First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill, by Sonia Purnell, and No More Champagne – Churchill and His Money, by David Lough



First Lady – The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill

Sonia Purnell, London: Aurum Press, 2016, pb., 392pps., £9.99

No More Champagne – Churchill and His Money

David Lough, London: Head of Zeus, 2016, hb., 532pps., £25

Winston Churchill is one of the most closely-examined (and lionised) of all politicians, and it is accordingly difficult to think of new angles from which to view him and his legacy. But now here are two original and complementary studies at once, one profiling his wife Clementine, the other examining the impressive public figure through his unimpressive private finances. Both books are not quite the first words on their subjects, but are likely to prove the last, ensconcing themselves in the extensive Churchillian historiography as the go-to texts for future enquirers.

It is strangest there should not previously have been a major biography of Clementine – a charismatic, clever and strong-minded person who, as Sonia Purnell proves easily herein, exerted a salutary and at times world-altering influence over her husband. Churchill’s physician once observed that his eminent patient’s conviction began “in his own bedroom”, and the siren-suited symbol of “standing alone” occasionally referred to Clementine, only half-jokingly, as “She-whose-commands-must-be-obeyed”. Clementine, the author avers, “relentlessly privileged the national interest above her own health, safety and family”, alternating pillow-talk, blazing rows, walk-outs, and creative economising with elegant hospitality, informal diplomacy, proficient public relations, and highly effective charitable works, for which she would be honoured by three British monarchs, and even the Soviet Union. Yet her sway, like that of other powerful women, has gone largely unnoticed, semi-buried amid a welter of family anecdotes, staff reminiscences and political marginalia. She also disliked being interviewed. It took an exceptionally un-boreable seeker after truth (Purnell once authored a book entitled Pedal Power: How Boris Johnson Failed London’s Cyclists) to put together a coherent and convincing narrative from so many scattered sources.

Like Winston, Clementine was the grandchild of an earl (the Earl of Airlie), but she was always a poor relation, her parents moving houses to avoid creditors and reduced at times to making her own clothes. While Winston grew up amid the splendours of Blenheim, his wife-to-be was the

product of a broken home, a suburban grammar school, a lascivious mother and a formative year spent in and around the fish market at Dieppe.

That “fish market” reference may make British readers think disconcertingly of London’s Billingsgate with its proverbially scatological fishwives, but Clementine’s Dieppe was actually an English artistic colony presided over by luminaries like Aubrey Beardsley and Walter Sickert. (She would always be more interested in art than her husband, and later encouraged his painting hobby.) Her nominal father, Sir Henry Montague Hozier, was probably not her biological father, and was in any case autocratic, dour and suspected of finagling, while her mother was often more interested in paramours (sometimes several at a time) than in providing for her offspring. Clementine nevertheless emerged as highly poised and well-educated, and she was greatly admired when she arrived on the London scene, notwithstanding the question marks about her parentage and relative poverty.

Winston clearly liked her athletic looks and quick wit, while she was drawn to his power, as hinted at in a 1919 missive,

You took me from the straitened little by-path I was treading and took me with you into the life & colour & jostle of the high-way.

She and Winston seem also to have been brought together by shared secret knowledge, both having experienced childhood bullying, youthful unpopularity, and neglectful parents. But they nearly never got married, with Winston taking an inordinate time to pop the question; there is a piquant anecdote about the showery day he did ask, the two sheltering in a Grecian folly at Blenheim, Clementine telling herself she would give her suitor as much time to ask as it would take a spider to stalk across the floor. Had that auspicious arachnid scuttled a little more quickly, they might never have combined, and maybe the course of British history would have been quite different.

Despite spending most of their 56 years of marriage living quite separate existences, even when sharing the same roof – or because they did – these two very different personalities remained bound to each other, him calling her “Cat”, her calling him “Pug” in a stream of baby-talking correspondence carried on even as History was hinging. Whatever was happening in the world, and however many enemies he might have at any given time, Churchill could be certain “Clemmie” would fight his corner with energy and intelligence. She became privy to everything that concerned him (excepting his purchase of the money-pit Kentish estate of Chartwell) – his health, his money problems, his electoral prospects, his relations with Asquith, Lloyd George and the Conservatives, the campaign to embroil America in the Old World’s war, the blow-by-blow action of the Battle of Britain, the details of D-Day – and took on countless lesser burdens so he was able to concentrate on what really mattered.

Come whatever did, there were always excellent meals on the table, cigars in his box, brandy and champagne to quaff, clothes laid out, servants to serve, maids and schools for the children, time to write the articles and books that so often staved off bankruptcy. Clementine was almost always available to advise, attend meetings, canvass, network, and pick up his pieces; even his justly celebrated wartime speeches were run past her before delivery, and he would turn to her after broadcasts and ask “Was that all right?”. She may even have saved his life, once grabbing him as he teetered on a platform edge at Bristol station as a train approached – and bolstering him during his blackest period, sacked from the Admiralty after the Dardanelles debacle. He became vastly dependent on her, sometimes climbing into her unmade bed to feel close to her when she was away, or telling her he became “frightened” whenever she was absent. His upbringing in heavily-staffed great houses had made him largely incapable of catering for himself, and encouraged a general insouciance about money; “Clementine struggled to see a way out, Winston simply assumed there would be one”. David Lough leads his book with an 1898 quote from his principal – “The only thing that worries me in life is money” – but apparently Winston did not let this worry get between him and sleep as often as perhaps it should.

There were constant family problems to contend with too; their daughter Marigold died just short of her third birthday, Diana battled with barbiturates and breakdowns (she would kill herself in 1962), Sarah became an alcoholic, and their only son Randolph was a boorish and feckless ingrate. Clementine’s relations with Winston’s mother Jennie were also rivalrous, and Clementine disapproved of Jennie’s bed-hopping (doubtless because of her own mother’s behaviour). This is not even to mention Winston’s manifold shortcomings  – his depressions, extravagance (F. E. Smith once remarked that Churchill “was easily satisfied with the best”), garrulity, impatience, lack of political sense, quick temper, and self-absorption that verged sometimes on sociopathy. As an example of this last trait, after his name appeared on an I.R.A. hit list, he barricaded himself away in an attic bedroom with a steel door and brought a gun to bed every night, while the then heavily pregnant Clementine slept in her usual, unsecured, room downstairs. Clementine is thought to have considered divorce several times between the wars, but apart from the practical drawbacks, both kept gravitating back to each other out of what seems to have been psychological necessity, a shared desire for what Purnell calls “comfort and protection”.

She was capable of obnoxiousness in her own right, often being thrown into fury by something as simple as cold soup, or coloured flower arrangements. Their children could never relax with her, feeling obliged to be constantly entertaining in her cold presence (with the partial exception of Mary), while staff sometimes found her terrifying. But maybe the most startling thing we learn about her is how, despite her disapproval of extra-marital sex, she nonetheless facilitated it in the interests of the war effort. She allowed her daughter-in-law Pamela to cuckold Randolph with Averell Harriman and other useful Americans – at best pretending it wasn’t happening, but at times almost encouraging it. She also indulged Sarah’s equally useful extra-marital liaison with U.S. ambassador Gil Winant. She knew Pamela and Sarah were unhappy in their marriages, and sex has always been used as a weapon in matters of state, but still this leaves an aftertaste, this defender of the global high ground behaving just a bit like a Borgia. It does not seem quite to fit with the moral exemplar Pamela remembered as “Presbyterian…a very good woman [who put] morals…above any emotion”. She could also be a terrific snob; while at Chequers, Winston’s private secretary Jock Colville noted,

It amused me mildly that Mrs. C, who does nothing but profess democratic and radical sentiments, should put off inviting any of the officers to dine until the guard consisted of the Coldstream.

After 1945, both Winston and Clementine were as used-up as the country they had so recently commanded, and old problems came flooding back to add to the accumulating ailments of age. Financial worries returned, as England added impecuniousness to ingratitude, and Churchill became an embarrassing Colonel Blimp (David Lough recalls his history teacher telling him in 1964 that Winston was “a romantic old windbag”), his attitudes antediluvian, his postwar administrations exercises in futility, his bank balance still fluctuating. After he died in 1965, she remained loyal to his shade, for the almost-thirteen years left to her preserving his myth, keeping up appearances by sales of effects, taking up a pointless life peerage, growing deaf, striking up confiding conversations with relative strangers and the epically indiscreet Noël Coward – a symbol of an aimless kingdom, living in ever less splendid isolation, trading on the past, with nothing to hope for, a deeply poignant winding-down of an extraordinarily meaningful life.


It is testament to the persistence of the Churchill legend that a major publisher should have thought devoting 532 pages to an in-depth discussion of his finances would be a commercial proposition. Everyone already knows Churchill was a spendthrift, and how many of even the most cultish Churchillians feel a need to know the dismal details of his bank balances, debts, loans, mortgages and sundry outgoings? It would seem a great many, judging from the fact that No More Champagne was listed by the Times, Wall Street Journal, Daily Mail and Guardian among their books of 2015. The book is very well-crafted, indeed masterly in its handling of material, as one would expect from a former private banker in possession of a first-class history degree from Oxford. But is that material intrinsically interesting?

The unexpected answer is yes. In a period when we like to whinge about wealth, and demand “transparency” from even the most pathetic of our politicians, it is entertaining to be reminded of Churchill’s conspicuous consumption, gambling, impulse purchases, late bill-paying, speculation, and tax avoidance. His finances have a flamboyant, freewheeling flavour, in keeping with a British tradition of buccaneering capitalism, but very much at odds with today’s prissier priorities. Furthermore, because Churchill’s money problems were akin to those being experienced by many other aristocratic families, his narrow economic history also becomes a national narrative, as landed interests were increasingly superseded by new money deriving from the likes of railways, mining and newspapers. Victorians and Edwardians waxed rich, the Great War wreaked economic havoc to add to the aching loss, the Twenties to Forties were touch-and-go, the Fifties pinched, and much of that time Churchill’s personal surpluses and deficits paralleled those of his beloved, doomed Empire.

Churchill’s political views were also partly formed by financial pressures which brought him into regular contact with and helping him understand the new class of entrepreneurs, some of whom would prove invaluable at times when he might otherwise have gone under. His ease with these, and experience of economic precariousness, also helps accounts for his fractious relations with the Conservative Party, complacent, protectionist, and still largely wedded to the landed order. Lough notes,

A common thread of exceptional risk-taking unites Churchill’s financial dealings and his political career.

There were countervailing pressures too; his need to take on writing commissions and lecture tours simultaneously raised his profile and gave him less time for front-line politics. The author also suggests one of the reasons Churchill would later return to the Conservatives could be that by then he had inherited his great-grandmother’s Irish estate. Churchill’s many adorers also ought to be reminded that their man found time in the war years to better his position, the major debts of 1939 turning into the equivalent of £4 million by 1945.

Through endless telling details, unpromising ledger line by line, Lough draws out subtle private meaning from scrutinised private means, eventually accounting for the statesman in full – colourful but constrained, idealistic but enmeshed, a man always partway between Destiny and his bank manager. As well as being unexpected, No More Champagne is also an understated triumph of the biographer’s art – an acutely English appreciation of a great Englishman present as everything altered, a prisoner of circumstances as much as a shaper of things to come.

This review first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

Sustained magnificence – Max Hastings’ Winston’s War

Sustained Magnificence

Winston’s War: Churchill 1940-1945

Max Hastings, New York: Alfred A. Knopf 576 pp., $35.00

Sixty-five years after the last guns ceased firing on the last Pacific atoll, Britons of all political persuasions are still wallowing in tepid World War II nostalgia.

For Atlanticists, neoconservatives, and classical liberals, the war was a great Anglo- sphere achievement, a landmark en route to social mobility plus mercantilism. For nationalists and romantics, there is a lump- in-the-throat quality about the hyperclear image of the sceptered isle, standing alone against an armoured upstart, asserting individuality against conformity, “the Few” against the militant many. For nostalgists, the war represents the last gasp of the British Empire, compelled to destroy itself in order to save itself. For modern leftists, in all other circumstances bitterly hostile to national pride, the war was an inevitable confrontation with racism and antisemitism (la lotta continua, for them).

The result of this unusual unanimity is that we are all daily bombarded with images, anecdotes, and evocations of the period. So my immediate reaction, as I lifted yet another book about 1939-45—even one written by Max Hastings—was to sigh. Hastings, foreseeing this likely reaction, disarmingly cites Boswell:

[Johnson] had once conceived the thought of writing The Life of Oliver Cromwell . . . He at length laid aside his scheme, on discovering that all that can be told of him is already in print, and that it is impracticable to procure any authentick information in addition to what the world is already possessed of.

As Cromwell, now Churchill; Hastings acknowledges,

We have been told more about Winston Churchill than any other human being.

He nevertheless feels constrained to augment this biographic Gondwanaland, because “much remains opaque.” He is be- sides fascinated by the “sustained magnificence” of “the largest human being ever to occupy his office.” Hastings has a happy knack for marrying strategic and tactical insights with apposite anecdotes—such as the touching fact that among British officers’ luggage landed at Norway in 1940 were fishing rods and sporting guns, or that the ever practical New Statesman, at the height of the British Expeditionary Force’s May 1940 debacle, was insisting that

…the government should at once grapple with the minor, but important problem of Anglo-Mexican relations.

Churchill was an aristocrat and an imperialist, an anachronism even in the 1930s and one, furthermore, with a deserved reputation for being impulsive, excitable, sentimental, vain, bombastic, and unreliable. As First Lord of the Admiralty, in 1915 he had made the disastrous decision to seize Gallipoli. He was an intemperate anti-Bolshevik long after the Whites had been vanquished. He was an opponent of self-government for Indians (the “stinking babus,” he called them) and a fanatical supporter of Edward VIII. He crossed the floor of the House of Commons not once but twice, and appeared to have an obsession with Germany. He was, besides, half-American, and drank and smoked too much. He cried in public, and had disreputable friends like Brendan Bracken and Lord Beaverbrook. Had the war not come, he would now be scarcely remembered. But of course it did, as he had predicted, and suddenly his colour and charisma—as well as the fact that he had been right all along—marked him out as the “obvious” war supremo.

Churchill’s chief leadership qualification was that he was supremely focused. Hastings observes,

He governed on the basis that all other interests and considerations must be subordinated to the overarching objective of defeating the Axis.

In this, he differed utterly from Hitler, who spent more time dreaming about a “Greater Germany” than thinking about how to win the war.

Churchill fizzed with energy, symbolized by his famous “Action This Day” rubber stamp, and once told his private secretary that at night

I try myself by court martial to see if I have done anything effective during the day.

Isaiah Berlin noted perceptively that

Churchill sees history – and life – as a great Renaissance pageant.

This boyish trait led to the extraordinary speeches, among the finest ever delivered in the English language; his crowd-pleasing stunts — the V-sign, the cigars, the tommy guns, and his infatuation with special forces and “setting Europe ablaze.” Hastings is dismissive of the achievements of Churchill’s cherished commandos, but such escapades aided morale when the “Second Front” was still unfeasible.

Churchill predicted, incorrectly, that the Nazis would not invade Norway and that U-boats would pose no major threat to the Atlantic supply routes; demanded the Allies invade the Balkans; and sought to siphon off D-Day forces for ill-advised Italian incursions. But such errors were amply outweighed by his central strategic insight that the war could not be won without the United States, and by his achievement in dragging in that reluctant country against majority public and political opinion. It was in Greece alone that Churchill’s interventions eventually proved successful, but that was only after the killing of almost 200 British troops by the communist partisans they had just liberated. Later, Churchill was outraged not to have been consulted about Germany’s unconditional surrender, which he knew would prolong the war and cause unnecessary suffering (including to Germans).

Winston’s War provides a salutary reminder of just how unspecial the ‘special relationship’ can be. Wall Street made a killing out of Lend-Lease and the short-selling of British companies, encouraged by an administration so distrustful that it insisted on all British assets being audited. Churchill grumbled,

As far as I can make out we are not only to be skinned, but flayed to the bone.

In 1942, Felix Frankfurter wrote to Stafford Cripps, deploring

…a lack of continuing consciousness of comradeship between the two peoples.

And as late as 1944, the American journalist John Gunther repined that

Lots of Americans and British have an atavistic dislike of one another.

Many Britons regarded America superciliously; wartime ambassador Lord Halifax, according to Hastings, found it “too much” to have to sit through a Chicago White Sox game or eat a hot dog.

For his part, Roosevelt actively sought to subvert the empire. This intrigue included attempts to hold secret meetings with the Soviets, through intermediaries like pre-war ambassador to Moscow Joseph E. Davies, a man who saw nothing wrong in amassing an art collection looted from murdered dissidents, and explained to his wife that the incessant noise she heard from their Moscow hotel was the sound of jackhammers, when he knew it was firing squads.

Roosevelt routinely undermined Churchill’s attempts to provide postwar guarantees to Eastern European countries, once referring in front of a smirking Stalin to Poland (for whose independence Britain’s war was ostensibly being fought) as “a source of trouble for 500 years.”

In one notorious episode at Tehran in 1943, Stalin talked about shooting 50,000 German officers out of hand after the war. Roosevelt rejoined jovially that 49,000 would suffice, after which his son Elliott said he agreed with Stalin’s proposal and was certain the United States would endorse it. Churchill walked out in disgust. If Roosevelt hoped he was forging a progressive partnership with Stalin, he was mistaken. In an anecdote that sheds light equally on Roosevelt and the Soviets, Molotov recalled what a colleague had said of Roosevelt:

What a crook that man must be, to have wormed his way to three terms as president while being paralyzed!

While Washington and London desisted from espionage activities in the Soviet Union during the war (Stalin was amazed they could be so naive), the Soviets spied enthusiastically on both allies. Stalin would sometimes brag to advisors “We f–ked this England!” – but this “joke” was also on America. In 1945, exasperated by the failure of his hopes for Eastern Europe, Churchill had plans drawn up for “Operation Unthinkable”—what now seems like a fantastical scheme for American and British forces, plus reactivated Wehrmacht formations, to attack the Soviet Union and cast down the “iron curtain,” a phrase he was using as early as May 1945.

Winston’s War reminds the mistier-eyed reader how insecure Churchill’s political position could be, how tenuous his grip on occasion—not just on Parliament but even on the public affections. The Britain over which he presided was a place of profound class tensions that, pace the propaganda, were not magically resolved by a spasm of self-sacrifice. For example, in 1940, the year of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, 163,000 working days were lost through strikes, a figure that worsened as the war wore on. Churchill had critics on the right and the left—the latter encouraged by Stalin—and endured continual carping from the press, which paradoxically became noisier as military fortunes improved. In such circumstances, a lesser man would have abused the dictatorial powers available to him, but, as Churchill once remarked to Sikorski, he regarded himself as

…a privileged domestic, a valet de chambre, the servant of the House of Commons.

Hastings notes that

Many misunderstandings of Churchill’s conduct of government…derived from the promiscuity of his conversation. Every day…he gave vent to impulsive and intemperate judgements.

The widespread notion that Churchill was a Germanophobe is undercut by his revulsion at the Tehran proposal, his disapprobation of unconditional surrender and the Morgenthau Plan, and gentlemanly statements such as

Germany should remain in the European family. Germany existed before the Gestapo!

The firebombing of Dresden (and other cities) is more difficult to excuse, and Hastings acknowledges that it was Churchill’s fault that bombings of civilians continued into 1945. But he insists it was by oversight that Churchill had not countermanded orders he had made in the heat of 1940 and 1941, in the context of the Blitz, “Coventration,” and the “Baedeker raids” by the Luftwaffe on non-strategic sites like Exeter and Canterbury.

Hastings also defends Churchill against accusations that he was indifferent to the plight of the Jews, pointing out that London was unaware of the death camps until late in the war, and that even when stories started to emerge, they had to be viewed as part of the wider horror — while, in any case, even the RAF could have accomplished nothing toward saving the inmates. Hastings has harsh words for those who think that Britain could have avoided entanglement in the war by allowing Germany and Russia to destroy each other. Such critics, he feels,

…ignore the practical difficulty of reaching a sustainable deal with the Nazi regime, and also adopt a supremely cynical insouciance towards its turpitude.

A lasting deal would not have been possible with a man who clearly could not be trusted, whatever friendly Berchtesgaden table talk may sometimes have occurred about the British and their empire. Had Hitler beaten the Soviets, he would have had vast new energy resources available to him and would have formed an alliance with Japan. Nothing could then have stopped the Axis from dominating Eurasia, and a deadly struggle with both Britain and the United States would inevitably have ensued. Perhaps Britain should not have guaranteed Poland’s frontiers; having done so, however, she had no choice but to fight, regardless of the consequences.

The many bad things that happened in Britain after her Pyrrhic victory were undoubtedly avoidable, and some of it occurred on Churchill’s watch, but by then he was too old and too tired to comprehend the full extent of Attlee’s fecklessness. As a peacetime prime minister, Churchill was like the Fighting Temeraire — an impressive but antiquated hulk, powerless to prevent his rudderless country from being towed to the breaker’s yard of history. Younger Conservatives ought to have stepped up to the mark, but they were smaller men, myopic and humdrum heirs to a bankrupt heritage, prisoners of choices made years before and increasingly representative of an angst-filled, levelling culture that made conservative values seem indefensible. Life, for the Macmillans, Lennox- Boyds, Maxwell-Fyfes, and Heaths, was less Renaissance pageant than refinancing packages; to these men, Churchill was Colonel Blimp, worthy of admiration but not of emulation.

Winston’s War covers overtrodden ground. Nonetheless, Max Hastings succeeds in reminding us, as the war generation’s flags are finally furled and put away, how things were, and how they seemed then to a uniquely engrossing and perfectly placed patriot, and how much we all still subsist in his debt and shadow.

This review appeared in Chronicles in September 2010, and is reproduced with kind permission