The Lion Caged


Rising, he moves toward the bathroom with an alacrity surprising for his age and weight and quickly shaves himself with a safety razor while Sawyers draws the first of his two daily baths. Like preparing the breakfast, this requires precision. Churchill will not enter the tub until it is two-thirds full and the bath thermometer registers 98 degrees. Once in, he demands that the temperature be raised to 104 degrees. Sawyers, obedient, again opens the hot spigot. The water has now reached the brim. Winston likes it that way; on his instructions the bath’s overflow drain has been sealed off. This is splendid hydrotherapy, but like his immodest excursions beyond his bedroom door, it invites disaster. He likes to play in his bath, and when on impulse he turned a somersault, “exactly like a porpoise,” a spectator recalls, the tub overflowed, damaging the ceiling below and, worse, drenching the frock of an eminent Frenchman who had called there to pay his respects. Now a special drain has been installed. Churchill lolls in his bath, reciting Kipling, rehearsing speeches or lectures he will soon deliver, or singing, not in the virile baritone familiar in Parliament, but in a soft, high tone. Elsewhere in the great building, Sarah (“Mule,” he fondly calls her) has risen and is playing the most popular hit of the season on her phonograph: Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky,/Stormy Weather, since my man and I ain’t together....


Sarah’s father prefers to recall melodies that evoke the England of his youth, long before 1914 and Armageddon, when, as he wrote afterward in his five-volume history of the Great War, “the world on the verge of its catastrophe was very brilliant,” when “nations and empires crowned with princes and potentates rose majestically on every side, lapped in the accumulated treasures of the long peace”—when young patricians like Lt. Winston S. Churchill, Subaltern of Horse in Her Britannic Majesty’s Fourth Hussars, lived like gods here and throughout the vast British Empire. Talleyrand observed that those who did not live under l’ancien régime did not know what true douceur de vivre meant. Being a young aristocrat in the Victorian and Edwardian eras had been fun, and Winston sings the popular music-hall ballads of those days. “Burlington Bertie,” “Ta-rah-rah-BOOM-de-ay!,” “One of the Ruins That Cromwell Knocked About a Bit,” “The Union Jack of Good Old England,” and “She Was Only a Policeman’s Daughter, but Her Bathing Suit Never Got Wet.” He never tires of the great wit of the Boer War:

Goodbye, Dolly, I must leave you. Though it breaks my heart to go Something tells me I am needed At the front to meet the foe!

Nor of booming out Victorian England’s anthem of imperial conquest:

It’s the soldiers of the Queen, my lads Who’ve been the lads, who’ve seen the lads In the fight for England’s glory, lads Of her world-wide glory let us sing!

In the England of 1932, glory has become a discredited word. After the “glorious dead” of the Somme and Passchendaele, the word glory soils the air. Therefore, when Churchill warns of a Germany obsessed with a yearning for revenge, crowds heckle him or drift away. He is no tribune of the people now. Although he believes in radical social solutions, he remains a traditionalist in all else. And tradition, he holds, begins at home. The ritualistic unfolding of a Chartwell day, from dawn to Kent’s long, blue twilight is for him a kind of private pageant. He enjoys it; he considers it as efficient as it is delightful, and he never doubts—nor does anyone else sleeping beneath this roof—that he alone is qualified to be the playwright, producer, director, stage manager, and, of course, hero of the performance.

It is time for the star to don his first costume. Emerging from his bath pink and clean, he waits impatiently until his valet has toweled him dry and then slips into one of two worn-out, cherished dressing gowns. The more subdued is dark-blue velvet, with his initials embroidered in gold over the pocket; the other, a riot of green and gold displaying a scarlet dragon coiled sinuously around his plump torso. His valet has been busy during his bath. Churchill will remain in bed until early afternoon, and for a man with his tender skin, this invites bedsores. Therefore his valet has brought a basket of large sponges, which he now deftly thrusts between the sheet and Churchill’s elbows as his master yaws this way and that.