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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
Among the regulars at the table are two Members of Parliament who remain loyal to Winston in these years of his political eclipse: the handsome young Robert J. B. “Bob” Boothby and Brendan Bracken, a brash adventurer and self-made millionaire notable for his pug nose, granny glasses, disheveled mop of flaming red hair, and the extraordinary rumors, which he encourages, that he is his host’s illegitimate son. Winston finds this gossip highly amusing. Clementine does not. She is the only participant who is never intimidated by her husband’s deep frowns and hissing wrath, and her dislike of Brendan, revealed by gesture, glance, and edged voice, is stark. Churchill admires her spirit—“God,” he later confides in a friend, “she dropped down on poor Brendan like a jaguar out of a tree”—but remains silent. Others at the table wonder why. Undeniably Bracken is gifted and able. But his behavior, even in this most tolerant of homes, is atrocious. Recently he went through Clementine’s scrapbook with shears, scissoring out articles on Winston’s career.
And Winston, for reasons that reveal more about him than Bracken, enjoys the younger man’s company. Men who have done something with their lives interest him—indeed, they are the only men who do. He is particularly impressed by military men; any winner of the Victoria Cross is embraced, and when he meets Sir Bernard Freyberg, the New Zealand war hero, Churchill insists that the embarrassed Freyberg strip so that his host can count his thirty-three battle scars. Similarly, men who have amassed fortunes, while he has struggled year after year with creditors, hold enormous appeal for him. This is part of Bracken’s charm.
It also explains, in part, Winston’s fondness for Baruch, though Baruch’s appeal is broader. He is an American, he is Jewish, he recognizes the menace of the Third Reich, and Churchill is indebted to him for an extraordinary act of shrewdness and generosity. Winston had been badly hurt in the Wall Street Crash three years ago. Had it not been for Baruch, however, it would have been much worse; he could have spent the rest of his life in debt. He is not a born gambler; he is a born losing gambler. In New York at the time, he dropped into Baruch’s office and decided to play the market, and as prices tumbled he plunged deeper and deeper, trying to outguess the stock exchange just as he had tried to outguess roulette wheels on the Riviera. On Wall Street, as in Monte Carlo, he failed. At the end of the day he confronted Baruch in tears. He was, he said, a ruined man. Chartwell and everything else he possessed must be sold; he would have to leave the House of Commons and enter business. The financier gently corrected him. Churchill, he said, had lost nothing. Baruch had left instructions to buy equivalent stocks every time Churchill sold his and to sell whenever Churchill bought. Winston had come out exactly even because, he later learned, Baruch even paid the commissions.
All his guests are friends. In London he is embattled. He needs no snipers at Chartwell.
Bracken can’t match that. Being British and in Parliament, however, he can serve his idol in other ways. In the House he is scorned as Winston’s “sheep dog,” his “lap dog,” or—this from Stanley Baldwin—his faithful cheelah, the Hindi word for minion. But uncritical admiration is precisely what Churchill needs. He is in the third of what will be ten years of political exile. No other statesman in the country’s political history has served so long a Siberian exile, and he would have to have a heart of stone not to be grateful for Bracken’s steadfast, unquestioning allegiance. Moreover, this good and faithful servant has the priceless gift of leading Churchill into laughter when he is grim, depressed, disconsolate, or angry. Winston is very much a man of moods—he can be inconsiderate, unreasonable, ill-tempered, or all three at the same time—and Brendan can coax him into a smile merely by nudging him and comparing him to a grouchy character in newspaper cartoons.