- Historic Sites
The Lion Caged
An outstanding American historian follows Winston Churchill through a typical day during his political exile in the 1930s and uses that single twenty-four-hour period to reveal the character of the century’s greatest Englishman in all its complexity. See Churchill lay bricks, paint a landscape, tease his dinner guests, badger his secretaries, dictate a history, make up a speech, write an article (that’s how he earns his living), refuse his breakfast because the jam has been left off the tray, refight the Battle of Bull Run, feed his fish, drink his brandy, fashion a “bellyband” to retrieve a particularly decrepit cigar, recite all of “Horatius at the Bridge,” take two baths—and await with noisy fortitude the day when he will save the world.
February/March 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 2
The tray has gone. Remaining within reach are the jam and a weak (three-ounce) Scotch and soda—always Johnny Walker Red—which the prostrate Winston will sip occasionally over the next four hours in the tradition of Palmerston, Pitt, and Baldwin. However, the legend that he is a heavy drinker is quite untrue. Churchill is a sensible, if unorthodox, drinker. There is always some alcohol in his bloodstream, and it reaches its peak late in the evening, after he has had two or three Scotches, several glasses of champagne, at least two brandies and a highball, but his family never sees him the worse for drink. He remarks, “We all despise a man who gets drunk,” and, after an exchange of views on drinking, “All I can say is that I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”
He encourages absurd myths about his alcoholic capacity, however, partly to furbish his macho image, which needs it because he cries so often in public (“I’m a blubberer,” he cheerfully tells friends), and partly because Europeans still like to think that their leaders are men who can hold their liquor.
Winston tipples off and on all day but never gets drunk. Having tasted this first Scotch, he is ready for Mary’s pug dog, who leaps upon the bed, trembling with joy, tail wagging furiously. Churchill then lights his first cigar of the day. Chartwell’s cigar hoard, which will grow to more than three thousand, comes from Havana, mostly Romeo y Julietas and Las Aromas de Cubas, kept in a tiny room between this chamber and his study on shelves labeled “wrapped,” “naked,” and “large.” Friends and admirers have sent Winston countless cigar cutters, and he carries one on his watch chain. He never uses them, however. Instead he moistens one end of a fresh cigar, pierces it with a long match, blows through it from the other end to clear a passage, and lights it from the candle that always stands by his bed. During the course of a day he may consume ten or more cigars, but he seldom smokes one through. Indeed, most of the time they will be unlit. He simply chews them and never inhales. If one becomes hopelessly frayed, he may wrap it in gummed brown paper, calling this improvisation a “bellyband.”
The morning papers are neatly stacked by the bed, with the Times and the Daily Telegraph on top and the Daily Worker on the bottom. Editorials are read first, frequently with such intense concentration that the newsprint may become hopelessly smeared with jam. That is a servant’s problem, not his; when Winston has finished a page, he simply lets it slide to the floor. All in all he devotes two hours to the press, occasionally stepping into his slippers and striding toward his wife’s bedroom to call her attention to this or that item. It may be a mere statistic representing an increase in Germany’s mineral ore imports, but he sees significance in it. Or she may arrive at his bedside on a similar errand. Although they never breakfast together, each starts the day with the same rite.
As he glares at the last pages of the Worker , Mrs. P or Grace Hamblin—later to be joined by Kathleen Hill—enters the room. It is important that she do so boldly, even noisily; her employer is not deaf, but he dislikes surprises. If someone glides in, he will rise wrathfully and roar, “Goddammit!” As she prepares to take dictation, he riffles through the morning mail, swiftly sorting it into three piles: affairs of state, private correspondence, and letters from the general public. As a young author he had written his mother, “My hand gets so cramped I am writing every word twice & some parts three times.” Now he seldom puts a word on paper himself—except when affixing his signature, correcting galley proofs, or writing close friends and his immediate family—and he always uses fountain pens, blue ink for correspondence, red for proofs. The humblest correspondent receives a reply, but the secretary writes it; Winston merely outlines in the most general way what he wants said and she, familiar with his style and his love of anachronistic phrases (“sorely tried,” “most grieved,” “keenly elated,” “pray give me the facts,” “highly diverted”) fills it out. Important letters require more thought and longer searches for the right word. Once the mail has been cleared away, memoranda dictated, and visitors greeted—he will receive anyone except the king in his bedchamber—he may summon Bill Deakin, glance through proofs, and say, “Look this up,” or “Find out about this.” Deakin may be asked to read certain documents aloud. Or Churchill may turn to speeches. By noon the cadences of his prose have begun to trot; by 1:00 P.M. they are galloping; in the words of Mrs. Hill, he would often be “dashing around in shorts and undershirt and a bright red cummerbund while I trotted behind him from room to room with a pad and pencil struggling to keep pace with the torrential flow of words.” One has the impression of a man in a desperate hurry, not even dressed yet, already behind the day’s schedule—which is, in fact, the case.