Winston Churchill was a complex, brilliant, brooding man and a huge figure in the politics and history of his century, yet in this book author C. Brian Kelly brings him down to a manageable size by tracing his life in short, researched and well-written vignettes.
The book is paired with a shorter biography of "His American Mother Jennie" by Ingrid Smyer.
Jennie was to the child Winston a distant angelic image. His earliest writing was a letter to her, as if a child should have to write to his mother, thanking her for Christmas presents. As a boy, before he was sent away to school, Winston was raised by his beloved nanny. Mother Jennie did not enter the scene at all until his father Randolph died, possibly from
syphilis, with the slow deterioration of his brain causing him to treat the little boy with alienating coldness or hot rage. Winston, who lived in the shadow of his more-favored brother Jack, was a frail, disobedient child with a speech impediment who showed little early promise. His nephew was later to write, "Listen to the story of young Winston's boyhood and learn to believe there is always hope."
In school, Winston seemed no better than average, and, when it came to authority, worse than average. Perhaps transferring his unspoken dislike of his father to his teachers, he was always in trouble and therefore constantly being beaten. Yet he had an odd prescience, once telling schoolmates that someday "London shall be attacked and I shall be very prominent in the defense of London." After high school, he trained for the military and was pleased to be sent as a correspondent/soldier to the Boer War, where he once observed, "There is nothing so exhilarating as to be shot at without result." He became a member of the House of Commons at the remarkably early age of 26 and was immediately noted for his oratorical skills. Once he rose to prominence as a leading speaker, Churchill spoke out often against the rise of Hitler and urged England to prepare for war. His warnings made people uncomfortable as appeasement seemed the order of the day. It became his job, just as he had predicted, to lead England through the many stages of the war, especially memorable for his promulgation of national defiance and courage when London was under constant bombardment during the Bltiz.
The book, presented in short segments, is full of small incidents in Churchill's life, combining his more notable moments with less well-known, sometimes humorous ones, such as the time when, having a bit of rest in Florida during the war, Churchill received a phone call and, thinking it was his friend Wendell Wilkie, began sputtering away on a personal note, only to learn that his caller was Franklin Roosevelt. With Franklin, Churchill had a cordial strategic relationship, whereas Theodore Roosevelt had been openly contemptuous of the rising young parliamentarian, this owing to the fact that, according to Teddy's daughter Alice, "they were so much alike." Another observer reported a legendary encounter between Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill in London, at the bunker where Winston spent much of his time conducting the duties of war. It was his habit to dictate constantly, voicing his thoughts wherever he was, and once opened the door to the president having just gotten out of the bath. With aplomb he told his colleague that he had "nothing to hide" from the American leader.
It's not easy for any of us ordinary folk to imagine what heads of state go through when their country is in peril. Churchill spent much of his marriage away from his beloved wife, Clementine, and sat in an armchair with a steel plate set in the back in case an intruder tried to shoot him while he was reading. He kept a pistol near him at all times. His visits out to the countryside, to wave his famous
"V" for victory and chomp his cigars, were a stirring encouragement to the English people, but Clementine later said he did it for himself as much as for them. He was capable of getting so wound up about current events that he had to take barbiturates, and he hated being examined by doctors who didn't agree with his own diagnosis. When the war was over and he finally lost his place
at the center of the world stage, Winston retired with Clementine but fought with an understandable depressive sense of letdown. He battled that foe - he called it "Black Dog" - by painting, arguably as skilled at using a paintbrush as he once had been at excoriating his enemies and exhorting his people by the power of his oratory. He also published about 50 volumes of history and biography.
His mother's story, told briefly in this paired biography, is by contrast rather pathetic. She was an extraordinarily beautiful young American woman who was wooed by Randolph Churchill in a relationship that Winston described as a "love match if there ever was one," and she endured Randolph's misbehaviors and probable infidelities. After his death, she took more interest in the life of the sons she had neglected for parties and pleasures when they were children. She died rather young, from gangrene after a broken ankle and amputation.
It is clear that in the argument between nature and nurture, Winston Churchill owed far less to his nurturance than to an indomitable spirit that he seemed to have demonstrated from birth, overcoming a rather loveless childhood and the discouraged doubts of his father that he would ever amount to anything to become one of the most famous people of his time, or any time.