The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (14 page)

BOOK: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
6.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

pressures and distractions of weekdays in London, Chequers was proving a godsend to Churchill. By now it had become his country command post, to which he summoned legions of guests—generals, ministers, foreign officials, family, staff—who were invited to dine, to sleep, or to “dine and sleep.” He brought a private secretary (leaving others on duty in London), two typists, his valet, his chauffeur, two telephone operators, and, always, Inspector Thompson. Barbed wire surrounded the grounds; soldiers of the Coldstream Guard patrolled its hills and vales and boundaries; sentries guarded all access points and demanded passwords from everyone, including Churchill himself. Every day, messengers delivered reports and minutes and the latest intelligence, all to be placed in his black box, or in his top-secret yellow box. He received eight daily and Sunday newspapers, and read them. Although he took time out for meals, walks, baths, and his nap, he spent most of the day dictating minutes and discussing the war with his guests, much as he did at 10 Downing, but here with a crucial difference: The house fostered an easier and more candid exchange of ideas and opinions, encouraged by the simple fact that everyone had left their offices behind and by a wealth of novel opportunities for conversation—climbs up Beacon and Coombe Hills, walks in the rose garden, rounds of croquet, and hands of bezique, further leavened by free-flowing champagne, whiskey, and brandy.

The talk typically ranged well past midnight. At Chequers, visitors knew they could speak more freely than in London, and with absolute confidentiality.
After one weekend, Churchill's new commander in chief of Home Forces, Alan Brooke, wrote to thank him for periodically inviting him to Chequers, and “giving me an opportunity of discussing the problems of the defense of this country with you, and of putting some of my difficulties before you. These informal talks are of the very greatest help to me, & I do hope you realize how grateful I am to you for your kindness.”

Churchill, too, felt more at ease at Chequers, and understood that here he could behave as he wished, secure in the knowledge that whatever happened within would be kept secret (possibly a misplaced trust, given the memoirs and diaries that emerged after the war, like desert flowers after a first rain). This was, he said, a
“cercle sacré.”
A sacred circle.

General Brooke recalled one night when Churchill, at two-fifteen
suggested that everyone present retire to the great hall for sandwiches, which Brooke, exhausted, hoped was a signal that soon the night would end and he could get to bed.

But, no!” he wrote.

What followed was one of those moments often to occur at Chequers that would remain lodged in visitors' minds forever after.

“He had the gramophone turned on,” wrote Brooke, “and, in the many-colored dressing-gown, with a sandwich in one hand and water-cress in the other, he trotted round and round the hall, giving occasional little skips to the tune of the gramophone.” At intervals as he rounded the room he would stop “to release some priceless quotation or thought.” During one such pause, Churchill likened a man's life to a walk down a passage lined with closed windows. “As you reach each window, an unknown hand opens it and the light it lets in only increases by contrast the darkness of the end of the passage.”

He danced on.


in June, the house filled to bursting. At least ten guests came, some to dine, some to dine and sleep. Lord Beaverbrook arrived, brimming with exuberance and bile. Alexander Hardinge, private secretary to the king, came for tea only. Churchill's son, Randolph, and his twenty-year-old wife, Pamela, also arrived, to spend the weekend. Now, too, came General Bernard Paget, chief of the general staff of the Home Forces, and Leopold Amery, the Conservative member of Parliament whose stirring Cromwellian cry “In the name of God, go!” had helped put Churchill in power.

The conversation traversed a broad terrain: aircraft production; the novelty of German armored warfare; the French failure; how to manage the Duke of Windsor, whose abdication to marry Wallis Simpson, four years earlier, continued to cause much upheaval; and where and how invading forces were likely to land. One guest, General Augustus Francis Andrew Nicol Thorne, commander of forces assigned to defend the English coast where the channel was at its narrowest, declared himself convinced that his zone was the prime target and that Germany would attempt to put eighty thousand men on its beaches.

On Saturday afternoon, June 29, while Churchill and Beaverbrook talked privately and, as it happened, heatedly, John Colville took advantage of the respite and spent the afternoon, sunny and warm, in the garden with Clementine and daughter Mary, “whom I find very much nicer on closer acquaintance,” he wrote.

Tea followed, after which Randolph Churchill provided Colville with a glimpse of a coarser side to Churchill family life. “
I thought Randolph one of the most objectionable people I had ever met: noisy, self-assertive, whining and frankly unpleasant,” wrote Colville. “He did not strike me as intelligent.” Indeed, Randolph had a reputation as a rude house guest. He was known to start verbal fights with even the most august of dinner companions, and seemed intent on antagonizing all around. He waged what Colville called “preventive war,” denouncing guests for what he expected them to say, rather than what they actually said. Often he started fights with Churchill himself, to Churchill's great embarrassment. It did not help that he routinely picked his nose in public and coughed in relentless gusts. “
His coughing is like some huge dredger that brings up sea-changed things,” wrote Lady Diana Cooper, wife of Minister of Information Duff Cooper, who professed to be a friend of Randolph's. “He spews them out into his hand.”

Things got worse at dinner, Colville wrote. Randolph “
was anything but kind to Winston, who adores him.” He “made a scene” in front of Home Forces staff chief Paget, criticizing generals, lack of equipment, and government complacency.

As the day's consumption of alcohol caught up with him, Randolph grew noisier and still more objectionable.


his antithesis: charming, lighthearted, and flirtatious. Though only twenty, she exhibited the sophistication and confidence of an older woman, as well as a degree of sexual knowingness unusual for her circle. This had been apparent even two years earlier, when Pamela had “come out” as a debutante. “
Pam was terribly sexy and very obvious,” a fellow debutante said. “She was very plump and so bosomy we all called her ‘the dairy maid.' She wore high heels and tossed her bottom around. We thought she was quite outrageous. She was known as hot stuff, a very sexy young thing.” An American visitor, Kathy Harriman, wrote, “
She's a wonderful girl, my age, but one of the wisest young girls I've ever met—knows everything political and otherwise.”

Through her marriage, Pamela grew close to the Churchills; she was also befriended by Lord Beaverbrook, who valued her ability to circulate at the highest levels of society. “
She passed everything she knew about anybody to Beaverbrook,” said American broadcaster Reagan McCrary, better known as Tex, a columnist for William Randolph Hearst's
New York Daily Mirror.
“Beaverbrook was a gossipmonger and Pamela was his bird dog.”

Pamela and Randolph had gotten married on October 4, 1939, after a brief courtship whose haste was at least partly driven by Randolph's desire to have a child—a son to be his heir—before being shipped off to battle and dying, an outcome he believed to be inevitable. He proposed to Pamela on their second date, and she, matching impulse for impulse, accepted. He was nearly a decade older and stunningly handsome, but the thing that appealed most to her was that he was a Churchill, at the center of power. Although Clementine did not approve of the marriage, Churchill, calling Pamela “a charming girl,” opened his arms wide and saw no problem with the speed at which the relationship had advanced. “
I expect that he will be in action in the early spring,” Churchill wrote to a friend, shortly before the wedding, “and therefore I am very glad that he should be married before he goes.”

Churchill believed marriage to be a simple thing and sought to dispel its mysteries through a series of aphorisms. “
All you need to be married are champagne, a box of cigars, and a double bed,” he said. Or this: “
One of the secrets of a happy marriage is never to speak to or see the loved one before noon.” Churchill had a formula for family size as well. Four children was the ideal number: “
One to reproduce your wife, one to reproduce yourself, one for the increase in population, and one in case of accident.”

Clementine's unease about the marriage stemmed more from her concerns about her son than about Pamela. Clementine's relationship with Randolph had always been a tense one. As a child, he was difficult. “
Combative,” according to one headmaster.
He once pushed a nanny into a filled bathtub; on another occasion, he telephoned the Foreign Office and pretended to be Churchill. One account holds that he encouraged a cousin to empty a chamber pot through an open window onto Lloyd George.
When he was nine years old, Clementine, during a school visit, slapped him, an act that Randolph later identified as the moment when he realized she hated him. He was an unremarkable student and drew frequent criticism from Churchill for his lack of scholarly rigor. Churchill condemned even his penmanship, and once returned the boy's loving letter home with editorial corrections marked in red. Randolph got into Oxford only through the kindly intercession of Frederick Lindemann, the Prof, who treated him like a beloved nephew. There, too, he failed to excel. “
Your idle & lazy life is [very] offensive to me,” Churchill wrote. “You appear to be leading a perfectly useless existence.”
Churchill loved him, John Colville wrote, but over time “liked him less and less.” Clementine, meanwhile, was by any standard a remote parent who expressed little maternal warmth. “That was one of the reasons he was such a nightmare,” a friend told Christopher Ogden, Pamela's biographer. “He never got any maternal love at all. Clemmie hated Randolph all his life.”

Mary Churchill offered a more nuanced analysis of her brother, observing that “
as his personality developed it produced features of character and outlook too dissimilar from his mother's whole nature and attitude to life.” As Mary saw it, Randolph “manifestly needed a father's hand; but the main task of controlling him fell almost entirely upon Clementine and so right from the early days she and Randolph were at loggerheads.”

He was loud, lacked tact, drank too much, spent beyond his income—his army pay and the salary he received as a correspondent for Beaverbrook's
Evening Standard
—and gambled with startling ineptitude. Even as Churchill tried to stabilize his own financial condition that spring, Randolph asked for help paying his debts, which Churchill agreed to do. “
It was indeed generous of you to say that you would meet
100 of my bills,” Randolph wrote to his father on June 2. That portion alone was equivalent to over $6,000 in twenty-first-century dollars. “I do hope it is not very inconvenient for you to do this. I enclose the two most urgent.”

More troubling, in terms of the couple's marital future, was Randolph's attitude toward women and sex. To him, fidelity was a fungible condition. He loved sexual conquest, whether his target was married or not, and he took full advantage of the wicked centuries-old custom at country homes whereby hosts arranged guest accommodations to foster sexual liaisons. Randolph once bragged that he would enter the rooms of women without invitation, just in case his presence might be welcomed. He told this to a female friend, who quipped sardonically, “
You must get a lot of rebuffs.”

He said, laughing, “I do, but I get a lot of fucking too.”

From the start Randolph demonstrated that he was anything but an ideal husband. Though he conveyed an image of dash and charm, he also had a tedious side. During their honeymoon, while in bed at night, he would read to Pamela from
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
by Edward Gibbon. He read lengthy passages and treated Pamela more like a distracted pupil than a marital bedmate, asking at intervals, “
Are you listening?”

Yes, she would answer.

But he wanted proof. “Well, what was the last sentence?”

For the moment, all this was eclipsed by the fact that Pamela was now six months pregnant. It was very reassuring: Here, in the midst of a world conflagration, came proof that the greater rhythms of life persisted and that a future lay ahead, despite the uncertain prospects of the moment. If all went well—if Hitler did not invade, if poison gas did not come seeping through the windows, if a German bomb did not obliterate the landscape—the child would arrive in October. Pamela called the fetus her “Baby Dumpling.”


and champagne—Colville took a walk with Mary and another guest, Mary's friend Judy Montagu, and received a reminder that as bucolic and lovely as the estate was, there was a war underway and Chequers was under close guard.
The three found themselves “challenged in the most alarming way by ferocious sentries,” Colville wrote. Happily they knew the day's password, “Tofrek,” apparently a reference to a nineteenth-century battle in the Sudan.

Later, upon checking in with the Air Ministry in London for details on German raids that night, Colville learned that a fleet of enemy planes had just been reported very near to Chequers. Colville relayed this to Churchill, who told him, “I'll bet you a monkey to a mouse-trap they don't hit the house.”

BOOK: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
6.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Kockroach by Tyler Knox
Bought (His) by Ahmed, DelVita
Game of Thrones and Philosophy by Jacoby, Henry, Irwin, William
The Night at the Crossroads by Georges Simenon
Shoot to Kill by Brett Halliday
Paddington Here and Now by Michael Bond
Trial Run by Thomas Locke