“Fascinating… well-researched and well-written.”—Andrew Roberts • “Beautifully written… A triumph.”—Damien Lewis • “Fascinating, acute and touching.”—Simon Sebag MontefioreWe think we know Winston Churchill: the bulldog grimace, the ever-present cigar, the wit and wisdom that led Great Britain through the Second World War. Yet away from the House of Commons and the Cabinet War Rooms, Churchill was a loving family man who doted on his children, none more so than Randolph, his only boy and Winston's anointed heir to the Churchill legacy.
Do Try to Get Papa to Come,
He Has Never Been
One night in November 1947, Winston Churchill was sitting in the long dining room at Chartwell with Randolph and his daughter, Sarah. There was a gap in the conversation, which Randolph filled by "suddenly" pointing to an empty chair and asking his father: "If you had the power to put someone in that chair to join us now, whom would you choose?"
Randolph and Sarah sat back, expecting Winston to say Julius Caesar or Napoleon. Instead, he thought for a moment and then, "very simply," said, "Oh, my father, of course."
Winston followed this by telling them a story. On a foggy winter evening he had been copying a portrait of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, when just as he was trying to capture the twirl of his mustache, he realized that he had materialized before him, looking "as I had read about him in his brief year of triumph." Father and son talked about the ways in which the world had changed since the elder man's death, and the great events that had taken place, until the apparition suddenly said, "I was not going to talk politics with a boy like you. Bottom of the school! Never passed any exams, except into the Cavalry! Wrote me stilted letters. I could not see how you would make your living on the little I could leave you and Jack [Winston's younger brother] . . . But then of course you were very young, and I loved you dearly. Old people are always very impatient with young ones. Fathers always expect their sons to have their virtues without their faults."
As the conversation progressed, it became clear that Lord Randolph assumed his son had lived an undistinguished life as a mid-ranking army officer. You should have gone into politics, he told Winston, "You might even have made a name for yourself." With that the apparition lit a cigarette. As the match flared, he vanished.
Neither Randolph nor Sarah was sure at that moment whether Winston was recalling a particular dream or "elaborating on some fanciful idea that had struck him earlier," although in the months before, he had complained of endless nightmares in which Lord Randolph had appeared to him.
But the story, which his family called "The Dream" and which Winston referred to only by its original heading, "Private Article," left both brother and sister hugely excited, and they urged their father to commit it to paper. Over the next few months, he worked obsessively at drafting and redrafting it. Then, for reasons he never disclosed, Winston locked it away in a private box for ten years. It only emerged, Randolph wrote, just before Winston's death, when he scribbled some final changes on the manuscript.
That Lord Randolph was on his mind even as his own life came to a close is not surprising. Winston never stopped thinking about the man he had hero-worshipped ever since he was a boy. He was, Winston would later say, "the greatest and most powerful influence in my early life," a fearless, dynamic politician who died at the age of just forty-six. Winston learned his father's speeches by heart; took his "politics unquestioningly from him"; and every step in his own career was accompanied by an insistent voice wondering whether Lord Randolph would have approved of the decisions he made.
The problem was that while he was alive, Lord Randolph barely spared his son a second glance.
Lord Randolph cut an unforgettable figure. His head was large, his body short and frail, his walrus mustache was extravagant, and he was Òaddicted to dressing loudly,Ó but what struck those who met him most deeply was the pair of bulging eyes that gazed uncompromisingly back at them. He suffered from exophthalmos, which caused his eyeballs to protrude and made him seem as if he was looking at the world in a supercilious, offensive fashion. Which, in truth, he generally was. When he wanted, he could be charming and funny, but more often, especially when confronted by those he did not know, or disapproved of, he slipped into a glacial aristocratic hauteur.
The second son of the Duke of Marlborough, Lord Randolph had struggled at Eton and began his time at Oxford badly. He drank, broke windows, and chased women. "I don't like ladies at all," he said. "I like rough women who dance and sing and drink-the rougher the better."
And yet he also possessed certain gifts. His memory was extraordinary. He could read a page from, say, Gibbon, and then repeat it verbatim. He was clever, quick, and witty. These gifts were sufficient to gain him a respectable degree, which was considered so unusual for the son of a duke that it was immediately predicted that he would go on to achieve great things. (His position in society meant that an arrest for drunkenness and assault was something that could be overlooked.)
For a while it seemed that he would live a life governed by his worst qualities. A Grand Tour was followed by a brief period as an idler and a carouser. He was also afflicted by melancholy and bad nerves, and for a time these forced him to withdraw almost entirely from society. Instead, he read French novels and smoked Turkish cigarettes "until his tongue was sore."
But then he stood for his father's seat of Woodstock in 1874. In the same year, he made an impulsive marriage to Jennie Jerome, an American heiress, daughter of the financier Leonard Jerome. Dark, vivacious, and magnificent, Jennie had an irresistible feline quality. Margot Asquith wrote, "She had a forehead like a panther's and great wild eyes that looked through you." Viscount D'Abernon was another who compared her to a panther, but also noted "a cultivated intelligence unknown to the jungle."
The young couple were popular and sociable, and neither the arrival of their first son, Winston, in November 1874, nor their shallow pockets (Disraeli observed to Queen Victoria that Lord Randolph's father was "not rich for a duke"; Leonard Jerome, his wife would one day claim, did not himself know how many millions he had made or lost) prevented them from entering fashionable society.
They set up home on Charles Street with a combined income of £3,000 (the average wage at the time was around £50 a year) and then spent all the money they had. Lord Randolph, like most of his ancestors, liked to gamble-he played cards, bet on horses, and was a familiar presence in all the casinos around the coast of France-and Jennie knew her way around a Paris couturier.
Before long, they were negotiating loans and had been forced to put their home on the market. None of this stopped their fun.
"We seemed to live in a whirl of gaieties and excitement," Jennie later recalled. "Many were the delightful balls I went to, which, unlike those of the present day, lasted till five o'clock in the morning." On those rare occasions when they did not have a party to go to, they hosted exclusive dinner parties that they could not really afford to put on. The Prince of Wales was an occasional guest.
Lord Randolph ignored his political career, and both he and Jennie ignored their child. As Randolph noted in his biography of Winston: "The neglect and lack of interest in him shown by his parents were remarkable, even judged by the standards of late Victorian and Edwardian days." Whereas most of their aristocratic peers established arrangements (often somewhat grudgingly) that meant they saw their children at set times, Lord Randolph and Jennie's hedonism meant that they avoided even this.
The couple became famous for their love of good living, and Lord Randolph became famous for his stunning insolence. At a dinner at Lord Salisbury's, he was overheard complaining, within earshot of Lady Salisbury, about the "bad dinner, cold plates, beastly wine." On another occasion, when cornered by a bore at a club, he rang the bell for a member of staff and said, "Waiter-please listen to the end of Colonel B. 's story."
It was this insolence that brought their gilded existence to an abrupt end in 1876. Lord Randolph's behavior in the furor provoked by his brother's affair with Lady Aylesford so offended the Prince of Wales that he refused to see not only the Churchills but anybody who had received them. Socially they ceased to exist.
The situation was temporarily resolved when Disraeli prevailed upon Lord Randolph's father to become Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and to take his son with him. When they returned from their chastening exile four years later, Lord Randolph had changed. Although Lord Randolph realized he had gone too far, he could not, Winston later wrote, forgive the way so many former friends had turned their backs on him. His formerly "genial and gay" nature "contracted a stern and bitter quality, a harsh contempt for what is called 'Society,' and an abiding antagonism to rank and authority."
Now began his astonishing rise. Returning to politics, he began working at breakneck speed. He and a small group of sympathetic Tories known as the Fourth Party made an endless stream of brutal attacks on both the Liberal government and those sitting in opposition on the Conservative front bench. There were days when his actions so outraged the House of Commons that barely a member would address him, and yet he "continued along his sensational path with cold indifference."
Lord Randolph was brazen and impulsive but possessed a charisma and energy that set him apart from almost everyone else. Equal parts music hall performer and guttersnipe, he was a showman who mocked his enemies in the political establishment, flailing his arms to make points and riding a bicycle across the House of Commons terrace.
As the standard-bearer for a progressive vein of conservatism that became known as "Tory Democracy" ("Trust the people, and the people will trust you!"), he supercharged the electoral fortunes of a Conservative Party that had looked tired and listless, and gained an almost unrivaled celebrity: workmen smiled at his mustache and doffed their caps when his carriage passed by, and at meetings, people would greet him with shouts of "Yahoo Randy!" and "Give it to 'em hot!" William Gladstone called him the greatest Conservative since William Pitt.
After the election of 1886, another campaign in which his efforts were central to the Conservative Party's victory, he was made chancellor of the Exchequer, the youngest man to hold the position since William Pitt, although it was plain that his ambition did not stop there. "There is only one place," Lord Randolph said, "that is Prime Minister. I like to be boss. I like to hold the reins." It seemed inevitable that he would get his wish sooner rather than later.
It was about this time that Lord RandolphÕs freckled, pug-nosed eldest son, who had talked incessantly since the moment he learned his first words and was incapable of sitting still for a minute at a time, developed a precocious interest in politics. He read newspapers avidly (alongside more conventional schoolboy passions such as collecting stamps, autographs, and goldfish), hoovering up accounts of the Belgian conquest of the Congo, the Haymarket riot in Chicago, the death of Chinese Gordon, the erection of the Statue of Liberty, and Gottlieb DaimlerÕs invention of the first practical automobile.
But the stories he followed most closely concerned his brilliant, reckless father. Winston read every word of Lord Randolph's speeches. He bought a scrapbook and pasted into it the cartoons in which "Randy" was depicted. Winston was a feverish advocate for his father and his father's party, passing on pieces of news that he felt sure would please him. "I have been out riding," Winston informed Lord Randolph in April 1885, "with a gentleman who thinks Gladstone is a brute and thinks that 'the one with the curly mustache ought to be Premier.' . . . Every body wants your Autograph but I can only say I will try, and I should like you to sign your name in full at the end of your letter. I only want a scribble as I know that you are very busy indeed." On another occasion, when he was taken to the pantomime, where an actor playing his father was hissed, Winston burst into tears and turned in a rage upon another member of the audience, shouting, "Stop that row, you snub-nosed radical."
His adoration was not returned. Lord Randolph barely seemed to notice his son; he did not even know how old he was. When he did take time to speak to him, it was to upbraid him for his faults. One of Jennie's sisters noted that when Lord Randolph was forced to visit his boys during "the children's hour" he treated them like a general reviewing his troops.
Jennie, who once confided to friends that she ignored her son until he grew up and became "interesting," offered little more affection or attention. In 1882, when he was seven, Winston had been sent to St. George's School in Ascot-a prep school designed to get boys ready for Eton. Close as Ascot was to their home in Mayfair (a short hansom ride, an even quicker train ride), neither Jennie nor Randolph could find the time to see their son, who wrote them heartrending letters.
"come and see me soon"
"Come & see me soon dear Mama."
"I am wondering when you are coming to see me?"
"You must send someone to see me."
Sometimes they replied, more often they did not. Much of the work of looking after Winston was handed off to a spinster called Mrs. Elizabeth Everest, whom he knew as Woom (the result of a failed attempt to say "woman"). Winston would forever be grateful for the immense love and care he received from her. "My nurse was my confidante," he wrote. "It was to her I poured out my many troubles." Her portrait hung in his room until he died. When in later life he wrote about the love Mrs. Everest showed him, it was with a kind of wonder, as if he was surprised that anybody could have thought him worthy of such affection.
And yet this almost comically detached method of care from his parents did nothing to interrupt the veneration he felt for Jennie and Lord Randolph. Of his mother he wrote, famously, "She shone for me like the Evening Star. I loved her dearly-but at a distance." He considered her to be like "a fairy princess: a radiant being possessed of limitless riches and power," and his father was accorded similar mythical status: it appeared to Winston that his father owned "the key to everything or almost everything worth having."
The bewilderment and distress he felt was not directed at his parents but transformed into behavior that appalled both masters and his priggish colleagues. A school report noted, "He cannot be trusted to behave himself anywhere." He was flogged for taking sugar from the pantry. In response he stole the headmaster's "sacred straw hat" and kicked it to pieces. His dancing master remembered "a small, red-haired pupil, the naughtiest boy in the class; I used to think he was the naughtiest small boy in the world."