Book Review: Inside the Churchill Clan

June 24, 2011 • Commentary
This article appeared in The New York Times on June 24, 2011.

The Churchills: In Love and War
By Mary S. Lovell
W. W. Norton & Company, $35, 624 pages

Like his mother, Jennie Jerome, and his cousin‐​by‐​marriage Consuelo Vanderbilt, Winston Churchill’s Aunt Lily Hammersley was an American heiress whose fortune, it was hoped, would assist in bailing out the Churchill clan’s ever shaky finances. Hurriedly wed and brought to England as the newest Duchess of Marlborough, Lily arrived at Blenheim, the family’s vast, dilapidated country seat. “The first thing that confronted her,” Mary S. Lovell writes in The Churchills, was a life‐​size nude of Lady Colin Campbell, her husband’s former mistress and divorce co‐​respondent, painted by Whistler, “which hung in the duke’s dressing room.” The canvas soon thereafter disappeared from art history. It is widely assumed that Lily had it burned.

If the Churchill family name summons up thoughts of oratory, war‐​making and politics, be aware that its history is equally replete with sex, real estate and emotional turmoil, all efficiently related in this zippy compilation of Churchill family dish over the centuries. Lovell, whose past biographies have treated the Mitford sisters, among other subjects, is frank about relegating D‐​Day, Yalta and the like to the background, preferring to concentrate on the family’s unending domestic tangles. “The world,” she explains, “has always thrived on gossip.”

The Churchill name had its debut on scandal’s stage when John Churchill indulged in a fling with the saucy Restoration minx Barbara Villiers, thus cuckolding the reigning Charles II, who kept her as his mistress. Many Churchill men subsequently earned a reputation as cads, not least because the family’s extravagance (and in particular the expense of running Blenheim, named for John Churchill’s great 1704 battlefield victory, by then as the Duke of Marlborough) drove them to marry for money rather than love.

Not that you’d call most of the Churchill wives long‐​suffering: not the discreetly arsonical Aunt Lily, and much less Winston’s femme fatale mother, Jennie, who married Lord Randolph Churchill, younger son of the seventh duke. Jennie’s social brilliance as much as her money — her family’s holdings included at one point a 25 percent share in The New York Times — fueled Randolph’s political career. When that career flamed out in (probably syphilitic) madness and early death, she kept running with the sort of fast London set in which white kid gloves were discarded after a single use and lovers might not be kept for much longer. Her taste for younger men wound up giving young Winston a stepfather his own age. In reaction to such memories or otherwise, he forged a notably stable marriage with his own Clementine.

Money problems were a constant, Winston himself having shipped off to the Boer War with, Lovell reports, “a huge quantity of luggage, including 72 cases containing fine French wines” and other potables. At the better sort of country house gatherings, each female guest was expected to change clothes several times daily and each evening gown “must not have been seen before.” Yet this display often yielded scant actual fun. Lovell writes that certain young women were “so bored and so cold while staying at Blenheim that they hiked into Woodstock village to send themselves telegrams urging an immediate return home.”

Meticulously detailed on figures like the ever fascinating Churchill daughter‐​in‐​law Pamela Harriman, Lovell softens her focus when it comes to the great man himself. Drink and depression remain mostly offstage. Nor does she probe how the clan’s absentee approach to child rearing might have related to the unhappy adult life of three of Winston and Clementine’s four grown children. Lovell steers even farther clear of the revisionist literature on both the left and the libertarian right that paints Churchill as a warmonger and political opportunist.

Give her due credit, though, for expertly organizing her material at an entertaining pace while dropping every imaginable name as her characters “drive down to Ascot in summer frocks and feathered hats.” The book is eminently readable, but the mini‐​series might be even more entertaining.

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