- Historic Sites
The great man’s daughter-in-law draws a portrait of the statesman at the top of his career and at the bottom
October/november 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 6
The tongue-lashing came at the lunch table at 10 Downing Street. Clemmie and I had both been warned to be on our best behavior, because de Gaulle, at the morning Cabinet meeting, had been particularly difficult. Winston, hearing the voices raised in argument, learned across the table and said, in his terrible French accent, “Vous devez excuser ma femme, mon Général. Elle parle trop bien le français.” (Please forgive my wife, General. She speaks French too well.)
Clemmie would have no peacemaking. “No, Winston,” she shot back. “That is not the reason. There are certain things that a woman can say to a man that a man cannot say. And I am saying them to you, General de Gaulle.”
The next day an enormous basket of flowers arrived from de Gaulle for Clemmie. Later he gave her a beautiful crystal rooster by Lalique: the emblem of France, which she kept as her dinner-table centerpiece for the rest of her life.
The present that the prime minister received most often in those days was brandy. Knowing his tastes, his friends had given him enough Napoleon brandy to last through a twenty-year war. One weekend in 1942 another bottle arrived at Chequers along with its donor, Field Marshal Smuts of South Africa. There was no tension between the two men, as there was with de Gaulle, but still Clemmie was a little worried about how to present this particular bottle; it was—God forbid—South African brandy.
She waited until lunch on Sunday. As it was ending, Winston’s valet, Sawyers, brought round his big brandy snifter and gave it to the prime minister to warm over the little flame that was always produced. “Winston,” Clemmie said, “the Field Marshal has brought you a present.” And Sawyers dutifully poured the brandy into the warmed glass.
Winston swirled it around. He took a taste. There was a rather long silence. He looked down the table at his guest and finally said, “My dear Smuts, it is excellent, quite excellent. But it is not brandy.”
USUALLY CHEQUERS WAS A place that gave Winston some time for relaxation. The red dispatch boxes arrived, of course, but there were lulls and opportunities to rest, to play cards. One night— July 9, 1943—there were cards but no rest. It was the eve of the long-planned invasion of Sicily, and Winston, though far from the action, intended to keep watch.
Clemmie was terribly tired; she asked me to keep my father-in-law company as we waited. We started to play bezique, a six-pack card game that he loved. After an hour we were interrupted by his secretary, who reported that high winds were complicating the operation and slowing the landing. The hours dragged on. Finally, at 4:00 A.M. , we were told that the wind had dropped; the invasion was going smoothly at last, against little resistance.
It was a long night. Now and then during our play, Winston would put down his cards and talk. At one point I remember him saying, “Many thousands of brave young men may go to their death tonight. It is a grave responsibility.”
His mind, of course, was on the Allied convoy in the Mediterranean, making the first large-scale amphibious assault of the war. But his thoughts must also have been on the disaster of another such attack, twenty-eight years earlier: the operation against the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, which Winston had championed as First Lord of the Admiralty. That invasion had failed. The casualties had been tremendous, and Winston had been forced to resign.
The Dardanelles disaster haunted him for years because it meant that he lost the power to affect the course of the war, to redeem himself, and to impose his unwavering vision upon men, women, and events. In the summer of 1943 the possibility of another such loss of influence and responsibility weighed on him again.
IT DID NOT STRIKE until two years later. Then, on July 26, 1945, the British people decisively rejected Winston Churchill as their peacetime leader. He was plunged again into gloom. For myself, I was too angry at the election defeat to feel sorry for him. And I was having a hard time explaining to my young son Winston, who was then not quite five, just what had happened.
“Do I have a new grandfather?” he asked me.
“No,” I answered rather angrily, “why?”
“Well, because they tell me that the prime minister is Mr. Attlee. Does that mean he is my grandfather?”
It was at Claridge’s (to which Winston and Clemmie had moved twenty-four hours after the election ended) that Averell Harriman found Winston in early August that same year. Averell came, as a courtesy, on his way back to Moscow to tell Winston about the end of the Potsdam Conference. They talked of decisions that had been made after Churchill left the Big Three meeting. They talked then about events in England. “This,” admitted Winston, “has been the longest week of my life. But I am all right now.”