Read The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz Online
Authors: Erik Larson
Churchill recognized that a long fight lay ahead to secure passage of the Lend-Lease Bill, but he was heartened by Roosevelt’s clear and public declaration of sympathy for Britain. Even better, Roosevelt had decided to send a personal emissary to London, who was due to arrive in a few days. At first, the man’s name drew a blank: Harry Hopkins. On hearing it, Churchill asked pointedly, “
Now, however, he understood that Hopkins was so close a confidant of the president that he lived in the White House, in a second-floor suite that had once served as Abraham Lincoln’s office, just down the corridor from the president’s own quarters. Churchill’s aide
Brendan Bracken called Hopkins “the most important American visitor to this country we have ever had” and deemed him capable of influencing Roosevelt “more than any living man.”
When Churchill did at last go to bed that night, it was with a great deal of satisfaction and optimism. He was smiling “
as he snuggled beneath the bed clothes,” Colville wrote in his diary, and “had the grace for once to apologize for keeping me up so late.”
the year began on a bittersweet note. She missed Randolph. “
Oh! I wish you were here to cuddle me,” she told him in a letter on New Year’s Day. “I would be so happy then. I get panicky here alone & think if you are away long enough you will forget me, & I can’t bear it. Please try not to forget me Randy.”
She told him as well that a special gas mask had arrived for baby Winston. “He goes into it entirely,” she said, adding that she planned, soon, to attend a lecture on poison gas to be given at the local hospital.
EAVERBROOK STAYED ON AS
minister of aircraft production, but he did not become chairman of the Import Executive. Neither did Churchill, despite his threat to martyr himself by doing so.
HE MAN WHO WALKED INTO
10 Downing Street on the morning of Friday, January 10, appeared to be unwell. His complexion was sallow, his overall aspect one of fragility and wear, the effect amplified by a very large overcoat. Pamela Churchill noticed that he seemed never to take the coat off. She was shocked by his appearance at their first meeting, her impression of ill health reinforced by the crumpled, unlit cigarette he held in his mouth. The day before, upon arriving at the seaplane port at Poole, a hundred or so miles from London, he had been so exhausted that he had been unable to remove his seatbelt. “
He was as unlike one’s picture of a distinguished envoy as it was possible to be,” wrote Pug Ismay. “He was deplorably untidy; his clothes looked as though he was in the habit of sleeping in them, and his hat as though he made a point of sitting on it. He seemed so ill and frail that a puff of wind would blow him away.”
Yet this was Harry Hopkins, the man Churchill would later describe as playing a decisive part in the war. Hopkins was fifty years old, and now served as Roosevelt’s personal adviser. Before this point, he had led three major programs of Roosevelt’s Depression-era New Deal, including the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, which put millions of unemployed Americans to work. Roosevelt named him secretary of commerce in 1938, a post he held well into 1940 despite declining health. Surgery for stomach cancer had left him plagued by a mysterious suite of ailments that in September 1939 led his doctors to give him only a few weeks to live. He rallied, and on May 10, 1940, the day Churchill became prime minister, Roosevelt invited him to stay at the White House. The arrangement became permanent. “
His was a soul that flamed out of a frail and failing body,” Churchill wrote. “He was a crumbling lighthouse from which there shone the beams that led great fleets to harbor.”
All this flaming and beaming would come later, however. First, before meeting Churchill, Hopkins got a tour of 10 Downing Street, with Brendan Bracken as his guide. The famed prime ministerial residence was so much smaller and less imposing than the White House, and seemed much the worse for wear. “Number 10 Downing is a bit down at the heels because the Treasury next door has been bombed more than a bit,” Hopkins wrote in a message to Roosevelt later that day. Bomb damage marked every floor. Most of the windows had been blown out, and workers were busy throughout making repairs. Bracken led Hopkins downstairs to the new armored dining room in the basement and poured him a glass of sherry.
At length, Churchill arrived.
A rotund—smiling—red-faced gentleman appeared—extended a fat but none the less convincing hand and wished me welcome to England,” Hopkins told Roosevelt. “A short black coat—striped trousers—a clear eye and a mushy voice was the impression of England’s leader as he showed me with obvious pride the photographs of his beautiful daughter-in-law and grandchild.” This last was a reference to Pamela and young Winston. “The lunch was simple but good—served by a very plain woman who seemed to be an old family servant. Soup—cold beef—(I didn’t take enough jelly to suit the PM and he gave me some more)—green salad—cheese and coffee—a light wine and port. He took snuff from a little silver box—he liked it.”
Right off, Hopkins addressed a matter that had pinched relations between America and Britain. “I told him there was a feeling in some quarters that he, Churchill, did not like America, Americans or Roosevelt,” Hopkins recalled. Churchill denied it, emphatically, and blamed Joseph Kennedy for promulgating so incorrect an impression. He directed a secretary to retrieve the telegram he had sent to Roosevelt the previous fall, in which he congratulated the president on his reelection—the one Roosevelt had never answered or acknowledged.
This initial awkwardness was quickly eclipsed, as Hopkins explained that his mission was to learn all he could about Britain’s situation and needs. The conversation ranged wide, from poison gas, to Greece, to North Africa. John Colville noted in his diary that Churchill and Hopkins “were so impressed with each other that their tête-à-tête did not break up till nearly 4:00.”
It was getting dark. Hopkins left for his hotel, Claridge’s. With the moon nearly full, Churchill and his usual weekend entourage set off for Ditchley, where Hopkins was to join them the next day, Saturday, to dine and sleep.
to Ditchley together, and discussed Hopkins. It was Bracken who had first realized how important Hopkins was to Roosevelt.
As they drove and chatted, visibility diminished. Even on clear nights, driving was difficult because of the blackout, with headlamps reduced to slits of light, but now “an icy mist descended,” Colville wrote, “and we collided with a fish-and-chips wagon which burst into flames. Nobody was hurt and we arrived safely at Ditchley.”
It was a fitting punctuation point for a day of heartbreak for Colville. While Churchill had been having lunch with Hopkins, Colville had been dining with his beloved Gay Margesson, at the Carlton Grill, in London. By coincidence, this was the two-year anniversary of his first proposal to marry her. “
I tried to be reasonably aloof and not too personal,” he wrote, but the conversation soon veered into philosophical approaches to leading one’s life and, thus, into more intimate realms. She looked lovely. Sophisticated. She wore a silver fox; her hair hung below her shoulders. She wore too much rouge, however, Colville noted with satisfaction—his accustomed means of easing the pain of her unattainability by noting her imperfections. “Certainly she was not the Gay of Jan. 10, 1939,” he wrote, “and I do not think the influence of Oxford has improved her.”
After lunch they went to the National Gallery, where they met Elizabeth Montagu—Betts—and Nicholas “Nicko” Henderson, the man rumored to have captured Gay’s heart. Colville sensed a strong connection between Nicko and Gay, and this raised in him a “queer nostalgia,” which he likened to jealousy.
“I went back to No. 10 and tried to think how immaterial it all was in comparison with the great issues that I see daily there, but it was no good: love dies slowly with me, if at all, and I felt sick at heart.”
HURCHILL DID NOT
join the family at Ditchley; she planned instead to spend the weekend with a friend, Elizabeth Wyndham, the adopted daughter of Lord and Lady Leconfield, at Petworth House, their Baroque country home in the South Downs region of West Sussex, southwest of London. A mere fourteen miles from the channel coast, this was invasion country. Mary planned to take a train to London first, do a little shopping with her former nanny, Maryott Whyte, then catch a second train to the southwest. “Looking forward to it so much,” she wrote in her diary.
At Chequers the Prison Room was cold, the day outside laced with ice and very dark. Winter mornings always were dark at this latitude, but a change in how Britain kept time during the war made the mornings darker than ever. The previous fall the government had invoked “double British summer time” to save fuel and give people more time to get to their homes before the blackout began each day. The clocks had
been turned back in the fall, as per custom, and yet would still be turned forward again in the spring. This created two extra hours of usable daylight during the summer, rather than just one, but also ensured that winter mornings would be long, black, and depressing, a condition that drew frequent complaints in civilian diaries. Wrote Clara Milburn, the diarist from Balsall Common, near Coventry, “
It is so dreadfully dark in the mornings that it seems hopeless to get up early and barge about unable to see to do anything properly.”
Snug in the dark and cold, Mary overslept. She had expected someone to wake her, but no one had. She felt poorly. The roads were pale with ice; bomb damage along the regular route required a time-consuming detour. She reached the station just in time for her train.
This was her first visit to London since August, and she arrived “
feeling strange—country-cousinish & very flustered,” she wrote.
In the intervening months, the city had been transmogrified through the dark magic of bombs and fire but was still familiar to her. “And as I drove through the well remembered streets—and saw the scars & wounds—I felt I loved London very deeply. Shorn of her smartness—in war time attire—I suddenly loved her very much.”
It evoked for her Proustian memories of how the city had moved her in the past: a bicycle ride on a hot summer afternoon through Hyde Park, when she paused on a bridge and watched people in the boats below; a view of the rooftops of Whitehall, “rising above the trees in the evening sun like distant domes of a magic city”; and a moment when she admired “the perfect beauty” of a tree beside the lake in St. James’s Park.
She made a brief stop at the No. 10 Annexe, Churchill’s new flat above the Cabinet War Rooms, where she marveled at how homey her mother had made the place, waving her “magic wand,” as Mary put it, over rooms that previously had been mundane offices. Clementine had the walls painted in pale hues and filled the rooms with well-lit paintings and the family’s own furniture. The flat straddled a passage that ran between government offices, and here, Mary wrote in a memoir, “
embarrassed officials would often encounter Winston, robed like a Roman emperor in his bath towel, proceeding dripping from his bathroom across the main highway to his bedroom.”
Mary reached Petworth early that afternoon and found a large party underway, with many young friends and strangers on the scene, both male and female. She judged her friend Elizabeth now to be “silly & affected,” adding, “I don’t really like her.” She was delighted, however, with Elizabeth’s mother, Violet, who was renowned for leading the charge into new kingdoms of fashion. “Violette [
] was in excellent form dressed in a pale blue V-necked jumper—loaded with jewelry & wearing scarlet corduroy slacks!!”
Many of the guests left to see a movie, but Mary, still under the weather, decided to sequester herself in her assigned room. Later, rejuvenated by tea, she dressed for the night’s ball. “I wore my new cherry red with the silver-embroidered belt & diamond (paste!) earrings.”
First came a dinner party, then the dance, which she deemed heavenly: “Positively pre-war.”
She danced with a Frenchman, Jean Pierre Montaigne. “I felt
gay—I waltzed with Jean Pierre incovertly, wildly & very fast—great fun. I missed only a few dances.”
She got to bed at four-thirty
“footsore & weary but very happy.”
And quite ill.
the Churchills and the estate’s owners, Ronald and Nancy Tree, prepared a gleaming evening for their guest of honor, the American emissary Harry Hopkins. Assorted other guests arrived, among them Oliver Lyttelton, president of the Board of Trade.
Dinner at Ditchley takes place in a magnificent setting,” John Colville wrote in his diary that Saturday night. The only illumination was candlelight, with candles mounted on the walls and in a large chandelier overhead. “The table is not over-decorated: four gilt candle sticks with tall yellow tapers and a single gilt cup in the center.” Dinner itself was lavish, the food “in keeping with the surroundings,” Colville judged, though he guessed that the meal was less elaborate than would have been the case before a recent campaign against “over-feeding” by the Ministry of Food.
After dinner, Nancy and Clementine and the other female guests left the dining room. Over cigars and brandy, Hopkins unveiled a capacity for charm that belied his death’s-door appearance. He praised Churchill for his speeches and said they played very well in America. At one cabinet meeting, he said, Roosevelt had even directed that a radio be brought into the room so that everyone could hear an example of his fine rhetoric. “The P.M.,” Colville wrote, “was touched and gratified.”
Thus inspired, and warmed by the brandy, Churchill unfurled his sails and embarked on a monologue in which he recounted the life-and-death saga of the war as it had unfolded thus far, as candlelight glinted in the brandy-moist eyes of his guests. At length, he turned to the matter of Britain’s war aims and the world of the future. He presented his vision of a United States of Europe, with Britain as its architect. He might have been speaking before the House of Commons, rather than to a small group of men fogged by cigars and alcohol in a quiet country house. “
We seek no treasure,” Churchill said, “we seek no territorial gains, we seek only the right of man to be free; we seek his right to worship his God, to lead his life in his own way, secure from persecution. As the humble laborer returns from his work when the day is done, and sees the smoke curling upwards from his cottage home in the serene evening sky, we wish him to know that no rat-a-tat-tat”—here Churchill knocked loudly on the table—“of the secret police upon his door will disturb his leisure or interrupt his rest.” He said Britain sought only government by popular consent, freedom to say whatever one wished, and the equality of all people in the eyes of the law. “But war aims other than these we have none.”
Churchill stopped. He looked at Hopkins. “What will the president say to all this?”
Hopkins paused before answering. Shards of twisty candlelight sparked off the crystal and silver. His silence lasted so long as to become uncomfortable—nearly a minute, which in that intimate context seemed a very long time. Clocks ticked; a fire hissed and seethed in the hearth; the candle flames did their quiet Levantine dance.
At last Hopkins spoke.
“Well, Mr. Prime Minister,” he began, in an exaggerated American drawl. “I don’t think the President will give a dam’ for all that.”
Privy councillor Oliver Lyttelton felt a jolt of anxiety, as he noted in his diary. Had Churchill miscalculated? “
Heavens alive,” he thought, “it’s gone wrong…”