were gallants who regarded her adventures is stirring escapades of a high-born, high-spirited, rebellious sprite. And bhere were the serious critics who are still far from sure that Sarah Churchill will ever be another Mrs. Siddons.

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Continued, from page 24

It is these last Sarah is out to impress. By 1946 a clever little film industry was mushrooming in Rome in carefree

poverty. One day a director called Mario Soldati swept from a table a heap of pictures of beautiful girls, raised his arms to heaven and sobbed: “But I want a complicated woman, a twisted woman, a tortured, tragic, haunted woman, not one of these ripe plums of Italian women, but a lean woman, a strange woman, a mystical woman, if need be a foreign woman . . .” “What about this one?” asked an agent, producing another portrait.

Soldati slapped his forehead and sang: “Mama Mia! It is she! Bring her

They brought Sarah Churchill from London. She was very glad of the job having once had to sell a fur coat to keep up appearances.

A Confusion Over Coins

Soldati saw no chocok.te-box beauty. Sarah has inherited from her father a straight nose that is a fraction too short and a chin that juts too much, and from her mother a generous mouth that spreads itself too wide. But her pale skin is perfect and her face crowned by finespun hair curling off

a high forehead. Her eyes are brilliant and she has a habit of ensnaring attention by a compelling sideways

She calls herself “the most restless person in the world” and gives the impression of constant and exhausting self-control over a wildly impulsive nature.

She is obviously determined to go her own way, yet almost pathetically anxious not to hurt anyone in the process. One of her close friends says: “She is always letting herself be put upon by people to save giving offense. She says ‘yes’ too lightly. Because she is her father’s daughter everybody seeks her company to bolster their own prestige. She commits herself to engagements too easily and then has a dreadful, suffering time getting out of

Her sensitivity is electric. Recently she was giving a reporter an interview in a hotel room when she found herself without cigarettes. Rather than go on smoking his she insisted on ringing for a pack. When the bellboy delivered them she fumbled so long and anxiously with unfamiliar Canadian coins in her purse that the reporter said: “Let me pay, please.” Almost passionately she swung around on him and said: “No! No! Don’t mortify me.”

The wear and tear of nervous animation has stripped her of flesh. She is as thin as a fawn and moves like one. In the street nobody would recognize her for an actress because she wears sober, simple clothes.

She is courageous, resolute and ambitious, but free from snobbery.

In Rome Sarah made a heavy romantic costume picture called “Daniele Cortes.” One of the scenes had to be shot at Montecitorio, where the Italian House of Commons sits. Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti, who owed his return from exile during earlier days to Winston Churchill, howled: “Such

traffic! Such goings on in the Parlia-

When his beautiful picture was finished Mario Soldati looked sadly at Sarah and said: “All the world will

believe that I only put you in it because you are your father's daughter.” As it happens the world won’t care because the film is too highbrow to be shown outside Italy.

Tallulah Had Some Tips

Sarah returned to England and made for J. Arthur Rank a newspaper movie called “All Over the Town.” It was this film that brought Sarah to Canada last year, to the opening of the new Odeon at Brampton, Ont., after a triumphal ride up Main Street in an open car behind the town band; to the Toronto newspapermen’s Byline Ball in the Royal York Hotel; to the Kinsmen’s Club; to the English Speaking Union; and into the homes of Governor-General Viscount Alexander, Lieut.-Governor of Ontario Ray Lawson, publisher George McCullagh, Lady Eaton, and many other abodes where, in spite of her career, it was so well remembered she is her father’s daughter.

Then she was unemployed.

She went to New York and signed up to tour with a mediocre stock company in a dated drawing-room comedy, “The Philadelphia Story.” Recently it folded. Before it opened at Princeton, N.J., last June tired Tallulah Bankhead breezed in, attended a rehearsal, told Sarah, “I knew your father in the twenties,” and offered some acting tips, the best of which was “Don’t go too near the footlights, darling.”

Tallulah rattled on: “But it doesn’t really matter here, because you are just bound to drop into the lap of some handsome Princeton boy and wouldn’+ that be marvelous?” Sarah’s nose wrinkled.

About the same time Sarah was rumored engaged to a dozen different men, one being Colonel Frank Clarke, the Quebec pulp and shipping magnate who was Winston Churchill’s host in Florida. Sarah said: “Well at least

I’ve met that one.”

She continued playing theatres large and small—in one place so small the house lights had to be doused to let the actors get through the audience to the dressing rooms; in another Sarah put her fingers into the mouth of a man who was sitting on the front row.

At Sea Island, Ga., last October she fell in love again and married a 31year-old English photographer with grey eyes, long lashes, black hair and a lithe carriage. He had been extremely successful on American magazine assignments. His Christian name is Anthony, but when he was 21 he changed his surname by deed poll to Beauchamp.

This should be pronounced “Beecham.” But in the United States Sarah is often addressed as Mrs. Bowshong or Mrs. Bewcamp, the second of which makes her wince. Beauchamp’s father, who before retirement was a well-known artist, had much less trouble with his genuine appellation, Entwistle.

A Churchill in the Chorus

Last December Sarah moved to Toronto with “The Philadelphia Story,” played at least twice to half-empty houses and got half-hearted notices. But in the news columns and the women’s columns she was splashed as a good subject for interviews because she was her father’s daughter.

Stories of her odyssey continued to spread across the world. Even in Moscow the periodical Soviet Art had to acknowledge her tour with the sour remark: “It is significant that American papers say nothing about Sarah Churchill’s acting ability but much more about her salary which is $1,000 a week.”

In Washington a columnist cracked, “Now that President Truman has seen Sarah act, ‘Winnie’ will have to hear Margaret sing.”

Whenever Sarah’s name appears in lights minds go back to the smoking chimney pots of London in 1936 when Sarah jumped from obscurity into the limelight of a revue called “Follow the Sun,” and, as a mere dancer, amazed even those of her own fashionable young set whose philosophy was “eat, drink and be merry.”

It was a heretical step for a girl descended from the Dukes of Marlborough and the Earls of Airlie, educated expensively at a Broadstairs boarding school and “finished” in Paris at the Ozane.

She caught footlight fever when her parents let her learn acrobatic tap and ballet at the de Voss school in London. She was much too old and set and the rigorous curriculum nearly broke her back. But Sir Charles Cochran, then London’s prince of impressarios, v/as impressed by her persistence, and after a long siege gave Sarah a place in his chorus line.

When she distracted attention from the principals Cochran disguised the entire line in huge blond wigs so nobody could spot her.

Backstage everybody treated Sarah with the respect they thought due to her father’s daughter—save one, Vic Oliver, the star. Sixteen years older than Sarah, three years out of the divorce court in St. Louis, Oliver, when pressed for his real name would say “Joe Blotz.” In fact it was Victor Samek.

Born humbly in Vienna with much talent, he failed as a concert pianist and in black disillusion hit the big chips by sauntering onto the American vaudeville stage, lean, haggard and droll, with a violin tucked under his chin, a violin he rarely played because he was so occupied telling brittle, witty, bitter, smutty little stories.

“Sarah likes me,” he said, “because I treat her like anybody else.” Sarah loved him.

In the fall of 1936 Oliver sailed for New York to complete his qualifications for American citizenship. Suddenly Sarah drew all her money out of the bank ($20) and followed in the Bremen at Oliver’s expense.

“Our Love Can Never Change”

On both sides of the Atlantic headlines were black arid deep as Winston sent his son Randolph in pursuit by the Queen Mary. Randolph radioed Lady Astor, who also happened to be in the Bremen, to hang onto Sarah until he could catch up. Because Sarah was her father’s daughter Lady Astor complied, but with no effect.

Waiting for Sarah among reporters on New York quay Vic Oliver said: “I shall be very honored to become connected with the name of Churchill. Miss Churchill is tired of the life she is leading . . .” Then he chucked under the chin an American girl reporter who said, “Do that again and I’ll smack your face.”

Randolph failed to dissuade Sarah, and for two months Sarah and Vic toured vaudeville theatres in the U. S. together. On December 23, 1936, Oliver got his American papers. Two days later they were married at City Hall, New York. Two hours later they sailed for England.

What Winston Churchill thought of Vic Oliver is a family secret. Oliver would win a laugh on the English stage by sly allusions to his father-in-law. The compliment was never returned from the political rostrum. Stories that Churchill found Oliver amusing company at dinner are said to be untrue.

On Cochran’s advice Sarah gave up dancing and set her sights on legitimate stage. She went into small-town repertory at Brighton, Southampton, Northampton and Canterbury “to keep away from the London critics.” Meanwhile Oliver continued to triumph in the West End. Their last public appearance together was in 1941 in a radio show with the old silent film star Bebe Daniels.

Sarah sang a torch song which Oliver claimed she had composed:

Some day windows will light again Street lights twinkle by night again Though now times are strange Our love can never change.

But almost immediately afterward Sarah left Vic. Four years later when he divorced her on the grounds of desertion, Oliver testified: “The mar-

riage was blissfully happy for the first two years. Then small rifts appeared because we were both self-willed.”

Sarah’s next performance was given at Photo-Intelligence Headquarters, in Medenham, Buckinghamshire. As a Waaf section officer she learned to chart the course of German ships, interpret enemy front-line movements, and for two years she watched the VI and V2 sites grow. Her unit provided 80% of Allied intelligence on the enemy.

Sarah’s mathematics were weak but the fact she passed the rugged tests was testimony to her power of concentration. More than 25% of the 300

British Commonwealth and 200 American officers of the unit were professors. Sarah worked alongside Dorothy Garrod, Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge.

The commanding officer was Wing Commander Douglas Kendall, an Englishman now managing director of Photographic Survey Co. Ltd., of Toronto, which, with 20 aircraft, is mapping and surveying Canada from the air.

“The standard of conversation at dinner was probably the highest of any unit in the allied forces,” says Kendall. “Sarah was always brilliant.”

To Learn ... by Mistakes

Dining at Chequers with her parents and Eleanor Roosevelt one night Sarah grinned when her father, with his love for drama, said, “I can now tell you that at this moment our troops are landing in North Africa.” He was sharply deflated when Sarah chipped in, “I know. I’ve been working on the beach maps for months.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Winston asked almost petulantly.

“We were sworn to secrecy,” Sarah grinned.

Sarah says the theatre bug bit her again when she produced in the Medenham mess a play called “Squaring the Circle.” And five years later she was telling “The Philadelphia Story” on the Toronto boards. She won’t be drawn into discussing her chances of real success on the stage.

“I hate being analytical,” she says. “When you are in the middle of a battle you don’t start taking your temperature.

“It would be foolish to say my father’s name hasn’t helped me,” she adds. “On the other hand it has also been awkward. One’s professional weaknesses become all the more apparent when one is the centre of considerable attention and curiosity. Sometimes I am quite conscious that it takes an audience 10 or 15 minutes to settle down after I’ve made my entry.

“Everybody has to make their first stumbling footsteps. Everybody has to learn by making mistakes. Sometimes I wish I could learn my job in greater obscurity. When thinking of my work I try to put my father’s name out of my head. I wish others would do the same.”

One incident which indicates Sarah’s character occurred soon after she was commissioned in the Waaf. She was in the same mess as another redheaded, green-eyed officer, but this girl was really flamboyant. The hectic lass got tight one night and kept her comrades awake for hours by singing in her room which was next to Sarah’s.

The following morning Sarah was carpeted. The C.O. said icily: “Churchill, our ideas of behavior in the Waaf differ widely from those prevailing in the theatre. I shall say no more. You may go.”

Section Officer Sarah Spencer Churchill, daughter of “the greatest living Englishman,” saluted, turned about, and withdrew without a word. ★

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